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Archive for December, 2009

Inspired by a blog that was inspired by a comment on blog! Here are my top ten actors and actresses of 2009

Actors:   

Best Actor 2009

  1. Jeremy RennerThe Hurt Locker
  2. Sam Rockwell – Moon
  3. Jackie Earle HaleyWatchmen
  4. Christoph WaltzInglourious Basterds
  5. Johnny DeppPublic Enemies
  6. Frank LangellaFrost/Nixon
  7. Michael SheenFrost/Nixon & The Dammed United
  8. Matt DamonThe Informant
  9. Clint EastwoodGran Torino
  10. Robert Downey JrSherlock Holmes

Actresses:   

Best Actress 2009

  1. Anne HathawayRachel Getting Married
  2. Katie JarvisFish Tank
  3. Melanie LaurentInglourious Basterds
  4. Amanda SeyfriedJennifer’s Body
  5. Penélope CruzVicky Cristina Barcelona
  6. Marion CotillardPublic Enemies
  7. Eva GreenCracks
  8. Melissa GeorgeTriangle
  9. Kristen Stewart Adventureland
  10. Diane KrugerAnything For Her

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I finalised this list over Christmas and set in to auto-publish on new years day. Unfortunately my impatience has got the better of me. So here it is a day early, my top ten films of 2009:

  1. Let The Right One In: The grim and gritty feel give the film a sense of realism despite the supernatural subject matter. The title (abbreviated to Let Me In, in some countries) refers to the aspect of the vampire myth that says a vampire can not cross a threshold without being invited. Going a step further than other films it shows what happens when a vampire comes in uninvited. It isn’t pretty but it is effective! Just like the films photography, using mainly fixed cameras and no noticeable steadicam instead opting for simple pan and dolly tracking. Although not particularly violent or gory, it is brutal in places. There is a certain amount of ambiguity of the androgynous young cast and the morals of their actions. A strangely beautiful film that may be about kids but it certainly isn’t a film for kids.
  2. The Hurt Locker: By far the best film about the war in Iraq. Shot on 16mm the film has a certain documentary realism without ever making you think you are watching a documentary, the style is reminiscent of Cinema Vérité. Many of the scenes are long and drawn out getting more and more intense as they play out. These scenes are genuinely breathtaking with dramatic tension and not tension manufactured by fast editing. The plot is very simple; the film actually plays out as a set of stand alone scenarios that together work as a character study of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal tec’s (bomb disposal team to you and me). Breathtaking is an overused word in film reviews, watching The Hurt Locker you really do have to remind yourself to breath.
  3. Inglourious Basterds: For the liberties it plays with history and the large brushstrokes implying that all German soldiers where Nazi’s I really wanted to hate this film. But when I sat down and watched it I couldn’t dislike it because it was plain and simply a brilliant film. We have seen Tarantino have fun with the English language for years but now he has the audacity to have fun with French, German and Italian. Although many people disagree with me I think Tarantino is having a swipe at films like Valkyrie where British and American actors speak English with their own accents whist playing German characters. If I am giving him too much credit or not the dialogue of the film is a marvel to behold, once you get over the fact that the film is a fantasy (not a great stretch as it starts “Once upon a time”) you will soon realise it is a beautifully shot, intelligently conceived and superbly acted movie.
  4. Watchmen: Based on the much revered graphic novel that appears on Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list. Set in an alternate 1980’s: America have won the Vietnam War and is moving towards a seemingly inevitable nuclear war with Russia. A symbolic doomsday clock is set just before 12 and the end of the world as we know it, Glasnost is not a word used in this films reality. So more than twenty years on is the story relevant? Fossil fuels and world finance are mentioned keeping the film up to date but it is relevant for a far simpler reason. The film is not about world politics, it is about people. More specifically it is about heroes and villains. That is the geniuses of the film or more to the point the graphic novel it is based on. Who is a hero and who is a villain? That is easy, Batman and Superman are heroes and The Joker and Lex Luthor are villains. In Watchmen it isn’t that simple the heros are villains and the villains are heros.
  5. Gran Torino: Made around the same time as Changeling, I believe Gran Torino is a better film. Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski is a cantankerous old man who seems to be the sum of all the characters he has played throughout his career. What I wasn’t expecting is just how funny the film would be. I have heard suggestions by people who have taken quotes from the film out of context that it is a racist film. I actual fact although it does have a few things to say on the subject it is far from racist if anything it is the opposite. It deals with many other topics including: life, death, love, loss, hate, age, race, religion and identity. I said after seeing it that it was the first must see film of 2009, as the year has panned out that has proven more true than I expected. Gran Torino offers a glimmer of hope for society and has a moral compass that films like Harry Brown and Law Abiding Citizen lack.
  6. Slumdog Millionaire: Although you wouldn’t typecast Danny Boyle in a particular genre of film you wouldn’t expect him make a feel good movie set in India. Slumdog Millionaire uses flashbacks in a simple but clever way. Jamal is a young man who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, he finds himself one question away from wining the Jackpot on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire?” As the program finishes for the evening Jamal is arrested and questioned as the host suspects him of cheating. What unfolds as he is questioned are the incidents in his life that gave him the knowledge to answer the questions to get to this point. The scenarios are dramatic, tragic and comic and all add to the flavour of the film and the depth of the characters. What also develops in the flashbacks is the relationship between Jamal, his brother Salim and Latika a young girl they befriended and Jamal’s reason for being on the program. The three main characters are played by three different actors each allowing for different ages. All do a really good job in what for most of them is their first film. The photography is stunning making full use of the locations. The editing and direction are sharp and fast keeping the viewer interested and emotionally involved with the characters. This is a film that most people will enjoy but there are some disturbing scenes before you get to the feel good ending.
  7. Drag Me to Hell: After most of the decade being taken up by making family friendly superhero movies Sam Raimi is back to doing what he does best, horror with a comic twist. The story of a young woman who becomes the victim of a supernatural curse that threatens to drag her to hell is relatively new territory but the execution is reminiscent of his early greats. Its helped by the perfect casting of Alison Lohman in the main role. The film has some truly tense scenes as well as some cheep make you jump scares but the thing that makes it great is the fact it is at times devastatingly funny. So its funny, scary and shocking, best of all has no Lycra clad superheroes, everything a Sam Raimi film should be. All it lacks is Bruce Campbell.
  8. Public Enemies: Only covering a small part of John Dillinger’s life with no back story or flashbacks, Public Enemies is a very slick satire for want of a better word! The film explores and deconstructs the myth and the iconic status of the depression era bank robber. The public of the time didn’t know who he was other than what they saw in the newsreels and in the newspapers and that is what the film is all about. How the media created the myth and the man live/played up to it. Johny Depp and Marion Cotillard light up the screen in the way movies and movie stars used to, in the way that movies and movie stars should! I am not totally convinced by the use of clinical digital video over warmer film but the production design more than makes up for that giving us a beautiful and sumptuous movie that is the perfect remedy for all the CGI that has been taking over our cinema screens recently.
  9. Rachel Getting Married: The main character Kym is ultimately a miserable, selfish, narcissistic bitch but she also comes across as vulnerable, funny and sometimes even likable, that is the strength of Anne Hathaway’s performance. Just a warning for those looking for a light rom-com like the couple in front of me in the queue and sat behind me in the cinema. They wanted to see the “the wedding film with the girl from The Devil Wears Prada” and thought they where going to see Bride Wars, they couldn’t understand why it was so different to the trailer! I went to see this as there was nothing else on (other than Bride Wars), it actually turned out to be one my films of the year.  
  10. Zombieland: Zombieland has a plot reminiscent of Night of the Comet, most of the population have turned into zombies. Not wasting time with a complicated explanation or build-up we jump straight into survival and zombie killing. The pinnacle of zombie comedy (or horror comedy in general to be honest) in recent years is surly Shaun of the Dead. With cricket bats and vinyl records they found some new, inventive and comic ways of killing zombies. But none of these are going to win “Zombie Kill of the Week”. The simple fact is that Zombiland is considerably funnier that Shaun of the Dead. I can not express just how funny the film is. The last time I was this presently surprised by a comedy was In Bruges last year. Don’t get me wrong this is still a zombie film and is a bloody and sometimes as violent of any other zombie film. So is it a comedy about zombies or a zombie film that is funny? I would probably go for the former rather than the latter as the film really doesn’t have much to say for itself and has no subtext. This isn’t a criticism a comedy can be as shallow and disposable as it likes as long as it is funny and this is extremely funny!

A note on the selection. All films selected went on general releases in UK cinemas between the 1st of January 2009 and the 31st December 2009. I saw all of them in the cinema during that time and have seen some of them again on DVD since. Some of the films came out in other countries (America and Canada in particular) in 2008. I had to draw the line somewhere so decided UK release dates were the simplest way to do it.

At the end of a list like this you expect to see an “honourable mentions” list of all the films I loved but didn’t make the top ten. I have chosen not to do this, not through lack of films to choose from but because I have a follow-up post tomorrow. I have seen just over one hundred new releases this year. I have ranked them all and will be posting the results tomorrow.

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Before the Beatles

Review: Nowhere Boy

With a script from Matt Greenhaigh who also wrote the Joy Division biopic Control, Nowhere Boy has a good Start. The direction by Sam Taylor Wood is good if a little safe. We meet John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in 1955, a rebellious sixteen year old schoolboy whose life is going nowhere. After living with his aunt (Kristin Scott Thomas) since he was five he starts to get to know his mother (Anne-Marie Duff). The relationship isn’t always smooth but she steers him on a course that will change his life and the music industry forever. We see Lennon get his first guitar, change the way he dresses, change his glasses to look like Buddy Holiday and quiffs his hair to look like Elvis.

The film manages to avoid many easy clichés, the only time we see the Cavern club is when Lennon is turned away, the Beatles are never mentioned (but look out for the doodle he draws in class). Instead the movie concentrates on Lennon’s relationships with his mother and the aunt who raised him as well as his developing love of Skiffle and Rock and Roll music. The first meeting between Lennon and McCartney (Thomas Sangster – the kid who played Liam Neeson’s son in Love Actually) at the Quarrymen’s first gig has been well documented and is perfectly handled here. I know less about how George Harrison (Sam Bell) joined the band but the low key nature of the meeting is equally well handled. The way the setting is handled is also to the filmmakers credit, the 1950s Liverpool that Lennon inhabits looks like any other suburban street in the country and not a grimy post war port town that we see in so many clichéd depictions of the ere. The film ends as Lennon and his band leave for Hamburg making it the perfect companion piece for Backbeat (1994).

The film is probably too safe to be great but it is worth seeing for any music fan and is held together by great performances from Aaron Johnson and the ever reliable Kristin Scott Thomas.

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Elementary?

Jumping into the narrative half way through a case allows for an all action start to Sherlock Holmes. The fictional detective has been around for approximately 120 years, and has been adapted into more than 200 movies and TV programs but has now been turned into an action adventure. Think an English Victorian Indiana Jones. This all action approach should be laughable but for some reason it works. The main reason is the fantastic performances by and chemistry between the two leads Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) and Jude Law (Watson). In last years Iron Man, Downey Jr proved it’s a characters weaknesses and not his strengths that make great entertainment and his Holmes is a deeply flawed character. Where other movies have tried to gloss over Holmes’ character flaws Downey Jr embraces them and emphasises them for great comic effect.

The movie is full of Guy Ritchie gimmicks like slow motion and flashbacks explaining the events of the story, these are lees intrusive than you would think. Besides this the direction is relatively lean making the two and a bit hours fly by. The production design is fantastic with great costumes and an interesting view of Victorian London including a half finished tower bridge. As far as I am aware plot is a new story written for the film, but it does make lots of references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary character. Homes is an expert at fighting with a singlestick, an exponent of Baritsu and a “formidable bare knuckle fighter”. Irene Adler from A Scandal in Bohemia makes an appearance. Mark Strong makes a great villain, Lord Blackwood. The Temple of the Four Orders are reminiscent of Dan Brown favourites the Illuminati and the Freemasons, this plot fits well with Holmes’ deductive powers

Rachel McAdams crops up as Irene Adler, Holmes’ old flame and Kelly Reilly as Mary Morstan, Watson’s fiancé (introduced in the second novel, The Sign of the Four). Both these characters are woefully underdeveloped and underused. This could add fuel to the Homes is gayfire started by Downey. The rest of the supporting cast is largely forgettable other than Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade.

Like so much of Guy Ritchie’s output the film is disposable pulp but it is such good fun you just can’t help liking it. The ending of the film suggests that a sequel is inevitable, this is reinforced by the $65million opening weekend in America, only $10million behind Avatar.

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An Extra Half

If ever there was a film I was destined to hate it was Nine. I think Rob Marshall’s big hit Chicago is the worst recipient of the best picture Oscar in my lifetime. Seven years later Marshall returns to the Broadway musical, Nine is based on a show that in turn was based on 8 ½, my second favourite Federico Fellini movie (my favourite being La dolce vita). There are many problems with remaking classic films, in this case the original film was partly autobiographical for Fellini. The direction and construction of the film are at times awkward and messy. 

Despite all the odds been stacked against it the film isn’t bad. The main reason is excellent performances from an eclectic cast. Two time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis takes on the central role of Guido played by Marcello Mastroianni in the original movie and is as brilliant as ever. A master filmmaker who is struggling with his next film after his last two have flopped. With only a matter of days until filming starts he has no script things start to unravel. The rest of the leading players are made up of the important women in Guido’s life. Penelope Cruz plays Guido’s mistress, Marion Cotillard plays his wife and Nicole Kidman his muse and leading lady. Judi Dench is his old friend, confidant and his costume designer, Stacy Ferguson aka Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas plays a prostitute Guido remembers from his childhood and Sophia Loren plays his mother. Kate Hudson’s character is a bit on an enigma, an American fashion journalist who is somewhat superfluous to the plot but has one of the movies more memorable musical numbers. Because of the nature of the movie Guido takes centre stage and all the female characters are somewhat under developed. Despite this two of the actresses manage to transcend their parts and give movie stealing performances Penélope Cruz is as brilliant and sensual as ever but even she is upstaged by Marion Cotillard.

So this is a musical and I have said very little about the songs. The musical numbers tend to take place away from the narrative of the film, often on the half finished movie set. This creates an almost neat divide between the reality a movie and the fantasy of a musical. Normally a good thing but 8 ½ was so full of ambiguity and a dreamlike sense. The songs themselves aren’t that memorable, the biggest and best are probably Fergie’s Be Italian and Kate Hudson’s Cinema Italiano.

Strangely the fact that the movie isn’t full of memorable musical numbers works to it s benefit, none musical fans like me can enjoy it as an engaging well acted movie. I just hope a fraction of the millions of people who see this movie are inspired to see Fellini’s original masterpiece 8 ½.

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Lets not beat around the bush, Christmas television has been crap at best this year. There have been a few football matches and some decent movies but the quality of new programming has been appalling. But today, two days after Christmas there has finally been something worth watching on TV. Following the final “James May’s Toy Stories” (an excellent series that has been hidden away on BBC2 at varying times for the last couple of months) was a special edition of Top Gear.

There has actually always been something special about the top gear specials, we have had the American Cheap Car Roadtrip, Botswana in crappy old cars, Vietnam on motorbikes and the amazing Polar Challenge. If not topping what has gone before the Bolivia special at least matches it and taking all the elements that have worked before. Coming in at an almost feature length 75 minutes, the episodes sees presenters James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond travelling 1,000 miles from Bolivia to Chile’s Pacific coast. Going through Rainforests in the Amazonian jungle to La Paz, The highest capital city in the world and according to Clarkson, the worst! They arrive via the Yungas Road, known as the ‘Death Road’ for obvious reasons when you see the program. From there they cross the Altiplano. More desolate than death valley and at an altitude of 17,200 feet before reaching the coast.

The catch, and there is always a catch with Top Gear, they do all this in 4×4’s purchased blind, online and on a tight budget. Richard Hammond went for the most reliable car in the world, the Toyota Land Cruiser that unfortunately turned out to be rather less reliable than he had hoped. The ever sensible Jeremy Clarkson purchased an on paper less reliable series one Range Rover with a 3.9 V8 that turned out to be somewhat older and smaller than expected! It also turned out to be somewhat more reliable than expected. Always coming from leftfield James May chose a Suzuki SJ with a diminutive 1.3 litre 66 bhp engine.

The ever reliable Clarkson, Hammond and May are on great form and even allowing for the obviously scripted parts the program is genuinely funny. As the trio get out of their depth the program offers some genuine laugh out loud moments as always.

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G0 (1999): Christmas eve in LA is the setting for three interweaved stories. A drug deal goes wrong. A trip to Vegas goes wrong and a pair of actors are forced into helping the police. The connections between the three stories feel natural not contrived. The direction from Doug Liman (who went on to make The Bourne Identity) the film is well paced and edited. There are some great comedy moments but it is the great acting from the young little know (at the time) cast elevate this film to near greatness.

Die Hard (1988): How different it all could have been, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds and Richard Gere all turned down Die Hard before Bruce Willis got the part. Everyone knows the story: Officer John McClane of the NTPD flies to LA to spend Christmas with his wife and kids who have moved there for her word. During the office party heavily armed terrorists take over the building with only a shoeless John McClane to stop them. The film made Bruce Willis an action star and reinvented action movies but the real reason to watch it is for Alan Rickman’s brilliant performance as Hans Gruber the leader of the terrorists.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999): Set in the days leading up to Christmas, after his wife confesses that she was once tempted to cheat on him, doctor Bill Hartford spends the night in New York meeting a strange array of characters. This culminates in him gate crashing a surreal ritualistic orgy. Behind all the gloss and opulence and the dreamy exterior this is a gritty and real story of love, sex and relationships. The performances from real life married couple (at the time) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are first rate. The film ends with Alice and Bill Christmas shopping, whilst they appear to have moved on from their problems there is a real scene that things will never be the same again. Based on Traumnovelle (Dream Novel) by Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler the film retains a lot of ambiguity and works best on a psychological level.

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