20) Young Adult (Jason Reitman)
As an aimless and rather hopeless thirty-something I found watching Young Adult to be more painful than trying to sit through a Michael Haneke movie. Mavis (Charlize Theron), a narcissistic writer of teen fiction returns to her small hometown in a spectacularly misjudged attempt to persuade her high-school sweetheart to leave his wife and new baby. Normally in a film like this the protagonist would learn a few life lessons from those she encounters but Diablo Cody’s excruciatingly funny screenplay leaves Mavis only marginally more self-aware than she was at the beginning. Great support too from Patton Oswalt as a sweet-natured barfly.
19) Prometheus (Ridley Scott)
So yes Prometheus is not perfect and yes there are some silly moments most notably Rafe Spall coochy-cooing an alien life form despite his character being a scientist and therefore presumably a rationalist and not the kind of fucking idiot who tries to pet a space snake without studying it first. Yet Scott’s visionary approach to science fiction and his refusal to simply rehash the claustrophobic feel of Alien (1979) and instead return to key themes from his masterpiece Blade Runner (82), the search for answers from an uncaring creator and the certainty of death no matter how much we struggle against it. And at the film’s center is an android who watches every movie ever made and decides quite rightly he wants to be Peter O’ Toole playing T.E. Lawrence.
18) Boxing Day (Bernard Rose)
Bernard Rose’s fourth Tolstoy adaptation turns ‘Master and Man’ into a road movie as a businessman and his chauffeur travel through a wintry Colorado looking at foreclosed properties. Rose clearly learnt a lot from making Anna Karenina (97), namely cast Danny Huston as the lead instead of a supporting player and avoid the traditional heritage cinema approach. Rose used the same lo-fi digital aesthetic to make the modernised Ivans XTC (99) and The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and takes a similar approach here yet in all of these films Tolstoy’s themes of man in existential crisis and social divisions are entirely relevant.
17) Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)
Martin McDonagh’s movie was sold as a knockabout comedy about guys waving guns and swearing a lot. Really it’s about the power of passive resistance and the inevitability of death. Surprisingly thoughtful and moving if not particularly funny. Full review here.
16) Rust and Bone
Never cared much for Jacques Audiard’s earlier work but this atypical move into poetic realism is sublime. Rust and Bone is as manipulative as any Hollywood movie. I actually wish Audiard embraced the genre aspects of his film a bit more because oddly enough the filmmaker this brought to mind for me was John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid). Full review here.
15) Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
I suspect the formally daring approach by Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard to set Anna Karenina almost entirely within a theatre has more to do with budgetary concerns than employing Brechtian Techniques or making an artistic statement. Yet so beautiful is the set design by Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer this artifice is barely noticeable. This Anna Karenina works far better than the Bernard Rose 97 version in which the authentic locations seemed far more of a distraction. There’s an odd campy tone to the opening proceedings which comes a little too close to Baz Luhrmann territory but settles down when Anna falls for Vronsky. Some found it cold but it retains Tolstoy’s sympathy for all concerned. Seeing an older balding Jude Law playing the cuckolded husband when fifteen years ago he would have been cast as the virile young lover is rather touching.
14) 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)
Fair play to Johnny Depp for reprising his role from the original 80’s TV show for the best cameo of the year. Writers Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill’s screenplay sends up everything from the original show’s premise, to Hollywood’s lack of creativity in asking for this film in the first place. Tatum is a revelation. Using producer Stephen J. Cannell’s famous signature logo during the film’s credits was a nice tribute to one of TV’s finest.
13) Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik)
Dominik hammers home his political message but Killing Them Softly remains a spare and elegant thriller. As with his earlier films it deals with an overtly male environment, of macho posturing and casual often horrifically intimate violence. Brad Pitt’s efficient hitman cleans up after a card game is knocked over by a couple of inept thieves (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn, both outstanding). The hard-boiled dialogue crackles and the scenes between Pitt and middle-management gangster Richard Jenkins are particularly good, leading to a memorable verbal showdown in a bar.
12) The Moth Diaries (Mary Harron)
Ambigious vampire-themed tale set in an all-girls Boarding school in which Lily Cole is the ethereal new arrival whose presence throws troubled teen (Sarah Bolger) into crisis. Its bloodlessness turned many critics off but this is an intelligent riff on the vampire story with a nod to Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and a genuinely haunting performance from Cole. No UK release but worth importing on DVD.
11) Silver Linings Playbook (David O’ Russell)
Most modern romantic comedies are neither romantic or funny but seem to have been manufactured at the same factory production line then afterwards studios give Gerard Butler a call. How great to have a rom-com is smart and funny with characters you care about and nobody in the film is played by a Celtic fan from Paisley. Like David O’ Russell’s last film The Fighter (2010) all the genre rules are present but its the family dynamics, the personality flaws, and the offbeat humour which make Silver Linings Playbook special.
Biopics can be as tiresome and formulaic a genre as any other. At their worst they never manage to engage with the creativity of their subject. Director Lech Majewski is an artist as well as a filmmaker and approaches the cinematic image like a painter. There have been great films about painters that forego conventional narratives before but Majeswki has done something unusual with this remarkable computer generated recreation of Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Way to Calvary’ (1564). Paul Cox’s beautiful documentary Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987) has John Hurt reading letters by the painter to his brother Theo accompanied by images of his work. In Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun (1992) the director filmed artist Antonio Lopez as he attempted to complete a painting of a tree in his garden while reminiscing about his past. Raul Ruiz’s Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (1977) might come closest to The Mill and the Cross with an art curator speculating on the meaning of a painting yet the work of art in question is fictional. Majewski takes this further by actually placing the artist inside his creation as he puts it together.
Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) is first seen moving through the landscape arranging costumes on the figures in his painting as if he was a film director organising his set. King Philip II of Spainhad taken control of Flanders and had decreed heretics should be put to death. Bruegel is helpless in the face of this brutality so he functions as an observer and his painting is a form of protest at the treatment his people are receiving at the hands of Spanish soldiers. Michael York plays a rich benefactor and essentially performs expository duties for the audience explaining the political situation in an understated dignified way which is surprisingly moving. People are cruelly dispatched in The Mill and the Cross but their end is surveyed in a manner which seems almost dispassionate by Majewski. Yet he is simply observing like Bruegel. There is nothing to be done for these people who are beaten and hoisted into the air for the crows to finish off, or buried alive. There is an absurdity to these scenes which is at once comic and deeply sad emphasising the pointlessness of these executions and their horror.
At the centre of the painting is Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion. Charlotte Rampling plays Mary, Mother of Christ whose lament “there must have been a reason he was born” is I think the saddest line in a film I’ve heard this year. This theme of loss permeates the film, not just through death but how very far the Catholic Church in the 16th century fell away from the teachings of Christ and instead recreated the kind of religious persecution he faced. There is no real narrative, the dialogue is minimal and non-realistic. The purpose of the film is entirely about making the audience understand the meaning of the painting. The Mill and the Cross closes with a scene showing ‘The Way to Calvary’ hanging in the sterile environment of a museum amongst all the other paintings like a John Doe lying in a morgue. Credit to Majewski bringing the figures in Bruegel’s painting back to life in such an illuminating manner.
As of yet there are no plans for a UK release in cinemas or on DVD but there’s a decent region free US release available for import.
“The D is silent.”
I’d rather listen to Quentin Tarantino talk about cinema than watch one of his movies. Like Alex Cox , also a devotee of the ‘Spaghetti Western,’ Tarantino is a great critic but his films feel like cover versions of whichever genre he happens to be working in at the time. Here he is discussing Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai), a movie he helped bring to the attention of US audiences back in the day.
However stylised they may be there is an emptiness to Tarantino’s movies. They mean nothing. They say nothing. Tarantino never makes you think or makes you care. Django Unchained is no different even though it does deal with slavery, but in such a simplistic way it is no more condemnatory than Kill Bill is of Yakuza crime syndicates. Slavery is just a plot device to allow Tarantino to indulge his love of Blaxploitation movies and for the first hour Django Unchained is entertaining enough as loquacious dentist turned bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christophe Waltz) frees Django (Jamie Foxx) from chains and enlists him in a hunt for three fugitive brothers. Once they are done with this and set out on a search for Django’s missing wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) the film becomes an interminable battle of wits with camp Southern gentleman Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal manservant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, just…fucking hell).
‘Spaghetti Westerns’ provided an outsiders view of an American genre with a subversive disregard for conventions and a strong sense of social injustice. Damian Diamani’s A Bullet for the General (66) epitomises this contrast between a love for American culture and left-wing idealism. In Diamani’s movie a Mexican bandit played by the great Gian Maria Volonté, a Communist in real life, chooses revolution over his money-making partnership with a charismatic US government agent. Corbucci’s wintry masterpiece The Great Silence (68) has its gunslinger hero (Jean-Louis Trintignant) prove ineffective against the state-sponsored bounty hunters working to protect the rights of landowners. While Leone turned his gunslingers into mythic figures his political views were cynical. Any form of authority was to be mistrusted and even the closest of friends could turn on each other as in this key sequence from A Fistful of Dynamite in which an IRA volunteer (James Coburn) realises he has been betrayed.
For all the controversy over race Tarantino’s approach to the material is surprisingly safe. Basically he’s made The Help with six-shooters. A film which deals with racism but locates it firmly in the past and makes those who participated in it seem ridiculous. With all the economic, religious, and political chaos going on at present surely Tarantino could have found some way of fitting those concerns into Django Unchained. The fairly standardised woman in peril plot just makes Tarantino’s film seem so very small in scale despite its epic length.
“The wild is no place for gentle folk who can neither fight nor fend for themselves.”
These days director Peter Jackson is now so firmly identified with the world of J. R. Tolkien it seems hard to believe there were doubts back in the late 90’s when it was announced he would adapt The Lord of the Rings. Back then Jacksonwas best known for making gory low-budget horror films, although Heavenly Creatures (1994) based on a notorious matricide in New Zealandshowed a more serious side. Adapting Tolkien’s epic trilogy had already defeated a number of filmmakers notably John Boorman, while an animated version by Ralph Bakshi in 1978 was abandoned halfway through. The Lord of the Rings may have been larger in scale than anything Jackson had attempted but the signs were there he could deliver. These early films might feature ridiculously gory scenes of aliens being dismembered with chainsaws, or sheep getting blown up by rocket launchers, or a kung-fu kicking priest beating up zombies, but they also show Jackson’s flair for special effects and his gift for the fantastical.
After the success of the Lord of the Rings movies which culminated in a Best Picture Oscar for Return of the King (2003) it seemed likely The Hobbit would be next. Jacksoninitially intended only to produce the film. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) was hired but left the project after two years of pre-production so Jackson once again resumed directorial duties. The Hobbit is naturally enough for a film based on a children’s novel lighter in tone to The Lord of the Rings though it feels very much like a return to the world created by Jackson and his team over a decade ago.
The cast is largely made up of television stars and trying to recognise them under their makeup is part of the fun. Martin Freeman is impressive as Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit persuaded by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to help a group of dwarves regain their homeland, but see if you can spot former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy, Richard Armitage (Spooks), James Nesbitt (Cold Feet), Ken Stott (Rebus), Aidan Turner (Being Human), and Brett Mackenzie (Flight of the Conchords). Barry Humphries, better known as Dame Edna Everage, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), and Manu Bennett (Spartacus: Blood and Sand) are in all in there as well although their performances are motion captured and then recreated by computer generated imagery.
Kind of appropriate to be showing Brief Encounter in a cafe restaurant next to an abandoned railway line. Amazing film and I’ll take Lean’s early Noel Coward and Charles Dickens adaptations over his later epics any time. Here’s my notes for The Station screening of Brief Encounter.
“But the minutes went by…”
Brief Encounter is the fourth and final collaboration between Noel Coward and director David Lean having previously worked together on the war films In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1945) as well as the comedy Blithe Spirit (1945). An adaptation of a one-act play by Coward called ‘Still Life,’ the film takes place in and around a railway station as two people consider having an affair. While Brief Encounter is thematically similar to Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) the latter is the kind of Hollywood escapism Alec (Trevor Howard) and Laura (Celia Johnson) would go and see on the Thursday afternoons they spend together. Laura is certain such grand passion couldn’t happen to somebody who shops in Boots the chemists. Alec and Laura are blindsided by their emotions as their casual acquaintance develops into something much deeper. It is all too easy now to make fun now of the perfectly clipped accents in Brief Encounterand its old-fashioned sense of decency, but the film has lost none of its power.
Sound is important in Brief Encounter. The haunting musical score is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and it counterpoints Alec and Laura’s restraint in public with the emotional turmoil they feel. The noises heard at the station; the trains arriving and departing, the announcements, the whistles, all recurring in the background are a reminder of the possibilities of escape. David Lean often uses odd camera angles and films the lovers in shadow, a technique more common in thrillers than in romances yet it adds to the feeling they are somehow transgressing. Bear in mind Coward was a closeted homosexual so forbidden love, clandestine meetings, and being very careful not to attract attention would almost certainly have been part of his romantic life.
There is an argument Brief Encounter represents a gentile and timid form of British cinema though this seems largely reductive. It is rare to find a British film from this period which is so emotionally open or poetic. It also has a complex narrative structure which begins at the end and then shows us through Laura’s memories and her accompanying voice-over events filtered through her own sensibilities before we again see the beginning/end with the added pathos of knowing what we are seeing this time around. Lean would later turn towards large-scale epic productions like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr Zhivago (1965) but this small intimate movie about lives thrown out of kilter by romantic longing is his most extraordinary work.