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2015 in review – You had us worried there for a bit

2015 best of

There was a moment when it looked like 2015 would be a pretty miserable year for cinema. A good few moments, to be honest. Battling through my final semester of college, my film viewing was restricted, and it wasn’t until May that I saw the first of the films to make my Top 20 of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road, if you’re asking).

Highly rated horrors It Follows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proved to be effective diversions that thoroughly failed to live up to the hyperbolic heights of the Film Twitter opinion machine. Furious 7 was a delightful (and dumb, but delightful) way to spend my birthday and a night away from my thesis, but that franchise continues to move away from the success of Fast Five. After Mad Max summer descended into a farce of blockbusters: the paint-by-nostalgia monstrosity that was Jurassic World, the lopsidedly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Roland Emmerich-lite San Andreas.

It was well into autumn before things picked up for me. Some early triumphs from the year made their ways to Netflix, and by then I was working on a project at the Museum of Modern Art, where keeping up to date with the better film releases became little more than a matter of staying late after work. In so many ways 2015 ended a lot better than it began.

It was Star Wars that sealed the deal. Not my favourite film of the year (in fact you’ll see it absent from the list below – but it was a close cut), The Force Awakens proved to have that little bit of magic that has been missing for all too long, a film the world can absorb the hype of that then manages to live up to expectations and be a genuinely terrific film. I saw a late screening opening night, and regardless of reservations, I left the cinema more charged than I can remember being in years.

There were, as always, dabbles in film history to charge me also. Painfully overdue, I finally viewed Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, which lived up to the expectations of that teenager who caught three minutes of White on the TV so many years ago. At the cinema, I caught some real masterpieces for the first time: The Naked Spur, A Star Is Born (1954), The Masque of the Red Death, Fires on the Plain, the five-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Touki Bouki, Lonesome, and a 3D screening of the delirious Kiss Me Kate. Nothing compared to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which stole my heart and exhausted my mind at MoMA in November, and instantly catapulted itself into the list of very greatest films I have ever seen.

Knowing 2015 would be a busy year, my annual movie challenge was intentionally a light one. Spying an obvious blind spot in my film knowledge – Bollywood – I took to forcing myself to watch one (long) feature a month. I only scraped the surface of course, but I’ve developed an understanding of and passion for this major branch of Indian cinema, its flamboyance, its love of twists and hatred of subtext. I watched essential classics including Zanjeer, Mother India, and Mughal-e-Azam, as well as recent hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and 3 Idiots, and even contemporary madness like Dhoom, Dhoom 2, and Enthiran. I’ll be watching more in future, and I can’t recommend enough that film fans who have yet to dip their toes in Bollywood streams take care of that, and see what a sixth of people on earth considers mainstream cinema.

So on to the films of the year. As always I missed a few things. Beasts of No Nation, despite being right there on Netflix, never got seen. Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridge of Spides, Magic Mike XXL, and Creed similarly got missed. Some lauded films were appreciated, but fell short for me, like Straight Outta Compton, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant. Films that narrowly didn’t make my Top 20 include Mistress America, Tangerine, Taxi, James White, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Song of the Sea, and The Big Short. The terrific farce 7 Days of Hell was considered, but rejected for the same reason A Very Murray Christmas, the worst thing I saw all year, doesn’t feature in my worst-of list – they’re both productions designed for home viewing and barely of a length to qualify as features.

 

Now, who enjoys a good list?

 

20. Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama about the breakdown of friendship between two millenial yuppies is peppered with nightmarish oddities that keep the viewer on their toes. It’s violently negative in its lack of faith in people supporting one another in need, but not unjustifiably so. Shot in bright airy spaces, but the focus is on intense close-ups that further alienate the characters from each other. Elisabeth Moss gave one of the year’s most committed performances.

 

19. Youth

Still struggling to recreate his earlier successes in The Consequences of Love and (the near-perfect) Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino has made his best film in seven years. It focuses on two elderly artist friends hiding from the world in a Swiss spa. Michael Caine is the retired classical composer who peaked too soon, Harvey Keitel is the Scorsese-like filmmaker who keeps pumping out films that cannot compare to the works of his youth. Finely acted and sublimely scored, and featuring a deluge of Sorrentino’s delicious, unexplained eccentricities, it is hampered only by its dialogue, which feels all too scabrously translated from Italian.

 

18. Ex Machina

As sci-fi continues to recapture the public imagination (2015 was quite a good year for it overall), this unexpected gem, a sexy Asimovian tale of A.I. versus real en-souled intelligence, became a surprise favourite for many. Written and directed by Alex Garland, known best for writing Danny Boyle’s sci-fi ventures, this was a slickly produced psychological thriller that brought together demi-perspex android Alicia Vikander and 2015 MVP Domhnall Gleeson’s computer expert for the ultimate Voight-Kampff test. Oscar Isaac’s untrustworthy tech billionaire, all creatine and superego, stole the show, along with the lush visuals. A mishandled finale was the only sour note.

 

17. Phoenix

Christian Petzold, the emerging master of German historical melodrama, weaves a strangely original yarn in Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor attempts to uncover if her husband served her up to the Nazis. Unrecognisable after reconsructive surgery, she is hired by her husband to impersonate his supposedly dead wife to claim an inheritance. The greater mystery is therefore known to us, creating a scintilating game of cat and mouse. Impressive period detail, Nina Hoss’s restrained performance and a jawdropping conclusion make it one to remember.

 

16. Sicario

What should feel overly familiar, another tale of cynical cops and murderous cartels, is given new life and energy in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The descent of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent from go-getting SWAT member, to toughened special forces volunteer, to exhausted, disillusioned survivor, stands as a superb metaphor for the bewildering War on Drugs. Smart dialogue and incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins (the night vision sequence was one of the year’s finest) saw it through clunkier moments; it leaves a lasting impression.

 

15. Goodnight Mommy

The old dark house of classic horror is here replaced with a soulless, polished modernist monolith, a bright white country house full of dark terrors. A pair of twins – spritely, Aryan-looking – begin to suspect that their mother is no longer who she claims to be. A nasty game of powerplay ensues, with the story cleverly shifting the viewer’s allegience. Keenly cut and often blackly comic, it’s a skin-crawling horror that reinvents torture porn as Oedipal nightmare.

 

14. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stunning wuxia fable was one of 2015’s most beautiful and most frustrating films. With an intentionally obtuse storyline and an editing style that cuts away from the main action on a whim, it is not a film that satisfies a hunger for solid storytelling. What it does have however are exquisitely lush production values and, in its star Shu Qi, a remarkable feminine intensity. Many of the year’s most arresting images were imbedded in this work, in particular a dramatic cliffside confrontation slowly enwrapped in mist.

 

13. Inside Out

Pixar rarely let us down, but lately their hits have numbered their misses. But their hits remain some of the smartest, most charming and most universally appealing films to come out of Hollywood today. Pete Docter, responsible for Monsters, Inc. and Up, here takes us inside the mind of a young preteen, demonstrating her emotional turmoil through anthropomorphised emotions that dwell in a sci-fi wonderland; part playground, part bureaucratic stampede. The characters both inside and out carry the film’s hefty emotional punch, and the designs are handsome and witty. Only its repetitive, stop-and-start adventure narrative prevents it from being listed with the very top of the Pixar pantheon.

 

12. Brooklyn

Old-fashioned in the best possible way, director John Crowley’s take on Colm Tóibín’s novel, adapted by Nick Hornby, puts its money where its heart is. Saoirse Ronan beams as Eilis, a shy parochial Irish girl who moves to New York to better herself, and soon emerges from her shell, only to be torn between her new home and the one she left behind. Plus there’s an ideal romantic match on both sides of the Atlantic. Excellent period detail and finely paced, simple human drama create something traditional yet timely. Earnest, genuine, and unironic storytelling.

 

11. Spotlight 

Telling the story of how The Boston Globe broke the news of massive cover-ups of paedophilia within the Catholic Church, Spotlight repeatedly evokes the champion of the investigative news genre, All the President’s Men. While never quite reaching its forebear’s heights, it recaptures much of its energy, making the gathering of information or the biting of a new lead as thrilling as a gun battle or foot chase. It is functionally, unshowily shot, with some choice montage work, but it’s the slowly building story and the great performances, most notably Mark Ruffalo, that made this one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful dramas.

 

10. Anomalisa

Resurrecting a 10-year-old stage play, the unique surrealist Charlie Kaufman chose to visualise this tale of depression and isolation in stop-motion animation form. The antihero of the film, Michael, is so cut-off, introspective and self-obsessive, that he perceives every stranger as sharing the same, expressionless face, each bearing actor Tom Noonan’s barely shifting tones. A chance encounter with Lisa, wearing her own 3D-printed face and wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet voice, evolves into a simple love affair with complex repercussions. At times hilarious, tragic, or nightmarish, it sculpts two incredible character studies as rich as the miniature universe built to house them. The shower scene alone guarantees this one immortality.

9. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland has emerged as a late British Lynch, an artist who understands the film camera as a literal dream machine, producing deep truth from the illogical. In this, his third dramatic feature, he explores female sexuality through a series of twisting sexual games of cat-and-mouse, as a lesbian couple indulge in sado-masochistic role-play in opulent fashion. The lavish English country estate décor, sensuous lingerie and extensive all-female cast create a gratifying otherworldliness, while the rich cinematography, sharp cutting and unexpected insect imagery add to Strickland’s ethereal scenario an extra sexy pinch.

 

8. The Look of Silence

The companion piece to 2012’s untouchable The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees Joshua Oppenheimer turn away from the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist genocide to look at its victims, and the survivors. In a metaphor too perfect for fiction, clear sight is given to us through an optician (or supposed optician), a man whose brother was savagely slain by government-backed gangsters. He visits these older gangsters, now local big wigs, and while performing eye exams, has them probe their despicable pasts for reasonings and methods. Mixing gut-wrenching old video testament with brightly shot contemporary footage, Oppenheimer hints that an emotional cleansing is possible, but all too late for our protagonist and his withering parents.

 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Just when reboots and remakes and all-too-late sequels were becoming old-hat, George Miller undid more than a decade’s worth of talking animal abuse to bring back Max Rockatansky from his shallow, sandy, post-apocalyptic grave. An adrenaline-pumping extended chase sequence of a movie, Fury Road has all the thump and energy of the finest post-’90s action cinema with the dedicated, unpatronising world-building of ’80s fantasy. Tom Hardy grunts as Max, while Charlize Theron stands a one-armed feminist archangel as Imperator Furiosa, a second-tier thug in a cultish tribe who decides enough is enough in the face of crippling misogyny and rape. With exquisite stunts and mind-boggling costume and vehicle design, Fury Road is that rare art film in blockbuster’s clothing. Indulgences in the thrill of the chase undermine the broader themes at times, but this is still exceptional filmmaking from start to finish.

 

6. The Tribe

Part gangster movie, part coming-of-age tale, part pitch-black parody of high school dramas, The Tribe is a monstrous and brilliant work. Set at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, the dialogue is entirely in sign language, without accompanying translation of any kind. The audience is thus forced to engage doubly with the material, to absorb what story it can while the thunderous, angered performances confront them head on. Extended shots without cuts for interruption draw you further in, only to be assaulted by a McDonagh-ian propensity for sudden, horrifying violence. Other sequences our ears pick up the important sounds that could mean life-or-death for the characters on screen. It is a hopeless look at an isolated, noiseless world, that milks the potential of cinema to both reveal and conceal for everything it’s got.

 

5. The Martian

Another story of survival in space – so what makes this one different? Well for starters, Matt Damon gives his finest performance in a decade in one of his greatest roles, as astronaut Mark Watney, a cocksure scientist whose wit and ego are enough to just about sustain him after he is abandoned on Mars in a dust storm. His quest to stay alive with limited resources is created with real (or at least believable) science and exceptional wit, through Drew Goddard’s bouncy screenplay and Damon’s sardonic delivery. The momentum jumps along at a solid pace, while sequences on Mars, Earth, and in space sustain the drama without an ounce of fat. Ridley Scott, working as a director for hire, commits to a great project, tying together excellent location shooting (in Jordan) and expertly deployed special effects. A testament to human perseverance, a uniquely smart blockbuster, and just a really good time at the movies.

 

4. Son of Saul

Shot on 35mm with needle-point-shallow focus, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature redefines ‘harrowing’, by bringing you into the whirling hell of a Nazi death camp and refusing to let you out. The sensational Géza Röhrig is Saul, a Jewish prisoner fit enough to be part of the team who assist in the mass murder of their own people, and thus an enforced collaborator. His impossible last chance for redemption is to save the corpse of a young man (his son, perhaps?) from the furnace, but escalating events in the camp block his way at every hurdle. An exhausting, frustrating and beautiful work, that dares to reveal the darkest, unwhispered barbarities of the Holocaust.

 

3. 45 Years

The year’s simplest, meatiest tragedy, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years feels like the untold not-so-happy ending to many of the greatest love stories. An older couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he receives a letter regarding a lost love from his past. The nostalgia and sadness bred in him stirs regret and paranoia in his wife, threatening not just the occasion, but the legacy of their relationship. Capturing beautiful moments of human interaction and shot from a permanently respectful distance, 45 Years is a remarkable story that triumphs through its two stars, the resurrected ’60s heartthrob Tom Courtenay, and the irrepressible Charlotte Rampling, at her very finest.

 

2. Carol

Todd Haynes’s sumptuous, delicious film of forbidden love in 1950s New York hits with an emotional wallop, as wide-eyed salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets older divorcee-to-be Carol (Cate Blanchett), and embarks upon a seemingly doomed lesbian romance. Made up of perfectly framed glances and erotically charged conversations, Carol highlights the cruelty of the attitudes of the time without preaching or descending into melodrama. The period detail and lighting astonish, while the score by Carter Burwell captures and holds the energy of the drama. But it’s the performances by the film’s two female leads that make this one for the ages. Heartfelt and empathetic, they carry their flawed characters with immense pride right through to the heart-stopping finale.

 

1. Hard to Be a God

One of the defining qualities of a great movie is that it either shows you something that has never been seen before, or tells a story that is unlike any you have ever seen. It has been too long since a film did both. Aleksei German’s final film (it was completed in post after his death), shot over six years, originates in a novel by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote the work on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. It is about a group of human scientists observing a world almost identical to Earth, but still in, and seemingly stuck in, the Middle Ages. In an explosive performance, Leonid Yarmolnik plays Don Rumata, a human observer succumbed to extraordinary hubris, encouraging the peasants of this backwards planet to treat him as a god. The themes of madness and decline are handled with the gravitas they deserve, but the film retains a casual cheekiness throughout, defiantly grotesque and dirty. The lengthy takes with roving handheld cameras get you right up in the thick of it; you can almost smell the sweat and mud. German has done the near impossible, rigidly blocking his scenes despite the wild camera movements, so that his frame is perpetually full, busy, and yet with no action obscured. It is monumental filmmaking, beautiful and hideous and deep.

hardtobeagod

Good god, man!

 

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So as for the worst films of 2015, well, for a year that never seemed like it was going to be a good year for cinema until the last minute, it never looked much like a bad year either. I never saw Mortdecai or Rock the Kasbah or Pan or Terminator: Typo. End-of-the-world examples of cynical capitalist cinema in the guise of Jurassic World or Minions were so blandly efficient as to escape this list. Here’s what utterly disappointed or downright infuriated this past year.

 

5. The Good Dinosaur

One step forward and one step back is Pixar’s game right now. This mindlessly banal tripe is only a patch above Cars 2 in that studio’s canon. It’s utterly unbelievable, uncrafted world, with barely a dozen dinosaur inhabitants implying rampant inbreeding, its rehashed boy-and-his-dog plot that goes nowhere new, its lazy voicework and godawful twangy score, all add up to bad family entertainment. The backgrounds are, admittedly, extraordinarily illustrated, but that’s no use when the characters in front of them look like Aardman characters crafted from nasal drippings. The magic mushrooms scene was the most socially and ethically misjudged moment in an American movie all year, and I’m including Entourage in that.

 

4. Taken 3

Climbing its way up from the very bottom a few years back, the Taken franchise now no longer feels like an advertising campaign for ISIS, at least. But this remains truly exhausted action garbage, with growling and exhausted Liam Neeson killing all the Russians in America after his ex-wife is murdered in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. The action sequences barely thrill (as they barely thrilled when seen in the trailers), and Forest Whitaker only serves to depress with his role-slumming. The dramatic ending is gloriously, unintentionally laughable.

 

3. The Editor 

Genre spoofs are not easy, and this attempt to lampoon giallo and B-movie horror manages to bungle everything from the get-go. The look, the rhythms, the acting styles are all wrong, as if no one involved actually bothered to watch a giallo beforehand, or thought a movie all about analogue film editing might wanna look like it’s being shown on old film. The murder mystery isn’t intriguing, the horror isn’t frightening and the gags just aren’t funny – desperate as it is to find comedy in old-timey Italian misogyny, it comes off as disinterested in appearing at all respectful to women. At least it tried, but it failed utterly.

 

2. Fantastic Four

The superhero reboot no one asked for became the film no one wanted, including, it would seem, the actors or filmmakers involved. Every step is so blatantly miscalculated, from the casting (Jamie Bell as tough guy Ben, Michael B. Jordan as lovable fop Johnny, Toby Kebbell as someone with an accent) to the overly realistic look, to the epic score played over characters crossing the street or typing things into computers. Supposedly plagued by production issues, its bipolar switch in the second act reveals that no one could quite agree what kind of movie they were making. For once with a messy major Marvel-based project, the box office reflected this.

1. The Loft

Erik Van Looy’s remake of his own modestly successful Belgian thriller Loft, this is an uncompromising study in bad filmmaking. An unengaging murder mystery, that doubles as a deeply unsexy erotic thriller, The Loft starts off on the most wrong foot by having its five male stars buy an apartment together in which to cheat on their wives. By the time a dead body turns up, we already want all these men locked away for it regardless of their role in the murder. Painful miscasting and excruciating dialogue build up to a pathetic series of convoluted twists. Men’s rights activist cinema, with all the talent you imagine goes with that.

 

 

And with that, onward into 2016…

 

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2014 in review – It wasn’t the best of times, it wasn’t the worst of times

(clockwise from top left) Ida, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin, Calvary

Another year goes by, more films come out than I get to see, and a promise to my young self to one day watch every film there is becomes ever-more a betrayal. The year 2014 was a busy one for me, still entrenched in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU; moving images took a back seat in all but theory.

Towards the end of the year there were many saying that 2014 had been a disappointing 12 months in film. It was hard not to see some small truth in this; I certainly saw very few films that deserved consideration of being called masterpieces, and reports from others suggested I had not missed many either. But I saw no lack of great films in 2014. Whittling down a top 20 remained a challenge, with several films I feel hugely positive about not making the cut. Despite what some may think, there is no lack of greatness out there, even amongst the most mainstream of Hollywood popcorn fare.

Indeed, if anything, 2014 was a year of noble failures and flawed triumphs. Hollywood gave us works like Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Divergent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – solid action movies with ambitious themes, some better pulled off than others, but evidence that the business of show and global audiences still want their brain candy to come with a little brain.

And then there were the dramas. 2014 opened with everyone finally catching Spike Jonze’s Her (a film that would’ve done quite splendidly on my last year’s ranking had I caught it in the last weeks of December but which I can’t in all anal conscience include this year), and the year didn’t quite live up to this until the post-summer pre-Oscar season. Gone Girl gripped for two hours, then choked its audience with a bewilderingly unsubtle final 20 minutes. Wetlands provoked more than any film in recent memory with its study of female sexuality, but came to be more a tantrum of provocation than a truly meaningful inspection. And Maps to the Stars took one of the finest shotgun blasts to the myth of celebrity that has ever been unleashed, before inevitably turning that weapon on itself. Elsewhere, Love Is Strange was that rare film that handled its subject matter with such maturity and confidence that it seems laughable to think that any of the issues it addresses were taboo in the last 100 years.

Then there were the comedies. While The Lego Movie provided more laughs than any film in years, movies like Neighbors (Bad Neighbours in countries with good soaps) and The Trip to Italy showed there’s still plenty of material out there to mine for clever laughs. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a ferocious misfire, gorgeous to behold but utterly empty of heart, bound to endlessly repeat the same two gags of “famous people appearing” and “famous people swearing”. 22 Jump Street failed to live up to its predecessor; critiquing the Hollywood formula for sequels by repeating every one of their failings is cute at first but rapidly succumbs to its own poison. At the very least its closing credits will go down in history as some of the most enjoyable and inspired in forever.

Sequels were a mixed bag. Captain America and Planet of the Apes saw marked improvements, while the finest X-Men movie in more than a decade may have saved that stagnant franchise. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 proved that franchise alone cannot guarantee success, with a bloated and thematically bipolar production almost crucifying Sony’s hopes to move forward with more. Transformers: Age of Extinction was not the worst film in the franchise, but that’s about all that can be said for it, while How to Train Your Dragon 2, despite the expected gloss of its design, managed to extinguish much of the fire of the original surprise triumph. The Raid 2 was a misery of convoluted and derivative over-plotting that redeemed itself with some of the finest action spectacle ever recorded.

Back home, Irish cinema had a tremendous little year. Calvary, while hugely divisive with homegrown audiences, was viewed as a spectacular work elsewhere. Frank, if inconsistent, proved that Lenny Abrahamson could branch out of dark drama, and raised his profile as the saviour of Irish cinema (while also proving Michael Fassbender is so beloved he doesn’t even need to be visible on screen to astonish as an actor). Up North, ’71 took complex and controversial historical events and mutated them into a sophisticated thriller without feeling exploitative.

If 2013 was the year Netflix began to conquer television, 2014 was the year streaming releases became an enormous part of movie-viewing culture. Nymphomaniac saw online distribution just as it hit cinemas, while the terrific thriller Blue Ruin never saw a real cinema release. Netflix produced The Battered Bastards of Baseball, one of the year’s finest docs, while a Christmas tragedy (and World War III?) was avoided with the iTunes drop of The Interview after hacker threats saw it pulled from cinemas.

And then there’s TV. Basically True Detective happened, and then nothing else lived up to it all year.

My own year of film, as I’ve already suggested, has been very wrapped up with my studies, and will continue to be so for the first half of 2015. I was privileged to have the chance to spend the summer working at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland cataloguing and repairing a large collection of nitrate film, which will likely go down as one of the most important tasks I ever achieve in the film world. Discussing and recommending movies feels that little less important after you’ve saved a film from literally eating itself into a puddle of toxic goo.

As for the classics, well I continued to work away at those. Two films this year instantly ranked themselves for me as amongst the finest I’ve ever seen or will see: The Devils and The Holy Mountain. Other essentials included World on a Wire, Queen Christina, Spider Baby, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Z, A Star Is Born (1937), El Topo, Thief, Design for Living, The Sacrifice, The Tin Drum, Phantom of the Paradise, Tampopo, Sitting Target, Fury (1936), Woman in the Dunes, Possession, Taxidermia, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Eyes Without a Face, Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Steamboat Bill Jr., Black Sabbath, A Page of Madness, Umberto D, and Tokyo Godfathers. There were many more, of course, but here is not the place to recommend them. And there were even more films too awful to ever recommend, but they’ll remain unmentioned.

Every year I set myself a film goal, and for 2014 it was exceptional. Having finally watched the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again, in December of 2013, I set out to finish the entire Toho kaiju catalogue (a further 26 Gojira films and more than a dozen connected features) by the end of this past year. It took a lot out of me, but I achieved it. There’ll be a full report soon, so stay tuned. It’s going to be silly.

And now we prep ourselves for my top 20 of 2014. As always let’s clarify what I missed. Films which evaded me that I suspect may have had places in this list include Two Days, One Night, Selma, Locke, Mommy, Citizenfour, Winter Sleep, and Force Majeure. I will catch them in their own time. Close contenders for the top 20 include Through a Lens Darkly, Captain America 2, La Sapienza, Tom at the Farm, Blue Ruin, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, The Congress, and, a late removal, Edge of Tomorrow. As I said above, it was a year full of great movies, even if all too few of them were spectacular.

20. The Babadook

The feature debut of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent is one of those horror films that gives you the sensation of having seen it all before, while simultaneously feeding you with the unnerving sensation that that isn’t as reassuring as it could be. A superbly nightmarish take on the boogeyman idea that goes all-in on the “what if it’s just in my head” trope, The Babadook builds to several terrific frights. The all-grey aesthetic becomes wearisome before the end, but the film’s two terrific leads, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, hold attention to the very last scene.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune

The greatest film never made is an easy tag to throw around, with so many notorious cases of the ‘development hell’ concept out there. But Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned take on Frank Herbert’s Dune is a stronger contender than most. This documentary assembles the essence of the cancelled ’70s psychedelic sci-fi epic through use of talking head interviews and an avalanche of spectacular concept art illustrations that once upon a time nearly saw this film into production. It is a nostalgic and remorseful study of a different time in Hollywood, while also a declaration of the need for experimentation and risk-taking in epic cinema and adaptation.

18. Inherent Vice

Critiquing Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner detective movie without referencing the other films it invokes memory of is difficult, and that seems to highlight the film’s undeniable imperfections. But Anderson has made a gorgeous film, meticulously detailed and with a suitable faded ’70s look to the image. Bloated with too many oddball characters and a meandering mystery that never quite catches the imagination, it still finds a terrific lead performance in Joaquin Phoenix, and in Josh Brolin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen one of the most audacious eccentrics in American cinema.

17. Interstellar

Contemporary science fiction has gone from ignoring big issues to addressing issues of colossal importance in frankly stupid ways. Just look at Prometheus’ “intriguing” explanations for the origins of life on Earth and our relationship with god. No, scratch that, please don’t. For all its aspirations Interstellar is not a smart movie, but it is a tasteful one, and a production unrivalled in envisioning outer space since 2001. Despite all its faults (abandoned subplots, awkward romance, poorly paced action, a self-contradicting emphasis on the power of love over science, and a second act twist that reeks of rewrites), there is no denying Christopher Nolan is a showman par excellence. The film’s imagery, accompanied by a divine score by Hans Zimmer, assaults the senses throughout, and Matthew McConaughey commits wholeheartedly to a role that supports the whole production.

16. The Lunchbox

Just when you think you’ve seen every high concept romance, this little gem emerges. Utilising Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas, an intricate and vast system of lunch delivery men, Ritesh Batra’s film finds a lonely widower accidentally receiving the lunchbox of a man whose unfulfilled wife is trying to reignite his passion through cooking. The wrong passion is ignited, and a complex love affair begins without the pair in question meeting. Effortlessly charming and rhythmically enrapturing, leads Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur achieve the impossible, to have extraordinary onscreen chemistry without sharing a scene together.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy

Much can be argued about the damage Marvel is doing by dominating mainstream action cinema (and encouraging rivals to try likewise), but when their output can be this furiously exciting there’s little room for complaint. Featuring a gaggle of lesser-known celestial superheroes, James Gunn took a postmodernist comedic slant to the story while also making room for genuine pathos. Challenging the progressively darkening aesthetic of comicbook movies with an effervescent purple, blue and yellow glow and an upbeat ’60s and ’70s pop soundtrack, Guardians showed that a blockbuster could refute seriousness without being dumb. Who knew?

14. Birdman

Speaking of superheroes, where did this one come from? A startling experiment by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman reimagines the fate of actor Michael Keaton after his glory days as Batman and conjures a fascinating tragic character, Riggan Thomson, typecast and devoid of credibility, attempting to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage, while simultaneously going insane from the pressures of failed ambition. The finest ensemble cast of the year and a thrilling jazz score help propel it through some overlong reflections, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s single take illusion is as mesmerising as it is unjustified by the content. The ending is an unsatisfying collision of the shocking and obvious, but the film is an intriguing treat throughout.

13. Foxcatcher

A hypnotic study of madness and obsession that slowly lures you in with its unsettling unpleasantness, Foxcatcher leaves you unable to look away from the disintegration of family and trust at its core. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo impress as real life Olympic wrestling champions and brothers, dazzled by a chance at wealth and immortality offered by psychologically damaged billionaire Steve Carell, in a career-redefining role. Shot with restraint and edited with beautiful subtlety, it is charged with a homoerotic intensity that builds to an impossible, exactly-as-it-happened conclusion. One scene of grotesque binge-eating stands out as the greatest horror moment of 2014.

12. The Wonders

One of the finest reflections on the isolation of farming communities from contemporary society, Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders took beekeeping as its subject. The family at the film’s centre, overburdened financially and by the sheer size of their clan, and patronised by an embarrassing reality TV show, represent a dying race of people, whose contributions are no longer respected by growing cities. Seen through the eyes of the eldest daughter, played longingly by Maria Alexandra Lungu, a cycle is revealed that cannot be reversed. Beautifully shot in the Italian countryside and full of witty asides, it is bolstered by fleeting sprinkles of magical realism.

11. Whiplash

More jazz drumming here, but this time it is central to the plot. Damien Chazelle’s tremendously rhythmic film features one of the year’s most intense relationships, a symbiotic S&M partnership between teacher and pupil. The idea that without punishment and cruelty genius can never be achieved is hardly new, but it has never been sold with such wit and ferocity as it is here. Miles Teller makes a convincing lead and impressive percussionist, while J.K. Simmons is simply thrilling as his demented and brilliant mentor. The green colour grading intrudes once too often, but otherwise is an extremely tidy film, hard to fault.

10. Mr. Turner

Attention to detail is all there is to this film. But isn’t that everything? Like the artist himself, whose paintings evoked such feeling by capturing the vastness of sea and landscapes in glorious detail, Mike Leigh’s film recreates the London of the first half of the 19th century down to the most inconsequential minutiae. But while the film reflects on art, class and late-blooming romance, it is Timothy Spall’s outstanding performance that holds the whole work aloft. Every tremor in his face and grunt from his mouth carries a trove of meaning and sadness, and Spall simply becomes another man, a great and tragically faulted man. If the film struggles with pacing and focus, Spall never stumbles for a moment, delivering the performance of his career and the performance of the year.

9. Nymphomaniac

This two-part study of female sexuality revels in the violent and grotesque; it’s almost a shame it’s so brilliant. Lars Von Trier’s latest is a series of vignettes taken from the life of Joe (Stacy Martin and later Charlotte Gainsbourg), which examines her spiral of self-discovery and sexual liberation with wit and pain. Certain sections work better than others, but the continuous raising of stakes, awe-inspiring visuals, and brazen abuse of pop music make for a delirious and provocative work.

8. Goodbye to Language

Cinema’s aging revolutionary, Jean-Luc Godard, delivered one of his most obscure and inspired works. Reflections on language and philosophy, the duality of relationships and existence, are framed in a series of stylistically contradictory shots; steady shots, concave angles, and handheld cinematography enlivened by simulated video errors. Godard’s decision to shoot in 3D is what makes this experiment the boldest work of 2014, and allows it to feature the year’s most astonishing shot – a stroke-inducing uncoupling of the stereoscopic cameras that bends the eyes and brain in ways cinemas has never done before.

7. The Lego Movie

If everything truly were awesome, how could we fully appreciate The Lego Movie? Phil Lord and Chris Miller began their deconstruction of the Hollywood machine in 2014 with this anarchic work of mainstream commercialism, managing to sell toys and major brands while also breaking down the very ideas that make them successful. The chaotic animation and riotous barrage of regularly sophisticated gags made it an audience favourite, but beyond that it was a complex discussion of artifactual purpose, creative intent, artistic inspiration, and obsessive anality. It is perhaps the smartest film aimed at young audiences since Toy Story, or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 6. Boyhood

Much of the criticism that can be laid at the feet of Richard Linklater’s opus seems largely superfluous upon reflection of the effort that went into its making. Shot in spurts over 12 years, with music, technology and the rapidly aging protagonist underscoring the passage of time, Boyhood is hardly unprecedented in cinema, but not even Truffaut could craft the experience of growth and the triumphs and betrayals of life’s promises with this much confidence and style. Ellar Coltrane is strong as 6-to-18-year-old Mason, more awash in a sea of experience than an active dramatic character, while astonishing support is offered by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. While it sometimes slips off course to focus on matters more of interest to Linklater Sr. than Mason, it remains an often overwhelmingly powerful study of what it is to be a young American, and what it is to become a man.

5. Under the Skin

So then what is it to be human? Jonathan Glazer cast hominid perfection Scarlett Johansson as an empty vessel, an alien purporting to be human to prey and consume. Using an astonishing and eerie array of editing techniques, cinematographic styles and complex sound design, Glazer at first stalks mankind with his alien subject, then has her seduced by its flawed complexity and finds herself the prey. Johanssen excels throughout, while the film pulls no punches in studying the darkness that dwells in the emotionally disconnected. Glasgow, stark and grey, stands in for the traditional invasion spots of New York or small town America. A chilling horror film and a riveting philosophical drama.

4. Calvary

In the finest performance of his career, Brendan Gleeson plays a priest chosen to be the target of an abuse victim’s revenge, a tortured mysterious figure who feels only the death of a good man will awaken the world to horrors gone unpunished. But since the lead knows who the would-be killer is from the first scene, we are left alone to investigate while he decides how to spend his allotted remaining days. A terrific cast of local oddballs make up the parishioners and suspects, allowed to run rampant with writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s deliciously biting dialogue. Ireland has rarely looked better, and the film acts as a remarkable dissection of a country in a state of schizophrenic uncertainty as to where it is going, or even where it has been.

3. Nightcrawler

A scathing assault on tabloid journalism, Nightcrawler is as bleak as it is beautiful, shot in the fluorescent glow of pre-dawn Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal grips as the sociopathic, ruthlessly efficient and zealously self-serving Lou Bloom, whose morality-free clamber into the ranks of accident and emergency reporting represents the worst nightmare of the American dream in the information age. Unpredictable without being extreme, it builds tirelessly to a thrilling conclusion. In Bloom, writer-director Dan Gilroy has created perhaps the most original character of the 21st century so far.

2. Ida

This gorgeously composed black and white film emerged with little fanfare this year but was embraced rapturously by critics and its small audience. Set in 1960s Poland, still in turmoil after the War and the Holocaust, and with the lingering Damoclean sword of Soviet overlordship, Ida is a gentle reflection on identity that both uplifts and stings with the brutality of its humanity. Agata Trzebbuchowska and Agata Kulesza give astonishing, tragic performances as a young orphaned nun and the aunt she has been newly reunited with. The film packs an emotional wallop, but every frame along the way dazzles with pristine simplicity.

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

One of the last films produced by Studio Ghibli before it ceased production of new animations to much distress this past year, and the assumed swansong of Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that director’s third masterpiece, and perhaps his most triumphant work. Based on one of Japan’s most famous fairytales, it tells of a childless bamboo cutter and his wife who find an enchanted infant, who they raise as their own. Financially supported by a divine source, the loving parents give the young Kaguya everything she could ever want, but her uncertainty and feelings of alienness prevent her from securing true happiness in a society that so pressures women to be what it demands of them. Once more abandoning Ghibli’s traditional style, Takahata this time paints in liquid bursts of watercolours, creating a spellbinding visual feast that reaches a cinematic zenith in a dashing charcoal nightmare. Wit and heart and fantasy combine; the story is pure magic. The production is too.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Booyah! Kaguya!

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I’m just assuming you skipped down to here. Because these are the films I hated this year. Dross such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Need for Speed, and even the egregiously misjudged Transcendence, which would easily have taken the bottom honour on a better year, weren’t as bad as these disastrous attempts at films, only one of which I can possibly recommend for ironic viewing (hint: it’s at No.3).

 

5. Gun Woman

Mindless and grotesque even by Japanese gore porn standards, this was certainly the most unpleasant film experience to be had in 2014. Featuring an antihero so bland it’s hard to call him a character, and a villain so cartoonishly despicable the man who thought him up should be kept under police surveillance, this is a joyless stool of a film, hideous to behold, and ritually disemboweled by its attempts at Tarantinoesque postmodernism.

4. Let’s Be Cops

Please, just make up your mind, do you respect cops or not? Do you think they are morons who should be made fun of, or that they are disrespected heroes one and all? Because really your film did not make it clear. But congratulations, you made a scene where a character chokes on a fat man’s testes look more pleasant than hanging out for just half an hour with your two buddy leads.

3. Winter’s Tale

Something about miracles and magic and horses called Horse. This overproduced farce is actually in the realm of so bad its funny. Colin Farrell and his awful hair have a brief and unbelievable love affair, while on the run from Russell Crowe, who is either Irish or suffering from some kind of brain aneurism. The dialogue redefines cheesy, the performances redefine confused, and the first act takes up 75% of the running time. The greatest miracle of all is that the film got made in the first place.

2. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane and his troublingly featureless face headline this Western pastiche that is… well nothing. Flatly shot, with a tsunami of jokes that don’t make landfall, and a plot so hackneyed you could write something more inspired by farting in sand, this follow-up to the genuinely enjoyable Ted proves McFarlane doesn’t understand high concept without being high. The supporting cast all seem embarrassed to be present. You’d almost feel sorry for them, ’cause they should be.

1. The Legend of Hercules

Where to start? The first of two big budget takes on the copyright-free demigod in 2014, this Renny Harlin venture took the most liberties with the material, pouring countless other myths and histories into the pot, and even a lightning whip-sword. The whole film is so joyless and po-faced, the actors so completely out of their element (unless their element is “stand there and look pretty”), the special effects so… uncompleted, it’s simply hard to believe this film exists at all. Thankfully, it proves as forgettable as it is awful, and due to The Rock’s moderately well-received Hercules, history will forget this Grecian stillbirth ever appeared in 2014.

 

See you again next year…

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2013 in review – What’s up? Docs!

Where did 2013 go? It seems just yesterday we were gearing up for Spielberg to walk away with all the Oscars; and like that, it was gone.

2013 was a mixed bag of tricks. The young masters of world cinema and the heroes of the American indie scene did not disappoint their fans, but Hollywood choked on a phlegm of sequelitis and rebootulosis and dumped the worst serving of misguided blockbusters and bland comedies we’ve seen for years. You can’t have your cake and film it.

But you ignore the lows, because you forget about them; your Star Trek Into Darknesses and your final acts of Man of Steel. You remember that this is the year the Coens brought out Inside Llewyn Davis, that Woody Allen made Blue Jasmine, that Martin Scorsese released his best film since Goodfellas.

Gravity showed us that there is still spectacle in cinema, and things we have never seen or experienced are out there to enthrall us. Elsewhere, Oblivion proved that sometimes it’s nice to see all the things you’ve already seen but rearranged in different orders.

More than any in recent memory, 2013 was the year of the documentary. Largely due to Netlfix Instant and HBO Go, docs have become common viewing for a much wider range of audiences, and in many ways the form is developing away from the cheap manipulative techniques that reality TV has coveted and coopted. From The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, to simpler but affecting films such as Blackfish, the documentary has proven itself the genre (is it a genre? Is it a medium unto itself?) of 2013.

Television changed also. Netflix reinvented the boxset by releasing whole seasons of brand new shows at a time, starting with House of Cards, before bringing out Hemlock Grove, Orange Is the New Black and the lazarused Arrested Development. Thankfully the big players kept up, with the year’s biggest show, Breaking Bad, drawing itself to an all-too-tidy but utterly satisfying conclusion. As rumours flit that Steven Spielberg is to turn the unrealised screenplay of Napoleon begun by Stanley Kubrick into a TV miniseries, the question of how quality television and cinema separate themselves may become the key one of the next few years. Although compare Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD to Iron Man 3 and you can see we’re still not quite there yet…

Twice this year I found myself aboard an airplane bound for dramatic new adventures in cinephilia. The first came in May, when I attended the Cannes Film Festival on behalf of Film Ireland (full reenactments of that event can be found here). There I forged some new friendships (and solidified formerly Twitter-based ones) and bathed myself in film and espresso. If that was a life-defining trip, my next was a life-changing one. Packing my bags once again for America, I returned to New York City where I enrolled (and according to my grades remain) in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I have committed myself now to my passion for film and its history, and the maintenance of its cultural and historical relevance. And here I stay. On the side I kept up my work for Film Ireland while expanding my writing by scribbling for NextProjection.com. I also increased my podcasting presence with several more recordings for The Film Show. OK, so maybe the Cannes thing was the highlight…

In terms of my non-contemporary film viewing, 2013 was not my most successful year. Certainly I finally watched some greats, including Kwaidan, Los Olvidados, Sansho the Bailiff and Short Cuts, while finally finishing off the Dekalog and binging on the entirety of the Fast & Furious franchise, which had utterly escaped me until this year. On the big screen I caught The Age of Innocence, Les Amants, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and The Great White Silence, as well as a joyous screening of Miami Connection. I discovered a heretofore-unknown passion for seeing films in cinema theatres with names related to the film – catching Julie Taymor’s Titus in MoMA’s Titus 1, and Creature from the Black Lagoon in Film Society’s Gilman Theater. On Ozu’s 110th birthday (and the 50th anniversary of his death), I ripped some time out of a bloated schedule to see Equinox Flower on the big screen. It’s the little things, really.

Making my top 20 was difficult this year. As in previous years, my splitting my time between two sides of the Atlantic complicated matters in terms of release schedules. Cannes also complicated matters given the number of often excellent films I saw there, although I have chosen not to include any of these films that did not see release in either Ireland or New York before December 31st. Big films I missed include Fruitvale Station, Her, The Grandmaster, and Museum Hours.

As an aside, whereas the last three years I have awarded 5 out of 5 to a strict average of four films, this year six made that list, making my top six very easy to iron out. The rest was complicated. Near misses include Reality, Wreck-It Ralph, Prisoners, McCullin, Nebraska, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Beyond the Hills. Special note should be given to a number of formally impressive or experimental films that impressed hugely but let themselves down too greatly in terms of acting, dialogue or coherence, particularly Spring Breakers, Stoker, Escape from Tomorrow and Upstream Color.

Now, on with the show.

20. Caesar Must Die

The grand old brothers of Italian cinema, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, have produced one of the most troubling docudramas in recent years with Caesar Must Die. Blending fly-on-the-wall documentary techniques with reenactments of rehearsals and performance of Shaespeare’s Julius Caesar, but within a maximum security prison and by the inmates, Caesar Must Die looked at life imitating art and the healing powers of performance and creativity. Lines blurred between reality and fiction, and natural angers and sadnesses leaked from these terrible men in a manner you could hardly expect to witness elsewhere.

19. I Wish

Not the last film on this list by Hirokazu Koreeda, perhaps the most talented filmmaker working today, I Wish looked at the world through the eyes of two young boys, played by real-life junior comedian brothers Koki and Oshiro Maeda, who each choose a different parent to live with when their mother and father separate. Simple, but utterly to the point, it revelled in the joys of childish dreaming.

Full review

18. Drug War

A truly unexpected gem of a movie, in the style of classic Michael Mann, Johnnie To’s Drug War teamed a do-anything-to-survive meth manufacturer with an impossibly resourceful top cop to take down a drug empire. The resulting stings and double-crosses, combined with shoot-outs that were so oddly choreographed they felt chaotically believable, made for a tight, twisty and utterly entertaining thriller.

17. Iron Man 3

The only summer blockbuster on this list, Iron Man 3 finally got the right balance for the character of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr.). This time we found him in the aftermath of the superb The Avengers, suffering PTSD from his near-death experience in its finale while also falling victim to an enormous ego-crushing at realising all his science smarts were nothing in a universe of gods and aliens. The villain was relatively typical, although in Ben Kingsley’s the Mandarin writer/director Shane Black found a hugely inventive number 2, the girl got to wear the super suit for a change, and Stark had to deal with being just an ordinary (brilliant) man in the second act with some superbly judged comedy and drama. The final action sequence was messy, but the ideas were all in the right place.

Full review

16. Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen, working of late in critical peaks and troughs, hit the highs again with this crafty reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire for the post-psychiatry age. Cate Blanchett dominates the screen as the tragic Jasmine, whose bipolar personality echoes the two poles of her life, as she falls from Manhattan socialite Bay Area unemployable when her unfaithful husband (Alec Baldwin) is revealed to be just as big a financial cheat. Allen’s script was loaded with delicious ironies delivered by Blanchett, while also creating a host of juicy supporting roles for solid character actors such as Sally Hawkins, Louis CK, Bobby Cannavale and Michael Stuhlbarg.

15. Gravity

A pulse-pounding disaster movie like none other, Gravity took inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey and recent first-person video games to create an out-of-world experience that was truly thrilling and suitably dizzying. With a remarkable sound design and (mostly) unobtrusive score, Alfonso Cuarón’s film used the most astonishing special effects (and 3D effects) ever seen on screen before to invoke the terror of a storm of metal ripping through orbiting space stations. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney gave fine performances as the unfortunate space travellers, but it was the script – its clumsy dialogue and infantile religious metaphors – that denied this incredible production the title of modern classic. A near masterpiece, but a remarkable film nevertheless.

Full review

14. Le Passé (The Past)

Following on from his sublime A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé looks at the drama that arises in the years following a similar divorce and emigration case. Here an Iranian man returns to France to finalise proceedings with his soon-to-be ex-wife, where he becomes embroiled in her relationship with a new man while reconnecting with her children, his one-time step kids. It’s an untraditional tale of familial secrets and lies, told with remarkable restraint and with a knock-out ending. In the lead roles, Ali Mosaffa, Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim all elevate the material to greater heights.

13. To the Wonder

Lesser Malick is still better than most. The Texan philosopher brought his lens from the overcast steps of Mont St. Michel to the sunlit fields of Oklahoma, taking in suitably stunning imagery in airy, sweeping movements. Drawing an excellent performance from Olga Kurylenko as a woman torn apart by love, the film failed to reach the heights of Malick’s earlier works. While it neither bore the dramatic punch, nor laid out the same emotional depth of say The Tree of Life, it remains a startling and beautiful work to behold. It made spinning look as wondrous as Gravity made it look terrifying.

Full review

12. Cutie and the Boxer

Some times documentary filmmakers get lucky with their subjects as events shift the focus of the story, but this can hardly count against the filmmaker. Zachary Heinzerling got very lucky with this film about New York-based Japanese artist Ushio Shinohara and his underappreciated wife and unknowing muse Noriko. Being able to tell the story of their tragicomic relationship through Noriko’s art, which is newly reemerging just as Ushio enters his autumn years. A retrospective of his work allows for introspection of their selves and their relationship, as Noriko is given a coinciding exhibit of her own. Astonishingly personal and poignant filmmaking, featuring perhaps the greatest scene played over by the closing credits ever.

11. Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s romantic odyssey continued the tale of Jesse and Céline another nine years after we last saw them probably turning their lives upside down to be with one another. Now together, with two children, and with his success overshadowing hers (recommended double-bill with Cutie and the Boxer), the couple has a make-it or break-it day during a holiday in Greece. The writing is as natural as it was in Before Sunset, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy once more giving superb, believable performances. It doesn’t hit with quite the same punch as Sunset, largely due to an inconsistent visual aesthetic, but it’s a wonderful and powerful follow-up that shows that romance doesn’t die as couples get older, but it becomes much, much harder to fight for.

Full review

10. Inside Llewyn Davis

One of my worst experiences of 2013 was waiting in a press queue at Cannes to see the Coens’ latest, only for us to be denied access to the over-subscribed show. The heat and sweat and crushing were unbearable, but worse was the thought of not getting to see the film. OK, in fairness I saw it two days later and the U.S. didn’t get it for another five months, but anyhow. A melancholy mixture of many Coen themes shot in haunting, dispiriting winter greys, Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhat of another masterstroke by the brothers. Oscar Isaac gives a remarkable lead performance, backed by a fine assemblage of Coen oddballs, and the character’s introspection is carried beautifully, accompanied by music perfect for capturing that spirit of early ’60s Greenwich Village. Only the semi-successful literary flourishes stand against it, and even then only barely. A bleak but powerful drama.

Full review

9. The Wind Rises

“The wind is rising, we must try to live.” Hayao Miyazaki’s supposedly (and undeniably suitable) final film is an ode to the reasons the artist creates, in the mold of Andrei Rublev. The film animates the real life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a flight-obsessed young man whose weak eyes would never let him fly, so he turned to plane design, ultimately creating the Zero fighter, the pride of the Japanese airforce during World War II. A film as much about love and loss as it is about art and war, The Wind Rises is a gentle, gorgeously drawn film that never patronises its audience or its characters. It overstays its welcome in the closing 20 minutes, but it remains a tremendous feat by the greatest living master of animation. In addition to the visuals, the sound design is astonishing – when an earthquake tears through Tokyo the soundtrack is of a guttural chant, as if the earth itself was groaning an assault on the people of the city. A remarkable work.

8. Frozen

Teaming Tangled’s director Chris Buck with Wreck-It Ralph’s writer Jennifer Lee proved a glorious victory for Disney, who have suddenly snatched back the animation crown from their underlings at Pixar. Retelling Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen with remarkable flair, superbly composed (and lyricised) songs, rich humour and a female-dominant storyline, Frozen was one of 2013’s biggest (and most successful) surprises. The animation was not always flawless, but when it looked its best (during the unsurpassable showstopper ‘Let it Go’, for example) it was beautiful to behold, and the film’s energy was electrifying. It also managed to make an animate snowman not only work dramatically and comically, but actually warm the heart too. Some movies are worth melting for.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street

Hitting harder than Ushio Shinohara at a canvas, Terence Winter’s screenplay, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, is an hysterical and terrifying ride through the corridors of financial scheming and market manipulation. At times fuelled as if by the drugs its antiheroes consume, this Martin Scorsese picture may lack the visual flourish we expect of the director, but he has rarely handled a cast this efficiently, and never been so assured in his use of Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives the performance of his career thus far. At times unbearably nasty and perhaps a little enamoured of its subject’s gusto (if not his actions), it has a hell of a lot to say about American greed and the cruelty of the capitalist system at its very worst.

6. A Field in England

One of the most exciting and consistently surprising filmmakers around today, Ben Wheatley brought out his most challenging work to date in 2013, an English Civil War drama that went right through the looking glass. A demonic Irishman forces a motley crew of Englanders to dig for unspecified and uncertain treasure, only for reality and minds to split to asunder. Startling monochrome cinematography, viciously black comedy, and utterly game performances made for a psychedelic whirlwind of a picture. Screenwriter Amy Jump created a ferocious villain in O’Neill, and in the character of Friend, one of the greatest idiot savants in modern fiction.

Full review

5. The Gatekeepers

“In the War on Terror, forget about morality.” This is the defeatist mantra by which the former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter-terrorism unit, barely excuse themselves. This incredible documentary probed the founding of the Shin Bet and its execution of some incredible assaults on terrorist cells (including some monumental failures). Interviews with six former heads of the agency, each clearly affected by their time with the finger on the button, gave unprecedented insight into the difficulties faced by these men, and assertively questions the decisions they have made. Accompanying footage of atrocities, riots and counter-terrorism methods in action are more troubling than anything Hollywood has yet produced on the subject.

Full review

4. 12 Years a Slave

The story of Solomon Northup, an educated black man in the 1840s kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, was brought to life with the extraordinary visual assuredness of Steve McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The period detail falls secondary to the extraordinary camerawork, gently filming the lakes and cotton fields that surround the plantation, or making a steamboat’s paddlewheel appear more threatening than any imaginable horror. An unending hanging is shot from a restrained distance, and life is seen to carry on as normal behind it; an astonishing comment on the system that existed in the South. Eschewing explosive Hollywood drama in favour of natural terror and human cruelty, 12 Years feels as painfully real as it looks beautiful. In the lead role, Chiwetel Ejiofor proves himself a remarkable talent, but it is McQueen’s judgement of each scene that truly propels this film towards greatness.

3. Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda’s most recent inspection of a family in crisis is perhaps his most melodramatic, with a plotline that could be taken from a made-for-TV movie. Two families, one upper-middle class, the other working class, discover their six-year-old sons were switched at birth; spurned on by traditional Japanese values they agree to swap boys on a trial basis. The film views the whole gentle tragedy from the point of the middle-class dad (Masaharu Fukuyama), torn between biological assumptions and shame at the breakup of his family. Koreeda judges every scene to perfection, revelling in the spontaneous performances of his child actors (Keita Ninomiya and Shôgen Hwang), gently tracking his camera alongside the painful human drama. As touching as any film could hope to be.

Full review

2. The Act of Killing

Perhaps the most formally inventive documentary ever shot, director Joshua Oppenheimer dared to challenge the perpetrators of war crimes during conflicts in Indonesia in ’65-’66 to make short films based on their experiences. These hero gangsters, icons to many contemporary Indonesians, are exposed to be deeply haunted by their acts 50 years ago, no matter how steely their dispositions. Blending camp fantasy with gory reenactments, the film is never better than when it films Anwar Congo, sitting with his grandson in the comfort of his own home, watching a film of himself playing one of his own torture victims, and revealing the collapse of an ideal in the lines of his face and the tremors of his voice. What it says about the conflict, the victims and killers, is unfathomable. But what it says about cinema and its ability to heal and bruise and cleanse is somehow even deeper still.

1. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2)

Nothing hit harder this year than the life of young Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), whose doe-eyed and trepidatious questioning of her sexuality in her teens leads her into a long-term relationship with confident lesbian artist Emma (Léa Seydoux). Through Abdellatif Kechiche’s astonishingly sensitive direction, we see the blossoming and embittering of this young woman, her pains and simple dreams lightly drawn on her barely-an-adult face. Exarchopoulos excels beyond any lead performance one could hope for, while the camerawork and pacing create an epic of simple humanity, first love and sexual awakening. Kechiche understands that the moments when life seems to slow down are when the camera should hang in the air, only watching, incapable of intervening. No coming-of-age tale in a generation has been this exceptionally well-measured, this powerful or this gorgeous to behold.

Full review

Vive l'Adèlevolution!
Vive l’Adèle-volution!

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OK, and now what you’ve really been waiting for, my five worst films of 2013. I missed many supposedly awful films this year, such as Movie 43, Getaway or A Haunted House. But I certainly saw my share of poor movies. There were many I disliked or even hated, such as Django Unchained, Star Trek Into Darkness and Only God Forgives, that despite the ire they raised in me were far too competently made to be numbered amongst these bottom of the barrel films. Which are…

5. The World’s End

No film in 2013 was as appallingly misjudged as this struggling comedy from Edgar Wright. Closing a trilogy comprised also of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, The World’s End failed to do anything new with the sophisticated humour and cutting of those films, rehashing visuals and delivering predictable gags that felt like they were coming off a conveyer belt. Irredeemably nihilistic (it revels in the exploits of humanity’s most disgraceful member) and haplessly genre-meshing, it failed to be any of the many things it wanted to be. It can only be applauded for its ambition.

Full review

4. 21 & Over

The writers of The Hangover team up to direct a campus comedy full of racism, disregard for mental health issues and accidental circumcision. Enjoy!

Full review

3. A Good Day to Die Hard

The fifth installment in the once-unmatchable saga of John McClane became a muddied mess of James Bond cliches and anti-Russian propaganda. A dire villain, nonsense dialogue and absent chemistry between unstoppable dad and superspy son made this humourless entry in the series an agony to watch.

2. After Earth

Will Smith pimps his charisma-struggling son in a shockingly bland action movie that features killer monkeys, instantaneous plummets in temperature and giant eagles that comprehend human sacrifice. It may often look good, but the dialogue and drama are so haphazard and clumsy that not even a spear that can be reassembled into different shapes with the push of a button can save it. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan’s worst film.

Full review

1. Hyde Park on Hudson

After being masturbated by his cousin, President Roosevelt proceeds to solve a political storm in a teacup with the use of a hotdog. Features perhaps cinema’s most insipid narration. This film is exploitative dirt.

Full review

Until next year…

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Gravity – Earthbound and down

Free falling: Sandra Bullock loses her grip in Gravity

Free falling: Sandra Bullock loses her grip in Gravity

“DON’T LET GO” reads the tagline for Gravity, a zero-gravity disaster movie from the versatile Alfonso Cuarón, director of A Little Princess, Y tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men. It doesn’t quite do the film’s more thrilling sequences justice – as Gravity proves to be one of the most edge-of-your-seat movies to crash into cinemas in decades. “Don’t let go of your seat/jaw/bowels” might have just about captured it, though would not have looked as good on a poster.

Of course, Gravity is not the kind of movie posters sell. This is the kind of movie that gripping, unusual trailers and phenomenal word-of-mouth sell. This is the kind of movie that people say “You have to see it in IMAX 3D”, and rarer yet it’s the kind of movie where people hear that, they listen, and obey.

The film’s cast of barely more than two is led by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Bullock is the awkward science expert who, all things considered, shouldn’t be on space missions in the first place. Clooney is the seasoned astronaut whose cocky attitude makes him oddly endearing and a great source of comfort in a crisis – he’s more or less playing George Clooney in a spacesuit here.

When a shower of ricocheting space debris tears through their space shuttle, Bullock’s Ryan Stone and Clooney’s Matt Kowalski find themselves hurtling through the void above the Earth, traversing chasms of darkness to find shelter, and a passage home, in one of the space stations that litter the heavens.

Taking cues from Alien and far more notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the sequence following HAL’s attack on Frank, Gravity brilliantly captures the noiseless horror of the vacuum. The lack of gravity is matched tenfold by the crippling silence. In space no one can here you anything.

Steven Price’s score fills in for the dearth of sound effects, synchronised brilliantly to the metallic carnage unfolding as our heroes are ragdolled about space. The music creates the sounds you feel you should be hearing as you silently watch structures shredded (in one disappointing instance Cuarón relies on a sound effect outside a module, but this is the only slip in an otherwise immaculate soundscape). In quieter moments, dramatically speaking, Price’s score overwhelms and forces the emotions – it’s an oddly bipolar composition that works sublimely in parts and rips you from the film in others.

Cuarón and his son Jonás’s screenplay is the weakest note, relying too much on Clooney’s charm to sell the slighter dialogue. Ryan’s personal issues back on Earth never properly tie into the actual disaster drama unfolding, and the personal and religious metaphors that derive from this fall clunkily off the screen – both Christ and Buddha make cameo appearances in moments of great crisis. When an astronaut is found dead, a photograph of his family is preposterously found floating beside him, as if the audience wouldn’t care for this character unless he was a family man.  Cuarón has succumbed to Hollywood audience-handholding.

Thematically the film is about as weightless as its characters, floating adrift in space. But where Gravity fails to make a personal punch, it hits with some of the most astonishing visuals ever created for the screen. The demolishing of a space station torn to veritable ribbons of metallic fabric leaves the eyes baffled and dizzied with where to focus. The camera enters the visors of the characters during incredible single-take shots to create action sequences filmed from terrifying first-person perspectives. A flaming bubble of gas floats through the corridor of an orbiting station; later a single tear drop runs off Bullock’s face and blobbishly makes its way towards the camera, accentuated by the often startlingly effective 3D. When the film approaches its most pretentious, a brief moment of womblike comfort that draws further parallels to 2001, the imagery is too brilliantly conceived to make it feel unwarranted.

Gravity is not a terrific movie, but it is an astounding cinematic experience, and will be remembered as such for generations to come. Not since Avatar has there been such an “event movie”, and despite Gravity’s weaknesses, and it has many, it is a considerably more cohesive work than James Cameron’s overblown sci-fi epic. With the exception of one additional action sequence towards the end that oversteps the audience’s suspension of disbelief (and unintentionally draws some laughter), Gravity thrills throughout. The imagery is often borrowed (2001 is all over this), but crafted with such remarkable skill and framed by the endlessly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life) it is a cinematic experience that simply must be seen on the biggest, loudest screen you can find.

4/5

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Me and You – Adolescence and sensibility

Getting to know you: Jacopo Olmo Antinori and Tea Falco

I like to imagine Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski have had fist fights over who likes apartments more. While Polanski is probably the master of the apartment-set almost-a-play film, Bertolucci has a similar passion for such intimate surroundings, playing them more for familial or romantic drama than the psychological thrillers of the paranoid Pole.

In his latest film, his first since 2003’s The Dreamers, Bertolucci once again looks at apartment-bound siblings, thankfully steering (narrowly) clear of the incest that helped undermine the prior film.

Me and You follows frustrated, angry 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who feeling unhappy at school and over-mothered at home, decides to spend some time in isolation to stew in his adolescent ire. When a school skiing trip leaves for a week, he tells his mother he is going on it, but secretly moves himself into his family’s storage room in the basement of his building.

Lorenzo is enjoying his pressure-free time of reading, listening to music and gazing at an ant farm when his estranged half-sister unexpectedly shows up needing somewhere to stay. A sexually charged artsy 20-something, Olivia (Tea Falco) still harbours a grudge against Lorenzo’s mother for “stealing” their father away from her and her mother. She is also coming down from a serious heroin addiction, and decides to use Lorenzo’s closet of solitude as her cold turkey pit stop.

As the two demi-siblings bond over their shared confinement and interests in music, Lorenzo must help Olivia as her condition worsens. He begins to go stir crazy, acting like a caged armadillo he saw in a pet shop, while the ants escape their confinement following an accident. Soon however, both brother and sister learn important life lessons about facing up to your demons. If only a week were all that took…

Drawn out but never quite boring, Me and You is held together by its two strong performances. Antinori in particular deserves credit for both playing and looking like a believable teen. His spot-riddled face and grungy would-be moustache make him look like an everyday reality almost never seen on-screen. His body language – bowed head and hunched soldiers – is utterly convincing.

The film however is not as convincing, and while the slightly flirty relationship between brother and sister never escalates beyond horseplay, the lingering threat that it might makes much of the film more uncomfortable viewing than it might have been in the hands of another filmmaker. It looks great throughout (although the repeated establishing shots of the building to let us know if it’s day or night frustrate), and the soundtrack (The Cure, Arcade Fire, and David Bowie track sung in Italian) make a pleasant accompaniment.

A film about the prisons we find ourselves in, literal or figurative, self-inflicted or otherwise, Me and You is a passable drama that hardly scratches at the greatness of Bertolucci’s best work, such as The Conformist. The ending, with visual echoes of Les Quatre Cents Coups, suggests Bertolucci and co-screenwriter Niccolò Ammaniti felt this was a far more important project than it has proved to be. With Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor rearing its head once more at Cannes this year in a new 3D restoration, Me and You is unlikely to register in the director’s canon. Sadly it’s clear to see why.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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G.I. Joe: Retaliation – Caught between The Rock and a hard place

“Ugh, ninjas”: Elodie Yung as Jinx, about to kill all the ninjas

A sequel that surely not too many people asked for, G.I. Joe: Retaliation belatedly follows 2009’s summer blip G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, arriving in cinemas almost nine months after it was originally due. The party line is that this delay was entirely to convert the film to 3D, although rumours circled on the internet of rewrites and reshoots. But there’s no evidence of any post-shoot tightening in this sluggish, unambitious schlockbuster. And the 3D’s not even that great either.

Following the events of Rise of Cobra, the evil Cobra Commander remains imprisoned in an impenetrable high-tech facility and the Joes are still the world’s No.1 defence force. Channing Tatum’s Duke now runs the show, backed up by Dwayne Johnson’s human sandbag Roadblock. But, as none of you will remember from the first film, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) remains a hostage of Cobra, and their evil stand-in Zartan has his finger on all the triggers. Soon Cobra Commander is unleashed and the Joes are being wiped out in an impossibly well-planned attack that kills off (off-screen) all the characters whose actors refused to return to the franchise. Only a handful of the elite soldiers remain to try and defeat the plans of Cobra Commander and his evil POTUS. You can imagine how it goes.

G.I. Joe 2 corrects many of the mistakes of the first film, reducing the degree of sci-fi chicanery in favour of fists-and-bullets action. However, where the first film had some very basically sketched characters (backstories, flashbacks and everything!) and an infantile but to-the-point narrative momentum, Retaliation has almost no character development and its second act is a disaster of storytelling. As Roadblock and his team try to build a guerrilla unit in the US with retired general Bruce Willis and his band of G.I. Joeriatrics, martial arts expert Snake Eyes (the boundlessly athletic Ray Park, still silent and fully masked) must journey to somewhere in Asia to fight all the ninjas that ever were. Remember that bit in Iron Man 2 where Agent Coulson leaves to go to New Mexico and deal with the events of Thor? Now imagine if those two films were intercut with one another. That’s how jarring the mismatch of quests in this film is.

G.I. Bros: Channing Tatum and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

G.I. Bros: Channing Tatum and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

Character-wise this film is bankrupt. A bit of bromantic banter between Tatum and The Rock in the first act adds up to nothing. Willis manages to be just slightly less spaced out than he was in A Good Day to Die Hard. The female Joe (Adrianne Palicki) has daddy issues and looks good in tight clothes. The white male Joe (D.J. Cotrona) may actually not have any lines for all you can tell. Snake Eyes can’t even speak, let alone demonstrate facial expressions, yet he still out-acts his sidekick girl ninja (Elodie Yung). In some bizarre casting, RZA shows up as blind martial arts master Blind Master (the G.I. Joe series was never very subtle with its character names), bringing the rapper’s charisma-less movie career to a new low by drudgingly rattling off exposition like a screen between video game levels.

The villains have far more fun. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been replaced as Cobra Commander by It Doesn’t Matter You Can’t See His Face, Lee Byung-hun and Ray Stevenson have plenty of fun as evil ninja Storm Shadow and Southern-fried pyromaniac Firefly, respectively. But when it comes to delivering Cobra’s (actually inspired) end game, it is Jonathan Pryce who delivers, hamming it up beautifully as President Zartan in an epic game of nuclear chicken. Twice as over-the-top as he was in Tomorrow Never Dies, Pryce is undoubtedly the film’s highlight.

But with the exception of the big bad plan, the story is a mess, and much of the dialogue is cringe-worthy to the point of spasm-inducing. The Joes have gone from an international fighting team to a deadly serious Team America, while no one seems to bat an eyelid when the President hires Cobra as his elite bodyguard unit, despite the world’s most dangerous terrorist being called “Cobra Commander”.

The Pryce is right: President Zartan reveals his evil scheme to steal the whole movie right from under Cobra Commander's nose

The Pryce is right: President Zartan reveals his evil scheme to steal the whole movie right from under Cobra Commander’s nose

Not even The Rock, who is finally being taken seriously as a charismatic action lead thanks to Fast Five, cannot save this film from floundering. Somehow, in spite of its near-$200m budget, director Jon M. Chu (most known for some of the Step Up dance movies and a Justin Bieber concert film) has managed to make a cheap-looking action movie. The effects look flimsy. The rapid cutting and dim lighting seem to be hiding uncompleted sets, while also causing the 3D to blur frantically. The final skirmish is not on a scale anywhere near as huge as the first film’s climax, while the images of Roland Emmerich-scale city destruction are so brief there’s hardly a frame of it in the film not featured in the trailer. Compare to the ridiculous but amusing Eiffel Tower sequence from Rise of Cobra and you realise big money clearly does not go as far as it used to.

A brainless popcorn movie for a cold night in with a DVD if ever there was one, G.I. Joe: Retaliation cannot live up to its promise of mayhem and The Rock and ninjas. And surely that was an easy one to get right.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Side By Side – Evolution or revolution?

Let's get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

Let’s get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

The revolution will not be televised, it will be projected. That’s the message of Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side By Side, which shows in great detail the effect digital filmmaking has had on the industry, beginning life as a budget-friendly side-show, before becoming the medium of choice for almost all the big players in the film business.

Briefly sketching the early history of filmmaking, Side By Side goes on to chart the rapid rise of digital cinematography since the release of the first feature-length movies shot on digital in 1997.

Hosted by actor Keanu Reeves, in conversation with a massive who’s who of contemporary filmmakers, Side By Side certainly covers most of the bases, but never quite qualifies its comparisons.

Amongst the interviewees are digital devotees such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Danny Boyle, while new converts include David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, who until only a few short years ago seemed steadfast in his support for traditional film stock. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, both major digital converts (although Spielberg shot 2011’s War Horse on film), are noteworthy in their absence from the doc.

Only Christopher Nolan is steadfastly opposed to shooting on digital, with even his cinematographer Wally Pfister unwilling to rule it out entirely in future. Elsewhere actor John Malkovich praises how digital allows you to continue shooting, and acting, without breaks for changing the magazine every 10 minutes, allowing continuous performance like in theatre. Actress Greta Gerwig counteracts that by saying how exhausting the non-stop-ness of digital filmmaking is, which David Fincher backs up with an unfortunate anecdote about Robert Downey Jr. on the set of Zodiac.

Aside from film directors and actors, a large number of cinematographers are interviewed, including Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception), Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), offering some fascinating insights. Side By Side also investigates the effect of the digital era on other aspects of the production process, from visual effects to editing and colour grading, providing an outlet for some less-sung heroes of the cinema to have their say. Recent developments such as Higher Frame Rate technology, 3D and 4K+ resolution are briefly touched upon.

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses digital in front of a scene from the best film he never made

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses the digital revolution in front of a scene from the best film he never made

While the interviews are Anglophone-centric, with only a brief trip to Denmark to interview the Dogme 95 pioneers of digital filmmaking, Kenneally and Reeves have gone out of their way to track down a far more representative selection of female filmmakers (including cinematography Ellen Kuras and director Lena Dunham) than similar documentaries have done in the past. The documentary should be lauded for these efforts.

The use of footage from representative films is mostly exceptional, although there are some poor choices along the way. When Steven Soderbergh mentions the “revolution” in filmmaking, Side By Side shows us a clip from Che, his digitally shot biopic set in revolutionary Latin America. It’s one of the few times this film patronises.

Where Side By Side fails is in giving film a fair hearing, other than defending it with a “it worked for 100 years, so why change now?” No one discusses the crispness of photochemical film imagery with any of the passion of your average muso down the local record shop defending vinyl over CDs. Keanu can’t quite get anyone to explain to him why film would be preferable to HD. When Soderbergh attacks the dirt that appears on traditionally projected film, no defence of it is offered up. Side By Side works brilliantly as a history of the digital revolution, but in terms of laying film and digital side-by-side, it is found wanting in regards the former.

The film leaves no doubt in the end that the death knell has been rung for film, and digital cinema is most definitely ruling the roost now, but does not manage to answer whether or not this is a good thing. To quote Orson Welles: “It’s pretty, but is it art?”

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Wreck-It Ralph – Game changer

Hero for a day: Wreck-It Ralph tries his hand at Hero's Duty

Hero for a day: Wreck-It Ralph tries his hand at Hero’s Duty

It is a widely held opinion that no good film based on a video game has yet been made, and it’s a hard point to argue against. But the culture around video games and its concept of infinite digital worlds has produced some fine stand-alone films, from charming ’80s family fun like Wizard, to reality-bending thrillers like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. But if any film paved the way for video games to be taken seriously in the movies, it was The King of Kong, the outstanding 2007 documentary about obsessive gameplay and retro fixation.

It’s hard to think of Wreck-It Ralph existing in a time before The King of Kong, and yet the idea was first pitched at Disney back in the 1980s. The set-up is reminiscent of Toy Story – when an arcade closes down for the night, the characters from various games take their leisure time, travelling between games or resting in the train station-like lobby inside the multi-socket plug that connects the games together.

Inside Fix-It Felix, a fictional 8-bit retro game still mercifully standing in the arcade after 30 years, time has taken its toll on the game’s badguy, Wreck-It Ralph. A Donkey Kong-like brute (Fix-It Felix is a window repairman to Mario’s plumber), Ralph dreams of being taken seriously by the denizens of the game, and not still treated like a villain when he clocks-off after closing. At an AA-style meeting for video game badguys, Ralph admits to his peers (cameos include Mario’s Bowser, Street Fighter 2’s M. Bison and Zangief, and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Eggman/Robotnik) that he doesn’t want to be a badguy any more. “Just because you are a badguy doesn’t mean you are a bad guy,” Zangief reassures him, but Ralph takes no solace in the good advice.

It's good to be bad: Ralph attends a badguys' anonymous group

It’s good to be bad: Ralph attends a badguys’ anonymous group

To prove he is a hero, Ralph game jumps from his 8-bit pixellated comfort zone into the hi-def world of contemporary shoot-’em-ups in a game called Hero’s Duty (Halo meets Medal of Honor). Come morning, his absence from the Fix-It Felix game draws disappointment from arcade customers, and the manager is forced to mark the game “out of order”, making unplugging imminent. Felix himself teams up with a feisty female sergeant from Hero’s Duty to find Ralph and save their world.

Ralph’s rage issues make him an unlikely children’s movie hero, as his tantrums range from hormonal teenager to potential domestic abuser, but his upset is easy to appreciate and his journey makes him a calmer, happier person. Voiced by John C. Reilly, whose input into the character earned him a writing credit on the film, he is far gruffer than traditional Disney heroes – a less handsome or street-smart Aladdin, a less upbeat Pinocchio.

Much of the latter half of the film is set in the game Sugar Rush, a candy-themed version of Mario Kart where Bratz-like J-pop characters race across mountains of marshmallow and rivers of caramel. Here Ralph meets Vanellope, a childish outcast like himself, who due to faulty programming uncontrollably glitches into 1s and 0s, meaning she can’t take part in the actual game, or leave its world. Sarah Silverman’s potty-mouthed performance is at first highly irritating, but once Ralph and Vanellope develop a rapport there is an undeniable sweetness in the oddball coupling, he 20 times her size.

Manic pixel dream girl: Vanellope von Schweetz gets ready to race

Manic pixel dream girl: Vanellope von Schweetz gets ready to race

Jack McBrayer (of 30 Rock fame) is awkwardly charming as Felix, but Jane Lynch steals the film as the no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun, a far tougher version of her Glee character Sue Sylvester. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”, and nabs many of the film’s most brilliantly melodramatic lines, referring to the unsettling world of Sugar Rush as a “candy-coated heart of darkness”. Alan Tudyk hams it wonderfully as King Candy, the flamboyant ruler of Sugar Rush, taking his cues from the Mad Hatter in the 1951 Disney Alice in Wonderland.

While the story is mostly predictable (barring one excellent twist near the end), Wreck-It Ralph’s greatest achievement is in its creation of its video-game world. Like Rex the dinosaur discussing his being “from Mattel” in Toy Story, the characters know the rules of their complicated world – there is no Buzz Lightyear-style confusion. In addition to the countless cameos by famous game personalities (Mario is notable in his absence), there are several clever nods to more obscure games and gameplay rules. Minor characters in Fix-It Felix move in stuttered pixellated spurts, even when fully realised in 3D animation. The 1980s beer-serving game Tapper is where characters go to drink, and a drunk game character walks mindlessly into a wall like a World of Warcraft avatar with the forward key held down. 3D versions of Pong figures, massive cuboids instead of bars, continue to pass the ball back and forth even outside their game. Even more subtle, the security code to a vault is the “access any level” cheat code from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

8-Bittersweet Life: Felix gets the pie, Ralph gets the angry mob

8-Bittersweet Life: Felix gets the pie, Ralph gets the angry mob

Despite its charms and humour, Wreck-It Ralph is let down by its look, lacking the gloss of Pixar or DreamWorks’s latest outputs. So much of the film is set in the Sugar Rush game that the artificial colours and textures begin to grate visually, although the countless puns on sweets are more than welcome (Felix nearly drowns in a pit of Nesquiksand!). The added 3D throws up very few moments of engrossing depth, even during the climactic race, so opt for the glasses-off version.

But this is not an ugly film, and it is often very playful with its look as it switches between 3D and pixellated visuals – the closing credits feature the heroes popping up in several classic games tracing decades of video game development. Sometimes moving, regularly funny, often exciting and always far more clever than it needs to be, Wreck-It Ralph is a real treat worth putting all your quarters into for a fun arcade adventure.

It would be unfair not to mention the Disney digital short, Paperman, which precedes Wreck-It Ralph; a gorgeous, simple romantic tale, told in black and white, about a pencil jockey trying to attract the attention of a beautiful stranger. Make sure you’re not late to the cinema.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

It seemed for a time there like we might never return to Middle Earth, that incredible world which provided us with one of the finest cinematic triumphs of the last dozen years. But like the Pevensie children wondering if and when they might return to Narnia, fate (and finances) would deem it was always to be.

And yes, I am aware of how confusing an analogy that is.

So after nine years, some rights squabbles and a directorial switcheroo (or rather switch back), The Hobbit is finally on the big screen.

Peter Jackson, who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently the pointless Lovely Bones and, in producer mode, surprise hits like District 9 and the disenchanting The Adventures of Tintin, is back in control of his fantasy sandpit, and has taken some strange, and some arguably unethical, decisions with it.

Dialling back the whimsy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s childish adventure book (though not entirely, with a hit-and-miss effect), Jackson has expanded the world of The Hobbit using extracts from Tolkien’s extended writings about the greater events that preceded and surrounded the story, to give a more epic, Rings-like flavour. The most controversial result of this has led to the relatively short book being broken up into not two but three films – the second and third instalments will follow in 2013 and 2014.

It’s okay Bilbo, you have three films to learn how to ride a pony

An apparent cash-grab on Jackson’s behalf, it is still only fair to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a stand-alone film. Successful feature-length adaptations have been made of short stories only a fraction the size of The Hobbit (The Dead, Brokeback Mountain, Total Recall), so the question is not the morality of Jackson’s decision, but whether or not it works.

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

Using the same technical team that helped create his opus, Jackson has indeed rebuilt and expanded Middle Earth, and much of the magic still exists in the sets, CGI, costumes, armoury and the impossibly enchanting landscapes of New Zealand. “Well,” said Sam Gamgee, “I’m back.” – and it’s hard not to feel that same sense of homecoming when we first see the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire and hear Howard Shore’s indomitable music.

Launching into proceedings with a preface set during the opening act of The Fellowship of the Ring (officially making The Hobbit a film prequel as opposed to The Lord of the Rings being a premature sequel), An Unexpected Journey takes its good time setting up the history of the dwarves and their conflict with the dragon Smaug that sets the story’s events in motion. An explosive siege against the dwarven stronghold Erebor by the beast, kept largely unseen through clever cutting to withhold some surprise for film two, puts us firmly back in the epic setting of The Return of the King before we launch into pastoral antics akin to the early half of Fellowship. A clever smoke-ring cut transforms our narrator, Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins, into his younger self, played by Martin Freeman. Greeted by the grumpy but truly good wizard Gandalf (the ever-perfect Ian McKellan), the anally retentive hobbit soon finds himself playing host to a bevy of brutish, slovenly dwarves, 13 in total, with whom he is caroused into embarking on an adventure to retake the distant fortress of Erebor.

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

Even more the fish-out-of-water than the hobbits in the Rings films, Bilbo’s discomfort agitates some of the dwarves, particularly band leader and would-be king Thorin Oakenshield, while endearing him, cautiously, to others. But his surprising courage, hobbity ability to be easily ignored by the worst of creatures and occasional moments of ingenuity eventually make him an accepted part of the team.

On their journey across New Zealand, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf encounter some strange and terrifying creatures, before a late encounter with the Great Goblin (voiced by a brilliantly camp Barry Humphries) and his slithering hordes deep inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo has his fateful meeting with Gollum and the Ring.

Bouncing from one encounter to the next, Jackson attempts to keep the pace going by inserting action scenes where they are uncalled for. Between Bilbo’s famous encounter with the trolls and the band’s arrival at the sanctuary of Rivendell, Jackson inserts a wholly unwelcome chase sequence, in which orcs riding wargs (giant wolves, thankfully less hyena-ish than in Rings) pursue the dwarves across an ill-defined landscape. The dwarves are rescued thanks to the help of elves, who dispose of the orcs off-camera, causing the excitement levels to plummet. Unfortunate comparisons are easy to draw. A similar sequence at a similar point in Fellowship, after Gandalf confronts the Balrog, where the heroes were to be chased by orcs to the safety of Lothlorien, was cut in the editing room, because a chase sequence was deemed uncalled for at that stage. Ten years later, it seems Jackson has not only failed to learn from his mistakes, but is now making them where he evaded them before.

But it’s not the newly invented or the sourced-from-other-texts scenes that really throw this film off, rather it is an inability to pace scenes within themselves. The dinner party introducing the dwarves goes on that little too long. The troll encounter runs a beat too long. A council between Gandalf and the most powerful beings in Middle Earth contains just a pinch too much information.

And it’s this overflow from scene into following scene that causes An Unexpected Journey to feel so much longer than it actually is, so much more crammed and cramped; and given it is the first part of an easily argued needless trilogy it’s hard to not come away from the whole experience feeling something went very wrong in the editing room.

But so much has gone right elsewhere. The production values remain at the pinnacle of the game, with individual costumes and weapons having more skill and design in them than any landscape from Avatar. Makeup, from bulky, bearded dwarves to the blight-riddled faces of orcs, could hardly be bettered. The CGI is mostly excellent, with wargs and trolls looking weighted and textured. The Great Goblin has a suitably cartoonish but still real presence. Gollum, whose very follicles are now plainly visible, makes the award-winning Gollum of The Two Towers look like Jar Jar Binks.

Ugh, not you agai- no wait! You’re the best part!

While the design fits in perfectly with the Rings films, there are some additional touches brought in by co-writer and one-time-attached director Guillermo Del Toro which spice up the visual palette. A cackling gremlin of a goblin, who appears to be the Great Goblin’s P.A. and runs errands on a zipline about his caverns, feels like he just zipped in from Hellboy 2’s Troll Market. Another sequence in the Misty Moutains, where Bilbo and the dwarves encounter giants made of stone, also feel like they leaked from the brain of cinema’s most inventive fantasist. Of course, the stone giants throw up more problems in this adaptation – referring to a single sentence from The Hobbit about giants hurling rocks (that can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a thunder storm), Jackson has once again shown his inability to resist turning such an event into a scene of peril, as the band are nearly crushed in the fray. One is left thinking of the Fellowship sailing past the Argonath, the two mighty stone statues; sometimes it’s good just to show wonder, not everything needs to be life or death. Jurassic Park would not be the film it is if, upon first seeing a brachiosaur, Sam Neill suddenly found himself in the midst of a stampede (à la, yes I’ll go there, Jackson’s King Kong).

And the action sequences are a tale of two halves, with the skirmishes between the dwarves and their enemies exquisitely choreographed, each dwarf revealing variations on a fighting style based on their weapon of choice, while the escape from the goblin caverns and the stone giants sequence reveal an over-reliance on video game imagery. There is a subconscious urge to press the A button every time the right-scrolling dwarves have to leap a chasm, and as they wait for a swinging platform to swing back their way, visions of Sonic the Hedgehog impatiently tapping his foot come to mind. Gandalf splinters a boulder from a wall and rolls it down a hill, crushing several goblins, in a feat Donkey Kong would be proud of.

Jammed full of scenes, Jackson’s film is oddly low on character. Most of the 13 dwarves might as well have personalities based on their names like in Snow White; Prissy, Fatty, Yokelly, Deafy, Mentally Disabled (the dwarf with a small piece of axe permanently buried in his skull seems to stutter out his sole line of dialogue, in what could be the most offensive moment in one of Jackson’s films since Meet the Feebles). Thorin (Richard Armitage) is given backstory and a bit of fleshy dialogue to work with, but he is little more than stoic and, towards Bilbo, disbelieving. Bilbo at least gets real fun to work with, and Freeman has a blast with his awkward mannerisms (some impressively based on Ian Holm’s), discomforts and terrors. Freeman carries the film on his back from start to finish, a tremendous achievement for a one-time typecast TV actor. The film’s highlight comes when he is thrust into the dark with Andy Serkis’s Gollum, taking what might have been a dull recitation of assorted riddles from the book, and turning it into a menacing match of wills. The writers and Serkis have taken the schizophrenic Gollum of Rings and imbued him with the creepish, toying playfulness of the famous film psychopaths who followed in his wake; Hans Landa, Anton Chigurgh, the Joker. The scene, while not shot with any of the ingenuity of the Gollum scenes from Rings, is still a standout one of writing, acting and CGI, and shows that Jackson still has what it takes to deliver the goods.

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

It would be wrong to not take a paragraph to address the most significant contribution this film has made to film history; the introduction of HFR (higher frame rate) technology, shot at a smoother 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. This addition, a pet project of James ‘have I left my mark on cinema yet?’ Cameron, does indeed make 3D look more natural, and in certain sequences the visuals flow beautifully, but the negatives outweigh the positives. As the eye takes its time to adjust to the new film speed, everything appears unpleasantly sped-up. Who wants to see Bilbo, the world’s fastest geriatric, hobbling like lightning around his hobbit hole? While the eye does eventually become accustomed to the HFR, every now and then the effect slips, and everything appears like those sped-up scenes in Tom Jones, except without the intentional comedy. The detail is immaculately crisp, but almost too much so. Real life doesn’t look this real. Audiences (and Hollywood) may decide it is here to stay, but it seems unlikely, and less likely for the best.

But the visual (and audio) tableau that makes up Middle Earth is the real reason this film remains an essential recommendation, despite its flaws. The world looks better than ever, from its green hills to its torch-lit caves. The soundscape is second to none, and Howard Shore’s score, borrowing a little too much from themes originated in The Lord of the Rings, is never short of epic. His major new creation, a theme for the dwarves, is first hummed in burly baritone and bass, before erupting in a maelstrom of brass and woodwind – it’s as grandiose a piece as anything composed for Rings.

While Jackson may have irritated some viewers with the length and pacing of his film, he has still achieved a great feat with An Unexpected Journey, getting this wonderful tale underway. What comes next may prove an even greater challenge. There’s little denying that were The Hobbit two films as previously planned, the end point of that film is exactly where this part ends. It remains to be seen how he can draw the rest of the book out over two filmic volumes. But since they will continue to look this good, it shouldn’t really matter in the long run.

There’s no denying, it’s good to be back in mythical, mystical Middle Earth.

3/5

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2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

As the credits begin to roll on another year of film (don’t bother sticking around to the end, the bonus scene after the credits is just a hangover), it’s time to look back on what the world of film offered up in 2012. There were highs and lows, unexpected joys and underwhelming potential wonders. Hollywood provided its most entertaining popcorn blockbuster in a generation. French cinema shattered our hearts over and over and over.

Early on The Artist won out at the Oscars, but rather than reignite interest in silent cinema, it became a Netflix-condemned anomaly unto itself. Thanks to 3D, The Avengers won out over The Dark Knight Rises and its IMAX presentation, but the launch of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series caused the real fuss with its introduction of HFR (higher frame rate, 48 frames per second), which has caused more division amongst audiences than Prometheus. Films such as Berberian Sound Studio and Cloud Atlas aspired to greatness, but fell at the all-important last hurdle, having an ending. Michael Haneke returned to Cannes, made everyone and their mothers cry, then went home victorious to launch a parody Twitter account.

Archery!

It was once again a mediocre year for animation. Pixar clawed their way out of the wreckage of Cars 2 with the unfairly disliked Brave, though it remained a step down from their sensational output in the last decade. Frankenweenie and Rise of the Guardians charmed but did not wow. ParaNorman sadly escaped my gaze.

It would be unfair to say it was a poor year for documentary, but I was left disappointed by many of the most praised docs this year; Samsara, The Imposter and Bill Cunningham – New York were all strong works that did not fully succeed in their ambitions. Disappointingly, Waiting for Sugarman, 5 Broken Cameras and Tabu were all missed by me – I suspect my top 20 might have looked very different had I caught them.

On a personal note 2012 was not the year career-wise I had hoped it to be, but my writing, both here and for Film Ireland Magazine continued and I like to think improved – this blog expanded two-fold over the last 12 months, something to be proud of. I continued to trawl through the greatest of film cinema, most notably binging on the Rocky movies, The Bourne Trilogy, The Apu Trilogy and The Godfather Trilogy – each of those in single, incredible sittings. On the big screen I revisited classics such as The Apartment, A Night to Remember, RoboCop, Baraka, Bambi, The Shining, Fantastic Planet, Haxan and the 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. My major goal for the year was to finally delve into horror cinema, a genre I had avoided for much of my life, with first-time viewings of Carrie, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and George Romero’s original Living Dead Trilogy. More specifically, I delved into Italian horror, seeing some of the best films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, as well as Lamberto Bava’s Demons films, and also gave myself a light education in the rockumentary, finally watching The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Buena Vista Social Club and the director’s cut of Woodstock. Elsewhere, I finally completed the IMDB Top 250 list, an achievement that would be so much greater if not for the fact that, due to its constant shifting, I now find myself back at 249 (and not caring).

There were a handful of films I was eager to see this year but missed; Sightseers, Monsieur Lazhar, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Seven Psychopaths and Silver Linings Playbook. Due to my continued transatlantic travelling, my list is assembled of films released in Ireland or the US anywhere from 2011-2013, and films such as Django Unchained, Les Misérables and Wreck-It Ralph remain viewing for next year’s list.

French wheelchairs!

Films that nearly made the grade this year include Le Havre, Coriolanus, The Dark Knight Rises, Ted, Moonrise Kingdom, Killer Joe, The Kid With a Bike and Laurence Anyways. These and many others remain worthy viewing. But the following should all be seen and appreciated; they are my top 20 of 2012.

20. The Grey

Featuring an immensely committed, world-weary performance by Liam Neeson, what should have been a standard action/horror about plane crash survivors fending off a wolf pack turned out to be a treatise on the nature of faith and the human will to survive. With characterisation of a quality far beyond what this story called and some truly tense adventuring, The Grey hit harder than Liam Neeson punching a wolf in the face.

19. What Richard Did

It’s easy to forget some times that I am actually Irish; I know I often do. And despite my role in promoting film culture in Ireland, few Irish critics are harsher to Irish filmmakers when they drop the ball than I am. But when they get it right, they can get it so very right. Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did, based on a true story about an accidental killing by privileged schoolboys of one of their own, delved deep into the issues of when uncontrollable testosterone and youthful arrogance collide. Beautifully capturing the light grey tones of Dublin city, What Richard Did is at its best tracking the distress of Richard (notable newcomer Jack Reynor) through intense, unrelenting camera movements.

18. Anna Karenina

As much an exercise in cinematic stagecraft as an adaptation of Tolstoy’s romantic novel, Joe Wright brought out all the visual big guns to set his film apart from its forebears. Theatres become palaces and diamonds become more emotive than the faces of the actors wearing them in this ultra-stylised drama. Keira Knightley gives it her best in the lead role, but it is the supporting players, most notably Jude Law and Domhnall Gleeson, who really steal the show, along with Tom Stoppard’s oft-inventive screenplay. Nothing else this year looked quite like it.

Full review

17. Argo

After years of lamentable acting and increasingly promising directing, Ben Affleck has finally won the love of all Hollywood with this tense, witty espionage drama. A spy thriller in which not a gun is fired or a woman seduced, Affleck recreates, with some liberties, the exodus of American civilians trapped in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, while also poking fun at the Hollywood studio system, which was manipulated to help win the day. Superb attention to historical detail is what really sets this film apart. The tension is carried through to the very end, at the unfortunate expense of believability, but it remains a thrilling ride, with several exceptional supporting performances.

Full review

16. Looper

The first truly entertaining time-travel adventure since Marty McFly settled down for good in Hill Valley, Rian Johnson’s Looper looked at the consequences of actions through two versions of the same character, played by Bruce Willis and a Bruce Willised-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Exciting and playful with its impossible premise, Looper stood out for its wit and audacity. It faltered hugely in its third act, but it was too late to do the film any real damage – and the final 20 minutes proved an unexpected rollercoaster. As clever as popcorn cinema can get.

Full review

15. The Hunt

More than a decade after his magnificent Festen, Thomas Vinterberg returns to form with the dramatic thriller. A magnificently pained and frustrated Mads Mikkelsen stars as a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child abuse. Rather than create a mystery around the events, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm allow the audience to be the only ones aware of how this dreadful confusion arose. This omniscience on the viewer’s behalf becomes tormenting as the town turns against the teacher. Superbly acted, it is given extra power by the brown and grey autumnal look of the Danish landscape, full of a slowly fading beauty.

14. Lincoln

Showing uncharacteristic restraint, Steven Spielberg directed a Civil War “epic” with almost no war. Playing like an extended season finale of The West Wing, Spielberg’s beautifully detailed period drama is entirely focused on scrambling for votes in the U.S. Congress. Milking the political clash over the abolition of slavery for all the drama and excitement it’s worth, Tony Kushner’s screenplay made the esteemed president a Machiavellian political mastermind, while Janusz Kamiński’s camera shot him like a former superhero returning for one last heroic act. Daniel Day-Lewis captured the president’s spirit, but it was Tommy Lee Jones who stole the film as the devoutly anti-slavery congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

13. The Raid

A bolt out of the blue that hit so hard the audience’s collective heads shattered several wall tiles, Gareth Evans’s Indonesian cop thriller/martial arts extravaganza was one of the year’s most unexpected critical darlings. Lethal human whirligig Iko Uwais played the cop trapped in a tower full of machete-wielding drug dealers, forced to fight his way out using every weapon and muscle at his disposal. The results were electrifying and often hilarious. Editing troubles aside, The Raid was one of the tightest action movies released all year.

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

The first of three French films on this list to feature the tragedy of a person confined to a wheelchair, and the film in which the wheelchair is most at the fore, this undeniably charming dramedy, based loosely on a true story, tells of a wealthy quadriplegic and his unlikely friendship with a street-smart layabout turned caregiver. Predictable and light, it is also superbly acted and told with boundless heart and (often dark) humour. Shamelessly uplifting without being slight, it is adeptly shot and edited.

11. Skyfall

Choking on the poison that was Quantum of Nonsense, James Bond brought himself back to life with a defibrillator shock once more, and this time that shock was Skyfall. Exceptionally written and paced, Skyfall had the audacity to focus more on the character of Bond than any other film in the series to date, while giving ample room to develop his relationship with the ever-excellent Judi Dench as M. Javier Bardem’s villain was left with a poor evil scheme, but was himself memorable as a vengeful ex-agent with mincing homoerotic undertones. Light on action, when it hit it came with a wallop. Sam Mendes’s direction was solid but came second always to Roger Deakins exceptional camerawork.

Full review

10. Life of Pi

Adapting a spiritual novel into a personal epic with countless remarkable special effects shots, Ang Lee continues his quest to be the most diverse filmmaker in the business. Weaving the wonderful tall tale of Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel into a visually astounding oceanic adventure took remarkable skill, which bursts forth from the screen in every shot – literally in the case of the impressive 3D presentation. Suraj Sharma plays the devout theist castaway on a lifeboat with a vicious tiger. The metaphor at the film’s centre lands powerfully, but it is the clever dialogue and mesmerising visuals that make this film stand out.

9. Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s veritable clusterfuck of madness is at some level a statement about the falsehood of (digital) cinema. At another level it is just plain bonkers. Chameleonic Denis Lavant plays everyone you could think of, as a performer doomed (it would seem) to forever play the strangest of roles; from romantic lead to frustrated father, beggar woman to subterranean troll, his own killer to husband to a chimpanzee. It lapses in many of its instalments (installations?), but as a whole it is an astoundingly odd and wonderful piece of filmmaking.

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

Against all the odds and an army of alien beasties, this superhero mash-up succeeded on almost every level. Four years of films leading up to this one, introducing some of the leading players and the universe’s themes, paid off as the egos of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Bruce ‘The Hulk’ Banner collided. The result was unexpectedly tremendous, with Joss Whedon’s wildly entertaining script bouncing the characters’ personalities off one another beautifully, and with plenty of laughs. Everyone played to their strengths, the minor characters were given moments to shine and the action redefined explosive. Here’s to Phase 2, eh?

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This pastoral police procedural drama, set over a night and the day that followed, gave a haunting insight into modern Turkey. Exceptionally well acted and with more than its fair share of beautiful, memorable shots (the mini adventure of a tumbling apple cannot be forgotten), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wonderful film was let down by a tragically sluggish third act that clashed with the astounding first two thirds of the film. Still, as a whole Once Upon a Time in Anatolia remains far more impressive than any American crime drama of the same year.

6. The Master

Barely passing under the bar set by There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s The Master cannot be underestimated. The incomparable story of two men who need each other for contradicting reasons, The Master would still be a great film without the powerhouse performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With them, and with remarkable assistance from Amy Adams, this is a drama that must be experienced before you can believe it. Occasional lapses in pacing and a visual aesthetic that rarely lives up to the power of the drama do it a disservice, but the mastery of filmmaking on display here cannot be denied.

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

The finest animated feature released this year, this daft comic gem from Aardman Animations brought more laughs than any other two films released this year could muster between them. Rattling out sight gags and wordplay like the spiritual successor to Airplane!, The Pirates! also featured some superb voicework (especially from animation virgin Hugh Grant as the pirate captain, named the Pirate Captain) and took Aardman’s animation style to new limits. The incredibly detailed stop-motion sets (photographed in 3D) boggle the eyes as you try to take in everything you can see – there are more sight gags per image than the human brain can process. It may not have the same heart as some of Aardman’s earlier offerings, but there is a sweetness to be found here. It doesn’t matter though, the outstanding quality of the Gatling-gun comedy and the craft on display are what make this the work of brilliance it is.

Full review

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me with the model Pirate Ship from The Pirates! taken during a studio tour of Aardman Animations back in 2011.

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking tale of an elderly husband caring for his stroke-addled wife could not be more perfectly handled or acted. The camera is confined to the apartment like Anne herself, but gently roams its rooms and corridors capturing flashes of the dying days of this unspectacular couple. Punctuated with comedy (a rogue pigeon invades the house) and horror (a nightmare of floodwater and disembodied, strangling hands), Amour’s power is inescapable. ’60s romantic movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva excel, the former capturing a pained patience, the latter the agony of natural imprisonment; within a wheelchair, within a bed, within her own body.

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

This majestic imagining of a Louisiana community struggling against the elements, told through the eyes of a wondrous, haunted young girl, is the breakthrough movie of 2012. First-time director Benh Zeitlin crafts a world drifting on the border of reality. Shot on 16mm, Beasts succeeds in finding a unique beauty in the overgrown damp of the bayou. The narration by six-year-old Hushpuppy (the revelation that is Quvenzhané Wallis) is perhaps overwrought, but it is delivered with astounding honesty and passion. As the world around her is literally and metaphorically washed away, her imagination of the end times allows for a powerful reclamation of human spirit and dignity. The score alone, all plucky Southern instruments, is enough to make this film a triumph. Thanks to its other successes, it is a minor masterpiece.

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

The follow-up to his phenomenal A Prophet, Jacques Audiard turns to a more humanistic tale in adapting Craig Davidson’s short story collection from an assemblage of broken lives into a remarkable drama of shattered dreams and people repairing one another. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard each give career-defining performances as, respectively, a bare-knuckle boxer-cum-struggling father and a sexually defined whale trainer left powerless and paralysed in a gruesome accident. The tenderness and frustration of this odd couple’s relationship rings amazingly true, while Stéphane Fontaine’s near-divine handheld camerawork circles them effortlessly, stopping from time to time to capture remarkable stand-alone images. Over-powering stuff, altogether.

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

Far from the most entertaining film of 2012, no film released this year deserves immortality quite like Béla Tarr’s intended swan song. Imagining the daily life of a beleaguered workhorse, whose plight is fabled to have caused the mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Turin Horse is shot in hypnotic, terrifying black and white. Capturing the monstrous monotony of rural life at the turn of the last century, Tarr takes us through several interchangeable days as a brutish farmer and his weary daughter go about their chores. The repeated imagery as man and woman eat their daily potato, each time shot from a different, intense angle, each time robbed of civility by the farmer’s slurpy gorging, makes for painful, powerful viewing/listening. The outstanding black and white cinematography, the phenomenal use of music and the set design and wind-battered landscapes create a cinematic experience unlike any other. It is difficult viewing, but the craft involved in it cannot be rivalled.

A Turin-out for the books

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And now, my top 5 worst films of the year. I managed to miss a few apparent clunkers; Project XThe WatchBattleship or Piranha 3DD. But I still managed to catch some pretty awful stuff. Some lamented films, such as John Carter and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, were actually pretty harmless. Films that nearly made the list include The Bourne LegacyGhost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and This Means War. Despite hating more than almost any film I can think, there was no denying that Ruby Sparks is too adequately made to reduce it to this waste bin of cinema. Instead I’ll condemn it to the waste bin of human decency.

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

This uninspired, or rather thievishly over-inspired, adolescent fantasy threw everything it had at the screen and none of it stuck. An evil queen far more radiant than the Snow White. Kristen Stewart wearing armour. And leading an army after giving a dramatic speech. A love triangle in which none of the corners seemed particularly interested in one another. Actually, this film did feature one pretty awesome feat of archery (theme!), but it was of course pilfered from the infinitely superior Princess Mononoke. Thank goodness for the amazing sequence with giant deer god in the forest that was oh no wait stolen from Princess Mononoke. I love Princess Mononoke. I hated this.

4. Haywire

Despite the lamentable acting of MMA fighter Gina Carano, your film is in trouble when she’s the best thing in it. Several fine actors (most notably Michael Douglas) phone in their performances so hard they even reversed the charges. Michael Fassbender forgets his accent in the last scene again. The decent fight choreography and the surprisingly good sense of Dublin geography could not prevent this formulaic purported pastiche from being one of the most excruciating viewing experiences of the year. Steven Soderbergh has directed a movie so badly edited The Asylum would look down on it. Oh, and the jazz score? No.

3. Taken 2

Liam Neeson beats up anyone with darker skin than him, this time without any of the urgency or fun of the original. Grenades get thrown recklessly at civilians. Mosques are shown with deafening boom sounds on the soundtrack, just to remind you that foreign things are evil. They’re not really, but pumping this much cash into a movie and ending up with this surely is.

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

What was that I was saying about Irish movies? This hardly seen Irish indie does its best to deconstruct the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger generation, but creates a character so ludicrously cartoonish in his villainy that he fails to represent anything at all. Shot on grim low-grade digital in not one but two of the ugliest hotels in the world, this was an almighty mess of editing and dialogue. Lead actor Emmett Scanlan gives it so much socks that he and his improbable moustache swallow the movie whole.

1. The Campaign

But at least the makers of Charlie Casanova tried! In a year when political satire was a much needed relief, this Congressional comedy ran for the safety of the silly hills. No attempt was made to properly address the preposterous (and potentially hilarious) contradictions of the American two-party system. Instead The Campaign opted to have Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis do their best to out-swear and out-stupid one another. The results were hardly funny. It was the film audiences deserved, but not the one they got. An utter waste of several talents.

Here’s hoping for 2012!

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