Meeting in the Aisles

Films of the Decade – Part VII: No.5 – No.1

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 31, 2009

Part I is drinking your milkshake over here.

Part II is frying up a slice of fried gold here.

Part III is talking some jive like you’ve never heard here.

Part IV wants you to accept the mystery here.

Part V asks how can a train be lost? It’s on rails here.

And Part VI wishes it could quit you right here.

What, no Amelie? (too cutesy) No Elephant? (too obtuse) No Team America: World Police (too cowardly – Alec Baldwin a bigger global threat than Donald Rumsfeld?) There Will Be Blood sounds more like a threat than a suggestion for a missing selection. Still, as I mentioned way back at the beginning, the only way to do these lists is to choose the films that most affected you personally, not those that might affect your credentials professionally. And I hope there’s still plenty of films in here that share a special place in many other people’s hearts, and those that they might now discover as a result. Happy viewing. And see you in ten…

5)            BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)

Dir: Ang Lee  Scr: Diana Ossana & Larry McMurtry

Stars: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams

John Wayne would presumably be spinning in his grave, which is just another good reason to celebrate what, for me, was the decade’s greatest forbidden love story. Ang Lee’s fascination with repressed, self-denying passion achieved its creative peak adapting E. Annie Proulx’s acclaimed short story about two lovelorn gay cowboys (actually sheep-herders). Too fussy and tasteful for those who presumably wanted Heath Ledger to lube up Jake Gyllenhaal with tobacco spit in looming close-up, it’s easy to forget just how subversive Brokeback Mountain’s use of Western imagery is. This isn’t sweet, opera-loving Tom Hanks suffering from AIDS in Philadelphia; these are two virile, taciturn, horse-riding cowboys (OK, sheepherders), the ultimate signifiers of American masculinity, suddenly riding, well, you get the drift.

If Brokeback were only about sexually political point scoring, it would have soon faded from view. It resonates because, though dealing with homosexuality, its tragedy is a more universal, human one: the inability to live openly and express our truest desires. It’s that rarity where all creative elements coalesce and synergise: Gyllenhaal and especially the late Ledger’s clenched, soul-baring performances, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry’s spare, sensitive screenplay, plaintive Gustavo Santoalla theme ‘The Wings’ and of course, Lee’s expressive imagery – Ledger’s Ennis silhouetted against 4th of July fireworks; and the final shot of a dead lover’s checked shirt literally placed gently back in the closet, the unforgiving Montana wilderness visible through the adjacent grubby trailer window; a tragic reminder of the harsh reality of modern America’s cultural landscape.

Brokeback Mountain Clip: Reunion Kiss

See also:

L.I.E (2001)

Dir: Michael Cuesta  Scr: Cuesta, Gerald Cuesta & Stephen M. Ryder

Stars: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Billy Kay

The title stands for Long Island Expressway, that snaking suburban conduit, but the other reading is equally apparent, as Paul Dano’s numbed teenager struggles with a recently killed mother, absent father and reconciling his confused sexuality by cruising and breaking and entering. After a botched robbery, he gets embroiled with an avuncular ex-Marine and pederast named Big John (Cox) – and that’s where Michael Cuesta’s provocative story, while never shying away from taboo material, veers into totally unexpected, empathic terrain. Featuring an unsettling, criminally unsung, career-best performance from Cox, this is American indie filmmaking at its most daring and surprising.

L.I.E Trailer:

4)            THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

Dir & Scr: Brad Bird

Voices: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson

This decade’s vogue for onscreen superheroes – given the dearth on offer in real-life – produced some quality entries: Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, The Dark Knight (first sequels, shorn of all origin exposition, are usually superior). But the ‘superest’ of them all isn’t based on an existing comic-book series; it doesn’t even feature live-action or, voices aside, real people. And yet the billions of pixels that make up Brad Bird’s The Incredibles feel more alive than any superhero movie ever made. Bird is Pixar’s maverick, a volatile talent (The Iron Giant) to push the studio’s established ‘Brain Trust’, for ever-higher standards. Indeed, his two Pixar movies to date, this and Ratatouille, are all about celebrating excellence and not letting politically correct tokenism triumph. In that respect, Bird’s film more than lives up to its name.

Set in a retro-60s, Bond-esque world, it’s the story of a family of ‘supers’, once national heroes and now driven underground by public disapproval, seeking to recapture their youth, identity – and family connection. It’s how these two strands brilliantly play out in tandem (powers that reflect each person’s character – Elastigirl / Mum’s flexibility, shy teenage daughter Violet’s invisibility, etc) that gives the film its dramatic momentum, while the inventive slapstick, adrenalized action and witty humour, notably movie-hijacking fashionista Edna Mole (voiced by Bird himself), send entertainment levels rocketing. Genuinely cinematic (the clever mock-documentary opening), admirably adult and a celebration of all that can make us super humans, if not superhuman. With or without capes, dahling.

The Incredibles Clip: “No Capes!”

See also:


Dir & Scr: Brian DePalma

Stars: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote

If a superhero alias is often about conjuring escape from one’s mundane daily life then Brian DePalma’s gleefully lurid exploitation thriller is the super-villain wish fulfilment movie by way of Alfred Hitchcock. Starring leggy, mischievous Rebecca Romijn(-nee Stamos) in a rare lead role that proves she should be offered more, what first seems like a DePalma goof-off, a chance for him to practise slinky steadicam moves in glamorous locations (see the opening Cannes Film Festival heist), slowly uncoils itself to reveal a densely-packed mosaic on split identity, thwarted desires and, of course, moviemaking itself. Classily trashy, deceptively sophisticated, playfully profound.

Femme Fatale Trailer:


Dir: Alfonso Cuarón  Scr: Alfonso Cuarón & Carlos Cuarón

Stars: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna

Two horny pothead teenagers ditch their girlfriends, hit on a lonely, sexy older woman and head out on a road trip to a legendary, possibly fictional, beach. Imagine the mainstream Hollywood version: gross-out gags, surfing slapstick, misogyny and Ashton Kutcher. Now contrast that with everything Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning movie achieves. It’s a sex comedy that’s incredibly raunchy and outrageously funny. It’s a coming-of-age buddy movie that provides all the genre’s bickering pleasures of discovery but totally upends its central duo (screw “bromance” subtext, let’s get it on!). And it’s an incisive portrait of Mexico itself, cannily posited by the Cuarón brothers screenplay as an awkward teenager of a country undergoing its own growing pains, detailed in a series of omniscient, third-person narrated asides on a turbulent, class-riven, death-tinged society, to which the boys are naturally oblivious.

If the last description sounds dry and academic, it sells the film horribly short. I can’t remember a more authentic, tumultuous view of adolescence, throbbing with the dumb, hormone-fuelled bravado of youth (fabulously played by real-life best friends Luna and Bernal). Verdú’s amazing Luisa is no mere teenage fantasy, rather the duo’s necessary, wiser, sadder guide with her own troubled reasons for tagging along. Luminously lit by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and with a sledgehammer of an ending that, as in all great films, in retrospect seems inevitable, Y Tu Mamás not only the crest of the New Mexican Wave that swept through turn-of-the-century world cinema, it’s simply a vibrant, vital modern classic.

Y Tu Mamá También Trailer:

See also:

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (2007)

Dir & Scr: Cristian Mungiu

Stars: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov

Cannes 2007’s unsung entry that swept all before it and put Romanian cinema firmly on the map, Cristian Mungiu’s 4…3…2 is one of the tensest ‘non-thrillers’ (i.e. no gunplay, chases or car crashes) ever made. Of course the act of procuring an abortion in the Ceausescu dictatorship was a kind of mission impossible in itself, and Mungiu’s unflinching camera follows two friends’ fraught attempts to do the covert deed. Extended takes inexorably increase the pressure, smartly reflecting last-gasp Iron Curtain paranoia, while Anamaria Marinca’s mesmeric presence is the pure gauge of a thousand flickering shifts in desperation, fear, even hope.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days Trailer:

2)            MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)

Dir & Scr: David Lynch

Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux

More than Eraserhead, more than Blue Velvet, this is David Lynch’s enduring work of art; a summation of everything wild at heart and weird on top that ‘Jimmy Stewart from Mars’ has given to film. That it was salvaged from a failed TV pilot is even more remarkable, but then narrative coherence is of little interest to Lynch. As Dennis Hopper quoted Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet, “in dreams I walk with you” and Lynch is our guide through an oneiric phantasmagoria that comes as close as anyone ever has to conjuring up a true cinematic dreamscape. I can’t think of a film – notably the key, spine-chilling ‘Club Silencio’ scene, with Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language version of Orbison’s ‘Crying’ – that’s enveloped my waking life more.

Posing as a film noir mystery, the subject – I believe – is Hollywood’s propensity to chew people, particularly women, up and spit them out, with Naomi Watts’ sunny starlet Betty mixing with Laura Elena Harring’s mysterious amnesiac; meanwhile, tyro film director Justin Theroux is being menaced by cryptic heavies and a malevolent, dumpster-dwelling bogeyman is causing people to drop dead. Studded with Lynch’s absurdist humour, it’s the second half, where the film folds in on itself and the nightmare really begins, that Lynch’s hothouse genius flourishes. The hypnotic, erotic foreboding, held together by Watts’ incandescent, shape-shifting performance, reaches its feverish crescendo – only to slip away, like the most fleeting of reveries. Thankfully, Mulholland Dr. is ours to keep, to decipher, to haunt forever. Sweet dreams.

Mulholland Dr. Trailer:

See also:


Dir & Scr: Joss Whedon

Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk

Hard to imagine two more diametrically-opposed films than sinister Mulholland Dr. and Joss Whedon’s amiable space Western, other than both prove the power of an obdurate auteur who can reshape his vision when TV cancels it. Refashioned from his messed-around Firefly series, Whedon served up the decade’s most enjoyable big screen sci-fi, brilliantly orientating newcomers (I hadn’t seen Firefly yet felt instantly up-to-speed), as well as serving a wry, self-reflexive commentary on his own show’s survival (“can’t stop the signal”) and springing some fatal (for the cast) plot twists. And why isn’t dashing Nathan Fillion yet Hollywood’s new Harrison Ford?

Serenity Trailer:


Dir: Michel Gondry  Scr: Charlie Kaufman

Stars: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst

Forgive the name-dropping but recently I was fortunate enough to visit Japan to interview master animator Hayao Miyazaki. The trip also included a chat with his long-time producer Toshio Suzuki, who recounted a holiday the two had taken to the Isle of Aran. Observing a beautiful moonlit landscape, Suzuki took a photo, much to Miyazaki’s annoyance, who told him angrily: “I’m trying to remember the scene; don’t disturb me!” He then added that a sheepish Miyazaki came back to him months later when trying to recall the scene for a drawing, saying “Didn’t you take a photo? Can I see it? I forgot parts…”

Memory is like that. A subjective guide to our pasts, the point where imagination and objective recall merge or even clash. Albert Camus’ famous epithet, that we are the sum of our choices, could easily be amended to read what we believe we are is the sum of our memories – a convenient get-out clause for those incidents we casually elide, embellish or flat out reassemble in our heads. It’s why I’ve always felt that Alzheimer’s is the cruellest of aging conditions, stealing one’s most intimate, precious treasures piece by piece. And it’s why Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s magnificent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, the most dazzling, resonant, heartbreaking and wise film I’ve seen in the past ten years.

Kaufman, with his lineage of mind-bending modernist texts like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (see this countdown’s No.17), usually takes the lion’s share of praise for the film’s ingenious narrative switches, rare for a ‘mere’ screenwriter. And while the brilliance of his conceit – disgruntled lovers can have memories of their exes surgically removed once the relationship has foundered – is unarguable, Gondry, with his defiantly lo-fi take on Kaufman’s sci-fi high-concept, playful, handmade visual trickery and spontaneous, fleet-footed touch, beautifully dovetails with the surreal material.

The results are not only enthralling (how does Gondry keep shuffling his streets, locations, characters?), they keep his actors – a never-better Carrey, an ebullient, excellent Winslet and crack supporting cast – upfront and central: their faces, their voices, their often desperate, foolhardy actions – you know, the things you remember. And so it’s apt that film, that definitive recording (embalming?) apparatus, is the medium to capture both the memories and their casually terrifying elimination, courtesy of Kaufman’s Lacuna, Inc.

A screwball tragedy for the new millennium, Eternal Sunshine reconfigures that most devalued of modern genres, the romantic comedy, where every new offering tries to come up with increasingly outrageous premises – She’s the wedding planner! He’s her stalker! One of them’s a ghost! – entirely misses the intimacy and investment required to make relationships work; and the honesty to examine why they go wrong. This beautifully bittersweet love letter to love itself understands that not only is it better to have lost in love than never to have loved at all, the recollections of the pain and joy of the whole damn thing are what ultimately sustain, even define us. Truly unforgettable.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Trailer:

See also:


Dir & Scr: Johnathan Caouette

Stars: Johnathan Caouette, Renee Leblanc, Adolph Davis

An auto-biopic some twenty years in the making, Johnathan Caouette’s astounding chronicle Tarnation is an entire repository of filmed memories, from childhood Super 8 to the latest iMac-edited DV footage. Caouette, just 31 on the film’s release, doesn’t merely want to never forget his chequered upbringing and fragile relationship with mentally-ill mother Renee; he wants, no, needs to transform it into some kind of performance art – and by God, does he. Incessantly creative (answering machine messages, stills, Dolly Parton clips), savagely raw, it’s the vanguard and likely peak of noughties’ confessional DIY filmmaking; both Caouette’s evidence and means of survival.

Tarnation Trailer:


Films of the Decade – Part VI: No.10 – No.6

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 31, 2009

Part I is standing up next to a mountain here.

Part II is chopping it down with the edge of its hand here.

Part III is picking up the pieces to make an island here.

Part IV might even raise a little sand here.

And Part V didn’t mean to take up all of your sweet time here.

Just to clarify some potential confusion: each entry, from 30 down to Number 1, has two films listed. Only the first is on The List; the second (‘See Also’) is another fine, usually underrated film that, for me, somehow evokes the first and is worthy of at least a mention, if not an “official” placing. Plus the chance to big up the likes of Memories of MurderKeane, Anvil! and A Prairie Home Companion is just too good to pass up…

10)            THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-3)

Dir: Peter Jackson  Scr: Jackson, Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens

Stars: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

Inevitable, really. Laugh if you will, at a story that’s effectively about a bunch of country bumpkin midgets trying to chuck a piece of jewellery into a fire, but the epic grandeur with which Jackson and co honour Tolkien’s beloved books is contagious. The sheer logistics in putting Middle Earth onscreen makes Frodo and Sam’s trek to Mordor seem like a stroll around the Shire. And yet almost every painstaking drop of dedication pays off: expert streamlining of the novel’s sometimes turgid prose; cutting-edge visual FX (the genius (e)motion-capture of Andy Serkis’s scene-stealing Gollum); unerring casting (McKellen and Mortensen can’t be bettered), all combine for results that improve on the original material. Not a claim those behind The Golden Compass film can make.

The series’ emergence in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and its uncomplicated slant on fighting evil was coincidental but beneficial. But rather than ham-fisted political opportunism (hello, Avatar), Jackson stresses more fundamental human qualities – perseverance, loyalty, sacrifice – underpinning the awesome spectacle with an engaging modesty. Each chapter has its highlights – Boromir’s death in Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers’ Gollum intro, Return of the King’s Shelob showdown – and champions (for me, Fellowship’s innocence just pips Two Towers’ Helm’s Deep last stand) but taken as one beautifully crafted, emotionally enthralling complete work, it’s still the yardstick for smart popular entertainment, the fantasy blockbuster to rule them all.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Clip: The Mines of Moria

See also:


Dir: Baz Luhrmann  Scr: Luhrmann & Craig Pearce

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent

Another Antipodean unafraid to risk ridicule for his ambitions, Baz Luhrmann had already practised his grandstanding pop culture-blender theatrics with 1996’s Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge! hoiks the red curtain even higher, earning its exclamation mark for daring Kidman, McGregor et al to look like dilettante lounge acts peddling pop jukebox numbers and Bollywood-style burlesque – yet, crazily, pulling it off. Anticipating Reality TV’s karaoke conveyor belt and the endless cycle of Mamma Mia!-greatest hits musicals, but with an élan they wholly lack, Luhrmann’s  relentless artifice somehow twists into a genuinely poignant love story. None of which excuses Australia, though, mate.

Moulin Rouge! ‘Your Song’:

9)            THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)

Dir: Wes Anderson  Scr: Anderson, Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman

Stars: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman

Considered by some to be Wes Anderson’s train wreck, in fact this Indian odyssey may be his finest, most personally affecting moment yet. The trio of brothers embarking on a journey to reconciliation at the behest of eldest sibling, control freak Francis (Wilson) seem at first, as surely as a locomotive follows its tracks, to be plodding after the predestined stops along a typical redemption narrative, even leaving their “baggage” behind them at the end. Which leaves ‘only’ Anderson’s dollhouse (on wheels) aesthetic, deadpan dialogue, magpie music score (from Satyajit Ray to The Kinks) and quirky sibling rivalry to entertain. Substantial pleasures, true, but certainly nothing new.

However, view the film as the failure of these consumer tourists to learn much of anything on their travels and a far richer, more conflicted voyage comes into focus. Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola and co-star Schwartzman imagine their fractured family unit with compassion but don’t give them a free pass. It’s the futility of trying impose order, from laminated timetables, to self-justifying autobiographical novels, to pinning down an AWOL mother, onto a chaotic world, with which they have to come to terms and their endearing struggles (Wilson’s head injuries call to mind his then-alleged suicide) are hugely touching. Shooting on location opens out Anderson’s cloistered universe to a real (Third) world-at-large – particularly in the failed river rescue’s aftermath – and reaches outside his comfort zone maybe for the first time. His film’s magical, fragile lyricism proves the two can wonderfully co-exist.

The Darjeeling Limited Trailer:

See also:


Dir: Julie Bertucelli  Scr: Bertucelli & Bernard Renucci

Stars: Esther Gorintin, Nino Khomasuridze, Dinara Drukarova

Since Otar left Georgia for a lucrative life in Paris, he’s the pride of his struggling Tbilisi-based family, particularly his octogenarian mother Eka. So when news comes through of his sudden death, Eka’s daughter Marina and her teenage daughter Ada try to hide the truth – until Eka plans a trip to France… Family deception and shifting loyalties are fertile dramatic territory for French director Julie Bertucelli. Powered by her flawless three lead actresses, notably 90-something ‘newcomer’ Gorintin, she subtly switches a tense family drama into an unexpectedly road trip, with one of the most perfectly bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen.

Since Otar Left Trailer:

8)            A.I – ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)

Dir & Scr: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor

While the other esteemed 70s ‘Movie Brats’ faded (Scorsese), retreated into digital merchandise (Lucas) or all but disappeared (Coppola), Steven Spielberg got more confident, more ambitious, more complex: better. Even ostensible popcorn flicks like Minority Report and War of the Worlds tackled dark, adult themes, while his ‘serious’ films, Munich and, above all, this dystopian elegy pushed him even further. ‘His love is real but he is not’ ran A.I’s tagline as a project originated by Stanley Kubrick, based on a Brian Aldiss short story – robot boy David’s quest to become real and regain the love of his human mother – took Spielberg’s fascination with childhood and the nuclear family into profoundly disquieting territory.

Whatever the fusion with Kubrick (Spielbrick? Kuberg?), it’s precisely the nexus between Spielberg’s wonder-filled warmth and Kubrick’s dispassionate chill that gives A.I its creepy ambivalence. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski set up a series of glowing halos over David but the relentlessly grim narrative, with ‘mechas’ torn asunder by the mob at ‘Flesh Fairs’ and a (stunningly designed) flooded planet beyond salvation, brooks no genuine redemption for our futuristic Pinocchio. Distrust of Spielberg’s predilection for happy endings encouraged misreadings of the coda’s imagined reunion between David and his mummy Monica, when in fact it’s the bleakest possible fiction. A genuinely provocative examination of technological accountability and what makes us ‘real’, with an astonishing performance from Haley Joel Osment (in a role Kubrick didn’t believe a child actor could play), it’s Spielberg’s most beautifully desolate, achingly human film.

A.I – Artificial Intelligence Trailer:

See also:


Dir & Scr: Richard Kelly

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott

Cinematic doomsday visions are two-a-penny nowadays but was there ever an apocalypse as wildly sprawling, discomfitingly baffling and joyously bonkers as Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales? Laughed out of its Cannes premiere, Kelly’s kitchen sink (as in ‘everything including’, not social realism) extravaganza’s modified vision is still borderline incoherent self-indulgence, but the whack-job casting, boundless ambition and snatches of sheer chutzpah – a beaten-up, beer-swilling Justin Timberlake miming The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ backed by a nurse chorus line – evokes the modern insanity its creator is targeting / supplying. Not for everyone, sure, but what self-respecting cult film is?

Southland Tales Clip: “I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not a Soldier”

7)            INNOCENCE (2004)

Dir & Scr: Lucile Hadzihalilovic

Stars: Zoé Auclair, Hélène de Fougerolles, Marion Cotillard

At an isolated boarding school deep in a forest, new pupils arrive in coffins via a thrumming subterranean passage. In pigtails, virginal white uniforms and coloured ribbons to denote age and hierarchy, the little girls are sequestered away in their bucolic prison / paradise, groomed by two devoted, sad-eyed teachers in etiquette, play and ballet, eventually to perform for unseen audiences and then graduate to the world outside to… Well, let’s say we’re not in Hogwarts any more.

The single most striking feature debut I saw this decade, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s existential faerie tale, based on a novella by Frank Spring Awakening Wedekind is a true one-off. Capable of flitting from pastoral idyll to Gothic horror, sometimes within the same scene, Innocence stakes out a ripe allegorical world for the prepubescent passage into maturity, yet suggests the universal perils for young girls growing up in a sexuality commodified and exploited world (not least by other women: “Obedience is the only path to happiness,” sighs Marion Cotillard’s opaque schoolmistress). Cynics will see the best paedophile recruitment programme since Mini Pops, but keener viewers will feel the discomfort over these young bodies in Hadzihalilovic’s unapologetically fecund mood piece as the entire point. Three successively older girls and their dealings with this oppressive, enclosed world form what narrative there is, the sense of dread at their eventual fate palpable (Hadzihalilovic’s partner is Irreversible shock merchant Gaspar Noe) – which makes the unexpected climax so appropriate, while still maintaining the film’s wondrous, bewitching enigma.

Innocence Trailer (French):

See also:


Dir: Tomas Alfredson  Scr: John Ajvide Lindqvist

Stars: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Pal Ragnar

For those who’d rather not sink their teeth into Twilight, True Blood or the legion of glam vampire tales clotting up screens everywhere, surely the antidote is this offbeat Swedish chiller about a bullied young boy who befriends a little girl-sized bloodsucker and the chaos unleashed by their unconventional friendship. Adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own Morrissey indebted-titled novel, director Tomas Alfredson’s brooding fantasy is a potent growing-pains parable, with some imaginatively shocking set pieces (notably the underwater pool finale) and an ambience of mournful Nordic decay, part-George Romero, part-Aki Kaurismaki. The most original horror film in years.

Let the Right One In Trailer:

6)            I FOR INDIA (2007)

Dir: Sandhya Suri

Stars: Yash Pal Suri, Sheel Suri, Vanita Suri

In a world that seems to exist only if captured on mobile phone, webcam or CCTV, let alone video, it’s hard to remember the original novelty of home movies – literally, the Super 8 film that early cine-enthusiasts used to record their lives.  Among the many things this little-known, superb documentary by British-Asian filmmaker Sandhya Suri does so adroitly is remind us of how fast and far we’ve come technologically, while emotional ties to home and family are the same longings felt since time immemorial. Suri’s doctor father Yash Pal emigrated from India to northern England with wife Sheel in the 1960s. Swapping Super 8 dispatches with his family back in Meerut, he proceeded to document his new life and children, the stream of audio-visual ‘letters’ a cord to his roots he never could sever.

Alongside this fascinatingly candid archive material, Suri cleverly uses patronizing TV of the time (‘The Dark Million’) to build an evolving Anglo-Indian portrait over forty-plus years. But above all, this is the story of one family’s journey from “exile” to – what? Integration? Yash’s footage says Yes – delight at snow, hospital antics – and No – casual racism, the emotional pull to return “home”. And as his children grow and seek their own places in the world, the cycle of leave-taking repeats itself with emotionally devastating results. The Suri triumph – father and daughter – is to confide without exploiting, to self-examine without self-pity and craft an intimate yet infinitely resonant, intensely moving chamber piece. And make you thank God for Skype.

I For India Trailer:

See also:


Dir: Andrew Jarecki

Stars: Arnold Friedman, Elaine Friedman, David Friedman

Some people just don’t know when to turn the camera off. Meet the Friedmans, a well-to-do Long Island Jewish clan, whose lives are torn apart when father Arnold and youngest son Jesse are accused of multiple counts of child molestation – and who have hours of footage of the entire under-siege family meltdown, courtesy of elder brother David (ironically New York’s premier children’s clown). Skilfully interwoven with interviews and investigation by first-time director Andrew Jarecki, this is one of the great inside jobs of journalism; neither damning prosecution, nor staunch defence, but a surrogate bearing witness of a family coming apart.

Capturing the Friedmans Trailer:

Films of the Decade – Part V: No.15 – No.11

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 28, 2009

Part I is playing the music over here.

Part II is lighting the lights up here.

Part III is putting on its make round about here.

And Part IV is dressing up right over here.

Just to clarify some potential confusion: each entry, from 30 down to Number 1, has two films listed. Only the first is on The List; the second (‘See Also’) is another fine, usually underrated film that, for me, somehow evokes the first and is worthy of at least a mention, if not an “official” placing. Plus the chance to big up the likes of Memories of MurderKeane, Anvil! and A Prairie Home Companion is just too good to pass up…

15)            GOSFORD PARK (2001)

Dir: Robert Altman  Scr: Julian Fellowes

Stars: Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith

Few US filmmakers seemed so defiantly American as Robert Altman. Poking holes in the hallowed fabric of jingoistic flag-wavers across wartime (M.A.S.H), myth-busting ‘Wild West’ history (McCabe & Mrs Miller), Hollywood (The Player) and contemporary urban malaise (Short Cuts), his patented creeping-vine camera, dense, overlapping audio and quirky ensembles appear not snide dissension, but rather the ultimate in onscreen democracy (though of course his style is just as ‘directed’). Transplanting this to a veddy-veddy English 1930’s country house, murder-mystery parlour game sounded a fraught yet fascinating, perhaps fatal, experiment. But we should have realised that Altman more than anyone, knows the rules of his particular game.

Gosford Park roams upstairs and downstairs, through upper-class ladies chambers and below-deck servants’ quarters, for a pitch-perfect dissection of class warfare and a witty comedy of so-called manners. Julian Fellowes’ sparkling, crystal chandelier of a script (replete with the sort of juicy one-liners that Maggie Smith and co devour for elevenses), allows Altman the refractions and reflections he savours, while an impeccable, largely British cast play backstairs intrigue to the hilt. A living, breathing, quietly seething masterpiece, it makes most ‘period’ movies look like the stuffy, fussy literary adaptations they are. Top hole, sir.

Gosford Park Clip: Murder

See also:


Dir: Robert Altman  Scr: Garrison Keillor

Stars: Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline

Great artists’ swansongs must be handled with care: few know that their latest work will in fact be their last, yet we mine them for clues to a final solution or summation. Still, this low-key, shaggy, sweet-natured tribute to another artist (Garrison Keillor) and medium (radio) altogether somehow feels like the perfect Altman send-off. A closing down theatre, a rag-tag company, even an angel of death serenely stalking the hallways; there’s a melancholy sense of loss that permeates the entire film, but never at the expense of self-pity. Which makes it an fitting elegy to an unsentimental, enduring, underdog spirit.

A Prairie Home Companion Trailer:

14)            MEMENTO (2000)

Dir & Scr: Christopher Nolan

Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

I’ve seen Memento half a dozen times at least, and every time its fractured retro-sequencing always takes me by surprise. Complex, confounding but never incoherent, Christopher Nolan’s corkscrewing mystery, based on brother Jonathan’s short story, is a formalist’s delight, told from back to front, as with Pinter’s Betrayal or Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. But fancy narrative tricks are mere surface pleasures. Delve further into Memento’s dank, rabbit-warren-heart and you uncover that rare beast where plot, character perspective and audience experience all meld as one.

Taking a hoary thriller cliché (a crime-solving amnesiac) Nolan spins his protagonist Leonard Shelby’s short-term memory loss handicap to constantly resituate and re-evaluate the actions and words of everyone around him – excluding, tragically, himself. The underlying notion that we all, to varying degrees, lead lives of continual, rationalized self-deception is profoundly dispiriting stuff; but Nolan’s Chinese box-structuring and sneaky black humour – a chase where Shelby doesn’t know if he’s hunter or hunted – makes the whole disorientating mind-f*ck exhilarating. A film designed for today’s ADD, piecemeal re-viewing (spot the chilling freeze frame switch during the ‘Sammy Jankis’ episode), Memento inevitably propelled Nolan to Hollywood’s A-list, where despite Batman successes, he’s yet to top this haunting modern classic.

Memento Clip: Sammy Jankis

See also:


Dir: Paul Greengrass  Scr: Tony Gilroy

Stars: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, Brian Cox

No one could accuse Robert Ludlum’s lumpen airport novels of sophistication, let alone craft, which makes the resurrection of his amnesiac rogue operative Jason Bourne the decade’s most heartening revival. Doug Liman kicked things off with Identity, but when British director Paul Greengrass’s virtuoso, neo-cubist handheld shooting and breakneck editing took over, the series truly came alive. Supremacy’s raw, visceral stunts and breathless, up-close combat – here and in the later Ultimatum – raised the bar for modern movie action (even jumpstarting James Bond), all anchored by unusually thoughtful Tony Gilroy scripts and Matt Damon’s bruised (and bruising), understated star power.

The Bourne Supremacy Trailer:

13)            TALK TO HER (2002)

Dir & Scr: Pedro Almodóvar

Stars: Javier Cámara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonor Watling

I’ve tried hard to avoid tokenism on this list, but if there’s one director who had to be represented at all costs, it’s our Pedro. With the possible exception of Wes Anderson, I can’t think of another filmmaker this decade as prolific, unique, stylistically consistent and consistently excellent. Bad Education, Volver, even Broken Embraces could all grace any ‘Best Of’ round-up, but, somewhat predictably, I’ve gone for perhaps his most acclaimed and honoured achievement. Well, sometimes even the critics get it right.

The story of two ‘girlfriends’, dancer and bullfighter, in a coma and the two men, nurse and journalist, devoted to them, it’s an irresistible set up for Almodóvar to weave another of his intricate, swooning meditations on love in all its often disturbing guises. He effortlessly shuffles timeframes and relationship dynamics (and from nowhere, a masterful surreal, monochrome silent short film), successive temporal and personal layers fanning out ever more complex, contentious readings of each protagonist’s desires, fears and disabilities, physical or emotional (or both). Eschewing a trademark female ‘muse’ performance, a la Carmen Maura or Penelope Cruz, Almodóvar’s group of inspired actors show how, at his peerless best, the maestro communicates straight from, and to, the heart.

Talk to Her Trailer:

See also:

OFFSIDE (2006)

Dir: Jafar Panahi  Scr: Panahi & Shadmehr Rastin

Stars: Sima Mobarak-Shahi, Shayesteh Irani, Ayda Sadeqi

Remember Life of Brian’s sketch about disguised women illegally attending stonings? Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (Crimson Gold, The Circle) takes a break from punishing social tracts for a comedy that echoes Monty Python, deftly scoring serious points about his country’s ludicrous gender inequality. Panahi’s intrepid football-mad ladies, prohibited from attending matches, dress up as lads determined to see their national team play a crucial World Cup qualifier. As in Alan Clarke’s The Firm, football action itself is scarcely glimpsed, throwing the focus on another grossly uneven field of play in extended take, charming vignettes. A cheeky, voluble true underdog story.

Offside clip: “She’s a first timer.”

12)            SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004)

Dir: Edgar Wright  Scr: Wright & Simon Pegg

Stars: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Nick Frost

[From my original capsule review] “Only genuine fans could make a respectful homage (to George A. Romero’s Living Dead series) and only genuine talents could simultaneously mark out their own big screen turf in such style. Director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg’s script never settles for mere parody. Instead they slice and dice genres, expertly blending gut-wrenching gore and gut-busting laughs, while still crafting a gripping, poignant redemption story. Chock-full of lovely casual touches – Pegg meeting Spaced co-star Jessica Hynes’s like-for-like team of survivors – and great comedic performances, Shaun even nails a sly portrait of sleepwalking, suburban 21st century Britain.”

Five years on, with Wright, Pegg and Frost now best buddies with Spielberg and Tarantino, their success seems almost preordained. But what made Shaun the sole survivor among other DOA TV-to-film transfers (Mitchell & Webb’s Magicians, Lesbian Vampire Killers) is equal attention to beautifully crafted gags and that unerring portrait of modern life(lessness) and male arrested development. Put simply, it’s comic chops that scores a zombie attack (in time) to Queen; it’s far greater ambition that offers social commentary the match of Loach and Leigh. And neither of them imagined your overgrown kid mate as an undead pet. Comedy of the decade.

Shaun of the Dead clip: ‘White Lines’

See also:


Dir: Stephen Frears  Scr: D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg

Stars: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black

If there’s one overworked, juvenile trope in recent comedy, it’s the overgrown man-child finally forced to grow up (Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and co have fashioned whole careers from it). Thank goodness then for this mature, textbook adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, switched from London to Chicago, with John Cusack confiding to camera about his lifelong, list-making love affair with rock music and rocky romantic track record. Clear-eyed and honest about male insecurities and infidelities, Cusack’s on top rain-drenched, lovelorn form. Funny, savvy and featuring a joyously eclectic All Time Top Five soundtrack (13th Floor Elevators, Beta Band, Stevie Wonder).

High Fidelity clip: The Beta Band

11)            CITY OF GOD (2002)

Dir: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund Scr: Bráulio Mantovani

Stars: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Douglas Silva

Hard to ignore a sensationalist media tagline like “the Brazilian Goodfellas;” but on its original international release, there were genuine fears that this panoramic, decade-spanning crime epic set in the eponymous Rio favela could easily slip through the subtitled cracks. Now, laden with awards and along with say, Amelie and Pan’s Labyrinth, one of the few official foreign-language crossover hits (on permanent DVD price reduction at your local megastore), City of God’s success has somewhat backfired. Claims abound that Fernando Meirelles’ showy camera moves, multi-track edits and hypnotically percussive soundtrack only glorify the gun-toting drug dealers and shantytown hoods; that the titular irony is simplistic.

Interesting that Scorsese’s mob rarely suffered similar accusations, but pedantry and cheap comparisons aside, quite simply this is electrifying filmmaking. Working from Paulho Lins’ mammoth novel, Meirelles and Lund’s sinuous, hot-blooded style is seductive, but also gritty enough to shine a light on the shameful reality of desperation-borne greed and dead-eyed amorality bred by relentless, state-sanctioned poverty. They also elicit knockout performances from a roster of abandoned street kids, effectively leading by socially responsible example. Such altruism is noble – and obviously necessary – but matters little without onscreen dynamism. City of God blazes from both barrels.

City of God clip: L’il Ze

See also:


Dir: Paul Verhoeven  Scr: Verhoeven & Gerard Soeteman

Stars: Carice Van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman

You know that unwritten rule that sombre history be rendered with reverence? Paul Verhoeven doesn’t. [again, from BBC Collective] “An epic, rip-roaring, double-crossing wartime thriller, Black Book finds Dutchman Verhoeven back home after 20 years goosing America’s skirts and on top form. Accept Schindler’s List remade as an unashamed B-movie spy throwback and enjoy the outrageous exploits of Rachel (a star-making turn from luminous Carice Van Houten), betrayed Jewish fugitive-turned-resistance-fighter-turned-Nazi mole. Verhoeven’s still kinky (check out the cheeky Basic Instinct full-frontal reference) but hasn’t shown such rigour and purpose in decades, subtly needling his own Hollywood impulses and climaxing with one of cinema’s great cynical final shots. Orange pulp of the highest quality.”

Black Book trailer:

Films of the Decade – Part IV: No.20 – No.16

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 15, 2009

Part I can be found here.

Part II is twiddling its thumbs here.

And Part III is lurking about over here.

20) CODE UNKNOWN (2000)

Dir & Scr: Michael Haneke

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Luminita Gheorghiu

Given Michael Haneke’s deserved reputation as modern cinema’s stern professor, a withholding elder prone to doling out moral lessons and punishing the easily satisfied, presumably preferring Code Unknown to his later, designated masterpiece Hidden would be applauded in its perversity of judgment. Of course, in reality Haneke wouldn’t care less; either way, you the audience have to work like crazy to decipher his glacial sociological treatises. Anything less is a waste of time. His time, naturally, not yours.

Code Unknown is no less formally precise and unblinking, piercingly intelligent and utterly remorseless as Hidden. But for me, arguably, there are glimmers of hope, of laughter, of vibrant, spontaneous life here often excluded in Haneke’s minutely calibrated work and, thankfully, a less hectoring tone too. A multi-character (led by the wonderfully unadorned Binoche), multi-strand narrative that’s the polar opposite to the likes of Crash’s neat, tick-boxed, catch-all thesis, the subtitle “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” is about as upfront as Haneke ever gets. A series of extended sequences, often in smooth, unobtrusive lateral tracking shots, punctuated by violent cuts to black, it brilliantly exposes modern life’s disconnects, false assumptions and bitter ironies, never better illustrated than in its masterly opening shot. (see below).

Code Unknown Opening Scene:

see also:


Dir & Scr: Fatih Akin

Stars: Baki Davrak, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Hanna Schygulla

Akin follows up his full throttle debut Head On with a more tempered, but equally enthralling look at the cultural politics of his own German-Turkish background. An interlinked, three-part, dual relationship story – the tragic, foretold deaths of a Turkish woman in Germany and German woman in Turkey – Akin uses his straightforward symmetry to constantly surprise and delve into a pair of fascinatingly unorthodox couplings and the impact felt on those around them. The original German title, “On the Other Side”, more clearly shows Akin’s sensitivity to how two different cultures switch, clash but ultimately, might reconcile through their common humanity.

The Edge of Heaven Trailer:

19) UP

Dir & Scr: Pete Docter  / Bob Peterson

Voices: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer

America’s greatest movie success story of this (any?) decade, Pixar Animation Studios seems to have it all: a challenging yet nurturing work environment whose “brain trust” of experts still defers to individual filmmakers; cutting-edge technology at the service of inventive, soulful stories; and that elusive ability to continually astound, engross and delight the proverbial kids of all ages.

Not that there aren’t certain formulas in play across Pixar’s output (buddy movies, frantic chase finales), but it’s their successes’ sheer nerve rather than complacency that amazes. Up’s premise – a flying house powered by helium balloons – screams multiplex bonanza. But would anyone else tether this high-concept to the tale of a grumpy old widower bound for Venezuela? Accompanied by a chubby Korean-American boy scout? Decisions like these separate Pixar from the pretenders (and justify the more crowd-pleasing talking dogs and airship pursuits); visually, too, not only is the digital animation ever more fluid, so is the storytelling. The ‘Carl & Ellie’ montage here combines Wall-E’s graceful, silent economy with the emotional wallop of Toy Story 2’s ‘Jessie’s song’ for a true heartbreaker. For anyone else, you’d think it must be downhill from here. For Pixar, you sense, the only way is Up.

Up Trailer:

See also:


Dir: Sacha Gervasi

Stars: Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, Robb Reiner, Slash

As in Up, here are more old fogeys still doggedly pursuing their dream, though these metalheads raise the roof with amps that go to 11 (and numerous other Spinal Tap-isms – what ya gonna do when your drummer’s called Robb Reiner?!) rather than balloons. Former Anvil roadie-turned-Spielberg screenwriter Sacha Gervasi’s affectionate documentary on his ageing rock idols impresses for how straight he plays things, allowing Lips and co’s own priceless unintentional comedy and puppyish sincerity to finally make it, entertain and, ultimately, genuinely move us. Ideally seen on a double bill with Tap and not embarrassed in such prestigious company.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil Trailer:


Dir & Scr: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck

Stars: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch

Some of the best German films this decade have confronted their country’s troubled past head on, from Hitler’s Downfall to Goodbye Lenin!’s just-reunified Berlin. In The Lives of Others, the Wall and Communism are still very much in place as writer-director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck insinuates us into Stasi Officer Wiesler’s head(phones). A devoted implement of the state, Wiesler dispassionately eavesdrops on the GDR’s star playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress lover Christa-Maria Sieland to find incriminating evidence. Slowly, though, he’s captivated by the lives of these alluring, intriguing, disarmingly fragile others.

No mere simplistic morality play, HVD constructs a fiendishly intricate set of interlocking character studies and, alongside Coppola’s The Conversation, captures the definitive take on the illicit thrills and anguish of voyeurism. East Germany’s drab, neo-Orwellian bureaucracy is terrifying in its banality and mirroring its two male leads – both patriots, writers documenting their times, infatuated with the same tragic woman – adroitly shows how oppressive paranoia affects everyone it touches. Unashamedly endorsing art’s healing power and the basic act of ‘doing good’, the film personalises (and so dramatizes) the political through the superbly alert, internalized performance of the late great Ulrich Mühe’s Wiesler, one of modern cinema’s great anti-heroes.

The Lives of Others Clip: Wiesler’s Turning Point:

See also:


Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci  Scr: Gilbert Adair

Stars: Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel

Paris, Spring 1968. Revolution’s in the air but for three giddy cinephile adolescents (French siblings and an American interloper) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sensual, explicit celebration of cinema, sex and youth, the true cause is movies. [From my original BBC Collective review] “Aren’t the supposed sexual politics merely sex instead of actual political engagement? …the film’s point is how the threesome avoids direct confrontation with the real world by taking refuge in fantasy – until the revolution literally comes crashing through the window. Less a wake-up call to today’s apathetic youth, more a ravishing trip down memory lane, it’s dreamy stuff, nonetheless, and Bertolucci’s best in decades.”

The Dreamers Trailer:

17) A SERIOUS MAN (2009)

Dir & Scr: Joel & Ethan Coen

Stars: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Fred Melamed

A prolific if variable decade from arguably today’s pre-eminent US filmmakers ends with their most personal – i.e. Jewish – and, for me, finest achievement since 1990’s Miller’s Crossing (and given interim brilliance like Hudsucker, Fargo, No Country etc, that’s some going). Featuring the late-60s Midwest suburbs of their youth, it’s another black comedy that mines outrageous mirth from the sort of cringe-making indignities that would sustain a dozen domestic dramas. Yet, as with the inner-ear / Jefferson Airplane shot near the beginning (you’ll know it when you see it), it feels that the Coens are really inside their characters’ pain this time and not just giggling down from on high. It’s serious laughter.

The image composition, editing, evocative use of sound and music are predictably immaculate, but what makes this film even more fascinatingly addictive is the use of Jewish mysticism as both question of genuine faith and Borscht Belt punchline. It’s a daring gambit but succeeds because of the refined absurdist humour and stellar deadpan performances from a cast of lesser-known stage veterans, chiefly Michael Stuhlbarg as their befuddled suburban Job. All-powerful and unknowable, the Coens are arcane and unyielding gods – but seriously, do we worship any other kind?

A Serious Man Clip: “I’ve Tried to be a Serious Man.”

See also:


Dir: Spike Jonze  Scr: Charlie Kaufman

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

…or another desperately serious man trying to flourish in a cold world. After 1999’s insanely inspired Being John Malkovich, where else would Spike Jonze and screenwriting genius Charlie Kaufman go other than ponder Being Charlie Kaufman? With two great Nicolas Cage performances as tormented artist Charlie and (fictional) sweet-natured sell-out twin brother Donald navigating Hollywood’s straitjacket storytelling, it’s another bravura act of mischievous, self-reflexive, narrative knotting whose gear-changing third act somehow honours clichéd conventions whilst still subverting them. All this and note-perfect tragicomic turns from the sublime Streep and Chris Cooper, Adaptation only confirmed Kaufman (and Jonze) as true originals.

Adaptation Clip: The Beginning


Dir & Scr: Catherine Breillat

Stars: Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Arsinée Khanjian

Having endured 1999’s Romance, French provocatrice Catherine Breillat’s tediously explicit, near-pastiche of po-faced sexual theorising, her follow-up on the exploitation and youthfully deluded expectation of adolescent girls wasn’t exactly on the must-see list. But nothing could prepare for the icy, confrontational brilliance of À Ma Soeur! in which Breillat operates on teenage fantasy like a surgeon doing a heart transplant. Only Breillat takes hers out.

Two young siblings, chubby pre-teen Anaïs and fifteen-year-old nymph Elena, holiday with their parents. They bicker, taunt each other’s appearance, but they’re blood sisters and at night in their bedroom, Anaïs bears witness as a lothario Italian student tries to bed Elena. It’s a remarkable extended scene that shows up seedy male manipulation but has nothing on the film’s shocking climax (and dread-soaked approach), which gives previously stated desires a horrific twist. Breillat snakes the typically romanticized coming-of-age saga into something savage and primal; and though her tendentious body politics are not for everyone, the film’s corrosive ideas scar your reeling mind for days. One last thing: the film’s English-language title Fat Girl peddles the pseudo-rabble-rousing that Romance served up; yet its cheap label can’t disguise the potency of this penetrating, genuinely disturbing feminist masterwork.

À Ma Soeur! Trailer:

See also:


Dir & Scr: Pawel Pawlikowski

Stars: Nathalie Press, Emily Blunt, Paddy Considine

Polish-born Pawlikowski’s last feature to date is a peculiarly timeless British coming-of-age fable that ambitiously aims at so much – class, sexuality, spirituality – and hits every target. Based on a Helen Cross novel, Pawlikowski and lenser Ryszard Lenczewski’s febrile images steep the Yorkshire Dales in a hazy glow that reflects, even triggers, the fevered, intense relationship between scrappy orphan Mona and privileged bohemian Tamsin. While viewers are seduced into this dangerous world of lyricism and lust (with tender yet erotic love scenes), Pawlikowski remains clear-eyed and tough on the deceptions we all cast, eliciting sensuous star-making performances from Press and Blunt.

My Summer of Love Clip: ‘Edith Piaf’

Film Review(s): Before Sunset

Posted in Film Reviews by le1gh on December 11, 2009

I found a couple of my reviews on the same film, Richard Linklater’s lovely Before Sunset. One is an 80-word capsule, the other a more involved discussion. Interesting to see which one feels more effective five years on.

And for the record, although I never outright say it and contrary to popular opinion, Before Sunrise, its predecessor, is my favourite. Must be a preference for naive youthful optimism over rueful thirty-something experience…

Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy in Before Sunset

Before Sunset (2004)

Dir: Richard Linklater  Scr: Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy.

Capsule Review:

The morning after the night before.
Hopelessly romantic film fan WLTM cute US guy and hot French girl, early 30s, to rekindle decade-old one-night love affair. Remember Vienna ’95? How about Paris ’04? Likes: walking, talking, politics, Nina Simone. Dislikes: guns, Bush, silence, regrets… Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater have somehow recaptured the fragile magic of Before Sunrise in this real-time, beautifully bittersweet follow-up. Sure, it preaches to the converted, but indulge those passions and for once you’ll feel better in the morning.

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater writing Before Sunset

Longer Review:

At the end of 1995’s Before Sunrise it wasn’t just the two nominal leads who felt the joy and pain of a fleeting romance. Since its low-key release, Richard Linklater’s twilight love story between an American backpacker and a Parisian traveler over a magical night in Vienna has become a genuine and growing cult item. Its heartfelt look at two young people tentatively feeling – and incessantly talking – their way through the confusions of life and love was worlds away from traditional Hollywood romantic comedies, with their tedious meet-cute, crack-wise and pair-up routine. The sense of something real and unpredictable lingered at the film’s climax, despite Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine promise to reunite six months later (neglecting to swap contact details didn’t exactly fill you with confidence). Nevertheless, and all box-office evidence to the contrary, this was one story where a new chapter was genuinely desired, even if a sequel seemed to go against everything that Before Sunrise stood for.

Yet here we all are. The adroitly titled Before Sunset picks up with Jesse and Celine nine years down the road. Jesse is in Paris to promote a new novel, based on that night in Vienna, when Celine turns up at the bookshop press conference. Reintroductions are a little awkward, conversation a little stilted and defensive, but gradually, as they wander through a Paris mercifully devoid of iconic tourist sights, Jesse and Celine seem to reconnect. We learn about what happened to the planned Viennese reunion and why; what life has held for each of them in the meantime (Jesse is unhappily married with a young son, Celine is an environmental activist drifting in and out of passionate but short-lived relationships); eventually we even light on the burning question – what will happen now they’ve finally found each other again?

Unfolding in real time before Jesse flies back to the US, Linklater’s deceptively simple shooting style focuses attention on Jesse and Celine even more exclusively than in the first film. Interesting too, how Before Sunrise’s luminous optimism – flashbacks cruelly show how Hawke’s boyish, fleshy features have been stretched taut by the passing years – has inevitably shifted into a more shadowy recognition of the darkness on the edge of every relationship, every uncertain choice made.

Written this time by the leads in collaboration with Linklater, the personal investment in character and storyline almost feels like therapy for the Hawke, Delpy and Linklater. Without doubt a degree of autobiography is invited; Hawke is indeed a published author and his well-documented split with Uma Thurman hardly resists reading between the lines that he wrote himself for his character trapped in a loveless marriage. Likewise Delpy has become known in France as a songwriter as much as an actress and her sweet, self-penned ballads bookend the film.

The enchanting thing about these films is that this voyeuristic element, while admittedly part of the appeal, never overwhelms the narrative. It’s the fictional equivalent to those ‘7Up’ documentaries that revisit the same set of people every seven years and you wonder why more filmmakers don’t explore this idea on film. Francois Truffaut and actor Jean-Pierre Leaud’s four ‘Antoine Doinel’ films (plus a short) from The 400 Blows to Love on the Run were a huge success, though Coppola and Pacino almost spoiled their Godfather legacy with a late, substandard third part. The ambiguous conclusion here leaves further adventures for Jesse and Celine very much open.

Is the film preaching to the converted? Although the flashbacks try to give a quick summing up of the story so far, without a doubt this is a film primarily for longtime fans. That’s not to say no one else is invited but it’s strange to think newcomers will enjoy the same sense of resonance and poignancy as those who’ve been dreaming about Vienna for nearly a decade.

‘What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?’ asks the tagline. Those not already smitten may be bemused by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy’s defiantly unconventional ongoing romance; but anyone who fell for them the first time will find Before Sunset impossible to resist.

Before Sunset Clip:

Acting Up: why the case for using non-professional actors is often unprofessional.

Posted in Commentary by le1gh on December 11, 2009

A version of this article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Film & Festivals online magazine.

A scene from Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008)

I used to wind up a good friend of mine, an American actor who’d studied at LAMDA in London and regularly took – and firmly believed in – acting classes back in New York. Surely, I’d argue with a wink, his chosen profession was one of the few in which you can achieve success without any formal schooling whatsoever?

Indeed, cinema history is studded with complete amateurs acclaimed for their performances: no rehearsing Shakespearean soliloquies and or attempts at the Stanislavski ‘Method’ helped Dr. Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields) or World War Two double amputee Harold Russell (The Best Days of Our Lives) win Oscars. As dedication to a craft goes, it’s not exactly the training required by those taking up, say, open-heart surgery or piloting a 747.

When Laurent Cantet’s The Class (Entre Les Murs) won the Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier this year, the ceremony’s most enjoyable moment came when his non-professional cast of inner city school kids invaded the stage, adding some much needed spontaneity and joie de vivre to the largely stuffy formalities. Cantet is one of the increasing number of contemporary filmmakers who regularly turns to novices to populate his films. Some directors such as Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light) or Bruno Dumont (L’Humanite, Flanders) rarely do anything else; even experienced pros used to working with A-list stars, such as Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Paranoid Park) or Steven Soderbergh (Bubble) have followed suit.

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003)

This is no new trend either. Robert Bresson was famous for his amateur ‘actor-models’; Italian neo-realism’s documentary-like impulse involved drawing its casts, at least in part, from people on the street. So what governs this impulse? And why is it making such a comeback?

One obvious factor is that, Will Smith apart, stars are a less secure guarantee of box-office success than ever before. Moreover in today’s 24-7 rolling media and cult of celebrity, it’s not just mystique that actors might be losing; it’s the ability to do their job. If we define acting as the ability to make-believe that you are actually someone else, overexposure is the actor’s Kryptonite (icons are different; fans look for continuity from, say, John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe, not variation).

However if you listen to the reasons given by today’s back-to-basics filmmakers, there’s a disconcerting slant to their professed motives: a refutation of acting itself. “I’m interested in what a person gives off or emanates by himself, what he is,” Carlos Reygadas once told me. “I don’t need him to represent anything.”

“I love the way non-professional actors perform,” Laurent Cantet said of his film Ressources Humaines, where he featured genuine unemployed assembly line workers. “Maybe it’s not as smooth as the professionals, but I feel it’s more authentic… It’s in the way he stands in front of his machine, that’s something that nobody could actually simulate, I think.” [my italics]

Avoiding movie star baggage is one thing; utilising a person’s own experiences to inform their role (Ngor was persecuted by the Khmer Rouge as was his character Dith Pran; Russell was a real WWII veteran) another; but to claim a non-professional is inherently more effective than a professional? That’s just unprofessional.

Dr. Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields (1984)

What usually defines the use of non-professionals in fiction films is their characters frequent (im)passivity. Think of the inert, near-silent chauffeur lead in Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven; the lumbering, inscrutable detective in Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite; the monosyllabic, put-upon courier of Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold; the affectless students of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant; even the dead-end teenage drug addicts in Duane Hopkins’s Better Things.

In every case, there doesn’t seem to be much acting required, or even asked for. Robert Bresson was famous for having his ‘actor /models’ repeat multiple takes of every scene until all vestiges of “performance” had been eroded and it suited his pared-down style of filmmaking. Elsewhere I’d argue the results are less than ideal. The directors are literally shooting blanks. It’s scant surprise that none of Soderbergh’s listless Bubble cast have gone on to other work since.

One might argue they’re merely using the age-old convention of letting the audience do the work. In the famous final shot of weepie Queen Christina, director Rouben Mamoulian told Greta Garbo, “Think nothing.” She did and audiences projected all her dashed hopes and dreams themselves.

Greta Garbo in the famous final scene from Queen Christina (1933)

The thing is, Greta Garbo had far more power and control over her screen persona than today’s non-professionals. There’s a slightly sinister undercurrent to current methodology. Reygadas on the explicit sexual scenes he demanded of leads Marcos Hernandez and Anapola Mushkadiz: “They just got naked and did what I said and that was it.” Dumont on directing his performers: “I don’t like saying to someone: ‘do this for me.’ I put them in a situation, I blow up a wall without telling them, and I see the look on their faces afterwards.”

I don’t want to exaggerate the idea of exploitation, but it’s certainly a way for the filmmaker to keep control – how many untried and untested actors will stand up to an experienced director?

Of course there are first-timers or novices who are complete naturals and go on to establish decent acting careers for themselves – R. Lee Ermey, the foul-mouthed drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, is one; Thomas Turgoose in the last two Shane Meadows films looks to be another.

But isn’t this the point? Their work is the beginning of something, not the means to a dead-end. Acting may be a job that someone with no experience can instantly take to. But good actors, like any other professionals, continue to work on and hone their craft. A good actor offers the director give and take, a variety of options and isn’t just a mannequin to be arranged like a prop. And a good actor, particularly an unknown quantity, should be able to disappear into his role as well as, if not better than, any amateur.

In a profession with unemployment hovering in the high 90s percentile, to simply ignore trained, talented professionals in a disingenuous quest for ‘authenticity’ is poor pretense. You might even say it’s bad acting.

Films of the Decade – Part III: No.24 – No.21

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 11, 2009

Part I can be found here:

Part II is here:

24)            IN THIS WORLD (2002)

Dir: Michael Winterbottom  Scr: Tony Grisoni

Stars: Jamal Udin Torabi, Enayatullah

With ten films this decade, from larky Madchester chronicle 24 Hour Party People to chilly dystopian sci-fi Code 46, protean Michael Winterbottom is Britain’s busiest filmmaker. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, a la Spinal Tap being metal’s “loudest band”, but the ceaseless hive of activity Winterbottom generates, criss-crossing genres and global locations, adds to his particular brand of mercurial work, never as impactful as 2002’s In This World.

Scripted documentary? Vérité drama? Winterbottom ducks and dives along the borders of fact and fiction, he and unsung writer Tony Grisoni laying out a framework, but then grabbing two non-professional Afghan refugees, Jamal and Enayat, and basically accompanying them on a hellish attempted flight to London, via tourist meccas Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. Using a skeletal crew and opportunist digital camerawork that matches its material step-by-improvised-step (traumatic rides in cramped pick-up trucks and stifling cargo containers), it’s possibly the tensest road movie ever made. But one that still finds time to rejoice in small wonders: ice cream in Tehran; street football kickabouts, well, anywhere. Winterbottom flips the knee-jerk xenophobic views of immigration to show with sad-eyed wonder, that this world, in all its hostility and beauty, is all we all have.

In This World Clip (Italian subtitles):

See also:

THE CLASS (2008)

Dir: Laurent Cantet  Scr: Cantet, Robin Campillo, François Bégaudeau

Stars: François Bégaudeau, Boubacar Toure, Dalla Doucoure

A pet peeve of mine is the trend for casting non-professionals, assuming they’re more ‘real.’ Want a new face? How about the thousands of unknown trained actors out there? That said, authenticity is rarely so expertly achieved as in Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or-winner, about genuine inner city, multi-ethnic schoolkids and the teacher struggling to understand, let alone instruct them. Based on lead Bégaudeau’s own autobiographical tome, Cantet’s fine-tuned intuition showcases the unaffected, vibrant performances of his kids, the constant classroom negotiations of language and discipline, boldly remaining almost exclusively within school walls. Probably the best movie about teaching ever made.

The Class Clip: Apologise

23)            SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)

Dir: Richard Linklater  Scr: Mike White

Stars: Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White

Star performances don’t necessarily have to come from the greatest actors. Few people would credit Jack Black with a whole lotta range, but plug him in to trademark schlubby, self-obsessed man-child setting, turn the mania all the way up and watch him power an entire movie. Playing an ageing wannabe guitar hero turned fake substitute teacher and making use of his own Tenacious D rawk background, this is his fret-busting, string-shredding magnum opus; his (screenwriter Mike) White album; his stairway to movie star heaven.

What makes School of Rock more than just a Black hit single, in fact one of the best, most uplifting fish-out-of-water / inspirational-teacher / underdog comedies (talk about covering your bases) in years, is ultimately director Richard Linklater. He turns White’s deft, irreverent script into a symphonic ensemble with pinpoint junior casting – not a stage-school brat in sight, these kids are more than alright – instinctively knowing when to allow the film to breathe as a real group effort and when to let Black loose. It all seems so effortless but if mainstream Hollywood comedy were this easy, School would be the rule, not the exception. Then again, not all comedies are backed in Black.

School of Rock Clip: Guitar Lessons

See also:


Dir: Jacques Audiard  Scr: Audiard, Tonino Benacquista

Stars: Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Linh Dan Pham

Refreshing to see a foreign-language remake of a Hollywood film given how much America scavenges from abroad, especially one as assured as Audiard’s reinvention of James Toback’s 1978 debut Fingers. Yet for all Audiard’s delicate precision, it’s rising star Romain Duris’ simmering presence that powers the film. Both violent debt collector for his crooked father and passionate piano prodigy, Duris’ bottled-up, finger-tapping restlessness wordlessly conveys the constant internal battle between brutal, cornered reality and soulful artistic escape. His intensity and daring vulnerability wholly matches Harvey Keitel’s go-for-broke performance in the original, announcing Duris as France’s acting find of the decade.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped Trailer:

22)            CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)

Dir: Ang Lee  Scr: Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai, James Schamus

Stars: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Ang Lee, of refined dramas Sense and Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet – directing a no-holds-barred martial arts movie? Actually Lee’s fastidious aesthetic suits the unrequited love and repressed emotional strand of this handsome wu xia (“martial chivalry”) epic, as do actors of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh’s innate nobility. But as anyone ambushed by Crouching Tiger knows, it’s the astounding leaps and bounds of its gravity-defying fight scenes that sweep you off your feet.

While mainstream critics raved, Asian cinephiles griped that earlier masterpieces like The Magic Blade or A Touch of Zen had done it all before, without the patina of arthouse kudos. Perhaps. But Lee respects and understands tradition, taking a 1930s story cycle, insisting on poetic, word-perfect Mandarin from his non-native-speaking cast and co-opting legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (fresh off The Matrix). The resulting kinetic sequences, notably a night time rooftop pursuit and Chow and firecracker Zhang Ziyi’s mesmerising ballet atop swaying bamboo trees, are jaw-droppers in their own right. And as an emissary to bring a ghettoized genre to wider acclaim, ushering in similarly spectacular, coloured-coded martial artistry like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, it’s unparalleled. Next up, Michael Haneke tackles Transformers 3.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Rooftop Pursuit:

See also:


Dir & Scr: Wong Kar-Wai

Stars: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk

The curlicue of backlit cigarette smoke, the contours of lustrous cheongsam, the shimmer of neon-hued, rain-slicked streets, the momentary caress of fingertips… Something about Asian society’s more decorous, formal codes lend themselves to tales of forbidden love that used to be Jane Austen and co’s province. Honeycomb-lit stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung – brought together by their respective, unseen spouses’ illicit affair – are achingly gorgeous, but lest this all appear a mere Hong Kong fashion spread, Wong’s fragmented, dreamlike structure and facility to tease alienation and emotional echoes from dazzling surfaces makes a mood piece some altogether more resonant.

In the Mood for Love trailer:

21)            THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)

Dir: Wes Anderson  Scr: Anderson & Owen Wilson

Stars: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston

“Family isn’t a word… it’s a sentence” runs the snarky tagline for Wes Anderson’s terrific Tenenbaums, inadvertently highlighting the clever-clever hipness that Anderson’s critics think he’s all about, but missing the messy, heartfelt melancholy that underpins it. Whimsical, theatrical (the cast practically get curtain calls) and flaunting influences * – Scorsese slow-mo, Welles’ wide-angles, even Charles Schulz’s Peanuts – like merit badges, Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, as did their Rushmore protagonist Max Fischer, create a hermetic, bourgeois, storybook world (snappily narrated by Alec Baldwin) in which to strut their precocious stuff. Gritty social realism it ain’t.

Instead Anderson places these self-obsessed dreamers under an ornate magnifying glass, gently raising the dramatic heat until their protective carapaces and quirks melt away, revealing the screwed-up big kids beneath – none bigger than hustler father Royal, the great Gene Hackman’s last great role. Indeed Anderson’s entire crack repertory company – Huston, Bill Murray, the Wilsons – are at their tragic-comic peak; few screen moments choke me up more than Ben Stiller’s plaintive “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” and Hackman’s gruff, overdue consolation. Family isn’t a sentence for Anderson, it’s a series of cinematic letters, perhaps his life’s work; Tenenbaums is a great American novel. On film.

The Royal Tenenbaums Trailer:

* see the superb video essay series on Anderson’s influences by critic and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz here.

See also:


Dir & Scr: Lukas Moodysson

Stars: Gustaf Hammarsten, Lisa Lindgren, Michael Nyqvist

You can choose your friends, but not your family – unless you try and make your friends your family. But what if they’re not really your friends? Lukas Moodysson’s touching, hilarious comedy occupies a 70s left-wing Swedish commune, where free love has emotional costs and kids games involve playing tortured Pinochet prisoners. Moodysson gently torments his motley crew of inactive political activists and jaded romantics with a warmth (and Abba soundtrack) missing from later attempts to shock, despite being usurped as Europe’s reigning cinematic enfant terrible by Von Trier and Gaspar Noe. Maybe like his commune-ists, he just needs a hug.

Together Clip: “Franco is Dead.”

Films of the Decade – Part II: No.27 – No.25

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 6, 2009

Part I can be found here:

27) DOGVILLE (2003)

Dir & Scr: Lars Von Trier

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall

Some artists react to critical contempt like vampires to crucifixes. Puckish Dane Lars Von Trier, however, obviously revels in it. With the boredom threshold – and, often, subtlety – of an ADD toddler, his catalog of cinematic pranks, abusing – purportedly – Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) the mentally-challenged (The Idiots) or the entire female race (genital-snipping Antichrist) usually leave me cold. Which makes Dogville, effectively a three-hour invective on man’s bestial nature, shot on a bare bones, chalk-marked soundstage, all the more astonishing.

You can – and many did – skewer VT for more casual, sneering misogyny and anti-Americanism (a country he’s never set foot in). But his neo-Brechtian, Thornton Wilder-esque satire of a small Colorado town that cheerily takes in, then ruthlessly takes advantage of Nicole Kidman’s fugitive Grace, is a fascinating, utterly effective experiment. It not only flips his traditional ‘sacrificial-waif’ narrative, but its blank canvas daringly posits his grim tale’s oppression as universal as it is depressingly familiar, while a fearless Kidman’s towering performance cocks a hind leg over the intentional artificiality. Ending with an inciting, David Bowie-scored middle finger salute to America’s historical treatment of its disenfranchised (two years pre-Katrina), for once the Dane’s audacious barking matches his bite.

Dogville Clip: Grace is Punished

See also:


Dir: Alexander Sokurov Scr: Sokurov, Anatoli Nikiforov

Stars: Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Natalya Nikulenko

Whereas Hitchcock had to keep ducking behind furniture to maintain the illusion of a continuous take on 1948’s Rope, Alexander Sokurov ‘only’ had to choreograph a single, continuous 96-minute digital shot. As an unseen narrator (Sokurov himself) accompanies a mysterious stranger on a gliding journey through St. Petersburg’s vast Hermitage Museum and Russian history, the dizzying high-wire experiment grips as much for what’s onscreen as the presumably frantic behind-the-camera adjustments. Russian scholars may feel even more resonance but who can watch the teeming, climactic royal ball without experiencing overwhelming melancholy for time’s inexorable passage; and wonder at Sokurov’s landmark virtuosity.

Russian Ark: Trailer

26)            REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)

Dir: Darren Aronofsky  Scr: Aronofsky & Hubert Selby. Jr

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly

There’s an argument that no great film, no matter how bleak, can be depressing as the sheer artistry on display always one-ups the downward trajectory. To which I’d simply respond: watch the last fifteen minutes of Requiem for a Dream as its four lead characters’ various drug addictions spiral them ever deeper into personal hells – sexual degradation, festering amputation, madness – and tell me how perky you feel. I’m pretty sure any elation at the sheer mastery of Darren Aronofsky’s visceral, virtuouso filmmaking was utterly trumped by the unbearable misery on display. I’d double-check for you but I don’t know that I could endure it again.

Adapted from Hubert Selby. Jr’s habitually grim novel, Aronofsky weaves perhaps the densest and most apposite audio-visual patterns ever spun, truly plunging you into the heart of addiction: the relentless, ritualistic cycles of explosive highs – flaring match-heads, pinpricked pupils – and desperate lows until the medium itself embodies the corrupted state of mind where the American Dream is the real, delirious pipe dream. It’s a staggering, as-yet-unmatched achievement, though Clint Mansell’s magisterial score has been pilfered for any number of subsequent movie trailers and sports montages. Seems theft, too, is a hard addiction to break.

Requiem for a Dream Trailer:

See also:

KEANE (2004)

Dir & Scr: Lodge Kerrigan

Stars: Damian Lewis, Amy Ryan, Abigail Breslin

Speaking of tragedies, Lodge Kerrigan’s tale of a mentally-ill, down-and-out trudging around New York trying to find his missing daughter is right up / down there. Kerrigan’s first version with Peter Sarsgaard was irreparably ruined by damaged film negatives. Thankfully, second time out, Damian Lewis gives one of the decade’s great performances, teetering on the edge of total disintegration on his impossible quest, the jittery Dardennes Brothers-style camera tailing him unrelentingly in every scene. Harrowing viewing but hugely empathetic and, finally, in Keane’s touching relationship with a pre-Little Miss Sunshine Abigal Breslin, even open to the faintest hope of redemption.

Keane Trailer:

25)            PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Dir & Scr: Guillermo Del Toro

Stars: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdú Sergi López

My original review from the late, lamented BBC Collective website: “Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s labour of love is quite simply his masterpiece. A stunning merging of history and fantasy, young Ofelia, stepdaughter to a brutal army captain, refracts the Spanish Civil War through a subterranean dreamworld where magic and imagination and a half-man-half-goat god might just be a match for fascism. The lovingly rustic visual effects put Hollywood’s CGI-sheen to shame, and the power of the imagery only confirms Del Toro’s belief in the power of fable. Truly a-maze-ing.”

That horrible final pun notwithstanding, I stand by every word. Not since the genius of Victor Erice’s 1973 allegory Spirit of the Beehive has fantasy been so artfully employed as trenchant political commentary (on the same War, no less!), though Del Toro comes from more muscular, spectacle-driven stock. A truly adult fairy tale, with gruesome violence and genuinely creepy episodes – the eyeless Pale Man for one – it only confirmed Del Toro as one of the decade’s breakthrough talents, equally adept at Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy or his own more personal projects. Now given the reins of mega-franchise The Hobbit, it’s hard to imagine how he can possibly top this.

Pan’s Labyrinth: The Pale Man

See also:


Dir: Juan Antonio Bayona  Scr: Sergio G. Sánchez

Stars: Belén Rueda, Fernando Coya, Roger Princep

“Presented” and produced by Del Toro, this Spanish ghost story is arguably the most affecting spine chiller of a decade in which horror lurched from lazy remakes (once Hollywood finished with Asian titles, it greedily cannibalized its own) to the repulsive sadism of the Hostel or Saw series. A stately, Gothic tale, which with the excellent Belén Rueda’s spooked heroine, echoed other genre touchstones like The Haunting or The Others, The Orphanage conjured its own brilliantly orchestrated atmosphere of foreboding mystery, while showing enough humanity to make you mourn as well as dread the dead, like the best horror should.

The Orphanage Trailer (sadly with cheesy American voiceover):

Films of the Decade – Part I: No.30 – No.28

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 3, 2009

So I was going to intro this feature with a ‘Top 10 Reasons To Make a ‘Films of the 00s List”. You know, a wry commentary on the endless rash of ‘Best Of’ polls that flare up every year-end, reaching epidemic proportions when trying to sum up a whole decade; a punt on the punning titles – ‘Noughties but Nice’, ‘Double-0 Heaven’ – that could be used; some flannel about why this is the only definitive grouping you need.

In the end, though, this list has the same aspirations, inclinations and limitations as all other qualitative lists. It’s an attempt to honour excellence; to highlight the unfairly overlooked; to order the chaos. And of course, to congratulate yourself on your exquisite judgment. We all know – or should – there’s no unarguable ‘greatest’ in any art; there’s ‘great’ and there’s the rest. And great should be good enough for anyone. The rest is merely personal taste. Or, if you disagree, lack thereof.

One note on the selections: for each of the 30 films chosen – and trust me, 50, even 100 would’ve been easier – I’ve paired it with another film that suggested a link or connection (OK, 60 films. Sue me). This addition perhaps didn’t resonate as strongly as its counterpart, but seemed also noteworthy, particularly when, as with most examples here, it was under-appreciated on arrival. And they say, if you can reach just one person… your powers of persuasion probably suck. So on that optimistic note, let the countdown commence (and gradually unveil itself over the rest of 2009)…

30)            NO END IN SIGHT (2007)

Dir & Scr: Charles Ferguson

The Noughties saw the movie documentary attain unprecedented popularity. New digital cameras, directors-as-stars (Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Nick Broomfield), the growing Reality TV obsession all helped – which makes No End in Sight’s achievements even more impressive. A talking head-based, archive-led investigation into the Iraq invasion quagmire, made by middle-aged scholar-turned-filmmaker Charles Ferguson, it’s no dinosaur: rather a classic example of old-school reporting showing flashy showbiz kids a thing or two.

Ferguson spotlights those major players tasked with sorting out Iraq post-Saddam, only to find the Bush administration that sent them tying their hands, then effectively lopping them off. Ignoring expert advice, allowing widescale looting, disbanding the Iraqi army, the systematic arrogance and ignorance of Donald Rumsfeld’s cabal is a terrifying textbook lesson in how not to occupy a country. Avoiding cheap laughs and easy pot shots, Ferguson also never panders to the traditional liberal view against the invasion per se, instead weighing the facts to prosecute a damning case with expert witnesses and physical evidence. In an era where instant opinion and faceless conjecture often trade as news, it’s a superlative piece of in-depth journalism, whose understated power leaves you reeling, despairing, yet roused for active engagement, not passive consumption.

No End in Sight Trailer:

See also:


Dir: Werner Herzog

Of all the showboating filmmakers who pop up in their own work, none are as refreshingly welcome as wily old Werner. Equally adept at fact as fiction (though swearing there’s no difference anyway), Herzog uses the stunning ursine footage and mania of self-styled Alaskan bear savior Timothy Treadwell for another brilliant essay on nature’s “overwhelming indifference” to man. A trademark misguided, obsessive protagonist, Treadwell’s grim fate – we teasingly / shockingly see Herzog listen to the audio recording of him being eaten – results from seeing furry friends called ‘Mr. Chocolate’, where Herzog eyes only “chaos, hostility and murder.” Guess who’s right.

Grizzly Man Trailer:

29)            ZODIAC (2007)

Dir: David Fincher Scr: James Vanderbilt

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey. Jr

After two 1990s pop-culture masterpieces, Se7en and Fight Club, David Fincher had only the shallow pyrotechnics of Panic Room to show for this millennium. He, like the boogeyman of his next project, was clearly only biding his time before striking. Enter Zodiac, an epic, nightmarish jigsaw puzzle of California’s infamous, unsolved serial killer case in which Fincher largely dials down his bravura flourishes (even cinematographer Harris Savides’ High-Def digital imagery is discreetly revolutionary) for something altogether more resonant: not just a haunting, but a haunted thriller.

Zodiac stands proudly opposed to this decade’s penchant for neat, solvable CSI or Da Vinci Code mysteries. In fact, its precedent isn’t howdunits at all, but rather more cerebral procedural All The President’s Men (with which it, presumably consciously, shares a composer, David Shire). Acutely aware of the price paid by paranoia and obsession, it’s a film that plumbs the darkness of not knowing, utter anathema in the modern Google age. A brave, uncompromising and, yes, at times, utterly chilling film, not least for turning Donovan’s happy-clappy 60s hippie anthem ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ into the most sinister use of a pop singalong since Reservoir Dogs hijacked ‘Stuck in the Middle With You.’

Zodiac Trailer:

See also:


Dir: Bong Joon-ho Scr: Bong Joon-ho, Kim Kwang-rim

Stars: Kang Song-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roe-ha

Oldboy’s Park Chan-wook usually lionizes plaudits for Korean cinema’s remarkable 21st century emergence, but I prefer – uh-oh – hits from the Bong (see also 2006’s excellent monster movie The Host). Memories is, in a way, his own Zodiac, based on unsolved 80s Korean killings and Bong also uses genre to convey a wider social malaise in insecure times, infusing it with contemporary Korean technical excellence – including a thrilling moonlit pursuit – and often disconcerting mix of ultra-violence with sudden gallows comedy. There’s also a charismatic turn from one of the decade’s great acting finds, Mr Vengeance himself Kang Song-ho.

Memories of Murder Trailer:

28)            THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)

Dir & Scr: Shane Meadows

Stars: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Joseph Gilgun

As a child of the 80s, I’ve never seen so accurate a depiction of growing up in Thatcher’s Britain as Shane Meadows’ coming-of-age gem. It’s quasi-autobiographical – for Shane read newcomer Thomas Turgoose’s ‘Shaun’ – and from its dead-on opening montage (the Falklands War, Arthur Scargill, Roland Rat) through its first hour, it’s pretty much flawless: hilarious (“you dress like Keith Chegwin’s son”), cheeky, poignant and bopping to the reggae-inflected rhythms that young Shaun’s benevolent, adopted skinhead tribe bask in.

Trouble in paradise starts with the return from prison of bullyboy Combo and his bilious, racist rhetoric. As in other Meadows films, the surrogate father figure (Shaun’s own killed in the Falklands) looms large and if the rites of passage turns down a familiar path, Stephen Graham’s ferocious yet vulnerable performance as Combo and a brilliant knit of on-camera unknowns and non-professionals work wonders. The now-seasoned pro Turgoose is a revelation, as are Meadows’ maturing compositional skills, ending up with nothing less than a ska-scored 400 Blows. This is British – strike that, English – filmmaking at its best.

This is England – Shaun Meets Woody’s Gang:

See also:


Dir & Scr: Cameron Crowe

Stars: Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Cameron Crowe’s visual mix tape to his own adolescent adventures naturally plays cuter than This is England. And getting shafted by Rolling Stone magazine can’t match crossing the National Front. But accept the hazy nostalgia and ‘Tiny Dancer’ tour bus singsongs on their own terms and this is a disarmingly winning fable by – when on song – one of America’s smartest mainstream filmmakers. Inveterate scene-stealers Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman add bite and shaggy fictional band Stillwater ring eerily true and if we can’t all be teenage rock journalists but Crowe’s rose-tinted shades at least help us look the part.

Almost Famous ‘Tiny Dancer’ Scene: