Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Best Films of 2007. Can't fix HTML.

Taking all of the films I've seen at the cinema in 2007 together, I've spent over 8 days straight sitting in a dark room with strangers, looking at a screen.
So let's find out what was the best.
Note: by '2007', I mean anything put on general release in the UK this year, and by 'best', I mean favourite. Also, I haven't yet seen The Lives of Others.

In reverse order:

Michael Clayton - In which George Clooney once again proves that he's the best thing to happen to Hollywood since The Monkees. Writer-director Tony Gilroy takes a scenario that might come from one of the Bourne films (which he wrote), and places it in a much more familiar universe, populated by characters suffocating under a deadening corporate presence. The cast are excellent - Tom Wilkinson desperate and haywire, Tilda Swinton almost unwillingly ruthless - and the minimalist score by James Newton Howard doesn't let you forget that even people talking can be thrilling. Throughout the film, Clooney's Clayton is worn down more and more by all kinds of guilt, physically sagging and not once cracking a smile until the hackneyed, uncomfortably snug ending. Surprisingly watchable stuff.

The Science of Sleep – Following up his massively accomplished Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry delivered this surreal autobiographical tale of unrequited love. Initially, I was distracted by how the film suffers in comparison to Eternal Sunshine without Charlie Kaufman’s exquisite writing. Indeed, the writing isn’t as well characterised as Kaufman’s, but this lends the film a sense of liberation rarely seen in the mainstream. Gondry mixes his trademark lo-fi manipulation of the mise-en-scène with the freewheeling, character driven traditions of new wave cinema. It’s chaotic, absurdly tragic, desperately serious and over-crammed with ideas. As such, it captures reality more accurately than 95% of films.

The Bourne Ultimatum - Spider-man, Pirates, Rush Hour, Ocean's - too many trilogies lost their way this year. Paul Greengrass apparently saw this coming when he watched The Bourne Identity. He saw a lot of potential, and so gave us a taster in The Bourne Supremacy. We were excited. Then, he unleashed all of that potential by taking exactly what made the other films so good, and making it bigger, faster and more punchy. Starting with a probably-legendary chase in Waterloo Station, the film briskly whips all around the globe, to an enthralling, unforgettable action scene in Tangiers. This is proper action, without gimmicks or fighter jets, that moves so fast, you should really wear a helmet.

Bridge to Terabithia – There were so many reasons this film shouldn’t have worked. It’s a Disney film, but Pixar aren’t involved. The protagonists are kids, but they’re not saying anything rude or ironic. Robert Patrick is in it, but he’s not kicking any ass. Worst of all, it was marketed as The Chronicles of Narnia: Even more lame this time. Luckily, director and Rugrats co-creator Gapor Csupo handles it with remarkable sensitivity and vitality. Like with Rugrats, Csupo displays a remarkable ability to reflect the worldview of children, and explores the subject matter with a surprisingly hefty emotional punch. The most grown-up kids’ film of the year.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Two successful westerns were released this year, which got some people hopeful for a genre revival. The first, 3:10 to Yuma, was a rollicking, guns-n-horses tale of fatherly love and redemption. The second, Jesse James, is almost the polar opposite – a grim, weighty and subtly tense tragedy. Brad Pitt gives the best performance of his life as James, who he portrays as a paranoid psychopath who is struggling to live with his own myth. The scenes between him and Casey Affleck as Ford are alive with nervous energy, the ominous and inevitable threat always present. Everything is shot through glass; truths are distorted, features are exaggerated to the point of burden and America is a melancholy wasteland healing from a terrible war. Yuma was received more readily, with some critics complaining that Jesse James is ‘just too long and too slow’. Stupid, stupid, stupid critics.

AtonementThis blew apart all of my prejudices against English period dramas. Passionate as a romance, devastating as a war film, enthralling as a thriller and authentic as a period piece. Not a frame is wasted; every part of the film feels entirely complete, and utterly polished. Director Joe Wright perfectly paces the shifting, deceptive tone of the plot, and brings to life the vital issues within it, Seamus McGarvey provides some of the best cinematography of the best ten years, and James McAvoy reminds us why Shameless isn’t very good anymore – because he’s not in it. Made with intrigue, beauty and a fierce passion, this is everything I thought this kind of film wasn’t.

This is England - I wasn't alive in the early 80s. I've never hung out on a council estate in Nottingham. My only interaction with skinhead culture is avoiding eye contact. But even with all that I just know that This is England captured all of those things very authentically. Shane Meadow's knowledge and love for his subject is felt in every shot, from the detail of the ska-punk culture as embraced by the characters to the actors' hugely naturalistic banter. The first act of the film is the most joyfully satisfying of the year, meaning that of course the final act is the most tragic and miserable. 11-year-old Thomas Turgoose gained much of the critics' attention, but the rest of the cast are just as impressive. Stephen Graham, he of Snatch fame, portrays the scary thug Combo with a raw sensitivity, a living embodiment of all the contradictions of skinhead culture.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Goodbye Brokeback...

Pirated trailer online.
First six minutes before IMAX 'I Am Legend' screenings.
Heath Ledger finally giving The Joker worthy treatment.
People, this will rock. Hard.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Day Off

Let's establish one thing first of all: I love Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Out of the ever-decreasing memories of my childhood, reading those books stays firm and strong. If the Lord of the Rings films were my generation's Star Wars, then His Dark Materials are my generation's Lord of the Rings books. Which would make the His Dark Materials films the next generation's - never mind. The point is, I was always cautious approaching the film adaptation, The Golden Compass. Especially when I found out that New Line Cinema had forced the filmmakers to tone down the overtly atheist themes of the book. Ultimately, though, I just decided that the film was never going to do justice to the books anyway, or at least my memory of them, so went in blind. The result is a pretty firm 'all right'. The dæmons are incoporated well into the visuals, with some obvious but pretty CGI. Also, when Lyra is shown a bustling, retro-futuristic city (more CGI), it's a steampunk wonderland. I totally believed in this universe, I just didn't care about it very much. As with that other fantasy literary franchise, Harry Potter, the films can't fit in all the of the book's complex ideas without wandering out of family-friendly running times. This means that sub-plots are only glimpsed, histories are only suggested and the excellent supporting cast (Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot) are given around ten lines between them.

Still, the fast pace keeps things entertaining, and means that the filmmakers have to find more original ways to introduce Pullman's ker-azy ideas. As for the God business, the film is, if not anti-religion then certainly anti-religious authority; an idea that should have been explored further. But, as with the books, the sub-text will always make you insist that it's not aimed purely at children, and the distributors won't listen. Although the film didn't really stay with me once it ended, there's one thing I learned: polar bears are awesome. Seriously, if I had a talking polar bear to kick ass and take names then just about all of my problems would be over.

From a gun emplacement on the coast of Santa Monica, Justin Timberlake gives a brief alternate history (and future) of the United States government. He then flicks through a bible and focuses his huge rifle on the beach, before informing us that he's about to tell the story of 'the way the world ends'. And so begins Southland Tales, the new film from Richard 'Donnie Darko' Kelly, and the second half of a saga started in graphic novel form. As far as ambition is concerned, it's up there with the Big Bang. Take a deep breath, here's the basic premise: it's 2008, and the Republican government control the internet while engaging in World War 3. Boxer Santaros, a movie star with amnesia, has written a film-within-the-film with porn star-turned-entrepeneur, Krysta Now, which fortells the end of the world. In order to research his role, Boxer is following police officer Ronald Taverner (who is actually working for a Neo-Marxist cell, posing as his twin brother Roland). Meanwhile, Boxer's mother-in-law watches everything through surveillance-within-surveillance that seems to encompass everything. Oh, and there's an eccentric billionaire who has created a way to remotely power everything on earth from a machine that harnesses the ocean's waves.

Kelly seems to be attempting to set himself up as a new David Lynch, one who's hip to the jazz. Nothing feels real, probably in an attempt to emphasis the act of watching, which in turn highlights the prominent theme of surveillance and information streaming. The only thing to really save the film from being completely self-involved is the heavy presence of references - to the Bible, to pop culture, to Donnie Darko, and to itself. But if Donnie Darko's weirdness was off-set by the genuine human drama, the oddball characters in Southland Tales only serve to feed the many layers of strangeness (especially when the cast is comprised of a series of jokey cameos). This film is fascinated with itself - and that's not entirely a bad thing, it makes you want to know what all the fuss is about. Although it's very messy, and much of the humour falls flat, I have to salute Southland Tales for sheer gall and originality. Any film that explores an apocalypse that isn't caused by asteroids or maniacal villains is all right by me.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Things to come

Saw this on Wired News and liked it.

I'm not sure if Blade Runner is more dystopian than A Clockwork Orange, but it's the most interesting graph I've seen in a while. I think with the current "we're-actually-all-living-on-a-dying-planet" thing, dystopias are getting more and more relevant. It's probably worth pointing out that numbers 5, 6 and 8 aren't set in the future at all, proving that, if not more popular, it's at least more fun and interesting to show how the future is going to be terrible.

As Robert Downey Jr. says in A Scanner Darkly (another grim dystopia), "This is a world getting progessively worse - can we not agree on that?" Well, apparently not, if people still believe in a utopian future. My dad once told me that in his more optimistic moods he thinks in the future we'll look back on this period as a dark time when we killed everything unecessarily and did everything wrong. I think the truth is more like we'll look back on this period as a time when we could breath the air outside and we weren't enslaved by robots.

Earth-as-utopia is actually pretty hard to imagine now, unless it's some sort of false utopia where the government keeps the masses under control through a mix of mindless television and consumerism, and apathy is promoted while acting out of step with ordinary society is thoroughly discouraged and suspected. Corporations, meanwhile, have more power than anyone, with gainful independent activities all but destroyed.

...Where do we come on that graph?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Top 3 ways to write a post

Although I’d like this to be a blog that isn’t all about lists, I’m just really really lazy. So, continuing with my short attention span theme and salvaged then re-jigged from a very old LiveJournal entry, I present my movie manlists.


7. Heat – The heist goes wrong
6. The Kingdom – The rescue
5. The Killer – The ridiculous business in the church
4. The Untouchables - The train station
3. Collateral – Fever nightclub
2. Léon – “EVERYONE!”
1. Hard-Boiled - The hospital


7. The Bourne Supremacy – More like Mosc-wow
6. Belleville Rendez-vous - Streets of Belleville
5. King Kong – The problem with big dinosaurs
4. The Incredibles - Dash vs. The Henchmen
3. The Blues Brothers - The Brothers vs. Chicago
2. Ong-Bak - Streets of Bangkok
1. The Wrong Trousers - The train set


7. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – “Not as sisters, not as friends.”
6. Spider-Man 2 - The train fight
5. OldBoy – Hammer & Throng
4. The Bourne Ultimatum – He flew in through the bathroom window
3. The Princess Bride – “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.”
2. Hero - The chess house
1. Kill Bill vol. 1 - Showdown at the house of blue leaves

Monday, November 05, 2007

I say wang three times in this one

David Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises, was released recently. A London-based thriller centred around the Russian crime underworld, it's not great. Fairly restrained and tepid compared to much of Cronenberg's powerful previous work. However, there is one much-discussed scene which really shines and sticks in the memory. It occurs when the driver for a Russian crime family (Viggo Mortensen) has to fend off two thugs who want him dead for revenge of their brother's murder. The thugs, heavily dressed in black and wielding knives, attack Mortensen in a bath house, when he is entirely naked apart from a puzzle of tattoos covering his body. It's a powerful, brutal, heart-pounding scene that has drawn attention no so much for the violence but for the rare inclusion of a wang.
When the scene was over, the film slipped back into its plodding plotlines - and got me thinking about awesome scenes in average films. Snatch, for example, is a deeply irritating and often embarassing film. However, I have seen it more times than I would like to admit, because of the boxing scene that acts as the film's climax. It's fiercely edited and mixed, coming off somewhere in between a rave and a Guiness advert. You'd expect from this that Guy Ritchie would be a dab hand at short films and adverts, but his awful, awful, awful BMW film got rid of this suspicion promptly.
It's something Tarantino seems to warming to as his budgets get bigger - whereas Pulp Fiction strung together a series of unrelated but well-crafted vignettes, his latest efforts seem to be defined by their high points. Kill Bill Volume 1 was really only exceptional for the showdown at the house of blue leaves, which provided the kind of excitement whose absence from Kill Bill Volume 2 might explain why it was such a chore. Death Proof took this even further - almost every review read something like "Not very good, but with a worthwhile car chase at the end". Unfortunately the effect is dampened somewhat by the preceding two hours of dull arrogance, so this is definitely a scene that's better when standing alone.
All the scenes I've mentioned so far have been action scenes - well, that's because they generally kick-start a slow, monotonous plot, or gives you a reason to care about the characters. Action films themselves are prime for YouTube scene grabbing, with the majority of big set-pieces readily available for out-of-context picking, the narrative not causing any concern. In fact, most action scenes are remembered as a string of punchy scenes all packed together, with any talky bits acting as filler. This can be done very well (the central hour of King Kong was a dialogue-free marathon of one-upmanship) or very badly (Shoot 'Em Up was like that bit in The Office where Gareth grabs the big inflatable wang, about to make a joke, then realises he was too excited to think of anything and puts it back).
Anyway, I haven't really figured out a point to this post yet, apart from bad films often feature awesome scenes and Tarantino should shut up. I think it's just YouTube, forcing me to note down nice bits in a film so that I can re-watch them later. Luckily, YouTube doesn't work on my new laptop, so maybe someday I'll get back to watching films in their entirety. Or maybe I just love a good action film. Wang.

Friday, October 19, 2007