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  1. Blackhat

Okay I know, but please, bear with me.  So it’s essentially a globetrotting cyber-thriller about a hacker determined to sabotage water pumps, but the plot (which I do actually find interesting) is incidental to the style, as is Michael Mann’s want these days.  The opening, featuring a CGI run through a computer terminal and down and down and down, sets the predominant theme of where the digital meets the physical.  As convincing as the scenes where various characters go through lines and lines of code to determine authorship, it’s really about someone leaving prison and walking onto a sunny tarmac, or the way a completely expected romance happens unexpectedly quickly, with the emphasis on physical touch while the ‘getting to know each other’ exposition is treated with ellipses.  Read the rest of this entry »

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I did not do an end of year list last year.  There were several attempts, and probably three initial drafts and even a finalized rundown of the top 20, but due to work and social commitments I never found the time to sit down and write it out.  The same could be said for everything to do with this blog this year, which was sparsely updated at the beginning of the year and not even touched for a majority of the rest.  Part of the problem was my increasing knowledge of other lists, which came out earlier and earlier and, crucially, before I had a chance to see a lot of the big contenders given release schedules and the early access privilege of critics on the studio mailing lists.  Whereas there was a time I felt I should wait until February to really have a go at it, I had been doing it earlier and earlier through sheer list fatigue.  It was also the case that so many lists were so similar that the only difference was the placement of the top five.  This isn’t always the case, of course, but there’s enough broad consensus on the top thirty or so films of the year that it would almost be more interesting to go through the main contenders and explain why I wouldn’t have chosen some of them.  So my list felt eerily similar to everyone else’s and there was just nothing I felt I could say that was unique without boldly pandering to some minor films that nobody saw that I thought might have been “pretty good” and thought I’d outlandishly rep for hard, like putting Beyond the Lights in the top 3 or something.  Read the rest of this entry »

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10. Beyond the Hills

Even I wasn’t too terribly thrilled at the prospect of watching a 150 minute Romanian film about two young women at a monastery, but Cristian Mungu’s bleak and horrific descent into the world of failed support systems and an aggressively conservative church is intoxicating.  The story of two orphans, one returning from Germany to get her lifelong friend to leave the monastery where she’s become a nun is quietly simple in the beginning and then manages to complicate everything by a series of elements outside of the two girls’ control. Mungu subtley plumbs deeper and deeper as events begin to spiral further and further out of control without the vast implications of what’s going to happen (spoiler alert, this film involves of all things an exorcism).  Crucial to its success – and something achieved through its mood and style – is the way Mungu refuses to judge anyone.  People are trapped by circumstance, whether thats poverty in the case of the orphans and the girls, or a lack of funding in the case of the hospital, or by their own ingrained religious beliefs in the case of the “Daddy” Priest and his nuns.  It’s a cruel, patriarchal and hierarchal system that blithely causes a tragedy, and there’s nothing directly malicious from anyone.  That’s not just the stuff a great character drama, but it’s the key to great political filmmaking.

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25. Byzantium 

Neil Jordan’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful career has made anticipation for his work…difficult.  So it’s with some amount of shock that his vampire movie is effective as it is.  It shouldn’t be too surprising, since he famously made the intriguing-if-silly Interview with the Vampire oh those many years ago.  A refreshing feminist take on vampire lore – without, thankfully, ignoring its deep Christian roots – sees Gemma Arterton (often underrated) and Saorsie Ronan as mother and daughter vampires, somewhat duped into becoming vampires after a nefarious British officer essentially forces Arterton’s Clara into prostitution.  It’s a smart, beautifully cold film whose modern day story nicely intermingles with the flashback structure, demonstrating the ways in which, for women, the present isn’t all that different than the past.  There’s more to it than that, and though a whole post could be written about nails replacing teeth in the mythos, suffice it to say that it raises itself above the heap of Twilight-inspired vampire mania and stakes (ugh) out its own identity.  It also includes a waterfall of blood, which is far more gorgeous than it is possible to describe. Read the rest of this entry »

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Every year has its share of great films, but 2013 was special for the sheer number of films that can and will be considered “great”.  It was unusually strong, then, with even the late year traditionally “Oscar bait” releases delivering more often than not.  Of course, I’m not a professional critic which means both time and access are factors in what I could and couldn’t watch, especially as this year I’ve spent a majority of my time in the Deep South (which has, if we want to be polite in that Southernly way, a rather limited number of diverse releases) as well as a healthy chunk overseas.  I’ve missed some big ones, then, although I have somehow managed to see about 125 eligible films.  As usual, that “eligibility” is roughly the Academy Award criteria of any film released theatrically for public consumption in the calendar year, so festival-only films and undistributed wonders don’t count.  The major misses that I’ll have to catch up on in the coming months include Touch of SinBlue JasmineShort Term 12At BerkeleyViola, and Night Across the Street.  Obviously this isn’t the final word on the year in film, especially as only one of the films mentioned in the coming posts have I seen more than once (I am not a believer in that rather silly Kael maxim of only watching a film once, as the truly great ones and even some of the mediocre ones leave room for discovery with repeated viewings).   Read the rest of this entry »

Part I is here.  Part II is here.

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10.  Not Fade Away

David Chase, of The Sopranos fame, makes his directorial debut with this strange and glorious ode to that most tired of subjects, rock and roll in the 1960s.  Clearly drawing from a number of very personal memories, the film begins with the dweeby Douglas (John Magaro) seeing the Rolling Stones on television.  The trajectory from this is pretty standard for this type of film.  Douglas has a crush on a Grace (Bella Heathcote), and he’ll win her over through the band, he has disputes with the frontman Eugene (Jack Huston), the culture shock of the late 60s doesn’t sit well with his father (James Gandolfini), and on and on.  Despite the familiarity, the performances and the writing breathe a lot of life and subtlety into even the most cliché developments (Heathcote is especially good).  Beyond that, though, and the real treasure of Not Fade Away is it’s peculiar style.  It’s not easy to get into in the beginning, but somewhere around the first band rehearsal it begins to click: this is all about rhythm, and not a tight one at that.  The editing is incredibly elliptical – scenes seem to wander off and then bleed into another.  There are gaps in the narrative, and not so much in the sense that it is disorienting but that this is a progression of moments and memories.  That word “memories” is important, because I can’t remember a time where a film has felt more like a series of memories that were happening in the now.  The present-tenseness is key, and in that sense, virtually every scene becomes its own mini-pop song.  It’s all part of the whole narrative, sure, but also self-contained.  In its final scenes, the reality bleeds into hazy myth, and the disembodied sometime narrator becomes corporeal and demonstrative of the power of music as an engine for living.  There are very few films that understand rock and roll quite like this one. Read the rest of this entry »

Best Films of 2012: Part II

January 14, 2013

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20.  Holy Motors

Having made it so high on so many Year End lists, I feel inclined to explain here why Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is only at number 20.   To synopsize the film would be madness, as there is no “plot” to speak of, but it boils down to an actor (Denis Lavant, truly one of the acting treasures of our age) moving from appointment to appointment to “act”, though seemingly he’s playing roles in real life or perhaps not.  The film is comprised of a series of disjointed scenarios that never have anything to do with another, and we’re never sure quite what is real and what is fake or if anything can be “real” or “fake”.  We are treated to a series of occasionally dazzling, and even sometimes moving, sequences involving everything from a sewer dweller kidnapping a model, a motion capture performance dance (my favourite visual moment), a father dropping off his daughter, and seemingly old friends meeting in an abandoned building while one sings.  Lavant is glorious, and while it should surprise nobody that he won’t get any real recognition in American awards seasons, it’s still a shame.  So, here’s the minor problem with it:  I don’t know what it means.  I know it’s a cop-out, and it doesn’t even necessarily have to mean anything, but I wasn’t wowed by every sequence (though they were always interesting).  Individually I think there’s a lot to pick apart, but I would have to see it again and possibly more times after that to come to the conclusion of whether it’s just a smattering of ideas or if it all coheres together into something greater.  As it stands, it’s at the very least a compendium of exciting and sometimes ingenious thoughts, all worth considering on their own terms.  Also, if you’re into liking weird shit because it’s cool to like weird shit, well I guess you’ll love this.  It is better than that, of course, I’m just not sure yet how much better. Read the rest of this entry »

Best Films of 2012: Part I

January 13, 2013

After last year’s overly indulgent Top 30 countdown, I had fully intended to cut back this year.  If I didn’t reduce it to a Top 10 and maybe an Honorable Mention list (placed alphabetically, of course), then at most a Top 20.  However, as nobody probably noticed, neither my blogging partner nor I have posted very much in the last four months. Indeed most of the films that made it on my list I never wrote about here.  So I’m keeping the thirty film format this year, but I swear, next time around I’ll keep up with the writing a bit more and that way you can see what I thought of individual films and the ranking of the End of the Year list just happens to be a fun diversion rather than me trying to express thoughts on the movies I actually liked throughout the year.

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10.  Poetry

Mija is an elderly woman looking after her grandson.  She’s a part-time in-home caretaker to make ends meet.  She goes to the doctor to see about a pain in her arm and learns that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Soon after, a local girl’s suicide is tied to her selfish, carless teenage grandson and everything begins to fall apart.  In the midst of all this, she decides to take a poetry class at a local college.  Jeong-hie Yun plays Mija with thoughtfulness, confusion, and a reservoir of able understanding.  It’s one of the best performances of the year, and it’s the centre of Chang-dong Lee’s extraordinary character study Poetry.  As she comes to grips with the fact that her normal life is all but ending, she attempts to come to terms and fix the predicaments she finds herself in while also awakening to the possibilities of her creative self.  Her struggle to understand poetry and what it takes to write a poem gives her an aura of wonderment that those she comes in contact with assume is a goofy thoughtlessness.  Her slow understanding of the transcendent power of creativity and art, and her final attempts to truly know herself, make for a stunning, thoughtful film.

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20.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

As July turned to August it felt like the summer movie season was going to be the worst in recent memory, with Super 8 standing as the lone bright spot amongst the sea of pitiful sequels and sub-par superhero fare.  Shockingly, in the Hollywood Dump Zone that is August, a surprise hit rose out of the mist (yep).  It shouldn’t have happened, of course.  When the early teasers came out proudly exclaiming “from the visual effects studio that brought you Avatar”, you could feel the desperation as the marketing department scrambled.  In the end there is no substitute for having a good, quality product that people like, and they liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes in droves.  A huge box office success – a rare occurrence in a year that saw consistent under-performing from tentpoles – and well liked critically to boot, Rise seemed to have tapped a nerve with audiences.  Personally, I think that was down to the simple reason that it is a good story well told.  Its simple three-act structure is executed almost perfectly and with a minimum of fuss.  A good deal of the credit must go to British director Rupert Wyatt (unknown to me, and my original cry of “studio hack!” saw me eating crow after the screening), who understands the basics of storytelling in an age where visual excess is the raison d’être of so many filmmakers working in The Industry today.  The humans hardly matter, but the focal point of the story was always going to be Caesar, brought to vivid life by the visual effects team and the performance-capture heroics of Andy Serkis.  There were subtleties in his performance and the effects of the completely CGI Caesar that telegraphed a world of meaning and understanding.  Wyatt also understood the value of pacing one’s self.  It moves along at a brisk pace – it is a lean 100 minutes after all – but there’s no rush to throw out huge set-piece spectaculars every twenty minutes lest the audience get bored.  It’s a proper build consisting of establishing the hero and his life, throwing him into a situation where he finds his consciousness raised, and then evolving into a leader.  The inevitable ‘rising’ has all the build-up it deserves, allowing for a cathartic sequence of apes run amok, while still maintaining through almost purely visual terms their location, their goals, where they have to go reach them and what they have to do to achieve them.  Throw in a brilliant ending credits sequence – complete with a pounding John Powell score – and you have the best summer movie of the year.  I wonder as well if part of the reason for its success is the way it seemed to capture the zeitgeist of grassroots civil unrest.  Critics complained about the lack of allegorical substance in the film as compared to the original series, but in the year of the Arab Spring and, eventually, the Occupy Wall Street movement, it feels like too much of a coincidence that one of the biggest films of the year would be about the rebellion of beings abused and mistreated at the hands of sadistic, power-hungry jailers and uncaring corporations.  Caesar’s rebellion against the forces holding him back gave a sense of catharsis to those who feel impotent to act in these troubling times.  Serkis’ performance humanized the downtrodden.  It just so happened to be an ape.

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