Tag Archives: Kung Fu Panda

2011 in review – Style, meet Substance. Substance, Style.

Now, perhaps I’m just misjudging the subtext of what I’ve read in the blogo/Twitter-sphere, but I get the impression that there is consensus that 2011 was a particularly fine year for cinema. There were definitely a lot of great films released, and compiling the list below was not easy, but was it a particularly great year?

It was certainly a standout year for American (and English-language) cinema. With some exceptions, blockbusters were smarter and tighter, and even where they failed (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) they still had ambition. Source Code led the charge for a new wave of intelligent sci-fi thrillers. Bridesmaids and 50/50 showed that American comedies could have as much heart as they had bodily fluids. Drive proved enough flair on a filmmaker’s behalf could erase any need for strong dialogue or acting – yet that film brought some great lines and fine performances nonetheless. At Cannes, The Tree of Life conquered, and around the world audiences were left mesmerised and/or walked out of the cinema.

The build-up to 2012’s The Avengers continued with two enjoyable tongue-in-cheek superhero adventures, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger; the success of both suggested the heroic team’s first outing will be one of the biggest films of this year. If rivals DC and Warner Bros wish to meet the Avengers threat head-on with a Justice League film, the critically mauled Green Lantern and a trailer for 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises should ensure that no one wants to see a JL film without Christopher Nolan at the helm any time soon.

After a terrific year in 2010, children’s films hit a hurdle – only one children’s film cracked my top 20, and it was released in the US in 2010. Martin Scorsese’s beautiful but shamefully overlong Hugo deserves applause however, even if it did prove once and for all (to me at least) that 3D cannot be mastered even by the most talented of filmmakers. Nostalgic methadone The Muppets and the enjoyable Kung Fu Panda 2 (which featured superb sequences of traditional hand-drawn animation) also narrowly missed my list.

As for documentaries… well, for work-related reasons I saw more docs last year than any year previous. Unfortunately many of them are so obscure that there is no point in listing them here. But suffice to say it was a strong year for documentary from around the world, even if the interesting but unambitious Inside Job won most of the acclaim this year. Docs like Senna and Page One: Inside the New York Times told their stories with far more flair.

A few notes on the list. Traditionally I have stuck with what was released in Ireland during each individual year, meaning that some of the previous year’s late releases (especially the Oscar push) end up on the subsequent year’s list – there’s never been a way of avoiding that. To add to the confusion now, I spent almost half of 2011 living in the United States, so this list may see some films released in late 2010 in the US but early 2011 in Ireland, while others will have yet to arrive in Irish cinemas yet.

It’s fair to say I didn’t see as many new films in 2011 as I might have liked (so few bad ones indeed, that I do not have enough to fill a “worst of 2011” list), but I did see a huge number of films this year. On the big screen, just some of the classics I saw include: Walkabout, The Driver, Paisan, Pickpocket, Network, The Wages of Fear, Quai des Brumes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a restoration presented in person by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), Bridge on the River Kwai, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Orpheus, The Warriors and The Big Lebowski. Most of these were made available to me during a three-month internship I undertook at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a position I could talk endlessly about, but will not concern you with here.

That didn’t leave much room for new films, and amongst those I missed that I suspect may have challenged the films on this list are: Paul, The Beaver, Warrior, Moneyball, Take Shelter, My Week With Marilyn, Tyrannosaur, Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Skin I Live In, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

Honourable mentions for films that I saw but barely missed out on the list are: Hugo, The Guard, The Muppets, Attack the Block, Senna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Bridesmaids, The Inbetweeners Movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Super 8.

Now, enough stalling… shall we?

20. The King’s Speech

The eventual reigning champion at last year’s Oscars, this was a beautifully produced and (for the most part) strongly acted account of the troubles faced by the young King George VI. A powerful and memorable ending casts a positive light on an otherwise largely forgettable flm; but damn, what an ending it is.

19. Troll Hunter

One of 2011’s most unexpected delights, this “found-footage” comedy/horror used the bizarre natural landscape of Norway as the perfect paradise for surprisingly realistic CGI trolls on a budget. An outrageously straight performance by Norwegian comic Otto Jespersen as the government-sponsored hunter of the title and surprisingly effective pseudo-science about troll biology made this film a sometimes scary but consistently hilarious outing – Man Bites Dog meets Rare Exports. “TROOOOOOOOOLL!” may have been the funniest delivery of a single word last year.

18. Tangled

Disney finally put a CG challenge to their successful underlings Pixar with this gorgeous retelling of the Rapunzel tale. Colourful, enchanting, witty and light, the film was only let down by standard music numbers and a fairytale parody feel all-too familiar from the Shrek films. A superb villain, a playful chameleon and an indestructible horse were all highlights, but the film’s greatest feat is the animation in Rapunzel’s seemingly endless waves of golden hair.

 17. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

M:I4 came out at the end of a year which had featured some strong blockbusters but had been for the most part low on action (Transformers: Dark of the Moon notwithstanding). But Ghost Protocol made up for that. Beginning with a simple prison breakout, Ethan Hunt and his team go on to infiltrate the Kremlim, abseil the world’s tallest building and embark on a chase through a sandstorm where every grain can be heard whistling violently by the camera. The story was light spy fare, but the commitment by actors and filmmakers on show were as awe-inspiring as the stunts they pulled off for the camera.

16. The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest is a powerful family drama. George Clooney is impressive as a lawyer nigh-widowed when his wife is left in a vegetative state after a boating accident. Trying to hold his family together, he must also deal with a sale of his family’s massive estate on which many relatives are relying. Hawaii has never looked so naturally beautiful and also hideously metropolitan as it does here. The music is wonderfully chosen from local sources, and Shailene Woodley gives one of the year’s best performances as the distraught and destructive older daughter. However, the film’s tiresome insistence on ending every dramatic scene with a punchline keeps it from being one of the greatest of recent American dramas.

15. True Grit

The Coens went west again with this adaptation of Charles Portis’s book, while still undeniably owing credit to the John Wayne-starring original. With two terrific performances at its centre by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld and stunning golden-brown cinematography, this was a notable entry in the Coens’ canon. Expectedly wacky minor characters and some thrilling and tense shoot-outs added to the fun.

14. Pina

An incredible documentary and the finest live-action 3D film yet produced (although still far from faultless in terms of that technology), Pina is a work of love in memory of the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Wim Wenders controls the cameras but he allows Pina’s choreography to direct the film, as her company, each member an instrument of their master, performs sensational modern dance pieces. The energy and beauty of the dances are on full display, as four massive ensemble pieces are intercut with brief personal performances by each of the dancers. For the most part the 3D recreates the depth of viewing dance in theatre while allowing the viewer to feel the power and intensity of each performance more intimately. The film has emerged from a tragedy (Pina’s sudden death just before filming began) to become a testament to one woman’s remarkable legacy.

 13. Poetry

South Korean star Yoon Jeong-hee emerged from retirement to star in this superb, harrowing drama about an ailing grandmother forced to raise money for a legal settlement after her grandson is implicated in the suicide of a teenaged girl. Unexpectedly powerful and heartfelt, Poetry is carried by Jeong-hee’s sensational performance as she tries to find the will, energy and love to do whatever it takes to save her grandson from prison.

12. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This superbly shot, atmospheric spy thriller was one of the year’s most audience-dividing films, but few could doubt its style and the acting strength of its terrific ensemble cast. Despite some pacing troubles caused by adapting an extremely meaty book, Tomas Alfredson latest film maintained tension and intrigue from start to finish, while injecting some superb character drama into proceedings. Old-school storytelling meets modern filmmaking precision.

11. Kill List

The only film on this list that I can openly say I do not know if I wish to see it ever again. This genre-shifting oddity – part thriller, part horror, part kitchen sink drama – came out of nowhere this year; a low-budget Yorkshire production. With frenzied performances and horrific but effective storytelling, editing and imagery, this unforgettable beast manages to terrorise its audience but unlike most modern horrors actually has a genuine story. Family, friendship and the damage rage can do to them are the subjects at this film’s core. Unmissable – if your stomach can handle that sort of thing.

10. We Need to Talk About Kevin

It may have suffered from budgeting problems but this drama, about a mother who cannot love her son, is crafted by truly expert hands. Lynne Ramsay directs the irreproachable Tilda Swinton as the troubled mother – uncertain if her child is evil or, worse, if her fearing that is making him so. A wonderful mesh of flashbacks weave together a devastating story, told with wonderful plays of lighting and editing. Swinton gives perhaps the greatest performance of her career to date, while co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller offer strong support.

 9. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s latest comeback is his best film in decades. Owen Wilson fills Allen’s acting shoes with aplomb as a writer nostalgic for an era he has never known – Paris in the ’20s. When, escaping his passionless fiancée, he inadvertently finds himself time-travelling to that age, he finds inspiration from his idols and, unexpectedly, a truer love in the form of Pablo Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard). Beautifully shot, cunningly scripted and with a soundtrack to warm the heart, the film is elevated further by a series of charming cameos; most notably Adrien Brody, hamming it up magnificently as Salvador Dalí.

8. Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s film about obsession on the ballet stage combines the wildness of Powell and Pressburger with the psychological and body horror of David Cronenberg. Anchored by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman, this is a stylish, sexualised psychological thriller about a mental breakdown spurred on by determination to be the best. Ominous production design and chaotic editing kept the audience as confused and terrified as its lead character.

 7. Shame

Following his sensational breakthrough Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s second film is a tragic and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of a sex addict. The year’s biggest surprise star, Michael Fassbender, gives a disturbing but spellbinding performance in the lead role as a man obsessed with his own need. Carrie Mulligan gives a fine performance as his sister, the only person who stands a hope of getting through to him in his self-destructive cocoon, but who has her own problems to deal with. Shot with the director’s now signature style of long takes and anchored cameras, Shame gets you inside the head of a man you were happier only knowing the exterior of. A gripping, sorrowful, shameless movie.

 6. A Separation

As human as any drama could hope to be, this Iranian feature tells the story of a couple as they prepare to divorce, and the effect it has on their teenaged daughter. When an accident implicates the husband in a terrible crime, the familial bonds are tested to their limit. A Separation is an incredible, original-feeling story, in which every shot is sensitively composed, and the actors play out the drama with more conviction than most filmmakers could dream of finding. An unexpected gem of Iranian cinema.

5. Drive

Taking its cue from Walter Hill’s existential car chase classic The Driver, untameable Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn made his American debut with more class and style than most of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters could hope to conjure in an entire career. Shot so slickly the screen appears to ooze light and colour (and later, blood), and with a soundtrack that can only be described as “awesome”, Drive took the whole world by storm and topped countless best of lists in 2011. Ryan Gosling plays the largely silent lead role calm and cool, but the film is stolen by the enigmatic Albert Brooks as a business-savvy mafia boss who takes no prisoners.

4. Melancholia

Perhaps Lars von Trier’s finest film to date, this drama of personal agony/apocalyptic sci-fi nightmare was one of the most hotly debated films last year. It tells the story of a young woman’s lapse into a destructive depression as the very literal metaphor of the planet Melancholia begins a collision course with Earth. As our heroine, Kirsten Dunst reveals herself a remarkable actress of hitherto unexplored talents. However, several of the film’s other performances – especially those of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling and Kiefer Sutherland – deserve outstanding praise also. The film’s overture, a stunning sequence of painterly foreshadowings, and its conclusion in an orgy of emotion, light and music, make it a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking from an endlessly challenging filmmaker.

3. 13 Assassins

One of the year’s most over-looked films, 13 Assassins echoes the greatness of Seven Samurai while creating a grittier, more violent and altogether more carefree film. Takashi Miike builds the drama over the course of an hour, setting his band of samurai against an army of warriors and their utterly despicable master. When the tension finally gives way, one of the most remarkably orchestrated battle scenes in recent memory erupts in a flurry of swords, severed limbs and flaming cattle. The film’s realistic look and soundscape allow for a perverse weirdness to seep through, which provides a truly breathtaking entertainment.

2. The Tree of Life

A surprise victor at Cannes in 2011, Terrence Malick’s latest is a glorious thing to behold. The story of a Texas family is told in flashes of light and memory, accompanied by angelic music and bolstered by outstanding acting by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken. Through imagery of the dawn of time and the rise and demise of the dinosaurs Malick demonstrates the true reality of life; the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Composed of one eye-shatteringly gorgeous image after the other, The Tree of Life simply has no equal in terms of skill in filmmaking. Only a misused Sean Penn and a clichéd (though beautiful) coda could be said to make this film anything less than a masterpiece.

1. The Artist

The filmmaker/actor partnership behind a pair of slight but playful French spy spoofs unexpectedly burst onto the global stage in a flurry of unbridled joy in 2011. The Artist, a silent tale of silent movies and the silent men and women behind them, is not just a throwback to the classics of old Hollywood, but is a touching, timely drama about obsoleteness and getting back on your feet. More importantly, it is a delightful, playful and utterly charming comedy that takes the visual medium to a place it hasn’t gone with such panache in over 80 years. Michel Hazanavicius directs like a silent-era pro, as if he were one of the European émigrés who built early Hollywood arriving a little too late to the party. In the lead role of former silent star George Valentin, Jean Dujardin is electric; every muscle in his body goes into his dazzling performance, his face does more work than most actors do with their entire beings. As his young muse, Bérénice Bejo provides a perfect mirror of physical support, while Valentin’s remarkable pet dog (also his co-star) steals many scenes without bending a whisker. As much homage as it is a work of sheer class in and of itself, The Artist is a joy-filled crowd-pleaser which also toys with the medium with some remarkable, truly satisfying results.

That's all folks!

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The 81st Academy Awards – Live!

Good evening and welcome to my coverage of this year’s Academy Awards, live from Hollywood, California. Well, not the coverage, the Oscars. It may feel now like it’s going to be a predictable evening ahead, but who knows what the night will bring.

For the sake of clarity all posts will be submitted in Pacific Standard Time, which should help me tricking my brain into not thinking it’s 4am.

Enjoy!

5.57pm – Almost ready to go. The stars are prancing their ways down the red carpet. I’ll avoid commenting on the fashion, that’s not quite my style, but I may make the odd comment here or there. Have I any last minute predictions? Well, I hope Winslet finally wins, and I am certainly backing Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture. Other than that, let’s just hope Wall·E takes Best Original Screenplay. Here we go…

5.10pm – Bored waiting, here’s some clothes commentary: Sarah Jessica Parker seems to think this is the Princess Awards. She’s dressed like a 6-year-old girl on Hallowe’en. But Marisa Tomei is totally working whatever the hell kind of dress that is. And Kate looks gorgeous as ever. And while Taraji P Henson and Viola Davis have no chance of winning anything, it’s nice to see them dressing to the occasion. I see Angelina Jolie has gone for 1950s super-slut. Good for her.

5.13pm – Have they started yet? I’m sleepy.

5.23pm – Somewhere in Hell is a room waiting for me, in which there is always the promise of something entertaining, but instead I have to watch Sky Movies’ introduction… and it never ends.

5.26pm – I’m going to have to throw Best Actor to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler. While I think Sean Penn is a great actor, I really dislike him as a person. I must admit however that Rourke’s performance comes down largely to such a wonderfully scripted character. Still, Rourke to win.

5.32pm – Live from the Kodak Theatre – it’s sleep deprivation!

5.33pm – I hope that’s fake crystal, there’s a recession on, or something.

5.33pm – Good evening Hugh.

5.34pm – Australia jokes. Solid start.

5.37pm – Super-cheap musical number? Good stuff so far. Oh dear, poor Anne Hathaway.

5.38pm – Hang on, I suspect she knew that was coming…

5.40pm – “I’m Wolveriiiiiiiiine!” Great end to a fun opening number, and some good old-fashioned whoring out for free advertising!

5.43pm – There’s something rather charming about Jackman’s interaction with the audience. He may not be a comedian but he has a lot of personality.

5.44pm – Oh dear, was there a giant curtain malfunction there? Seriously, WTF?

5.45pm – Hey look, some famous Best Supporting Actresses. This had better be going somewhere.

5.46pm – Doubt still hasn’t come out on this side of the Atlantic. I can’t help but feel very in the dark here.

5.48pm – Sweet, nun jokes. As for Taraji P Henson, am I the only one who thinks Tilda Swinton should be up there (well she is, but I mean nominated) for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?

5.49pm – Hooray for Penelope Cruz, looking a tad swan-like. Her squeaky lisping voice is a delight for the first award. A predictable start though, we may not get many big surprises tonight.

5.52pm – “Art is a universal language.” Well said. Not too soppy at all that.

5.54pm – Steve Martin and Tina Fey appear with at least one great gag. Here comes Best Original Screenplay. Go… Wall·E!

5.56pm – “No-one wants to hear about our religion.” Scientology, take that!

5.58pm – Milk it is. I guess I’ll allow it.

6.00pm – A touching speech to the gay community of America. Too bad it was said in a tiny liberal bubble.

6.02pm – Adapted Screenplay: does Benjamin Button even count as adapted? It has barely a thing in common with the original story. The first award for Slumdog, perhaps?

6.03pm – Yup. I think the night is pretty much spelled out now.

6.06pm – Jack Black bets on Pixar! Priceless. The animation yearbook – this should show why Wall·E must win over Kung Fu Panda.

6.08pm – Wall·E wins it! How gloriously wonderful!

6.12pm – It always bothers me that the short animations are so hard to come across. No carrot for Presto. La Maison en Petits Cubes wins. I did love Presto, but I didn’t see this so I can’t judge this – it looks pretty. Ha! Japanese robot humour! Domo arigato yourself, good sir!

6.16pm – Huh, backstage for the design awards. How very strange these Oscars are.

6.17pm – I predict a series of wins for Button here, though I’ll happily be proved wrong.

6.18pm – I was right so far. A deserved win for a very pretty film.

6.20pm – Craig and Parker are going to do all of these, no wonder they’re expecting to get through these so fast this year.

6.21pm – Ah, The Duchess. Fancy that.

6.23pm – I could think of more adjectives for Keira Knightley than just “classy”.

6.24pm – Button beats Hellboy and Dark Knight to make-up. Maybe a cleverer usage of make-up, but not necessarily more impressive since you can’t see where much of the make-up ends and digital effects begin.

6.26pm – Amanda Seyfried, so pretty. And that guy from Twilight. I never saw that film, because I’m not an angsty teenaged girl.

6.29pm – Romance. I’m kind of enjoying these genre mash-ups. Another moment for Wall·E to steal the show!

6.31pm – Cinematography. This has to be one for Slumdog. Hmmm, do we give credit for beard-related comedy? Not funny so far. Bad Stiller. Bad.

6.33pm – This is agonising. Is he parodying Joaquin Phoenix? Or is he just here to annoy me?

6.36pm – Predictable. This is really gearing up for a three-way race between Slumdog, Milk and Button for the big wins. “I’ll try to thank people more.” There’s a good rule to live by. What moral Oscars these are.

6.40pm – Is Jessica Biel lecturing me on technology history?

6.44pm – Oh wow, a Pineapple Express-themed comedy montage! And they’re laughing at the Holocaust movie! And calling Stellan Skarsgård Irish!

6.46pm – That was very trippy. What an odd trio these guys make. Did I see any short films this year? Isn’t one of them Irish?

6.48pm – Nothing worse than when the winning film is unpronounceable.

6.52pm – And we’re back! What will Hugh do now? Oooh, the musical is back he says – I think I see where this is going. I think The Reader would make a good one.

6.53pm – Jackman and Beyoncé do Fred Astaire. This is getting strange… do I like this?

6.57pm – Ok, High School Musical kids and fascist Mamma Mia marching. This has stopped working. And now it’s over.

6.59pm – My crush on Amanda Seyfried seems to know no end. Oh Baz Luhrmann, do you hear old musicals in your head at all times?

7.01pm – Who will be our Best Supporting Actors from Oscar Past?

7.03pm – Does Ledger deserve it? Probably. Has he a chance of not getting it? Not a fucking chance in hell.

7.04pm – Why is Philip Seymour Hoffman dressed like Ghost Dog?

7.06pm – Cuba Gooding Jr: “Brothers need to work.” Nice job retelling the joke to the comedian.

7.08pm – If Ledger doesn’t win there will be riots in the street.

7.09pm – Here come the Ledgers. Tissues at the ready…

7.10pm – A touching speech by a nervous non-professional.

7.11pm – And straight into documentary. I have shamefully seen none of the nominees this year yet.

7.13pm – I am torn between backing the legend that is Herzog, or Man On Wire, which covers a subject that is so fascinating and one-of-a-kind.

7.14pm – Did Bill Maher just make a Heath Ledger joke? And then pimp his movie?

7.15pm – It’s Man On Wire. Well done! And here sprints Phillipe Petit! Hooray for the crazy Frenchman.

7.16pm – YES! Magic and a hilarious insult to the Oscar itself! Balancing acts have never been so much fun. Maher’s right, that deserved an extra Oscar all of its own – just to balance it again!

7.18pm – Seriously, where does one get to see a Documentary Short Subject? I mean, honestly!

7.23pm – Now the post-production run. Might be some surprises here.

7.25pm – Oh dear. Here comes some serious grinning…

7.26pm – Ah Will Smith, trying to justify his career. I have no idea what will win Visual Effects. Button?

7.27pm – Yes it is. A technical treat that film was. I just hope its wins stop here.

7.29pm – Smith trips up over his words while delivering Sound Editing. How ironic. Wall·E or The Dark Knight?

7.30pm – The latter. Good job. Would have been happy with either. Never did think Wanted would get a nomination!

7.31pm – Ah Sound Mixing, the award not even those nominated for it understand.

7.32pm – An unexpected tech award for Slumdog. Great to see (hear).

7.33pm – My God Danny Boyle looks happy!

7.34pm – Editing is far too big a deal to be slumped in at the end of these tech awards. Gotta be Slumdog!

7.35pm – It had to be, there’s more energy in that film’s editing than there is the entirety of Benjamin Button.

7.42pm – Jerry Lewis wins the Jean Hersholt Award. This could be amusing… or maybe not.

7.45pm – A standing ovation. The man looks fighting fit for 82. Maybe even more so than Eddie Murphy.

7.47pm – I’m not complaining, but why exactly is Heidi Klum there? I mean, wow, but still. Why not just scatter Victoria’s Secret’s finest all throughout the crowd?

7.50pm – Here come the music awards. Surely two more for Slumdog Millionaire.

7.51pm – God, could the Defiance score be any more desperate to be Schindler’s List?

7.52pm – Now that I hear it alone, there are some instruments in the Wall·E soundtrack that I’ve never even heard of before. But the Slumdog music is beautiful also.

7.55pm – Had to be Slumdog, one more to take back to India. Well, England. Now a fight to the death with Wall·E for best song! But the little robot is outnumbered two to one.

7.56pm – “MUSIC.” “LONG.” Who is this woman?

8.oopm – Wow, mixing the songs together… it actually works! I don’t care who wins, these three are all great. Though I gues I’d give it to Slumdog.

8.02pm – Well-deserved for Slumdog, though I can’t help but feel sorry for little WallE left without any more Oscars. It deserved so many. “Choose love” reminds me of a Danny Boyle movie I once saw…

8.05pm – Liam Neeson and Freida Pinto. Hot stuff.

8.07pm – Departures eh? I know nothing of it. Look forward to hearing more though. And the Academy laughs racistly at the winner’s lack of English. Oh dear…

8.11pm – Queen Latifah introduces the sad part with a song. Wait for the sound that comes when they show Paul Newman. Sigh.

8.16pm – Yeah, that was sad. Always is. Nice to look back, though it wouldn’t have hurt to allow some dialogue out.

8.19pm – Oh dear, two seperate dresses crashed into each other at high speeds and made what Reese Witherspoon is wearing. Best director time. As predictable as we expect or will there be a split this year?

8.20pm – Danny Boyle! Good show. He’s been grinning about this win for hours now. Now he can start sulking. And hopping apparently.

8.21pm – Boyle compliments the show’s stagecraft. Nice that someone said it. Aw, Boyle’s kids are delighted.

8.23pm – Mumbai – “you dwarf even the sky.” Wonderful!

8.25pm – We’re in the thick of it now. Here come some famous actresses, most of them found out of work nowadays no doubt.

8.26pm – Damn. Sophia Loren. Just damn. What age is she now? Give the award to her.

8.27pm – Did Anne Hathaway just get a “don’t worry, you don’t have a chance” pat on the back from Shirley MacLaine?

8.28pm – Kate’s tearing up and she hasn’t even won yet…

8.29pm – So… does someone want to tell me who Melissa Leo is?

8.32pm – WINSLET WINS IT! Here she comes. I think I know what’s coming now.

8.33pm – “It’s not a shampoo bottle now!” One of the nicest lines of the night. She’s holding herself together rather well so far. Her dad whistles. Impressively loudly.

8.35pm – An excellent speech – all her critics can shut it. Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack get their deserves. But did she just slam Meryl Streep?

8.36pm – And now the old actors, who will it be…?

8.37pm – Wow, a great selection! No Day Lewis this year. Odd that. Man, imagine the film you could make with those five!

8.39pm – Seriously: Douglas, Kinglsey, Hopkins, Brody and De Niro. Amazing. And now Sean Penn’s sexuality has been questioned. Brilliant!

8.42pm – Might be a big toss up here between Penn’s Milk and Rourke’s “bleech blonde battered bruiser”. Tense stuff here.

8.44pm – And Penn takes it! Maybe the only big surprise tonight. Milk is back in the running. Voted for “commic, homo-loving sons of guns”! Good stuff.

8.47pm – A call for equal rights. A powerful end to his speech. Or is it… there’s more… final praise for Mickey Rourke. How nice. Shame he has no Oscar though.

8.48pm – Steven Spielberg is here to tell us we’re inspired. Thank goodness for him, or we’d never know. Any chance of Slumdog not winning this?

8.53pm – Wow, a terrific night for Slumdog, pretty much a clean sweep! Great to see a deserving work do so well.

8.54pm – Everybody on the stage now. Hee hee, look how cute the kids are!

8.57pm – Well that’s almost it. Now they show us clips from next year’s films? Bullshit! That’s just free advertising, and totally making next year’s show biased before it begins. Bad Hollywood. Bad.

9.04pm – Eugh, a nasty way to end what was otherwise a surprisingly pleasant show. Well, that’s it for this year. It’s been one hell of a night, if only in terms of Slumdog‘s success and my sugar intake. Thank you for staying with me, and now to bed…

Goodnight!

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2008 in Review – The Year the Audience Sat Still

Best of 2008

There seems to be plenty of division over whether 2008 was a successful year at the cinema. Certainly, as the world collapsed around us in all other respects (or so it seemed), the movie world kept up a steady output and, at least in Hollywood terms, continued to turn a profit.

There were enough films to both keep minds racing and allow them to shut down, and films from either side of this divide fared as well as one another.

There was plenty more comic book nonsense in cinemas, but also some of the best films of that newfangled sub-genre thus far came out in 2008.

At the Oscars and the various other award shows, there were few surprises, but also few cries of films being undeserving of their awards as in other recent years.

Even here in Ireland the Irish film industry reacted to one musical award success by producing some of the best Irish films in over a decade, slowly beginning the long crawl out of the gutter of inadequacy.

There were losses of course; Heath Ledger died early in the year and left expectant fans gobsmacked, while Paul Newman and Sydney Pollack – to name but two – passed after tremendous careers in cinema.

There were films I was sorry to miss; I was too cowardly to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days alone, and couldn’t find anyone who dared accompany me. Waltz with Bashir came out when there was simply no time available to see it. Man on Wire also passed me by. These and many more will be caught up with in the coming months.

There were disappointments as well, mostly in films by reliable filmmakers, and indeed in reliable franchises. Hellboy 2 smacked of fanboyism instead of relishing in the same beautiful darkness of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Indiana Jones returned; needlessly. And James Bond’s 22nd outing was so sloppy it sadly undid much of the greatness of Casino Royale.

As for me, I personally had a great year, cinematically speaking. The highlights are numerous; watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm as the centenary of David Lean’s life passed by (I also saw Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter for the first time over the year); stumbling upon Wings of Desire, Amores Perros, The Leopard and many others for the first time; watching Crank with a selection of my closest, and most sugared-up, friends at an absurd hour of the night. Laughing til I could no longer breathe at Robo Vampire. These are the sort of films you never forget not just because of how great (or terrible) they are but because of where and how and who you were at the time you saw them.

Similarly there were other special, more personal moments. I had the privilege of interviewing both Will Ferrell and Michael Palin in the space of just a few months. At the Irish premier of There Will Be Blood I had a remarkable – if utterly terrifying – encounter with Daniel Day-Lewis. Jeremy Irons invited me to dinner, though never followed through.

As well as all that, this blog was begun.

Thus far in 2009 the crop of films looks tantalising, and one can easily look forward to Milk or Revolutionary Road as much as one can to Watchmen or even the sequel to Transformers. Here’s hoping for as memorable a 2009.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, here’s my personal selection of the best films I saw in 2008.

(Note: this list is made up entirely of new films released in Ireland in 2008, that I saw. Thus, certain films released internationally in 2007, such as Juno, are present here. In turn, late 2008 international releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will not appear until next year.)

20. Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain was somewhat of a letdown, and was undoubtedly overlong, but the photography, taking in countless greys and greens, was beautiful, and the central performance by Tang Wei was superb. A shot late in the film, of a diamond-laden ring representing betrayal finding its equilibrium on a hard wooden table, was one of the year’s most impressing images.

19. Things We Lost in the Fire

The American debut of Susanne Bier was disappointing for reasons somewhat out of her control. The script’s abandoning of its fractured storyline after the first act was unsettling, and the casting of Benicio del Toro in a film so similar in feel to 21 Grams was a mistake. But it was shot in a very personal style that felt distinctly un-American, and for which it went largely unrecognised by critics and cinemagoers. The performance by Micah Berry (no relation to Halle) as the young son was notable, while David Duchovny gave what may stand to be the performance of his career.

18. Kung Fu Panda
Dreamworks may not have broken the mould with this latest animal caper, but it certainly moved into a more mature, less spoofing area of family comedy with some clever gags and superbly arranged action. Sweet in nature and low on character development, it took delight in its own silliness and provided some splendid animation, particularly in its opening sequence.

17. Lars and the Real Girl
Sweet may not be the word, in fact, Lars and the Real Girl was at times undeniably creepy, but it had buckets of wit to support itself on. The story of a man so awkward and retreated that he can only express himself through the love he shares (romantically, only) for a life-size sex doll is so inventive that it could hardly be anything less than charming.

16. Juno

Perhaps lacking the ambition of Thank You For Smoking, Juno certainly had heart, a solid script by Diablo Cody and an adorable cast. Ellen Page got the majority of the credit, but really it was Michael Cera as the stupefyingly realistic teen dad-to-be and JK Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s reluctantly supportive parents who deserve the most credit. The quirky soundtrack and dialogue added to the fun of the proceedings and let the film skirt around its unwillingness to genuinely tackle the issue of teen pregnancy.

15. Iron Man

Comic book mayhem got a whole bag of cool dropped on it this year. Robert Downey Jr played Tony Stark/Iron Man like a father hastily unwrapping his son’s new train set on Christmas morning. Gwyneth Paltrow emerged from who-knows-where to play his long-suffering and ignored love interest with more class than the film deserved. Yes, it was all a little rushed, the villain was terrible and the final action sequence was a mess, but – hey look! Another explosion! Fun!

14. Cloverfield
Seriously, who needs well-developed characters when you have nauseating camerawork and a giant alien crab-lizard tearing up Manhattan?! The night vision subway sequence was superbly built-up and executed, while the whole film gave off a 9/11 but with popcorn feel.

13. Caramel

As sweet as its delicious title, this Lebanese delight from all-round talent Nadine Labaki was the film most deserving of out-the-door queues of chick flick-eager women. Beautifully acted and shot, Labaki chose to ignore the politics and strife of her country and focus on the simple pleasures and sadness of everyday life.

12. Mamma Mia!

Not what one would consider a true piece of art, Mamma Mia! burst at the sides with so much energy and fun that even the dire karaoke singing of most of its leads couldn’t hold it down. Much prettier to look at than it ever needed to be, few were able to resist its cheeky charm.

11. Wanted

For years we’ve waited for a film in which two bullets, shot by two characters at one another, would collide in slow motion and fall to the ground. But who knew we were waiting for a keyboard, shattered across a man’s face, to spell out “Fuck you”? It turns out we were! Hectic, noisy and decidedly over-the-top, Wanted showed enough ‘mad as hell’ attitude to make it more memorable than your average blockbusting tripe. A cautiously curious squeak from a doomed rodent may have been the year’s funniest sound.

10. In Bruges

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature-length debut was as dark as dark can be. Obvious targets for humour, such as overweight American tourists, were made funnier by Colin Farrell’s violently disrespectful delivery of lines we’ve all thought and bottled up inside. Brendan Gleeson also brought a feckload of fun to the proceedings as a simple hitman with a fondness for historical architecture. The duo were unfortunately outgunned and outclassed by the scenery-devouring Ralph Fiennes. The profanity was wonderful, though the ending attempted a philosophical sentiment that the film couldn’t really support.

9. Gomorrah

Violent and gritty, the underbelly of the criminal world has never been portrayed quite like this. There were times when it felt like the cameras were intruding on real events where it was dangerous to be filming. Amazingly, if simply, realised.

8. Persepolis

From Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel came a film that dared to change little from its source material. The growth of little Marji’s confidence in the film’s first act was reflected by her subsequent disillusionment with life in Iran and the world as a whole. Iraqi gasmasks became alien faces and burka-clad fundamentalists became snake-like nightmares through the simple but mesmerising animation. Honest and full of wit.

7. The Orphanage

At the same time clichéd and yet utterly original, The Orphanage was that rare joy – a horror film where nothing really happens. Using the simplest tricks of the trade – a motionless child, creaking floorboards, never-resting cameras – Juan Antonio Bayona created a house of largely unseen horrors, where everything you feared was only what you assumed you should fear. Likely to become a classic of the genre.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A late release in Ireland allowed this gem to make the cut for 2008. Harrowing and beautiful, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s stroke-imprisoned body allowed for a rich story of hope and sentimentalism while allowing director Julian Schnabel to experiment with camera trickery, light and inventive editing. Mathieu Amalric gave one of the year’s best performances as Bauby, so full of life at one moment, the next, frozen.

5. The Dark Knight

Building on the back of Batman Begins, already a pinnacle of comic book movies, Christopher Nolan drew back on Bale’s Batman and allowed other characters to move to the fore, particularly Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. Though hindered by a necrophiliac curiosity, Heath Ledger’s Joker was certainly one of the most impressive performances of the year. Broken up by clumsy plot holes and an at times overly complex narrative, The Dark Knight thrilled and impressed on several levels, and deserves much of the acclaim it has received.

4. There Will Be Blood

As grandiose in its scale as is the figure at its centre, this beast of a film could not be ignored in 2008. Violent in tone, like many of the best films this year it sought to look at what makes a man, and what a man can be at his worst. Succeeding through Daniel Day-Lewis’s authoritative and terrifying performance (one should not overlook the quality of the writing however), the finale answered that question of what happens when an unstoppable force hits a formerly immovable object. Paul Dano can easily be overlooked due to the towering Day-Lewis, but gave a truly impressive performance as Eli Sunday, a young man twelve fathoms out of his league. The music kept the viewer on edge, while the shocking photography echoed the greatest films of American cinema, from Greed to Gone with the Wind.

3. Hunger

More of an experiment with the possibilities of the camera than a political eulogy, Steve McQueen’s biopic-of-sorts of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands is slow, contemplative and utterly intense. From the beautiful yet ghastly art of a faeces-smeared prison wall and the wasting away of Sands’s body (Michael Fassbender is a revelation in the lead role), to the lighting of a cigarette by bloodied hands and the slow and haunting washing a prison floor, Hunger is nothing less than a work of art. It may become more famous for its exhausting single take sequence in which Sands debates his fate with Liam Cunningham’s priest, but the shot that sticks with you is a blinding beam of sunlight blasting through a bus window.

2. No Country For Old Men
The Coen brothers’ returned to their best this year, again taking a dark and twisted look at humanity, but this time with less wit, and a greater awareness of the potential of the story they were telling. Using Texas in 1980 as a wilderness representative of man’s emptiness, the story injected a pulse-pounding thriller into this void that never stopped pumping til the last minute. Eschewing a musical soundtrack in favour of fear-drenching silence, No Country took several thrilling set-pieces – a river escape from a vicious dog, a darkened stand-off at a hotel door – and divided them with moments of simple reflection that asked no deep questions but invited you to contemplate the answers. The decision to remove some of the most important sequences from the film adds to its sense of chaos and disorder. The stellar cast acted it with such honesty you might believe they were in fear of the script itself.

1. Wall·E

Arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement to date, Wall·E demands to be taken seriously. Almost utterly-dialogue free for the duration of its first act, the film builds a romance between two robots in a future where mankind has lost all sense of humanity. Building on the great debates of science fiction; what does it mean to be human?; what are the effects of our unending obsession with commercialism?; how will our relationship with nature affect the future?; Wall·E repackages them in a new form that is a glory to behold. Spellbindingly beautiful and sickeningly sweet, this animated marvel can appeal to anyone of any age, and will forever have something to say to those who watch it. That there is even a supply of heart-warming gags to boot only seals this as one of the most wonderful products of American cinema in a generation.

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And now, as an extra treat, here are the five worst films of 2008, in my embittered opinion.

5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Great talent wasted on a cacophony of wretched melodies, the clever production design couldn’t hide the hideous CGI nor excuse such a great collection of actors (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter) reduced to their very worst. The one amusing joke – an unexpected light-hearted slicing of the throat – is a gag, if you’ll forgive the pun, that gets utterly done to death.

4. Be Kind Rewind

An unpleasant and confused little oddity that sees two capable actors (Jack Black and Mos Def) compete for the title of most irritating. It not only never quite gets its tone right, it also came out about 10 years too late to be of any real relevance. The adoration it attempts to show for the cinema really comes off as a pornographic irreverence.

3. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem

Two once-dominant franchises reduced to teen horror nonsense. One earnestly suspects that no-one involved knows what the word ‘requiem’ means.

2. The Other Boleyn Girl

As ugly as it is dull, this film forced two hours of the most horrid characters upon its unsuspecting victims. Eric Bana appears utterly bemused by where he is and what he is supposed to be doing, while Johansson and Portman repeatedly do their bests to out-bitch one another. The ending hilariously draws you away from the story to focus on the future Queen Elizabeth, as if to try and make you leave the cinema thinking fondly of a far superior film.

1. Ghost Town

A wretchedly nasty little film, an attempt at a comedic The Sixth Sense, sees the talents of Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni squandered in what just might be the most blatant victim of the writers’ strike. One moment of genuine sweetness is so heavy in saccharine after an hour of hell that it feels violating and manipulative. The open-ended finale may have seemed original and smart, but makes it feel as if those involved had no real idea of where they wanted this aimless mess to go.

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Kung Fu Panda – Review

There is no doubt I was dreading this. I have been a huge critic of Dreamworks’ digitally animated production since Shrek, and it’s hard not to see why. By in large they have been confused disasters.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a Pixar purist. I have loved every film of theirs I have seen (admittedly I have evaded A Bug’s Life and Cars). But I resent how Pixar has decimated Disney’s animation studios. Similarly I resent how Dreamworks have repeatedly produced hackneyed digitalisations of airport bookshop children’s stories with added pop-culture tripe and successfully sold them to the masses.

The resounding death knell, as far as I could see it, was in Madagascar, when Ben Stiller’s New York lion builds a faux Statue of Liberty on the beach to remind him of his lost home. This subsequently burns down, and he collapses in front of the rubble and à la Charlton Heston screams “you blew it up… darn you! Darn you all to heck!”

Wait the fuck – Darn? Heck? That’s an awful lot of censorship for a children’s film. And a reference to a film that children won’t likely have seen. So who is the joke for? If it’s for the beleaguered adults forced to sit and watch with their accompanied child, then the removal of “bad language” only serves to be outrageously condescending. And why would one even need to make a pop-culture reference to Planet of the Apes in a film that appears to have a solid plot structure (fish out of water zoo animals fend off the wild)? It boggles, and insults, the mind.

So yes, Dreamworks = shit. We’ve established that. But their latest film, which I have managed to resist mentioning for some 300 words, is actually moderately charming. In fact, it might even be deemed somewhat charming.

Kung Fu Panda is a film that if we took too seriously we would bemoan the lack of Chinese voice-actors and storm out of the cinema in a pseudo-political protest. But why bother? This film shows enough sensitivity to the land from which its story sort of derives (references to actual forms of kung fu, mahjong, various types of dishes etc) to be deemed well researched, for a kids’ film.

There is even some maturity in the script, most notably the cleverness of the film’s MacGuffin and the means by which the villain is defeated. There are also no references to popular culture (films, TV, music or forms of speech) bar occasionally toying with Jack Black’s traditional film personality, which is perfectly acceptable (and in fact leads to one of the film’s funniest sequences). Obnoxious use of modern music (most notable in the progressively disastrous Shrek series) is completely avoided until the closing credits, when ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ plays – and by then they’ve earned the right to it.

The story is fun if simple. Po, a Jack Black panda, is a food-loving panda who works with his father, a duck (amusingly never explained) who owns a noodle bar. His dream is to be a kung fu artist, and is accidentally given the chance when chosen in an apparent accident by Master Oogyay, the local mystic, and wittily a tortoise. The seemingly random choice (it is insisted by Oogway there are no accidents) outrages his disciple Master Shifu who has five excellent students, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, Crane and Tigress, all more suitable than Po, who is without training. But when the evil Tai Lung, a Siberian tiger, escapes from prison (in a rather exciting manner), it is Po who must train and face him.

The plot has few diversions from the basic “chosen one must find his path” tale, but there are clever things to be found. Po is not told to diet, as his equivalent in another film – instead he learns to master his desire for food into a martial art. While Tigress is utterly offended at not being the chosen disciple, the other four animal characters reveal themselves to be far more understanding. Tai Lung is not only undone by his own hubris, he is sat upon by it.

The gags come at regular intervals, mainly from Po, though many also from Shifu, who is voiced by Dustin Hoffman; clearly having the most fun he’s had since he played Captain Hook. Angelina Jolie, as in Shark Tale (let us never speak of it again), is utterly wasted as Tigress. As an actress, Jolie requires her face and body to carry her characters, as a voice alone she is nothing. Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu add Chinese-(ish)-ness to Monkey and Viper, while David Cross gets one terrifically awkward scene as Crane, typical of his Arrested Development persona. James Hong makes up for his turn in the vile Balls of Fury, where he managed to both offend the Chinese and the blind in equal measures, in a pleasant turn as Po’s father.

The film’s greatest problem is that it never lives up to its opening five minutes, which set the scene too well, as Po dreams of being a great warrior, entirely illustrated in traditional Chinese forms. The gorgeous drawings, combined with the music and Black’s comic narration (the word awesome has not been used so effectively since Wayne’s World) make for an introduction to film that alas is not followed up on.

This is nothing to rush out to, but it shows a step in the right direction for Katzenberg and co. who have for once managed to deflect my wrath with a smile or two. It would be nice to see people try and animate humans again, but for now a panda will more than suffice.

3/5

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