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Sunday, September 27, 2009

(Some of) my favourite films of this decade.

Here's yet another article, I did for my course:

As film budgets soar and creative bankruptcy plunges new depths (yes, I’m looking at you Michael Bay, on both counts), some movie buffs may well be tempted to write off modern cinema as a pale shadow of its former self. Indeed, as Hollywood’s unholy crusade to remake every 1970s horror movie, it’s hard not to look back at that particular decade with rose-tinted glasses. After all, that was the decade of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin. As for the big Hollywood blockbusters: can you get much more classic than Star Wars and Jaws? Can today’s films possibly hope to measure up to the heady days of the ‘70s? Or, for that matter, to those equally classic decades that surrounded it?

Well, yes, of course they can.

Oh sure, with the release of every new lame-duck comedy or overly noisy but brain-smashingly dull “blockbuster”, those previous decades can’t help but look like a true Golden Age for cinema. Still, even as the Wayans Brothers, Michael Bay and the ridiculously named McG send movie lovers running for the proverbial hills, this past decade is responsible for far more than its fair share of celluloid masterpieces. Aside for the emergence of some exciting new voices in world and independent cinema and the ever reliable output of some of cinema’s greatest veterans, there’s still more to mainstream Hollywood than its worse dross would seem to indicate.

Here then is a list of some of my favourite films from the last decade. Needless to say, this list will be driven by my own personal taste and by my own limitations. I am, after all, but a single film fan with neither the time nor the inclination to watch every one of the thousands of films released year after year. As such, take this not as a comprehensive list of all the great films released over the past ten years but as a small but varied peek at a decade that produced some truly wonderful filmmaking.

Returning Greats

While it is true that many great 20th century filmmakers struggled to live up to their best work in the new century, a number of them released some of their most exciting projects over the past decade.

Almost Famous (Dir: Cameron Crow, 2000)

Crowe’s semi-autobiographical, feel-good masterpiece is a love letter to rock and roll and a bittersweet farewell to innocence – both the music’s and his own. His director’s cut of the film is even better.

O Brother Where Art Thou/ The Man Who Wasn’t There/ No Country For Old Men (Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen, 2000/ 2001/ 2007)

Respectively: A zany, rambling quasi-musical comedy adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey; a quirky take on the noir genre and a smouldering meditation on violence disguised as a top notch chase movie, the only things these films have in common is their refusal to bow to convention, an off-kilter sense of humour and the sheer quality of the Coens at their best.

Big Fish/ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Dir: Tim Burton, 2003/2007)

Tim Burton’s gothic sensibilities were applied to two very different stories with very different, but equally breathtaking, results. The former, a highly spirited celebration of the imagination, the latter a gloomy tale of death and revenge – both could only have been made by Burton.

Mulholland Drive (Dir: David Lynch, 2001)

A heady and near-incomprehensible mix of dream-like reality, lesbian sex, fame and unsettling mystery, Mullholland Drive is David Lynch at his most Lynchian. And weird, offbeat cinema is all the better off for that.

Changeling/ Gran Torino (Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2008/ 2008)

2008 was, in every way, the year of the Eastwood with the veteran director releasing two of his most assured works yet. The former a gripping drama about loss and grief, the latter a moving yet laugh out loud funny capper of sorts to Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona.

No Direction Home/ The Departed (Dir: Martin Scorsese, 2005/ 2006)

A double-barrelled return to form of the master of searing examinations of humanity’s dark sides. The first, a wonderfully engaging documentary about Bob Dylan’s earliest – and most important – years, the second a slightly superficial but rip-roaringly entertaining return to the sort of crime drama that Scorsese made his name on.

Bold New Voices

Not to be outdone by cinema’s greatest filmmakers, a new wave of promising young talent shook the decade with a selection of films that were fresh, inventive and, more often than not, more than a little quirky. Not all of them succeeded, of course but here are a few of those who did, garnering heaps of critical praise and even, on the odd occasion, solid box-office sales in the process.

Donnie Darko (Dir: Richard Kelly, 2001)

Come for the ridiculously oblique story; stay for the moody atmosphere, well drawn characters, evocative soundtrack, beautiful central romance and, of course, for the guy in the bunny suit. Avoid the director’s cut like the plague, though.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir: Wes Anderson, 2001)

Further cementing his status of king of the quirky, whimsical dramedy, The Royal Tenenbaums is Anderson’s finest moment to date. The story of a dysfunctional family of “eccentric geniuses” (read: nutters), the film somehow manages to walk – and indeed create - the thin line between deadpan humour and genuine emotional involvement.

Juno (Dir: Jason Reitman, 2007)

That Diablo Cody’s real life meteoric ascent from stripper to A-List Hollywood screenwriter, didn’t completely overshadow the film she wrote, is testament alone to just how charmingly endearing a gem Juno is. Teenage pregnancy has never been handled quite so warmly, wittily and apolitically as it is here.

In Bruges (Dir: Martin McDonagh, 2008)

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson shine as a duo of absurdly likable contract killers lying low in the sleepy town of Bruges, Belgium in this little-seen but unforgettable little crime film. Boasting a pitch-perfect mix of the darkest of humour, gentle, genuinely moving drama and visceral violence, In Bruges was already a brilliant film. Add Ralph Fiennes to the mix as one of the decade’s best screen villains, however, and you’re left with something damn-near perfect.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir: Michel Gondry, 2003)

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has always been an incredibly innovative and imaginative creator but it took his collaboration here with director Gondry to really bring out the humanity in his vision. Eternal Sunshine combines the usual heady Kaufman concept of mind-altering, heady science fiction with a genuinely poignant story about love, memory and loss, featuring a career-best performance from Kate Winslet.

Unassuming Gems

Some masterpieces make their presence felt with avalanches of awards, huge critical buzz and endless amounts of hype. Some, however, slip quietly between the cracks. These charming little films might not get the attention they often deserve but in their own way they are every bit as rewarding as their bigger cousins. Most of them could probably fit snugly in the other categories I mentioned but I can’t resist another opportunity to shine some slight on these often forgotten but thoroughly wonderful movies.

High Fidelity (Dir: Stephen Frears, 2000)

Probably the ultimate movie about men, John Cusack gives his all time greatest performance as an obsessive music collector who looks back at past relationships to understand why yet another girlfriend has decided to leave him. It’s an honest, hilarious and touching examination of the male psyche based on the similarly brilliant Nick Hornby novel of the same name.

Lost in Translation (Dir: Sofia Coppola, 2003)

A beautifully shot, if leisurely paced, character drama about two very different people at very different places in their lives drawn together by being alone in a foreign city and adrift in their respective lives. It’s light on plot but heavy on characterisation and mood. A must see for fans of the quieter, if no less poignant, side of filmmaking.

School of Rock/ Before Sunset (Dir: Richard Linklater, 2003/ 2004)

Indie darling, Linklater, struck gold with two of the decade’s unlikeliest cinematic gems. The former should be an overly familiar, clich├ęd take on a well-trodden family-film formula but through its performances, music, wit and charm it is instead transformed into THE live-action family film of the decade. The latter performs the double feat of not only making a sequel that betters the original in every imaginable way but also of making a film about two old lovers walking around Paris for an hour an engrossing, thoroughly moving affair.

Persepolis (Dir: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Based on Marjane Satrapi’s biographical graphic novels about growing up under a fundamental Islamic regime in Iran, Persepolis is a heady mix of imaginative hand-drawn animation, humour and pathos that examines a highly politicised topic from an entirely human view point.

Vibrant World Cinema

I have no doubt that this is by far the least comprehensive of the four fairly arbitrary categories we have here but these five films are both shining examples of what so-called “foreign” cinema is capable of and a perfect introduction to what is out there beyond English-language filmmaking.

Amelie/ A Very Long Engagement (Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001/ 2004)

Likable characters, a wonderful sense of atmosphere and a quirky wit are almost secondary to the true stars of these French films: the jaw-droppingly beautiful direction and cinematography, which are some of the very best to be found this decade.

The Devil’s Backbone/ Pan’s Labyrinth (Dir: Guillermo Del Toro, 2001/ 2006)

Nominally, “adult fairy tales”, Del Torro’s stone-cold masterpieces are two of the most emotionally engrossing, sumptuously designed and highly imaginative films you will ever have the privilege to experience, it really is as simple as that.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Dir: Julian Schnabel, 2007)

Based on Elle magazine’s editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoirs, this hauntingly beautiful film captures Bauby’s attempt to dictate his life story using nothing but a series of eye-blinks after the rest of his body is paralysed by a stroke. It is, at first, an uncomfortable watch but the vivid cinematography, Bauby’s droll wit and the sheer humanity of the film soon turns it into a film that is genuinely life-affirming and uplifting in a way that most of Hollywood’s so-called “feel good” films couldn’t ever hope to be.

Genre Greats

It is often all too easy to write off genre cinema – basically all movies that follow prescribed generic conventions such as fantasy, horror, science fiction and noir - as lower entertainment in comparison to the loftier artiness of some of the other films on this list. When you consider just how much trash tops the box offices and overstuffs our movie chains, it’s really kind of hard not to. Nonetheless, look past the chaff and you’ll find some truly great films that are both expertly made and massively entertaining. As a case in point:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (Dir: Alfonso Cuaron, 2004)

The best of the Potter films to date. A wonderfully controlled kids fantasy movie with great characters, captivating art direction and a tight as nuts time-bending storyline.

Shaun of the Dead/ Hot Fuzz (Dir: Edgar Wright, 2004/ 2007)

Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s post-modern takes on the zombie film and the buddy cop movie respectively somehow manage to lampoon, pay tribute to and reinvent these age-worn genres with an endless supply of wit and vigour.

The Incredibles/ Wall E (Dir: Brad Bird/ Andrew Stanton, 2004/ 2008)

Pixar’s reign as the kings of digi-animation remained entirely unchallenged this decade but it is these two masterpieces that shine brightest. The first is simply the best superhero film to date, the second a hilarious, moving account of a lone robot on what remains of a decimated earth.

Spider-man 2/ The Dark Knight (Dir: Sam Raimi/ Graham Nolan, 2004/ 2008)

Superhero comic book adaptations were all the rage this decade and these two, in many way polar opposite blockbusters, were the best of the lot. The Dark Knight gave us a powerful crime film that made full use of the dark and twisted psychology that have made Batman and the world he inhabits such endearing modern day myths. Spider-man 2, on the other hand, has all the teenage angst and colourful sense of fun of the best Spidey comics.

Serenity/ Star Trek (Dir: Joss Whedon/ JJ Abrams, 2005/ 2009)

Whatever you may think of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, it’s hard to argue that they had the same sense of b-grade, adventure serial fun that the originals had. It’s odd then that the old Star Wars spirit would show up in the least likely of places: a reimagined Star Trek film that not only returned the franchise to its glory days but amped it up with some genuine space operatic goodness. If the new Trek didn’t have the philosophical depth that was such a staple of the franchise, you need only turn to Whedon’s criminally unseen feature film version of his short-live TV show Firefly for a “science fiction horse-drama” that was as funny as it was exciting as it was unafraid to deal with Big Ideas.

Friday, September 25, 2009

A review of Pixar's Up.

Here's another quick review that I wrote recently for my course:

As I walked out of the mid-afternoon showing of Pixar’s latest sure-fire winner of the Best Animated Film category at next years Oscars, I was left with a slight feeling of, dare I say it, disappointment. The worst part was that I wasn’t entirely sure where that disappointed came from. Up had everything that I have come to expect from Pixar: the lush, at times breathtaking animation; the well rounded characters; the faultless voice actors; jokes that work for people of all ages; the simple but effective plot and, of course, oodles of heart. How could I possibly be left disappointed by so seemingly perfect a piece of filmmaking?
A few hours later and after far more time spent dwelling on my feelings about the film than is probably healthy, I came to a surprising conclusion: Up is a wildly uneven affair. Of course, it’s uneven in a way that only a Pixar movie can be. It’s not that the quality of the film fluctuates wildly between being good and bad as much as that it fluctuates between moments of mere (very) goodness and moments of jaw-dropping, knock-you-on-your-ass perfection.
Much like Wall E before it, the opening sections of the film are, in every sense of the word, wonderful. I challenge you not to have a big goofy grin on your face as our, at this stage, young protagonist watches a film about his hero, a dashing adventurer before he goes on to meet a fellow young adventurer wannabe: the girl who would become his wife. As if this wasn’t charming, funny and heart-warming enough what follows is a profoundly beautiful five minute, dialogue-free montage that charts their relationship over the years. The sweet, tender notes of, mark my words, this year’s very best film score emotionally punctuates every scene as we see the couple growing old together with all the joy and heartbreak that that entails before our protagonist finds himself as a directionless, lonely old man.
What follows is a grand sweeping adventure as the old man sets off with an unintended young stowaway in tow to embark on one last adventure to find the mythical Paradise Falls. The rest of the film contains everything from exotic creatures; embittered, old adventurers; great set pieces and a flying house kept afloat by a few thousand balloons but the only times the film really matches its opening minutes are when it turns its attention to the relationship between the old man and the young stowaway and, most profoundly, as we watch our old protagonist find new purpose and meaning in his autumnal years.
Up is, in the end, a film of two halves, one that will resonate most with adults, the other clearly aimed more at kids and the young at heart. That the two halves of the film are both separately so good makes it an easy film to recommend to people of all ages but this isn’t quite Pixar at its age-gap-balancing best.

Monday, September 21, 2009

How to write crap books and make fortunes.

OK, so clearly I haven't posted here for a while but then most of my writing has gone towards my actual journalism course. Still, I figure that some of my "day job" writings would make decent blog posts and here's the first of them: a less than favourable review of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People:

Dale Carnegie is a perfectly readable writer.

With the good bits out of the way, let’s move onto why Carnegie’s “classic” self-help book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, encapsulates everything that’s so wrong with the so-called self-help genre. First published in 1936, How to Win Friends and Influence People (or Balderdash, for short) is generally accepted to be the first self-improvement book ever written. One could only wish that it was also the last.

Nominally, aimed at young business-people, Carnegie’s “insight” into human nature promises, as the title does indeed suggest, a guide to mastering your social domain. It is a book that essentially promises even the most socially awkward misfits a chance at popularity, friendship and the kind of social acumen that is usually reserved for the most successful of world leaders.

Sadly, what it promises and what it actually delivers is a rather different matter. How to Win Friend and Influence People veers wildly between the blindingly obvious, the excruciatingly banal and the embarrassingly superficial. Carnegie’s failure to grasp even the most readily apparent complexities of human nature is matched only by his asinine advice for improving social standing, including such gems as smiling when you talk to people, addressing them by their names and listening to what other people say.

It’s not that there isn’t some truth in what he says - indeed it is blindingly obvious for a reason – but it is so devoid of nuance and invention, never mind epiphany, that it is rendered useless to all but the most anti-social of serial killers. The entire book could probably be summarised into a fairly rubbish list of social do’s and don’ts so it’s especially annoying that each chapter is padded out with the most banal of, ha ha, “case studies”, which achieve nothing more than turning an irritating book into an unbearable one.

The book’s front cover may bear the boastful claim of “over 16 million copies sold” but, unlike with Elvis, it does appear that 16 million Dale Carnegie fans can, in fact, be wrong.