Tag Archives: There Will Be Blood

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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It is accomplished

Let the record state that, as of Friday, November 16th, 2012, I have seen the entirety of the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 films.

Every year I set myself film goals to achieve by that year’s end, and for 2012 the greatest of these was to finish the IMDB Top 250 once and for all. It wasn’t exactly the hardest task – by January my tally was around 220 – but the list is constantly in flux, so keeping up with the new entries, as older ones slid off into popular obscurity, remained a challenge.

“I’m finished!” – Daniel Plainview, ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007), IMDB Top 250 #177

Along the way there were some great surprises this year; The Intouchables, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Others, like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, I could be confident I would enjoy and quietly embarrassed I had taken this long to get around to seeing. There was also a few I had been putting off intentionally for years; The Deer Hunter (troubled but strong), Million Dollar Baby (a genuinely nice surprise), De Palma’s Scarface (hideous, overlong and the wrong kind of camp).

Of course, the nature of the IMDB list is that it is always changing, but having topped it once, I no longer care if my personal score plummets as film tastes change. Within a week from now I may no longer be able to say I have seen every film on the list, but I certainly won’t be checking it with any regularity any more. Not that I ever took much note of it; as a list of great films it is far too populist, given over to emotive or “cool” films rather than genuine cinematic triumphs, eternally topped by The Shawshank Redemption, a truly pleasant but inherently ordinary film.

“It’s gone… it’s done.” – Frodo Baggins, ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003), IMDB Top 250 #9

What next? There are many lists to topple. The Sight & Sound Top 100 is appealing, although with films such as Sátántangó (450mins) and Shoah (600mins) still to be tackled there, the question remains, as always, when will I find the time?

It seems only natural that the final film on my IMDB Top 250 checklist, as watched on Friday, was Kim Ki-duk’s deep, metaphysical contemplation on the passage and circular nature of time, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring. As time passes on, this film critic is eternally aware that more great films are being made each year and further greats are being rediscovered. The quest goes on, and while I beat my own goals year after year, there’s no avoiding the fact that the to-watch list will defeat me in the long run.

Oh well, at least I can wash my hands of IMDB for now.

[Be sure to check out this brilliant fan edit of the complete IMDB Top 250 in 2-and-a-half minutes]

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The Master – How to make an American cult

The Master is good, the Master is great, we surrender our will as of this date…

In many ways The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest film yet. It may not have the vast landscapes of There Will Be Blood, or a fraction of the characters of Magnolia, but it is shot in many more assorted locations and its themes about faith and belonging are as enormous as any in his previous films. Despite this, however, the previous film of Anderson’s that The Master most brings to mind is Punch-Drunk Love, his small, quirky 2002 romantic-comedy-drama.

The connection is due solely to the two films’ lead characters; both frustrated outcasts with fractured ties to their families, prone to violent rages and uncontrollable crying fits (which they both deny). But unlike Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan, there is little solace or redemption for The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). His attempts to calm his anger and find himself lead him down a very strange rabbit hole.

Discharged from the US Navy following World War II, Freddie flits restlessly from job to job, seeking women to satiate his sex addiction and gulping his own brand of moonshine to appease his alcoholism. Lost in a new America, he stumbles onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic, suspiciously over-qualified writer with an original take on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Freddie soon finds himself sailing to New York with Dodd’s family and cadre of followers, and is rapidly indoctrinated to Dodd’s teachings, called “The Cause”.

In little time we can be certain that The Cause is nothing more than a cult built up around Dodd’s increasingly bizarre creations – claims of past lives, a trillion-year-old universe and the threat of a sinister “invader force” from beyond. But Freddie, disillusioned and uneducated, does not see it as such, or chooses not to, or chooses to overlook it; so eager is he to find somewhere to belong. But as The Cause grows in strength and numbers, how poor a fit Freddie is for The Cause, and The Cause is for him, becomes ever-more apparent.

Clearly taking its start-off point from Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, The Master has no interest in attacking that religion, and is far more concerned with the personalities behind it; of those who build it, those who are seduced by it and those who cannot be. As much as Freddie thinks he needs The Cause, Dodd needs him. He needs him to prove he can brainwash anyone to his beliefs, but he also needs him because at a base level Freddie cannot be won over. As the success of The Cause skyrockets, Dodd’s Frankenstein’s monster spirals out of control, and Freddie remains his only anchor to humanity, and his only potential escape. It is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who sees this element to Freddie, and keen for there to be no limit to her husband’s greatness, observes Freddie and Dodd’s relationship suspiciously.

Absolute madmen: Rami Malek, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives the strongest performance of his career to date. Hunched in posture and speaking always out of just one side of his mouth, he effortlessly portrays Freddie as the damaged goods he is. His shell-shock, disillusionment, and regret all combine to form this bubbling kettle of frustration that Phoenix holds together throughout the film. He shows Freddie as a man incapable of believing the things he is told, but like a good solider willing to fight to the death to defend those same (dis)beliefs. The film’s two most intense sequences both detail Freddie’s indoctrination to The Cause, first as a mere member and later as an acolyte. In the first instance, Dodd breaks him down psychologically by asking him personal questions in quick succession, with the only rules being Freddie may not stop to think or blink. If he blinks, they start over. Shot in a series of unflinching close-ups of the two men, the scene is exhausting and difficult to watch, but brilliantly defines their relationship. For the next tier of his indoctrination, Freddie is forced to walk back and forth endlessly across a room, describing his sensations at each end. Part of a seemingly unending montage, Phoenix brilliantly captures Freddie’s escalating frustration at not being able to achieve or feel what is needed. Unable to look away, we can understand what he is feeling.

Hoffman plays off Phoenix beautifully, as his mentor and father-figure. Channelling Orson Welles’s greatest monsters, Hoffman makes Dodd larger than life in public while showing his all-too-human doubts in private. Dodd could be the love-child of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday from There Will Be Blood, fusing those characters’ ruthlessness, devotion and passion for corrupting others. But behind every great man there is a meek but terrifying woman, and Amy Adams steals much of the film as Mrs. Dodd. Her natural shyness and sweetness come across as wholly menacing here, and there are few moments when it is not clear how much power she is actually wielding.

Anderson’s script and direction rarely falter, and he manages to keep the drama building and the audience’s attention throughout the film’s 140-minute runtime. Somewhat disappointingly, The Master is not as breathtakingly pretty a film as one might expect, especially in the wake of There Will Be Blood. Robbed of his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson has here teamed up with Romanian D.P. Mihai Malaimare Jr. The photography is crisp and the camera is wielded finely throughout, but there are none of the visual flourishes of the Anderson/Elswit union. With the exception of one beautiful, oft-repeated shot off the back of a boat, representing Freddie’s constant drifting from life and responsibility, The Master never overwhelms with its imagery. This of course lets the characters be the real focus, but fans may find themselves less than pleased with this film’s look.

In the navy: Joaquin Phoenix, disillusioned and out cold

Johnny Greenwood’s assorted score is similarly incohesive, with each piece of music sounding like it comes from a different soundtrack. This has a brilliantly disjoining effect, and allows for a great variety of instruments to come to the fore: frazzled strings, pulsating bass, the joyous tinkling of a piano.

The Master is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. The portraits painted of Feddie and Dodd are hugely impressive, but it is a struggle to find anything in either character to relate to. Still, full of sharp dialogue and energetic scenes, and with three astounding central performances, it is not an easy one to forget. It is one viewers will find themselves wanting to revisit, whether they even liked the film or not. Like The Cause itself, The Master is a strange seducer.

4/5

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

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Ruby Sparks – Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl

Makes the central romance in the Twilight books look “healthy”

Your enjoyment of Ruby Sparks will come down entirely to whether you are someone who can switch their brain off, or someone who tends to over-think complicated ideas. Certainly no one involved in this bright romantic fantasy had their brains turned on, as if they had they might have realised the morally rotten core at the heart of an apparently charming little movie. The subtext of this film is frightening, but what’s truly terrifying is that it seems like no one who worked on the film is aware of it in the slightest.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer suffering a creative block, who a decade earlier had his only hit while still a teenager, with one of those books that “speaks” to people. Burdened with all of the emotional issues (a dead father, a remarried mother, a slowly becoming successful ex), Calvin can’t get started on his new book. He’s the kooky kind you find in movies – he uses a typewriter like an obnoxious hipster, lives off his one successful book and has a dog with gender identity problems. The dog is named Scotty, after F. Scott Fitzgerald; at one point in the film it shreds a copy of Catcher in the Rye. You get the idea.

Unable to meet a girl, Calvin’s psychiatrist recommends he try writing about his dream girl. He invents a girl with the sort of idiosyncrasies he finds attractive, imagines her being pretty but not overwhelmingly so, and then gives her the name of a bad drag queen act. Soon, thanks to his magic typewriter (probably?), Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) is made flesh. While Calvin assumes he has gone insane, Ruby believes they’ve been in a relationship for some time and acts as if she’s always existed, unaware she is his creation. Soon Calvin and Ruby are happy together – she’s the sort of girl who likes zombie movies and jumps into pools unexpectedly; who could resist? But it’s not long before her underwritten life (she has no job or friends) and Calvin’s jealousy and fear of abandonment kick in, and he’s back at his typewriter literally changing her.

Oh for the days of Little Miss Sunshine when he’d keep his damn mouth shut

On the surface, Kazan, who also wrote the film, has scripted a somewhat clever takedown of the “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon, highlighting the implausibility of male expectations in a similar manner to how Weird Science looked at the fantasy of the buxom bombshell back in the ’80s. But scratch away that surface and a far nastier film is revealed. After running out of ideas halfway through her script, Kazan has opted for a conclusion that is unsuitably creepy. And I don’t mean ‘threatening text message from your ex’ creepy, I mean ‘walking in on your mother in bed with a stranger and it turns out it’s you from the future’ creepy.

At first Calvin’s rewrites do little more than lobotomise Ruby, leaving her a quivering, weeping mess or a braindead giggling simpleton, but later things turn even more disturbing for the writer and his intolerable mind puppet. He becomes so possessive that his writing of Ruby begins to physically abuse her, before ultimately forcing her to perform (mild) sexual acts against her will. Worse still, the film rewards him for “learning” from his spate of domestic abuse with a happy ending. It is tonally completely unsuitable, and it reeks of desperation in storytelling and/or the writer being too clueless to understand her own work. Kazan’s only writing project prior to this was her dire, drab play We Live Here, an under-edited vanity project also about rich people’s problems that ran off-Broadway last year, so perhaps it was premature to expect her to write a feature film that didn’t raise this many eyebrows. But the very fact that Kazan’s real-life boyfriend Dano plays her inventor/tormentor adds an additional layer of ick to the proceedings, upgrading Hurricane Ruby from unsettling shit-storm to grotesque rape fantasy.

Kazan, while not much the writer, proves herself once again a strong screen presence, and captures Ruby’s various mood shifts well enough. Dano on the other hand weasels his way through the despicable role as best he can, but it’s not enough to rescue the character – where’s Daniel Plainview with a bowling pin when you need him? Annette Bening grates as Calvin’s hippie mum, while Antonio Banderas almost charms as her eccentric artist husband. Elliott Gould and Steve Coogan pop up briefly in roles they could do in their sleep, while Chris Messina steals what little of the film he can as Calvin’s jock-with-a-heart brother Harry, who also gets the best of Kazan’s few good lines.

Zoe Kazan act, but Zoe Kazan’t write

Returning to filmmaking for their first time since their 2006 Oscar-winning breakthrough Little Miss Sunshine, director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their talents known here – Ruby Sparks is finely, brightly shot throughout and tidily cut with passable montages. People run excitedly to stirring music. It would all be quite lovely if it weren’t for that damn script.

And it all comes down to the script in the end. Telling us repeatedly that Calvin is a genius of a writer when all evidence points to the contrary (just as his faults are written into Ruby, Kazan’s are written into him), Kazan has unintentionally drawn a metaphor for her own script – just because she is famous does not make her a storyteller. Attempting to address similar issues to (500) Days of Summer, she has written a similarly faulted protagonist, but with none of the same charm (and indeed Paul Dano is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt). While those who can mentally gloss over its sordid subtext may enjoy a romcom with a twist, Ruby Sparks will remain a difficult film about an unlikeable, self-absorbed cur who gets to imagine his cake and eat it too.

2/5

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

 

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All the Fun of the Festival!

The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival opened on Thursday evening, but due to scheduling conflicts there are only a few days when I’m free to see things. But that hasn’t stopped me from using those days to their fullest potential so far.

Why today (that is, Sunday), I saw five films, which I suspect is an unbeatable record for the festival given the screening times. Good job, me!

First up was a pre-afternoon screening of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino at the Savoy, which was surprisingly only just over half full, perhaps the fault of the early start. It’s been out for some time now in the US but still a few weeks off general release over this side of the Atlantic. It’s hard to criticise a man who still churns out good films at his age, but something is definitely missing from this.

The first hour of the film verges on self-parody, as Walt Kowalski growls disapprovingly through his wife’s funeral, neighbourly visits and a run-in with hoods. It’s Eastwood playing an Eastwood character rather than making a character work for him. The gun and motor fetishes just add to it. This is the sort of thing that has ruined Robert De Niro since the late ’90s – playing himself for laughs.

Which is undoubtedly what is going on in the first half of this film; the growls, the glares, the in-your-face (-and-ears) racism. What is bizarre is how after the initial comic shock value the word “gooks” can still get a laugh out of an audience – I’ve heard of cinematic escapism, but can people actually live out their moderate race hate through a film?

That said, the second half utterly shifts gear (yes, I went for the car pun). The gloves very much come off and the moral message comes to the fore – the ending is actually surprising and touching. It’s surprising that such a scathing commentary on modern America did so well at the box office. Also refreshing to see a film about a car that doesn’t treat the auto like it’s in a porn movie.

After a much-needed Butler’s coffee and an irresistible Vertigo (it was €10 – recession be damned!), it was off to the Screen cinema  to see The Letter Never Sent, a Siberian-set 1959 drama from Mikhail Kalatozov, who directed I Am Cuba. A slight snag – the reel did not arrive to the festival on time. Initially peeved at having to see a “replacement film”, I was delighted to learn that in addition to the replacement I could also exchange my ticket for another film – Tuesday night is now sorted.

The replacement was The Karamazovs, showing elsewhere in the Festival, a charming take on Dostoyevsky’s novel, in which a Czech theatre group stage a play of the story at an alternative arts show held in a steelworks near Krakow

As you might expect, the lives of the players get tied into the story, as does the tragic tale of an employee at the factory, yet somehow something feels very original here. At times the players move in and out of fact and fiction so fluidly you can only tell where you are by the absence or presence of absurdly long Russian names.

The film has almost no sympathy for actors, and paints them as anything from ruthlessly selfish to commitably eccentric.

Yet when the play gets into full swing there is an eruption of drama, and you do get to witness these actors give their all, simultaneously enjoying themselves and rising to the challenge of the material. Perhaps if there is any great weakness in this it is that the filmmakers have allowed the original material to so greatly overpower what they have added themselves.

Still, I have difficultly raising condemnations against a film that contains an interlude in which a small puppet cat plays Dostoyevsky, and answers questions on how he gets his inspiration.

I could, however, probably condemn Helen, which started so shortly after The Karamazovs that had it not been on in the same screen I could never have made it on time.

The first feature from British-based Dubliners Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, Helen is the extension of a series of shorts the duo (under the charming label ‘Desperate Optimists’) previously produced, known as the Civic Life Series, with which I am unfamiliar. The gist is realism based on long takes, location shooting and non-professional actors.

Ironically, for such a low-key production, Helen boasts a premise that could easily be the backbone of a Hollywood drama/thriller/comedy/horror; a shy girl is used in the police recreation TV spot for a missing teen, a popular classmate. But Helen is the draftee, Joy is the missing person, and the title makes it clear that this is going to be a film in which the main theme is not what might sell tickets. The film has fittingly been described as L’avventura meets Crimewatch UK.

However, there’s a dollop of Persona in there as well, as Helen begins to adapt herself into the former life of Joy. She begins to wear the police-supplied double of Joy’s yellow leather jacket everywhere, allowing for some interesting though eventually boring juxtapositions of yellow and things that don’t normally have yellow in front of them.

It’s not so much the lack of closure in Joy’s story that slows this film down (it is excruciatingly slow-moving) – as I said, it’s ‘Helen not ‘Joy’ – but rather that Helen’s story is far too empty. Annie Townsend as Helen shows little emotion towards all things (facially none, her voice-over betrays a mild sadness), whether it be revelations about her family or discovering happiness in Joy’s life.

The funding, partially Irish, results in some awkward sequences in which the action moves from real England to a suspiciously Dublin-looking pseudo England, where all the actors suddenly have Irish accents. Most painful is Joy’s boyfriend, and soon the object of Helen’s awkward affections, who’s Dublinness is not so grating rather than his delivery, which makes him sound like he is an ad for mobile phones. On the radio.

While trying to focus on how lost Helen is (she was already lost before she developed a second identity!), the filmmakers get lost themselves, and it becomes clear far from the end that the final fade to black (of several) will leave us with neither answers nor questions about what they want us to care about. Actually I didn’t really care about Joy by the end either.

Dropping my one star rating into the audience vote box before complaining about how tired I was getting, I grabbed a crepe for dinner before sprinting to the IFI for today’s highlight. Susuz Yaz, or Dry Summer as my ticket said, is a Turkish drama from 1964, directed by Metin Erksan. Part Cain and Abel, part There Will Be Blood, it follows a brutish older brother’s decision to dam off the water spring flowing from their land, effectively robbing their neighbours of water as summer approaches.

There is something splendidly simple about it all; angry brother, good brother, good brother’s beautiful but weak-willed wife. It feels like classic Hollywood (there’s a hint of Treasure of the Sierra Madre about proceedings here), with a pinch of the exotic (throw in Dovzhenko’s Earth into the mix).

There’s an erotic flourish to proceedings between the lovers, while the violence that comes from the older brother’s actions is surprisingly shocking – resulting in a slightly sped-up group beating with sticks.

The black and white images are crisp beautifully shot, with stylish rapid camera movements that make it stand out from other films.

Much of the action takes place around the small dam blocking the water channel, which provides some imaginative shots and an unforgettable finale.

Erol Tas as Osman, the selfish brute, is a joy to watch in his nastiness and a horror to watch in his vile lusting for his brother’s wife.

It is likely to be one of the Festival’s biggest crowd pleasers.

Later, back in the Screen, I was greeted with a high-five by Festival staff as recognition for my day’s back-and-forthing.

The last film of my day was to be Mar Nero, or Black Sea, the story of a standoffish elderly Florentine woman who comes to grow fond of her Romanian carer. A little heavy on sentiment at times, and long in the middle, this did turn into a pleasantly bittersweet tale.

Ilaria Occhini gives it gusto with a cane as the aged Gemma, but it Doroteea Petre as immigrant Angela who steals – the camera is clearly besotted with her.

It seems a shame to shoot in Florence and use so few of its beautiful locations, though a number of shots did capture that city’s peculiar peachy-beigeness.

There are a few nice touches: Gemma finds flakes from her dead husband’s beard left behind in his razor, later she converses with Angela’s father though neither speak the same language; both have been done before but there is wit and originality on show.

Unfortunately it strays into mundanity once too often, and the camera often gets so lost in the soft curves of Petre’s face that you would check your watch if you could look away from her yourself.

The music, however, has a wonderfully uplifting Romanian pastoral sound and is alone worth commending the film for.

There won’t be any binges quite like today’s for the duration of the festival, though I am particularly excited about the screening of Il Divo on Tuesday. I’ll keep you posted.

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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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