Tuesday, 27 December 2011

My End of Year List: Best of 2011

As it's Christmas and I'm feeling bloated and lazy, I'm not going to provide proper write ups of the movies I saw this week. For the record, I saw the following films this week:

The Mist (2007) - very good Stephen King horror yarn, slightly let down by some weak CGI. Rating: 8/10

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Russell Crowe's finest nautical adventure since he went fightin' round the world with his good friend Tugger (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t87JRof-NHM). Rating: 7/10

The Cement Garden (1993) I saw this adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel on Christmas Eve. It's a festive treat, full of death, incest and bad '70s haircuts. Ho, ho, ho. Rating: 7/10.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) Now this one actually was appropriate festive viewing. Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart team up for a classic, heartwarming tale. Rating: 8/10.

Anyway, as promised, here are my rankings for the best new films I've seen in the cinema in 2011.  I've excluded any older pictures which I watched on DVD, or were re-released at the cinema over the course of the year. To be honest, my list hasn't changed too much from the one I posted back in September, though I have rejigged the list slightly to reflect my current preferences. It's been slim pickings at the cinema recently, with only Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Contagion, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Drive coming in for serious consideration as additions to the list. In fact, on the whole it's not been a brilliant year at the movies. Though I've seen plenty of films which I'd classify as 'very good', there's been little which has really blown me away, in the manner that A Prophet, The Secret In Their Eyes and Inception did last year.

Kirk's Best of 2011 List:

1. Hanna -  I was highly skeptical after seeing the trailer for this film - how could an action film from the director of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice possibly be any good? However, on seeing the film I was totally blown away. It's a movie directed with real panache by Joe Wright, with an exceptional lead performance from Saoirse Ronan and a propulsive score by the Chemical Brothers.

2. We Need To Talk About Kevin - When I initially reviewed this one, I likened it to being kicked in the stomach, and I stand by that. Despite being extremely upsetting at times, this is a compulsively watchable movie, anchored by some top notch acting by Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller.

3. Animal Kingdom - Fantastic Aussie crime drama showing the bloody consequences of a police campaign against Melbourne's leading crime family. Ben Mendolsohn steals the show as the terrifying and psychotic Andrew 'Pope' Cody.

4. Kill List For two thirds of the way through, this was my favourite film of the year - mixing some creepy and unnerving horror with some moments of unexpected comedy. Though I felt the ending wasn't quite up to the standards set by the start of this picture, a number of the scenes from this movie will be seared into my brain forever. Also, it features Tyres from Spaced, so it's got that going for it...

5. Senna I previously had very little interest in Formula One racing, so it's a mark of how successful this documentary is that I found myself so completely captivated by Ayrton Senna's battles against his great rival Alain Prost, and the fact that I was so heartbroken when Senna eventually comes to meet his tragic fate.

6. Super 8 This was definitely the best and most purely enjoyable big budget Hollywood film I saw this year. It might not quite be up to E.T. standards, but it's tremendous fun, and it's a movie I'll be returning to in the near future.

7. True Grit The Coen brothers rarely let me down, and this was another triumph, featuring some winning performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. In general though, I still prefer movies based on original Coen material, and it looks like I'm in luck - there's another potential masterpiece in the pipeline: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2042568/; 
8. The King's Speech When I came to see this film, it had received so much praise and Oscar hype that I was thoroughly expecting to hate it. Sadly, it turned out to be almost as good as everybody had said, and a worthy recipient of the many accolades and baubles it was given.

9. Black Swan Rather like the Coens, Darren Aronofsky is another director whose works I always seek out. For me, this isn't quite up there with Requiem for A Dream or The Wrestler, but it's still an enjoyably dark and twisted look into the mind of an obsessive ballerina.

10. Drive 2011 was in some ways, the year of the Gosling, and for me, this was the best of his many pictures. It's almost as stylish as it is violent, which is no mean feat considering some of the fearsome stompings that RG dishes out in this movie.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

That was the week that was (12 -18 December)

Looking at the list of previous posts on the side of this blog, it appears that I've reached my half century with this latest update. To be fair, a few of the previous posts which count towards that total are actually just one edition of TWTWTW which has been split into two posts. Still, I'm pretty impressed with getting to 50. Who knows whether this blog will be cut down in its early 50s (like a Ravi Bopara innings), or will go on to reach the heights of a 'daddy hundred' (like a knock by Alastair Cook)? I'll just have to keep on plugging away every week and see what happens...

In other news, I'm going to take a bit of a hiatus over Christmas so this will be the last edition of TWTWTW until the New Year. I am planning to put together my final top 10 films of the year though, so, as Patrick Bateman told his lawyer, keep your eyes open.

Essential Killing (2010)

A film by Jerzy Skolimowski which won a number of prizes at the Polish equivalent of the Oscars, Essential Killing see Vincent Gallo go on the run as a Taliban terror suspect who goes on the run from the US army. The majority of the action in the movie takes place in the opening 15 minutes, as Gallo is captured by US troops in a cave in Afghanistan, subjected to water boarding and abuse from his captors, transported to a Polish air base, then escapes from an armoured vehicle into a freezing cold and densely forested area of Poland. Even with a running time well under 90 minutes, things soon start to drag once the film's opening section has finished; Gallo never mutters an intelligible word throughout the entire film and for a good hour or so, we just follow him as he keeps running from his pursuers, eating insects and berries to survive. I found the film to be rather dull and slow paced, and we learn very little about Gallo's character, so it is difficult to empathise with him. Despite the slow pace, the film does have a number of redeeming features - particularly the cinematography, which features some beautifully shot and arresting images of the natural world. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I would be rushing out to give it an award if I was on the board of the Polish Oscars.

Rating: 6/10

Easy A (2010)

A modern reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as a high school comedy.Emma Stone stars as Olive, a good girl who finds her reputation in tatters after (incorrect) rumours of her promiscuity are spread around the school by a judgmental classmate, but decides to make the most of the situation and make a little money on the side. I have to say that I was a little disappointed by this one - I'd seen quite a few positive reviews, so was rather looking forward to it, but ultimately, I felt the film had a number of problems. Firstly (and I suppose this is a common issue with high school comedies) almost every student at the school looked way too old - I'd guess that the average age of the actors playing Olive's peers would be somewhere around 25, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were pushing thirty. Secondly, one of the central elements of the movie's premise was that until rumours of her 'easiness' were spread around, Olive was a completely overlooked and unremarkable girl; it seems pretty improbable that a girl as good looking and confident as Emma Stone would be so anonymous in her own school. Thirdly, it seems unlikely that in a modern West Coast high school, Olive would become such an outcast just because she had sex - I could maybe see that as possible if the film was set in the Westboro Baptist Church or Iran or somewhere, but in modern, progressive California? No way! Despite all of those issues, the film still almost worked for me, largely because of the impressive lead performance from Emma Stone. She has a natural charisma and charm that enables the viewer to look past the sometimes hokey nature of the script and the fairly ordinary performances provided by some of the supporting cast. I should also mention that I really enjoyed Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her (extremely) laid back parents - pretty much every scene in which they appear to offer their often unhelpful advice to Olive feels a cut above the rest of the movie. So, overall then, a pretty average comedy which is boosted by some great performances by certain members of the cast.

Rating: 6/10

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

A sequel to Guy Ritchie's 2009 movie, this one sees the master detective (Robert Downey Jr.) head around Europe in an effort to unravel a dastardly plot hatched by his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). He is ably assisted as always by Dr Watson (Jude Law), his brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) and a mysterious French fortune teller (played by the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace), whose brother is somehow connected with Moriarty's evil scheme. As with the previous film, this version of Holmes is more like a 19th century action hero than the intellectual found within the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic stories. He brawls with muscle bound thugs on the streets, hurls soldiers from the doors of moving trains, attempts to defuse bombs and dodges bullets and shrapnel in a German forest in his efforts to bring down his foe. Although I have to say I am more of a fan of the original conception of Sherlock Holmes, as an action adventure, this film is difficult to beat. Ritchie stages the various major setpieces expertly, and the story moves from one European location to another at rapid speed, so we never really have time to question any inconsistencies. It's obviously a big plus that he's been able to put together such a talented group of actors for the film - though some of them are a little underused (poor old Eddie Marsan, as Inspector Lestrade, has all of two lines in the movie). The movie also has a terrific ending, which (without giving too much away) nods back to one of the greatest Holmes short stories of all. All in all, one of the best big budget films I've seen in the cinema this year.

Rating: 8/10

Man on Wire (2008)

An interesting documentary, which looks back to the year 1974, when Frenchman Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope set up between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. To be honest, I'd never heard of this story before I became aware of this documentary, but it is a pretty astonishing tale. Petit and his accomplices had no support from the authorities for their actions, and in order to carry out the stunt it was necessary for them to pose as workmen, sneak into both of the towers (in separate teams) and set up the wire across the roofs of both buildings. All of this took a great deal of planning and it is apparent from the interviews carried out with key participants in the event that it could all have gone wrong on a number of occasions. Though I found Mr Petit himself to be a little arrogant, this is certainly a film worth watching - and one which seems especially poignant now, given that the September the 11th attacks mean that such a feat can never again be completed.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 12 December 2011

That was the week that was (5 December - 11 December)

Rather like the pompous lecturer played by Peter Capaldi in Peep Show, this week I've been spending much of my spare time reading, so haven't had a huge amount of time for watching films. (I've also been working on Rhombus magazine, my little folly). What have I been reading, I hear you ask? Well, nothing too highbrow, I'm afraid - I finished off Stewart Lee's collection of his stand up routines, and have now moved on to The Snowman by Jo Nesbo. It's not bad - the prose isn't always particularly elegant (possibly because it's a translation into English from Norwegian), but the plot is very gripping, and 450 pages in, I'm still none the wiser as to who the killer is.

Well, fascinating insights into my reading habits aside, let's move on to this week's reviews.

Being There (1979)

To be honest, I saw this picture on Monday and have already largely forgotten it - I'm not sure if that says more about my decaying mental faculties, or the quality of the movie. Looks like I may have to quit sniffin' glue in the near future. Anyway, this one stars Peter Sellers as Chance, a middle aged and slow witted gardener who has been working on the same country estate for most of his life. After his employer dies, he is left to fend for himself in a rough neighbourhood in Washington DC, but after being hit by the limousine of the wife of a wealthy businesssman (Shirley Maclaine), he becomes a friend of the family and is able to stay in their sprawling country home. Throughout the film, Chance's simple minded statements about gardening are taken as insightful and profound meditations on the state of the nation, and he rises to national prominence as an advisor to the president himself. I guess this is a comment on the way people judge others on the way that they look; Chance's impeccably tailored appearance makes him look like a wealthy and important person, so people around him view him on that basis. It seems a little implausible that Chance would be able to take in so many people, based merely on his appearance, but there you go. Despite the slightly implausible plot, from what I remember of it, this is a solid film, with good performances from Sellers, Maclaine and Melvyn Douglas.

Rating: 7/10

The Searchers (1956)

In which John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a grizzled old cowboy, on the hunt for the Indians who have kidnapped his niece. He's joined on his quest by the girl's stepbrother, Martin Pawley (played by Jeffrey Hunter), who is himself part Cherokee. There are always high expectations when seeing a film which is regarded as a classic, and to be honest, for me, this film didn't really live up to them. I feel like a bit of a philistine in being so critical to a film which so many people have acclaimed, but as the film progressed, I was just looking forward to the end so that I could take the disc out of my DVD player, and send it back from whence it came (LOVEFiLM's big warehouse o' films). For me, one of the main problems was with the pacing of the film - the search went on, and on, and on, with little interesting incident en route. Some of the humour in the exchanges between Martin Pawley and his fiancee now seems very dated, as does the macho posturing of John Wayne's character. On the plus side, the cinematography is top notch, taking full advantage of the technicolour film with some gorgeous footage of Utah's Monument Valley. I wouldn't say watching this film was a total waste of time, but I don't see myself returning it in the future.

Rating: 5/10

We Are What We Are (2010)

My favourite film of the week and definitely the best Mexican cannibal movie I've seen this year. The film opens with the father of the family in great pain and distress, shuffling around an ultramodern shopping centre before collapsing on the floor and dying. At his autopsy, the pathologist makes a grisly discovery - contained within the man's stomach contents was an undigested human finger... We then get to meet the rest of the family - a mother and three teenaged children - whose life had previously been based around eating whoever Pop brought home to dinner. With their father now out of the picture, his progeny now need to fend for themselves, and they soon discover that it isn't going to be easy for them to find fresh prey. Despite the grisly subject matter, the film works as a satire of the failings of modern day Mexico - with incompetent and corrupt police and the marginalised and impoverished people on the edge of society (such as prostitutes and street children) easy prey for monstrous elements within Mexico City. Despite the family's horrific and deplorable actions, each member of the family is a recognisable and relatable character, and I found myself rooting for them to get away with it, even as the police drew ever close to them. From an acting point of view, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paulina Gaitan (who I also liked in Sin Nombre) as the strong willed and sensible daughter. The film is also strong on the visual front - with a striking contrast shown between the cold, antiseptic environs of the upmarket shopping mall, and the filthy, squalid conditions in the poorer areas of town. For some reason, this movie has only been rated as a '5.7' on IMDB, but I'd rate it much more highly than that.

Rating: 8/10

Tyson (2008)

This recent documentary from James Toback makes an interesting companion piece to the Bobby Fischer film which I saw last week. Like Fischer, Mike Tyson was a boy who grew up, neglected and (in Tyson's case) bullied, in a poor part of Brooklyn, was able to escape his humble origins by excelling in his chosen pursuit but was brought crashing down to Earth by his personal demons. The film tells Tyson's story entirely in his own words, though he isn't always the most articulate of storytellers, and of course this means that we only get one side of the story. Tyson's words are accompanied by footage of his career as a fighter, as we see him develop from a highly promising teenage Olympic champ, to the astonishingly brutal days of his 'Baddest Man on the Planet' era and through to his nadir as a washed up pug fighting second rate British heavyweights to pay off his extensive bills. Thankfully, unlike Bobby Fischer, it seems that Mike Tyson has been able to find some stability in his life now as a family man and pigeon fancier, so there is hope that his story will have a happier ending than that of the former World Chess Champion.

Rating: 7/10

Another Earth (2011)

Watching this film, I felt rather like I'd been subjected to a bait-and-switch manouevre by the film's promotr- from the title, I expected a sci-fi movie exploring the implications of parallel universes, but instead I got a low key indie drama about a young woman attempting to atone for a terrible mistake she made as a teenager. Which is fine, but y'know, if they'd decided to call the movie Atonement 'Intergalactic Space Warriors', I would have expected a rather different film than the one which I actually saw. To be fair, the film does include a background storyline in which a second planet Earth has been spotted orbiting our own planet - a world which acts as an exact double of Earth as we know it, complete with doppelgangers of every person on the planet. However, this concept is very much peripheral to the central plotline of the movie, which focusses on Rhoda (Brit Marling), who has recently been released from prison after serving a three year sentence for a drink driving incident that lead to the death of a Yale professor's wife and son. In an effort to make up for what she has done, she begins cleaning the man's house (though he is unaware of her true identity) and things start to get complicated as the pair develop romantic feelings for one another. Though a little on the slow side, the story is fairly well told, with a strong performance from Marling in the lead role. The film also gains plus points in my book for featuring the strange and eery sounds of the musical saw - it's the first time I've seen that instrument in a film since I watched Delicatessen. However, I felt like a potentially fascinating premise had been wasted, and I would rather have seen an exploration of the other Earth and its inhabitants. As such, I found the movie to be rather frustrating.

Rating: 6/10

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

This is one story of a boy flying high on his magical dragon that does not, as far as I'm aware, have any drug connotations. Set in a remote village where Vikings have been battling dragons for generations, our hero is Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), the teenage son of the clan's chief, Stoick the Vast. As a scrawny youngster without any aptitude for fighting, he is a disappointment to his father, but he comes to discover that his talents lie in another direction. He is able to befriend and train a fallen dragon, and comes to realise that it may be possible for Viking and dragon to live together in peace without the need for bloodshed... After a weekend of rather depressing films involving Mexican cannibals, Mike Tyson's troubled psyche and a broken woman expressing her remorse over causing the death of a family in a car crash, it was a welcome change of pace to watch something a little more innocent and wholesome. Although this movie is aimed at a younger audience, there's plenty in there for adults to enjoy. The animation, particularly during the battle sequences, is highly impressive, the script is frequently amusing and the voice cast all do decent work with their respective parts. As a minor negative point, the film seems a bit confused, geographically and linguistically - for some reason, the elder Vikings speak with Scottish accents, while the younger ones are American. Anyway, while I wouldn't put this one up there with Pixar's greatest hits, it's a very enjoyable ride.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 5 December 2011

That was the week that was (28 November - 4 December)

A fairly quiet week, this time around. I had intended to see 50/50 at the cinema yesterday, but on discovering it was only playing at the 'Director's Hall' at the multiplex (where you have to pay something like £13 to get in), I decided against paying those outrageous prices. I think I'll just have to wait until it's out on DVD.

Bobby Fischer Against The World (2011)

As well as being someone who watches far too many movies, I'm also a keen chess player - yes, I'm THAT cool. Anyway, whether you're interested in the game of chess or not, the story of Bobby Fischer, one of the few Western players to become world champion, is a fascinating oneThe movie charts a course in Fischer's life, from his days as a teenage chess prodigy in Brooklyn, to his famous world title match against Boris Spassky, his withdrawal from public life and to his final years as a rabidly anti-Semetic lunatic. Fischer was, of course, a very private person, but the filmmakers here have found a fairly broad range of former opponents, relatives and friends who were prepared to shed some light on what the man himself was like behind the scenes. Though we may never know the exact reasons behind Fischer's eventual descent into madness, the film makes a compelling case that it was rooted in his childhood; as a boy, his father had left the family before he was born, and his mother was far more interested in radical politics than in her son. This drove Bobby to immerse himself in the world of chess, to the exclusion of all other interests and activities. Though at first he was able to exploit this obsession by virtue of his prodigious talent over the chess board, once he won the world championship, he was unable to deal with the fame - and the paranoia and eccentricity which had been present in his character even before his victory over Spassky took over to the point where he became a recluse. It's a very interesting documentary, and recommended for anyone with an interest in Fischer, or chess in general (though one slight quibble I do have is in the lack of actual positions from Fischer's games shown in the film).

Rating: 8/10

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

From Bobby Fischer to another film about a tormented outsider. Tony Richardson's classic early '60s movie is a look into the life of working class tearaway Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), who has found himself in a Borstal after burgling a local bakery (How's that for alliteration?!). Smith's aptitude for cross country running wins him the admiration of the headmaster of the institution, who wants to exploit the boy's talent as a showcase for the excellent work he feels the reform school is doing. Colin, however, has other ideas...  I was a little reluctant about seeing this movie, thinking at first that it might be rather worthy and dull, but I came away having thoroughly enjoyed the picture. I was very impressed with the way the story of how Colin came to end up in the Borstal was told through stream of conciousness flashbacks during the course of his long distance runs, and the film combines great visual flair in its direction, an interesting and fitting jazz soundtrack, some strong performances (particularly from Tom Courtenay) and a stirringly rebellious climax.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

I watched this one as the second part of a double bill with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - and it was a fitting companion to that film. Both movies are by the same writer, Alan Sillitoe, and both explore issues of class and rebellion in a similar period in British history. On this occasion, our protagonist is Arthur Seaton (played by Albert Finney, looking rather more youthful and handsome than when I last saw him on the big screen - playing the family patriach in Big Fish). Arthur is a machinist at the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham by day, but outside of work his interests include philandering, drinking, philosophising about his situation in life - and shooting his neighbours on the backside with a BB gun. The plot in this one largely centres on Arthur's romantic entanglements - he's been having an affair with the wife of one of his colleagues at the factory, but when he meets the beautiful but proper Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), he has to decide in which direction his life is to go. The cinematography here is fine, though is a little lacklustre in comparison with the more inventive work seen in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. One interesting thing I noticed was that the title of the Arctic Monkeys first album is a direct lift of a quote from this movie, one which sums up Arthur's contradictory nature: "Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not." This was an amusing and entertaining movie on the whole, despite Arthur Seaton being rather an unsympathetic character.

Rating: 7/10