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

2015 best of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Now, who enjoys a good list?

 

20. Queen of Earth

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

 

19. Youth

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

 

18. Ex Machina

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

 

17. Phoenix

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

 

16. Sicario

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

 

15. Goodnight Mommy

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

 

14. The Assassin

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

 

13. Inside Out

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

 

12. Brooklyn

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

 

11. Spotlight 

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

 

10. Anomalisa

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

9. The Duke of Burgundy

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

 

8. The Look of Silence

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

 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

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

 

6. The Tribe

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

 

5. The Martian

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

 

4. Son of Saul

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

 

3. 45 Years

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

 

2. Carol

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

 

1. Hard to Be a God

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

hardtobeagod

Good god, man!

 

—————————————————————–

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

 

5. The Good Dinosaur

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

 

4. Taken 3

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

 

3. The Editor 

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

 

2. Fantastic Four

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

1. The Loft

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

 

 

And with that, onward into 2016…

 

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The World’s End – Invasion of the Boozy Snatchers

Pub trouble - Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman

Pub trouble – Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman

Who doesn’t love a good thematic trilogy? Three Colours? Rosselini’s Post-War trilogy? Fassbinder’s BRD? Filmmakers can explore ideas of genre and the era in which they live through loose thematic constructs that somehow inform upon one another. Often a filmmaker, like Antonioni, will cast the same actor in different roles in each film, playing with concepts of identity and performance.

The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy may have emerged through a joke cracked by Edgar Wright in a press conference, but there’s no doubt it caught the imagination. Wright’s Shaun of the Dead had garnered quite the (deserved) cult following, and his follow-up film Hot Fuzz was a rollicking, hysterical, if somewhat messily executed comedy hit. The concept of a trilogy featuring the superb comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in differing roles, each deconstructing the pulpiest of genres – horror, action and science-fiction – seemed too good to be true. And it was.

Crashing into the final hurdle like a wooden fence Simon Pegg just can’t leap, The World’s End is like eating a mint Cornetto only to find the bottom of the cone is not filled with chocolate, only blue goo and disappointment. Like Hot Fuzz, which suddenly switches genre with every passing act (from odd couple/fish out of water comedy, to slasher movie, to high-octane action flick), The World’s End switches tack midway through. Here, its Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? plot mutates into a clunky, misdirected Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody so suddenly that you’d swear you had just left the cinema and entered another movie entirely. And neither movie was very good.

Pegg, who has almost perfected the role of the likeable loser, here plays the unlikeable loser, Gary King. In the late ’80s Gary was the leader of the pack; not the coolest guy in school maybe, but certainly the most confident. Over the years his friends moved on and grew up, but he never changed, and is now a pathetic manchild, still dressing the same, driving the same car and listening to all the same music. An alcoholic and a drug addict, it is far less believable that he survived the 1990s than that his home town has been taken over by aliens.

Desperate to rekindle the magic of the “best night of his life”, an aborted pub crawl taking in all of Newton Haven’s 12 pubs, Gary monstrously manipulates his one-time friends into giving it another shot. There’s Steven (Paddy Considine), the quietly confident one; Oliver (Martin Freeman), the geeky professional one; Peter (Eddie Marsan), the one who was bullied in school and now feels bullied by life; and Andrew (Frost), the one who has suffered the most from trying to give Gary the benefit of the doubt.

Obnoxiously mirroring all the events of their first pub crawl so that we always know exactly what is about to happen, the quintet work their way along the ‘Golden Mile’, before an encounter with some humourless teens in a pub toilet reveals that many of the locals have been replaced by literally blue-blooded alien replicants. Fearful the malevolent powers that be might target people doing anything out of sorts, the group decide the discreet thing to do is politely finish the pub crawl and get thoroughly annihilated, then get thoroughly out of town.

Nightmare in Newton Haven: Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Nick Frost on the run from who the hell cares

Nightmare in Newton Haven: Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Nick Frost on the run from who the hell cares

Most of the faults with The World’s End land in Gary’s lap. He may be a believable character, but he is a despicable one, and nostalgic attempts to redeem him are repeatedly undone as he time and again proves himself to be beyond saving, and beyond worth saving. In Shaun of the Dead Shaun learned (like Spaced’s Tim Bisley) that it was possible to take responsibility for his life while also maintaining a childishness that allowed him to be himself. Here Gary never even begins to grow up, he just betrays himself and his friends again and again. For those who found Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim obnoxious, you’ve seen nothing yet.

Worse still though, Wright and Pegg’s screenplay just isn’t funny. The jokes aren’t here. Oliver’s geekiness is highlighted through his repeated utterance of “WTF?” instead of actually swearing – it pays off in one decent joke, but by then you’re so irritated with the character it’s just too little too late. The classic Wright wordplay is present, but the style is tired from overuse, and there’s nothing to match the banter of “Dogs can’t look up” from Shaun or the farmers and their mothers exchange from Hot Fuzz.

Perhaps the finest element of Shaun, the pre-drinking speech that foreshadows the film to come, is here done to death. Not only does the film’s preamble give the entire game away, but in every pub the name of the establishment somehow relates to the events that occur there. By the time you get to pub 11, ‘The Hole in the Wall’, you’re not paying attention to the ‘drama’ unfolding but rather waiting for the damn wall to fall down. You wind up frustrated at the characters for not realising they’re so clearly in an Edgar Wright movie. The whole project feels self-aware and self-important, reeking of Wright’s comedic egomania.

Bizarre music choices aside, the big disappointment here is the film’s uninspired look, which never shows any of the energy of the earlier films in the trilogy. The fight scenes have a kinetic bar brawling energy, but they’re so distractingly choreographed that they never become thrilling, more puzzling. The alien robot designs, while original, come off looking cheap.

Pegg and Frost appear bored with their roles, with only Paddy Considine really giving all he’s got. Freeman, perhaps exhausted from all his Hobbit-ing and Sherlock-ing is hardly present, phoning his whole performance in via a Bluetooth. Marsan proves he has mettle for comedy, but he’s not given much to work with. As Oliver’s sister and a romantic distraction for both Gary and Steven, Rosamund Pike excuses herself well. A brilliant stroke of casting for the villain in Hot Fuzz is repeated here with a similar casting, but it’s far less successful.

The World’s End is at its best when it’s dissecting British drinking culture. Sterilised Starbucks-like pubs and school discos are featured and given the ribbing they deserve. But the film never settles on what it feels about alcohol as social lubricant versus social epidemic. In one of the finest dialogue scenes in the film Andrew gives a speech about how brave it is to be a teetotaller, turning down pints with the lads and standing up for himself. Not long after he is downing shots because the story demands it. It’s quite a shameful cop-out.

The character’s surnames – King, Knightley, Prince, etc – hint at a fantasy idea that has no place in this film, and is unfortunately repeated near the film’s denouement. You’re left wondering if Wright has even made the film he wanted to, or got lost somewhere in the process. There are clever ideas at play once the characters arrive at The World’s End pub, but they don’t even begin to make up for the drudgery of the film to that point.

Recently Despicable Me 2 had a better Body Snatchers joke in it than anything Wright and Pegg conjure up here, and the whole film suffers from a bipolar uncertainty as to what exactly it is. Sadly, the only thing it definitely is is a panegyric to Gary King, perhaps the most hate-worthy protagonist in modern cinema. He’s a King nobody should want. An act of regicide would be thoroughly welcome.

2/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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The Top 10 Intertitles from silent movies

The recent critical and Oscar success of Michel Hazanivicius’s The Artist has gotten people talking about silent movies again, even if, perhaps, it hasn’t got them watching any. Watching The Artist and other silent movies lately, I have developed a fascination with the intertitle, the styles different filmmakers preferred and how they can be used.

Intertitles don’t just fill in the gaps in dialogue, but often in atmosphere. While nowadays a film set in ancient Rome will likely say “Rome 89AD” on the screen near the beginning (proof the intertitle still lives on in some form), traditional intertitles will give us descriptions of sounds, sights (multiple shot set-ups and edits were less readily available in the ’20s) to help us settle into the setting, just as a storyteller will give us  seemingly unnecessary details that help conjure up worlds in our imaginations. Nowadays that manner of storytelling is only available if you have Morgan Freeman to narrate your film, and even then it still feels dated (Million Dollar Baby is a prime example).

This list is in no way definitive; I am no expert in silent cinema and these are just my favourites of the intertitles I have come across. I hope yet to come across many more.

10. The Last Laugh (1924) – Deus Ex Intertitle

F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh is perhaps most famous for having one single intertitle. But what an intertitle!

After telling the depressing story of an elderly hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) demoted to washroom attendant and then scorned by his friends and family, the film does an about face and gives him a happy ending. The intertitle descends from on high and brings our hero good fortune – a wealthy relative dies and leaves the hero all his money. It’s all a bit meta really, isn’t it?

9. City Lights (1931) – A visibly happy ending

Perhaps the crowning achievement of Charlie Chaplin’s career, City Lights is one of those romantic comedies where the guy does everything to win the girl, and only succeeds at the last minute.

Chaplin’s Tramp falls for blind flower girl Virginia Cherrill, who mistakenly takes him for a wealthy man. He manages to get her the money she needs for an operation to restore her sight, but when they finally meet, she does not recognise him. In the style of a fairytale romance, it is only when she touches his hand that she realises this down-and-out is the man who changed her life.

“You can see now?” he asks her, and she smiles back and says “Yes, I can see now.” It is the final intertitle of the film.

City Lights was made three years after the talkies had become popular, but Chaplin insisted on keeping the Tramp a silent character in a silent world. The movies, after all, are something that we can all see now. Sound can always wait.

8. Orphans of the Storm (1921) – It’s all about emphasis

I must admit I really love this one. It sums up everything about D.W. Griffith’s neglected French Revolution epic; it sets the time and social mores, is both humorous and romantic, and defines the character of the strong-willed heroine Henriette (Lillian Gish). It also features some excessive underlining and the most unnecessary hyphen-

ation you may ever see.

7. The Artist (2011) – The sound a gun makes

The Artist was a wonderful achievement, but for me nothing sums that up so well as this intertitle. It comes as our hero, washed-up silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), despairs at the death of his career and the mistaken belief that the girl he loves, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), is interested in him only as a trophy from a bygone era. As he raises a gun to his mouth, Peppy races recklessly in her car to find him. As the film’s score dies down George, sweating with terror, bites down on the barrel of the gun and BANG! – Peppy crashes into a tree outside.

This audio-visual pun on the two sounds (and yes, there’s a pun in audio-visual there) is perfectly timed and handled. The crash, and by extension the intertitle, interrupt George’s suicide and thus save his life. Similarly, the audience, close to seeing their hero make such a grave and irreversible error, have the tension relieved with a wonderful gag that makes full use of the film’s potential as a silent movie. It is a gag worthy of Chaplin himself.

6. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) – The animation station

Another entry for Murnau, and one of the most famous silent dramas of all, Sunrise is a remarkable genre mashup, infusing romantic drama, thriller and comedy sequences into one incredible tale of 24hrs in the life of a rather ordinary couple. The film opens with a montage to set the scene, letting us know that it is “Summertime… vacation time”. But it’s not just the gorgeously illustrated intertitle that makes this a top pick, but how it dissolves into the shot, and indeed the film, that follows.

Sunrise has plenty more delights in store, including one superbly animated intertitle. In the film, a man from the countryside (George O’Brien) is having an affair with a woman visiting from the city (Margaret Livingston). When he asks how they can be together, she suggests they dispose of his wife (Janet Gaynor), saying: “Couldn’t she get… drowned.” But rather than use an ellipsis or second intertitle, the word drowned materialises on the intertitle after a delay, moments before the entire sentence melts away, or drowns, to expose the wickedness of her suggestion.

The intertitle then dissolves into a fantasy of the man throwing his wife off a boat. You can see the whole spectacular sequence here.

5. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – Remember when people talked like this?

This one really speaks for itself. The Phantom (Lon Chaney) reveals himself as a creature too hideous to post in this article (click here, if you dare!), and then utters this delicious line. I struggle to deal with the fact that nowadays a movie villain could not deliver a line like this without descending into high camp. Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever get the chance to hear this sort of scenery-chewing genius again. Somehow, I blame Aaron Sorkin.

4. Battleship Potemkin(1925) – What a difference a word makes…

Surely the most famous intertitle in all of silent cinema history. The “Suddenly…” that unleashes the forces of the Tsar on the citizens celebrating on the Odessa Steps is the definitive intertitle. It literally breaks apart two sequences with incomparable moods: beforehand high spirits and high jinx after the rebelling sailors seize control of the Potemkin; after, a screaming, hectic, bloody slaughter. Too many words have been written about Eisenstein’s immaculate filmmaking and the carnage that follows. I can only let it speak for itself.

3. Faust (1926) – All you need is liebe

Murnau (again) directed his version of the 19th Century German legend in 1926; his last film before leaving for Hollywood to make Sunrise. An alternative take on the story of Job, Faust is about a man led astray by the devil, in the guise of the demon Mephisto (a wonderfully over-the-top Emil Jannings). Faust (Gösta Ekman) falls victim to Mephisto after the demon bets an Archangel (Werner Fuetterer) that he can destroy all the good in a man.

In the end, it seems Mephisto has succeeded. Faust is made miserable by the Devil’s plans and in the end throws himself on a pyre to burn with his beloved. But as Mephisto claims victory, the Archangel tells him he has in fact lost the bet, because of the power of one word. Mephisto demands to know the word, and in a fit of light worthy of the Stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the word “Liebe”, or “Love”, flies straight at the screen, practically punching the audience in the face with its glory!

The Devil learns never again to mess with a guy armed with a lightning-shooting sword and love.

Two summers ago I saw Faust at an outdoor screening, with a live score provided by the endlessly talented 3epkano. It was after midnight when the film drew to its close, and the audience was inebriated on any number of substances. But when that Liebe hit the screen, a cheer rose up from the hundreds present that could have scared away the Devil himself.

Never doubt the power of the intertitle!

2. Metropolis (1927) – Holy shitsnacks it’s Moloch!

Look at that! I mean really look at it. Is that the best word you’ve ever seen written down? What font is that? Times New AWESOME?!

Would it make it better if I told you that the letters making up the word “Moloch” assemble themselves by rocketing in from different sides of the screen? Oh, it would, would it? Well they do.

So here’s the story. Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the pampered son of the ruler of Metropolis, a massive, futuristic city. After seeing a beautiful girl, Maria (Brigitte Helm), he ventures into the city’s underworld where she works in one of several power stations that keep the city above running (it’s all about class, don’t you know). Joh is impressed when he sees a massive machine in operation, but moments later it overloads and begins exploding the men who work on it. Joh is suitably horrified.

To add to his horror, he takes this moment to have a fantasy in which the machine is Moloch, a pagan god from the Old Testament to which children were regularly sacrificed. The machine morphs (through brilliantly handled double exposure) into a fire-breathing monstrosity, chowing down on slaves (workers, get it?).

Cue that remarkable intertitle. To be honest, I’m not sure one exclamation mark will quite do. Now that every character in modern cinema from Sam Gamgee to Darth Vader has ruined the screaming of the “Noooo!”, maybe it’s time we went back to the screamed intertitle. No? Fine then.

Actually, I know I’ve posted this link before, but this scene really needs to be seen to be believed. Enjoy!

1. Nosferatu (1922) – Best. Intertitle. Ever.

Nosferatu’s full title is Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, or Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, putting it in the running for best subtitle ever, also. But this example here is the spirit of all intertitling. Let me set the scene.

Dracula, that is to say his non-union German equivalent Count Orlok (Max Schreck), has fallen in love with Ellen Hutter (Greta Schröder), the wife of his real-estate agent. An aged, monstrous vampire, with a lethal allergy to Vitamin D, he attempts to reach her by shipping himself from Transylvania to Germany in a coffin full of dirt (a similar trick is later used in the film Three Colours: White). One by one the sailors on the ship fall victim to a terrible plague, brought by the rat servants of Orlok. When only the captain is still alive he chains himself to the wheel determined to make it to port. But Orlok has other ideas.

We see the face of the captain; sheer horror. Fade to black. And then BAM! “The ship of death had a new captain.”

This isn’t exposition. We know it had a new captain, because we just saw the captain die. This is literature. It is dramatic. It is punchy. If it were the last line in a chapter of a book, you would forego eating and sleeping until you read the next chapter. It is the purest demonstration of something that intertitles can do that voice-over narration simply can’t, and that is to romanticise the language which is being used. Morgan Freeman could say those words, but like the ending of War of the Worlds, they could only come out corny. The intertitle disrupts the film to bring you breaking editorialising. An amazing piece of storytelling that cinema has sadly lost.

As a final note, I should point out that not all prints of Nosferatu (and given it’s in the public domain, there are many) use this translation. This version, for example, uses the slightly less punchy “Driven by the fatal breath of the vampire, the vessel moved rapidly towards the Baltic.” Although, in fairness, that’s pretty cool as well.

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