10. True Grit
A movie that showed Hollywood it’s still possible to ‘make em like they used to’. And of course it took a pair of wiseass, cinephilic, (former)-enfant-terribles to do it and not some steady-pair-of-hands studio man. The Western is a fascinating genre in that we can see it’s life played out across the decades from birth, the establishment of ground rules with Stagecoach in 1939, the form perfected by Ford and Hawkes in the 40s and 50s, torn apart by Leone and Peckinpah in the 60s and then it’s carcass picked over solemnly by Robert Altman and various other revisionists over the years including Eastwood himself on the other side of the lens.
So whilst every now and then you get someone still trying to make that post-Western Western that’s been done to death, actually the Coens are smart enough to know the best place to go is back to the heyday. This film is played right by the rulebook of the Golden Age but with the Coens trademark acerbic wit to make it all feel just modern enough. The fact this did such solid box office must have meant at least one memo got passed round the studios saying ‘Maybe we don’t need another Eddie Murphy movie. Why don’t we try something good?’.
This is the first Aronofsky film I’ve actually enjoyed. It being a mash-up of two faves of mine, Repulsion and The Red Shoes sure helps. Felt like a hint of Suspiria was lurking in the DNA too. Plus there’s the basic joy of seeing Mila Kunis go down on Natalie Portman. I mean, if you can’t appreciate that on at least some level, then really why the fuck do you go to the movies? I also loved going to a completely packed-out cinema to see a movie about BALLET.
I still get the feeling that Aronofsky doesn’t make movies as clever as he thinks they are, this feels like middle-brow pop-art being elevated to high art status merely by dint of the excrement surrounding it at the multiplex. And did we need another movie where EVERY female character was batshit nuts and the lone male character was super awesome and in control and all knowing and hey lets fuck? Um, this was meant to be a positive critique of the film. Well, let’s just say I did like it but with major caveats.
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin
See, I used to be real down on British directors with their uber-real, kitchen-sink drama stuff. Felt so uncinematic and small-minded to me. But the ‘new’ generation of directors like Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen have changed all that for me. Maybe it has something to with them not being the typical white, middle-class men that came before. But they’ve turned the notion of the ‘serious British arty drama’ round so that now it’s actually a FACEMELTINGEXPLOITATIONHORRORFEST!
McQueen made the arthouse equivalent of torture-porn with the prolonged body horror of Hunger. Charting the volatile teen lead of Fish Tank as she approaches boiling point, Arnold peddled the most exploitative and primitive cinematic emotion – dread. (And threw in the kind of jaw dropping underage sex scene that had it been directed by a man he would surely have been called out on?) And now Ramsay’s Kevin picture goes even further from the arthouse in to the grindhouse. Sure it’s chronology is all chopped up and there’s no, like, story as such but this is basically The Omen meets The Bad Seed, clashed with the cringe-humour of The Office.
It makes sense really that in the post-modern, War on Terror tainted, secular West that horror films can no longer come from a supernatural place. We’re too worldly cynical for that anymore, the ones that still try it feel oh so quaint. So instead of The Omen’s son of satan, we have in Kevin the son of an urbane, career woman with a latte in her one hand and a Pentax in the other. Pure evil right? But it’s refreshing to see a movie that casts doubt over whether motherhood is inherently good and beyond question. And whilst Kevin is sometimes played too arch (I almost expected him to turn to the camera and wink after certain lines, like the gag about the lychee), there are some glorious visual/aural moments such as the flashbacks to the unexplained tomato orgy. And the billowing curtain. Kevin also made for the best trailer of the year, it’s so good that I felt the film was a bit of a letdown but damn what a trailer.
7. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
I like to throw a curveball into my top ten and this year it’s this: Adam Curtis’s 3 part TV documentary series for the BBC attempting to show how computers (or perhaps rather ‘computers-as-model-for-understanding-our-world’) have not liberated our species or created a utopia through more effective management of information but have in many ways taken us down the wrong path. But don’t think this is gonna preach about the evils of Facebook and ‘personal computer’ alienation, this is far more esoteric in it’s targets. Curtis spins a discursive web of arcane information using mostly pre-existing footage to tell us about bizarre characters like Buckminster Fuller who invented the geodesic dome so favoured by hippy communes, and geneticist George R. Price who came across the equation for the ‘selfish gene’ in humans, which in turn led him to mathematically explain things like murder and genocide and ultimately the in-existence of god, information which haunted him so much he went crazy and killed himself.
I largely agree with a lot of the points Curtis raises here but I also feel that even if I didn’t I would still love this series. It’s so well cut, the music so strikingly used, the flow of information so deliciously overwhelming, he manages to transcend the all-too-often drab limits of what normally constitutes a ‘Documentary’.
Watch all three parts here.
6. Kill List
This is further evidence of the arthouse-to-grindhouse switcheroo that’s going on as seen in ‘Kevin’. But admittedly this Brit flick’s definitely rooted more in the genre side of things first and foremost. It does start as kitchen sinky, bittersweet, family drama but then pulls some interesting maneuvers where it turns into a geezer-gangster pic before settling into rural horror. You could say this is horror, of varying types, from the start.
I took a group of friends to see this on my birthday. It was a packed, small cinema and the atmosphere was potent for the duration. Audible gasps and visible squirms throughout. As the end credits came up, my mate on the left turned to me and sardonically whispered ‘Happy Birthday’. We got up and all just seemed to stop and gather outside the screening room in a circle, looking at each other awkwardly. Post-drinks did little to lessen the impact. Accusations of me traumatizing certain members of the party with this film were followed by messages about nightmares days after. So thats two thumbs up from me. (Also, it contains the most terrifying use of on-screen text since The Shining.)
You know it’s a good film when you can’t exactly say why it works but you’re sure it does. On paper, it really shouldn’t. This is well worn territory – a coming-of-age dramedy about a misfit schoolboy trying to lose his virginity and be taken seriously as a ‘man’, told with deadpan humour and flashes of whimsy and of course an ironic voiceover narration. Yes, that describes Rushmore pretty well (amongst others) and many have derided this film as a Wes Anderson knockoff. The influence is certainly there but first time director Richard Ayoade (beloved by some already for acting roles in Garth Merenghi and The IT Crowd) brings buckets of his own style and imbues the film with a unique mixture of British grottiness and nouvelle-vague flourishes.
To see similar material done coldly without any heart just look at ‘Youth in Revolt’. That really is Wes-Anderson-Lite. ‘Submarine’ however is a work of genuine charm. It lags a little in the second half but the winning performances by the two lead newcomers hold it together. The soundtrack of original songs by the Arctic Monkeys frontman were pretty damn great and the film was shot in and around my neighbourhood to boot! What’s not to love?!
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Or Mission Impossible UK: Beige Warriors. Funnily enough, I saw Tinker at a tiny arthouse the night after seeing Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol on an IMAX screen at the multiplex and though they are very different beasts, the two films share some common ground. (For the record I enjoyed both.) They both deal with the world of the secret services and begin with spies from the West on a mission in Budapest who meet similar fates.
The use of Budapest is very telling. Tinker is a period piece set in the 60s at the height of the Cold War, so it makes perfect sense opening somewhere like that. MI:GP is set today, many years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Why the fuck are Tom Cruise’s peeps in Hungary?! And better yet the next action set piece takes place in the Kremlin! Sure, theres some hokum nuclear plot to explain it but what’s really going on is pure wish fulfillment. Im sure the secret services across the West (and Hollywood by extension) WISH they could go back to the ‘simpler times’ of the Cold War, the pre-War on Terror world, when the ‘good guys’ knew exactly who the ‘bad guys’ were and they were locked together in a game of chess tempered with some degree of mutual respect. Tom Cruise’s fantasy world of MI says ‘yeah, screw history, we’re just gonna act like we still rock and know exactly who’s ass to kick’. Of course, ‘twas ever thus’ and some older characters in Tinker express a yearning for those glory days of WW2 when the lines between us and them were even clearer than during the cold war.
But the film is not just a nostalgia trip in terms of the battle being fought by the characters, the whole film has been lovingly sculpted to invoke a type of film from the past; the slowly paced, delicately crafted, less-is-more, pay-close-attention, poetically constructed, serious adult drama. Basically the very opposite of films like MI:GP. The very first shot hits you with the difference: film grain – so anachronistic in this era of HD IMAX 3D eye fuckery. But the whole film is drenched in grain. And the lighting is Gordon Willis by way of Francis Bacon. It makes perfect sense though, this is a story out of it’s time so the style should be of another time too. I dare say it manages to improve upon a lot of the films it’s riffing on too, the artists at work here are THAT good, especially the director. The ending clearly sets up the potential of more movies in the Smiley series of books; this could turn in to the first franchise of serious artistic merit since The Godfather.
Nicholas Winding-Refn won the Best Director award at Cannes for this film and most deservedly so. Because the script is full of cliches, generic characters and ho hum plotting and even though I think all that was done on purpose by the screenwriter as a post-modern genre exercise, it’s the director who takes this overly familiar, pulpy material and spins pure gold out of it. This film is the distilled essence of American genre film-making refracted through the prism of a European arthouse director and resulting in one of the most beautiful, oddball movies to come out of Hollywood in quite some time.
Driver himself, Ryan Gosling, deserves a lot of credit for the brilliance of the film. It’s one of the best under-played performances I can think of. Very little dialogue. He moves slowly, carefully. And then when the violence does eventually erupt it’s all the more affective. It’s not really a very violent film but when things do hit the fan, its hard to avoid getting any on your shirt.
I feel this is the kind of film I’ll return to from time to time, not for the story or even the characters really but the world that is invoked. The dashes of neon in the black of night. The lonely LA streets. The electro synth pop soundtrack. The silver jacket. The pink font. And my favourite moment in a movie this year – in slow motion, when Driver looks in on the gangsters party at the restaurant as ‘Oh My Love’ plays in the background.
1. The Tree of Life and Melancholia
I’ve got to put Melancholia and Tree of LIfe in joint first place. One, because they both had such an affect on me and two, because they seem almost designed as companion-piece films. They are the yin and yang of philosophical world-views and as a lover of contrast, I can’t choose between the two.
Terence Malick’s Tree of Life could well be the most structurally radical and philosophically engaged film since 2001: A Space Odyssey. That such a film stars Brad Pitt, won top prize at Cannes and was shown in multiplexes is somewhat miraculous. When I saw it a number of people walked out of the cinema, it was amusing to see at which point they were driven out – the extended birth of the universe sequence, the dinosaurs, Sean Penn etc. But alot of those that stayed til the end clapped – when was the last time you saw people clap in a cinema?!
As a devout atheist, some might question why I’m so into a film that many take to clearly be the work of a born-again Christian. But while the idea of God is central to the film, as in 2001, like that film Tree of Life avoids any direct representation of such an entity and leaves the specifics of what such an entity might consist of entirely in the mind of the viewer. Instead the film invokes a sense of interconnectedness in our universe. We are shown our existence to be a real tree of life, with roots going back not just to our siblings and parents and hometowns but right back to pre-human creatures like dinosaurs and even before that. The film jumps about in time trying to show the continuum we all exist in, it’s sketchy construction intimating that life itself is an ongoing venture, still being written, branching out, that no story is ever complete. Though the rumoured 6 hour version of this film might attempt that. The film is basically optimistic; even if there is chaos/darkness in life, there is some sense of things being part of a greater framework.
So if Tree of Life is suggesting that there is a teleological point to our existence, that it all leads somewhere (even if it is to the most dubious sequence in the film), then Melancholia is at the other end of the spectrum, suggesting that it’s all quite pointless. Malick showed the world being formed, Lars Von Trier shows it being destroyed, quite beautifully at the very start of the film. He then goes back a few days to focus on a pair of sisters, one chaotic and the other ordered. Over the course of the film we see the chaotic character played by Kirsten Dunst, go into a meltdown of depression on her wedding day trying to deal with all the social pressures upon her as well as the nagging doubts of whether anything is really worth it. The orderly sister played by Charlotte Gainsbourg is well equipped to do deal with all manner of social and familial mishap, putting on a brave face. But when the wedding day has passed and the planet Melancholia seems dangerously close to hitting Earth, the tables turn and we see that Dunst is calm under such pressure whereas Gainsbourg becomes irrational and begins to crack.
The message seems to be that most people, the ‘normal’ people who play life by the arbitrary rules society lays out, might be able to handle a wedding but are ill prepared for the void of nihilism that awaits us all and one day will surely take our entire existence as a species. The ‘outsiders’, creatives, depressives, like Von Trier’s on-screen surrogate Dunst, can live more truthful lives and accept annihilation more stoically, as they know afterall ‘humans are evil’. This dichotomy also finds a mirror in Tree of Life, where the world view there is split between the way of nature and the way of grace, as embodied by the brutal father and the loving mother in the film. I think the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of all this. The world might be pointless but let’s have a little grace while we’re here.