Monday, 24 January 2011

Walter's Top Ten of 2010

I agree that this was still a somewhat disappointing year in movies, but a step above last year, so I won’t repeat my protest and only choose nine. In fact, I’ll mention a few runners-up. First of all there is only one foreign language film listed (though the Kiwi accents in Boy almost count), partly because I often see them a year or two late. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came close, and I recently saw The Edukators which might have made the list if it weren’t from 2004 (ok – 6 years late). The American came close with its Graham Greene-like feel (I loved the old priest), but didn’t quite make it for me.

Here are the ones that did:

10. Get Low. I had hoped for more from this one. It was a good film and Duvall does a great job. There was nothing especially disappointing that I can put my finger on, yet it seemed to lack something I had expected -still, an interesting film well worth watching.

9. Despicable Me. This one I liked more than I had expected. I thought Carell did a good job in spite of a wandering accent. I appreciated how they often nailed the sense of how you might like to parent when in a selfish or cynical mood.

8. Boy. Friends from New Zealand highly recommended this barely known movie and I was quite glad they did. Quite a unique tale, well told. Good humour sprinkled through a serious drama, and I suspect that many moments would be even funnier for Kiwis (I kept almost getting jokes but being a little unsure.)

7. Inception. I was tempted to put this lower just because I was a bit mystified by the level of excitement among some. If they’d found a better way to depict the experience of defences in a person’s dreams, it would have received much higher marks.

6. The Social Network. Riding largely on the wit and skill of Sorkin’s screenplay (and some fine acting), this film provides an entertaining if someone depressing look at where our culture is heading.

5. The Ghost Writer. Good atmospheric thriller that was thought-provoking and unpredictable. I think it might have come up higher if I hadn’t watched it alone (though the atmosphere kind of fit with a lone viewing).

4. Shutter Island. Maybe this film didn’t have quite as much originality as Inception, but I thought overall it “worked” better as a cohesive whole than Inception did – in other words, I felt it was a more completed or whole creative effort than Inception, which I felt was weak and unfinished in places. I suspect that some found elements like the music overdone in places, but I liked the somewhat melodramatic effect and the Hitchcock flavour. I guessed enough but not too much to take away from my enjoyment. It’s been a long time and I’m eager to see it again knowing the ending.

3. Winter’s Bone. So well made and such a powerful story. I don’t quite relate to the fear you mentioned, Vic (in some ways I thought it’s an example of how desperation almost dulls the fear to make courage more possible), though it certainly depicts a culture that seems to be formed on fear in many ways. And I liked exactly what you said about getting a “sense of their entire lives in the briefest of glimpses.”

2. The King’s Speech. A movie that makes you feel good about things that it seems you should feel good about – loyal friendship, breaking social barriers, small steps toward getting free of inner limitations, recognition of courage that showed in ways that often are all too easy to overlook.

1. Captain Abu Raed. Definitely my favourite of the year. It’s the kind of film I want to show everyone and talk about. It might not be easy to find, but it’s worth the search.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Vic's Top Ten Films of 2010

I hate to say it, but 2010 was, for me, another disappointing year at the movies. Until last week, I didn’t know if I could even come up with ten films deserving to be on my list.

Before I get to that list, I need to mention that my favourite foreign language film of 2010 was Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but since it’s a 2009 film, I did not feel it was eligible for my list. Also worth mentioning is that I expect The Social Network will end up on most top ten lists this year, but it’s not on mine. It is a brilliant film and David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin deserve a lot of credit (and awards), but for me it was missing something (maybe just the fact that I couldn’t sympathize with a single character). I also expect Black Swan to win some awards; it almost made my top ten. Finally, for Gareth, I need to say that Shutter Island was my number 10 film of the year until I watched Fair Game last week. So I almost had two films on the list in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man obsessed with memories of his wife and children. How weird is that? Probably not so weird is the coincidence that three of my top ten films are about the 2003 invasion of Iraq (I spent a lot of time analyzing that invasion in preparation for numerous opportunities to lecture on the subject).

Okay, let’s get to the list:

10. Green Zone – Matt Damon is terrific as a soldier uncovering the possibility that the U.S. did not invade Iraq to find WMDs but to get Saddam. The premise and storyline seem incredibly naive to me (does anyone not know about the WMDs or that oil and military control were the primary motives? - see below), but this film’s heart is in the right place and it does a good job of humanizing the Iraqi people. Director Paul Greengrass gives us too much action, as usual, but otherwise it’s very entertaining.

9. I Am Love – An unusual Italian romance with hidden depths (including much religious symbolism), this film stars Tilda Swinton (who is perfect in the role) as a bored housewife whose life spins out of control.

8. Fair Game - Some films are great just because they tell a true story that must be told on film. This is one of those films. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are a great team, playing the married couple who expose the truth behind the WMD invasion mentioned above. I read an article in The Guardian prior to the 2003 invasion that already exposed the same story, but I guess Blair didn’t get the memo (see further below).

7. Inside Job – The best documentary film of the year not only exposes the men and the criminal greed behind the 2008 financial crisis – it also reveals that these men are still the government’s leading financial advisors.

6. The King’s Speech – Colin Firth gives us another magnificent performance, this time as the new king who has difficulties speaking without stammering. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter are perfect in supporting roles. I was disappointed that the climax had to involve a war speech but this is a wonderful old-fashioned drama.

5. The American – George Clooney is superb in his role as a gun expert who is beginning to struggle with his chosen profession and what it makes him do. Gorgeous cinematography, a great score and one of those rare modern suspense films which has almost no action (that’s a good thing).

4. Inception – Despite my concerns about the needless action scenes, the violence and the logical flaws, this overwhelming film by Christopher Nolan is what makes going to the movies so much fun. The fact that it’s a sci-fi film dealing with a favourite subject of mine (dreams) doesn’t hurt. Neither does the great acting (especially by Leonardo Dicaprio), the excellent cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s score.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – My favourite foreign language film of 2010 is a dark Swedish thriller, the first of a trilogy based on the best-selling books by Stieg Larsson. This first film does a brilliant job of mixing character development and a powerful human drama with its suspense (highlighted, again, by a minimal amount of action). The sequels were not even in the same league. Great acting by Michael Nykvist and Noomi Rapace.

2. The Ghost Writer – Roman Polanski’s political thriller (one of my favourite genres) features brilliant grey cinematography and a tight screenplay, which help overcome some of the acting flaws (though this is one of Ewan McGregor’s best performances). Most importantly, this film dares to speculate on the vital question of how Tony Blair could have joined Bush in the ill-advised invasion of Iraq (see above).

1. Winter’s Bone – This outstanding film, directed by Debra Granik, sucked me so completely into its dark world that I was experiencing the same constant fear experienced by its many incredible characters, characters who felt so real I was given a sense of their entire lives in the briefest of glimpses. Jennifer Lawrence is amazing as a seventeen-year-old girl searching this dark world (Ozark Mountains) for her missing father while trying to look after her younger siblings.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The King's Speech (& The Social Network)

There is an interesting feature in common with the two biggest box office hits among my upcoming top ten for 2010. When I first heard the storylines of The King’s Speech and The Social Network my initial reaction was an uninterested, “Really? Someone would make a movie about that?” That both of these movies have been widely appreciated is evidence of the power of scriptwriting, character development and acting to make an apparently unappealing plot into an engaging film.

They are also both based on true stories which, somewhat unexpectedly, would turn out to have a fair amount of significance in their respective societies. And both are quite intelligent films with large doses of wit sprinkled through otherwise serious dramas.

I assume that it is coincidence, though, that in the end these two popular movies provide a reflection of two very distinct societies. The Social Network uses characteristically fast-paced Aaron Sorkin dialogue to tell the fast-paced story of Facebook. One of my first surprises was being reminded that the whole adventure only started in 2004. When I, somewhat reluctantly, succumbed to Facebook in 2006, I felt like I had resisted for years. This is our present culture that seems to re-write its rules overnight. The people involved pretty much all seem shallow and immature. The goal of the enterprise seemed to be all about helping students find casual hook-ups and the developers look cool, attracting others trying to make ridiculous amounts of money. There is character development in this film, but it’s mostly people developing sideways – slipping from one type of immaturity into another and bouncing between betrayals, unable to find any roots in order to gain some depth.

The King’s Speech, on the other hand, (sorry - spoiler warning) demonstrates that wit does not need to blaze along at a Sorkin pace in order to be effective. This film has room for silence and for waiting, without making you impatient or bored. This is a story of a relationship that against expectations is about lifelong mutual loyalty and friendship. It is a movie about small incremental changes over a long period of time that are enough. The dark side of the era still shows through – the stuffy authorities, hierarchies and demands that threaten self-esteem, relationship and creativity – but, in the film at least, these limitations could be overcome by those with determination and self-respect.

Now, having written this, I’ve just noticed your own review, Vic, so let me make two more comments. First, in agreement, I would say all the acting was spot-on – Rush’s and Carter’s as much as Firth’s. Second, I am quite curious about your disappointment about the climax – perhaps I was so overcome by two of my favourite pieces of Beethoven that I was fooled. I thought it worked well within the appropriate limitations of history. This gets **** from me – two mugs up high on this one.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Two More Four-Star Reviews?

Animal Kingdom

Four four-star films in four days? Maybe it's something I ate.

Animal Kingdom is an Australian film directed by David Michod and features actors largely unknown to us, except for Guy Pearce, who is perfect in his role as a Melbourne police officer.

Animal Kingdom starts in a very dark place. Alarmingly, it does not take long to get to an even darker place and it just keeps going downhill from there, even when you think it can’t possibly get darker. This is in the same genre of depressing films as Aronofosky’s Requiem for a Dream, though it isn’t quite as draining as that film.

Animal Kingdom concerns a family of criminals in Melbourne, particularly the seventeen-year-old boy who is caught in a cycle of escalating violence from which he cannot seem to escape. The family dynamics are brilliantly conceived and conveyed. While in some ways this film could be viewed as an Australian Goodfellas, it feels much closer to home and much more real, making it that much more disturbing to watch.

The acting in Animal Kingdom (large ensemble cast) is generally outstanding, the cinematography is very good, the dialogue is well-written, and so on. The film is not entirely flawless but it easily deserves ****, so I am giving it ****, even though this film will not make my top ten films of 2010. Since films getting ***+ will be on that list, one could ask how this could be. The answer is the same as that involving The Social Network. A film can be wonderfully made without grabbing me in the right way, and if it fails to grab me in the right way, it will not make my top ten. In the case of Animal Kingdom, there was something in the story of the seventeen-year-old that left me unsatisfied at a gut level. The Godfather did the same thing. I give it an easy **** as well, but it doesn’t get anywhere near my top 100 films of all time. Come to think of it, there have been a lot of excellent films made in recent years which have not become favourites because they grate on me in some way.

Alas, that is the case with this excellent entry from Australia – my mug is up, but the stuff inside is too dark and bitter for my taste.

Fair Game

In February of 2003, a month before the ill-advised and ill-fated invasion of Iraq, I read an article in The Guardian quoting CIA sources saying there were no WMDs in Iraq and that Iraq posed no threat even to its neighbours, let alone the U.S. I guess Blair didn’t read The Guardian.

Fair Game tells the true story of a CIA agent and her husband (a U.S. ambassador) who expose the facts behind the article mentioned above. This film makes it very clear that the U.S. wanted to invade Iraq and were looking for a justification, which became the WMDs. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn play the couple and Watts in particular is outstanding.

This is a film I loved just because it dared to tell the truth in a country which still has some doubts about what happened. It even names names, as if it’s a semi-documentary.
I didn’t like the handheld cinematography, but what can you do.

One day they are going to make a film like this about what really happened on 9/11. I jut hope I live long enough to see it. In the meantime, Fair Game is a gem and is going into my top ten of 2010. I’d like to give it **** but my gut tells me it’s not quite good enough to deserve more than ***+. Whichever, my mug is way up.

Next up – my top ten films of 2010 – stay tuned!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Two Four-Star Films to Start the New Year

The American

The facts, as you may remember from previous reviews, are these:

1. I am a big fan of George Clooney.
2. I am a big fan of slow-moving intelligent suspense films.
3. I am a big fan of old-fashioned gorgeous cinematography.
4. I am a big fan of films made in Europe (what can I say – I’ve always loved Europe).
5. I am a big fan of films that end well (even when predictable).

Therefore, The American, which features George Clooney at his best in virtually every shot, is incredibly beautiful to watch, is as slow-moving and intelligent a thriller as one could ask for, is filmed almost entirely in Europe, has a great score and ends well (if somewhat predictably), cannot help but get **** from me and will certainly be on my list of top ten films of 2010.

The film owes much to Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti westerns (so the director, Anton Corbijn, says) and one can see the similarities in the minimal dialogue, the 'unknown' protagonist, the focus on guns, the ‘riding’ into a small town and befriending a priest and prostitute, etc. But Leone’s films (and I am a fan) are lightweights compared to The American. This is a serious film with profound insights into character, great character development and a story that works at various levels.

I must warn readers that some might find the violence (it is very cold, like Leone) and sex too disturbing to ‘enjoy’ this film. I must also warn those who think thrillers need some action to stay away from this one. And you should also be alerted to the fact that the critics, with one exception, did not like The American as much as I did. I was thrilled to see that Roger gave it **** - making this another one of those special films that he and I loved while most critics yawned. My mug is way up – the contents are somewhat bitter but ultimately satisfying – ****.

The King’s Speech

I’ve been saying for years (since his marvellous performance in And When Did You Last See Your Father?) that Colin Firth is one of the best actors out there. Maybe this will be the year he gets the nod for Best Actor. Certainly his performance in The King’s Speech is remarkable (spot-on).

Of course, everyone’s performance in The King’s Speech is great (Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter the standouts beside Firth), no doubt aided by an excellent screenplay and the direction of Tom Hooper. In a word, The King’s Speech is brilliant, deserving the critical acclaim it has received. I expect it to win a number of Academy Awards.

Despite its brilliance (and I am giving it an easy ****), I was profoundly disappointed with the climax of the film. I knew it was coming, and for most who missed the previews it will no doubt be a moving and fitting climax to a great film. I have no complaints whatsoever to how this climax was done, only to its contents. To say why this is so would reveal more than I would like to reveal about the film's ending, so I must leave it at that for now. Whatever my disappointments, this is another film which will be in my top ten of the year. Don’t miss it!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Six 2010 Mini-Reviews

The Social Network

The Social Network is a brilliantly-made film. With Aaron Sorkin writing, you know the dialogue is going to be superb, and it was. The acting was uniformly good, the direction and editing excellent. All good. And yet... I think what bothered me was the coldness of the film. I just never got into it emotionally. None of the characters drew me in and made me care. Perhaps that was the desired reaction; after all, it was, as Walter mentions below, exposing a shallow and immature piece of the Facebook generation. Still, the film failed to draw me in. I enjoy watching a well-made intelligent film, but for me to love a film it has to draw me in (or at least WOW me). The Social Network (like a number of the Coen brothers films - see below) left me too cold. Certainly worth a minimum of ***+ and I could be talked into giving it ****. But it’s not likely to make my top ten films of 2010.


Eastwood’s latest film is not his best. In almost every way it is inferior to The Social Network, for example. Nevertheless, unlike The Social Network, I was drawn to the characters and to their individual journeys with death. The film’s story as a whole did not impress me, but these three journeys did, and that allowed me to enjoy Hereafter at a deeper level than The Social Network. ***+

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

This is a well-made entry in the HP series, but I find it impossible to provide a lengthy review without seeing how it ends. Many people will no doubt be disappointed by the fact that Hogwarts is not part of this film. I am not among them. I rather enjoyed the dark outdoor adventure feel of the film. So for now I’ll give Deathly Hallows 1 ***+ and I will discuss it further in the summer.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

This was one of my favourite books in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. After the first two Narnia films, which profoundly disappointed me (see previous reviews), I went in with low expectations. Good thing I did, because this was yet another disappointment and the 3D only made it worse (I know I predicted 3D was a passing fad, but the studios didn’t get my memo).

Dawn Treader begins all wrong, with a fight against slave traders that continues the trend of making the Narnia films adventurous battle films. There is no fighting at all in the book, but the filmmakers had to throw in a sword-fighting sequence in which children once again become murderous warriors. I have expounded on this at greater length elsewhere and will leave it at that until February or so (or come hear Walter and me debate the film’s merits at the Wild Goose Festival in June), except to mention how much I hated the way Reepicheep is portrayed as a dangerous vicious warrior. Suffice to say, I began the film in a bad mood and only a great adaptation of the book from that point on could have saved the film for me. Unfortunately, it was but a decent adaptation. There were moments I enjoyed very much but on the whole I found the film’s technical merits wanting. Georgie Henley as Lucy acquitted herself very well, and Will Poulter as Eustace did the best with his role. Some of the cinematography was very good but, perhaps due to the 3D, I was far from impressed. It should have been a strikingly gorgeous film, but there were only brief glimpses of that. Still, I enjoyed Dawn Treader more than the previous two films and am going to give it a generous ***.

True Grit

I have enjoyed every film the Coen brothers have made. When I saw that True Grit was getting excellent reviews, my expectations soared (ALWAYS a mistake). It didn’t help that the original True Grit (1969) is one of my 100 favourite films of all-time.

True Grit (Coen version) certainly deserves the good reviews. It is a very well-made film. The acting by all involved was virtually faultless. Hailee Steinfeld made an excellent Mattie Ross and Matt Damon was a major leap up from Glen Campbell (whose singing, however, I missed very much). I thought Rooster Cogburn was one of John Wayne’s best roles, so Jeff Bridges had a lot to live up to. Fortunately, he is one of the best out there and he did a splendid job. The cinematography was top-notch, the dialogue was as sharp as one could hope for and the directing as good as one would expect from the Coen brothers. In other words, this was a brilliant old-fashioned western, in almost every way superior to the 1969 version of the film.

So why didn’t I love it? I can only think that it was the Coen brothers themselves who created my disappointment. When I think Coen brothers, I think quirkiness. So I expected not just a smart, sassy version of True Grit (which I got) but also a quirky version of True Grit, which I didn’t get. So I was left wanting more. In the end, my gut liked the original inferior version better. Still, True Grit 2010 gets a solid ***+.

On a side note (inappropriate for a mini-review), I do think the ending of the film was an important counter to what could have been a simple revenge tale. I am interested in how others saw that.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is one of my favourite directors. Two of his films (Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain) are in my top 100 films of all-time. Black Swan will not make that list, but this is not because it wasn’t a work of great cinematic art. Black Swan is another typically dark and typically brilliant Aronofsky film. The acting is flawless (this is Portman’s best performance), and the writing, direction, cinematography, etc. are all excellent. This sounds like a solid **** film with an accompanying position in my top ten films of 2010. But the story of Black Swan just didn’t quite work for me. More specifically, I found much of it predictable. For a dark psychological thriller to work for me, it has to offer surprising twists and turns. While brilliantly told in its own way, and offering a daydream-world that leaves us always uncertain about what is really happening, Black Swan did not really surprise me and I had a pretty good idea of what was really happening and how it would end (as I had in The Sixth Sense, for example). So, I’m only going to give Black Swan a very solid ***+. It may still get into my top ten of 2010, but it’s doubtful. If you like psychological thrillers, don’t miss this one.