Thursday, 30 December 2010

Felicity is back for January's Flick's Flicks

I had a great time hosting the last six months of Flick's Flicks, the online film preview show for Picturehouse cinemas. However the show's rightful (and superior) host Felicity "Flick" Ventom is back in the hot seat for this first episode of the new year. Here are the films to look out for in January 2011 (well, almost... 'True Grit' has been put back until February).

Welcome back Flick! And kudos to James Marcus Tucker for the show's classy new look.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

'The Way Back' review:

'The Way Back', director Peter Weir's first feature since 2003's naval epic 'Master and Commander', is inspired by disputed memoir The Long Walk which recounts the dangerous journey of a Polish man who escaped from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and walked all the way to India, across the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas. Weir dedicates the film to three unknown men who are supposed to have survived the ordeal, but says that his film - which he co-wrote - is fictionalised. In Weir's version Jim Sturgess stars as Janusz a young Polish inmate imprisoned by the Soviets after being labelled an anti-communist agent thanks to the testimony of his tortured wife. Once in the bleak and perilously cold surroundings of Northern Siberia he is pressed into harsh manual labour alongside undesirables from all over Eastern Europe as well as an enigmatic American known only as "Mr. Smith" (played by Ed Harris).

Realising that he and his fellow inmates won't survive long working in such conditions, Janusz decides to escape during a blizzard, taking with him a number of his friends along with Smith and one of the prison's most violent criminals Valka (Colin Farrell). Not long into the journey the men encounter Irena, a Polish orphan girl who is herself on the run and who is played by the rising star of 'Atonement' and 'The Lovely Bones' Saoirse Ronan. Amidst the walking we hear the sad tales of how each of these people came to end up in this situation. After the films pre-credits dedication to three survivors, you are immediately aware that many of the party will die in the course of the 4,000 mile walk, most likely as victims of the extremes of temperature and lack of provisions. The central question is "who will make it?"

Weir's ponderous, boring trudge of a film has the misfortune of coming out whilst two far superior works with similar subject matter linger in my recent memory. In Venice I saw Wang Bing's 'The Ditch' which depicted the bleak existence of ideological prisoners held in a work camp in Maoist China. Like much of 'The Way Back', 'The Ditch' is also set in the Gobi Desert but it feels far more real in its depiction of human beings rather than broad national caricatures (there is little to separate Farrell's Russian accent and broken English from that of a certain car insurance hawking meerkat) and with the reality of starvation and the desolation of the landscape much more visceral.

'The Way Back' is by contrast a sanitised account in which starving, thirsty people who have walked for several weeks in horrible cold and extreme heat show very little physical evidence of their ordeal beside chapped lips and dirty clothes. When people drop dead it is only foreshadowed by their character suddenly wearing a pained expression and talking in a softer voice. Furthermore, 'The Ditch' - though uneventful and slow moving - creates a much more coherent sense of the passing of time than Weir's film where we only learn how much time has passed from scene to scene when we are told ("it's been two weeks"). This has the effect of making what should be an epic journey feel at times like it has taken no time at all (paradoxically over an interminable two hour-plus running length).

The other film with which it compares unfavourably is Andrzej Wajda's 2007 film about the Katyn massacre, 'Katyn'. That harrowing Polish drama showed the brutal reality of what lay in store for young Polish servicemen captured by the Soviets during the Second World War. Again, it is a less clean, more emotional picture than anything painted in 'The Way Back'. French film critic Michel Ciment once asked Stanley Kubrick why he didn't consider 'Schindler's List' a great film about the Nazi holocaust, and the director is supposed to have replied that the holocaust was about ten million people being killed whilst Spielberg's film was about a small number of people being saved. That sums up 'The Way Back'.

It is the gulag/Soviet purges equivalent of 'Schindler's List' in that it is ultimately an uplifting human story of survival and not a questioning or difficult film about the complicated, sometimes frightening, reality of the human condition. Again here, the bad things we are all capable of are dismissed as the work of cruel, even evil, individuals - the human experience told with all the moral complexity of a Saturday morning cartoon. Of course, both 'Schindler's List' and 'The Way Back' are based on "true" events, but it is telling which true events filmmakers are drawn to tell stories about and how they choose to tell them.

'The Way Back' is blandly made and generic fare, with cliché-ridden dialogue and insincere performances worthy of an ITV melodrama. People say all the things you'd expect them to say in such a story and little else, spouting hackneyed phrases like "go on without me" and "what are you going to do when you're free?" There are slow-zooming shots on weeping actors as the film strains for poignancy amidst the hammy accents and romanticised vistas. Mark Strong turns up on Janusz's first day at the camp and gives him the obligatory guided tour. Peel back the pretense of real dialogue and what he tells Janusz boils down to him informing us: "don't trust Colin Farell" and "Ed Harris is a wilfully enigmatic American". The reality of life at the camp is peculiar too, as Janusz and Smith are assigned to work in "the mines" where they do very little but sit around chatting, without the guards seeming at all put out.

'The Way Back', with its simplistic grasp of history, politics and the human condition, is just another uplifting story about the overused buzzwords of "hope" and "freedom" that again fill in for anything genuinely profound or inspirational in the telling of the story or in the filmmaking itself.

'The Way Back' is out in cinemas across the UK now and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

'Catfish' review:

Chances are if you asked somebody if they'd seen "the film about Facebook" they'd probably think you were referring to David Fincher's 'The Social Network', a film about the site's founder Mark Zuckerberg and the litigation surrounding the origins of his now omnipresent creation. Yet for Fincher's thriller that is perhaps a misleading moniker, with the film actually more of a Shakespearean tragedy about power and betrayal. Really the film about Facebook itself is the documentary 'Catfish', directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.

'Catfish' follows photographer and brother of one of the film's co-directors, Yaniv "Nev" Schulman, as he receives a painting of one of his photographs done by a talented eight year-old girl named Abby. Nev befriends Abby's mother Angela on Facebook and soon "friends" the entire family on the social networking site. He is particularly taken with Abby's older sister Megan, a model, dancer, photographer and musician, and begins an intimate long-distance relationship with her. However, when Megan sends Nev some of her music he becomes suspicious of the whole family after finding that the clips had been taken off YouTube. Then the documentary turns from taking an innocent look at Nev's relationship with this multi-talented family to trying to uncover the truth behind who these people are.

The reason I suggest 'Catfish' is about Facebook (at least in part) is that, as immediately evident from the Universal logo at the start redone in the style of Google Earth, the film is overtly interested in the mechanics of how we interact online and why. It looks at social isolation and depression as one of the causes of using the web as a tool for escapist fantasy. It looks at the pitfalls of considering the internet as a place to meet people and make real, lasting connections. Also, it showcases the relative ease and sophistication with which people can now fashion convincing, fully realised fiction about themselves - something which 'Catfish' manages to take to its creepy (though not unexpected) conclusion.

The film is not only actually about the phenomenon of social networking and online dating, but it is also interestingly told using the websites themselves. We witness Facebook correspondence, are introduced to people via their "tagged" Facebook photos, whilst Google Earth and Street View are used extensively to establish locations. As the investigation into the truth behind Megan and her family gathers steam, we watch the filmmakers using search engines to research the family, at one point surfing real estate websites in the family's area to verify elements of their story. As much as this is Nev's story, it is also the story of what the internet has become in our lifetime: with the original novelty value of online shopping and news now just a matter-of-fact part of our existence (do-able even on most mobile phones) the internet is morphing into something more voyeuristic and even Orwellian.

Part of the joy of 'Catfish' is the uncertainty surrounding the "truth", so I won't write too much more about it here. Except to say that it is a highly compelling, dramatic and at times sinister film with as many laughs as awkward moments. Some have questioned its authenticity as a documentary, though I was pretty convinced by it. But even if it emerges that it was faked to some degree, I think there is still truth in it as a story that is probably playing out around the world (even if not to this extreme). In the end the film felt a bit like a Louis Theroux film about strange people. Though whereas Theroux is a little insincere and smirky with his subjects, the filmmakers here are actually refreshingly sensitive to the situation as the quest comes to a head. Whatever confrontations occur in the end are reasonable and handled sympathetically. This is where the film is at its best, as it packs a surprisingly emotional punch and tells an ultimately quite tragic story when it could have simply mined the situation for laughs and freakdom.

I never thought 'The Social Network' was the "film about Facebook" its detractors (or quite often those who didn't take time to watch it) tried to paint it as. But now that a film about Facebook is here, and is also very good, that line of argument seems all the more redundant.

'Catfish' has been rated '12A' by the BBFC and can be found playing in select cinemas across the UK. The film is also due out on DVD from January 10th.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas readers!

It's Christmas Day today, so hope you're having a good one. I thought I'd just say "merry Christmas" to you all to thank those of you who've supported this blog over the last year, through feedback or just from reading my musings on the last year of cinema.

I've had a decent day, made even better by my having received a pile of blu-rays and DVDs of films from the "top 30" list I published earlier in the week. They include Romanian drama 'The Happiest Girl in the World', Herzog's 'Bad Lieutenant', 'Greenberg', 'The Father of My Children', 'Life During Wartime', 'Mother' and 'Dogtooth'. I'm looking forward to re-watching all of those soon and settling down to reappraise 'Toy Story 3' with my girlfriend and her family.

If you missed it, here are links to my list of my personal top 30 films of 2010:

Also, in the Christmas spirit, I reviewed the latest Narnia film yesterday.

I hope you enjoy all that and the rest of your holiday!

Friday, 24 December 2010

'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' review:

Colour me ungrateful, but as much as I am happy to enjoy the capitalist gift-giving rituals of Christmas time I am actually not too keen on celebrating the birth of magical Mr. Christ. So for me the forgettable 'Chronicles of Narnia' film series, based on a set of twee, allegory-heavy children's novels by C.S Lewis, are about as much fun as an afternoon spent in a hot classroom being talked at by an especially pious R.E teacher determined to sex-up the bible for impressionable youngsters.

In these fantasy adventure films, 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', 'Prince Caspian' and now 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader', Liam Neeson voices everyone's favourite Jesus-Lion hybrid Aslan and teaches us about the great virtue found in unquestioning, zealous belief and the sanctity of birth-right. (The messiah parallel is less subtle than ever in 'Dawn Treader' as Aslan tells the children at one point, "In your world I have a different name." Wink wink, viewer: can you guess what it is yet?) The first two films starred four, plumy future David Camerons, though that number has been halved for this new adventure as only Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) return from the original group - as they still have moral lessons to learn from an animal that should, by rights, be eating their gormless faces off. However they are joined by a new young companion in the form of their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) who is somehow three times as posh and about a billion times more irritating than his relatives.

Eustace (we are told but never shown) is obsessed with all things "logical" and with "facts" gleaned from books, which causes him to reject fantasy and belittle his cousins' fondness for the lovely and perpetually war torn land of Narnia. He represents the evils of science and is Lewis' attempt to win his ongoing theological arguments by ridiculing his opposition. You see, Eustace is never actually logical or intelligent. He's instead a whiny, cowardly imbecile who questions Narnia even when it is right in front of his nose. The whole concept doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny: in a world where Narnia is real the logical, even scientific, position would be to accept that. Lewis has turned the tables and is charging that the rational are in fact the irrational. Surely Eustace is a more accurate analogue for religious faith than his cousins? What's more, how is Aslan able to test the faith of Lucy and company, when he is so omnipotent: benevolently powerful at every turn? This film isn't an advert for "faith" but for "accepting that stuff you've just seen is in fact real".

The film's (or the book's) philosophy on things is at best confused and at worst the exact opposite of the teachings of Christ. For instance, when Eustace falls over Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) quips to Lucy and Edmund: "And you're certain he's related by blood?" Jesus - so we're told by The Bible - used to hang out with the lowest in society and had little time for the rich and powerful. However the Narnia films are quite openly pro-monarchy tales in which the worth of our heroes is assumed to be related to their bloodline as "sons of Adam" and "daughters of Eve". In this sequel its Edmund's turn to repeatedly recite his older brother's self-important catchphrase "but I'm a king!" at every turn. The children, with the possible exception of amiable young Lucy, are complete assholes from beginning to end in every film. We are told they've grown somehow, but there is precious little evidence that the spoilt, bickering twits have learned anything.

Also, wouldn't Jesus normally advocate a "turn the other cheek" policy when it comes to violence? Apparently not in the Narnia films where everything is ultimately resolved with the clanking of swords and the firing of arrows (well, at least before they inevitably summon Jesus as if he's the ultimate form of the Power Ranger Megazord). The film's moral messages are a bit messed up too, as warmongering, anthropomorphised mouse Reepicheep is constantly urging ten year-old Eustace on towards battle and a valiant death telling him to "never turn away from adventure". He could do with reading Dulce et Decorum est or sitting down and watching a thoughtful John Pilger documentary so he can stop being so bloody keen on homicidal acts of violence.

There is an old fashioned mentality that you find in these stories, perhaps not surprising given that they were written in the 1950s. Girlish Lucy spends 'Dawn Treader' wanting to be prettier so she can attract boys, whilst Edmund wants to prove that he's a manly man with a big sword. Perhaps the increasingly tepid response to these film adaptations from audiences is in part down to their lacking any relevance to twenty-first century children? Walden Media certainly won't make their intended fourth installment following 'Dawn Treader' failing to meet even the meagre expectations of 20th Century Fox (who saved the series after Disney canned it in 2008).

But even if you are one of the 468,916 people that "like" God on Facebook (correct at the time of writing) and worship the Narnia stories, 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is a tedious telling of this story. Andrew Adamson made a handsome job of the first two entries, with 'Prince Caspian' quite a polished and surprisingly scary film in places (such as when snarling occultists try to lure Caspian into reviving Tilda Swinton's White Witch). It was also action-packed, with Adamson writing in new battle scenes not present in the ponderous source text. They were also shot on location in New Zealand and around Europe, giving them an epic grandeur. However, Michael Apted has stepped in for the third film and made something much blander. He isn't aided by the fact that a lot of this story takes place at sea and not amidst sweeping vistas, but even when action does take place on terra firma, many of the locations are much more obviously the result of CGI than in the other two films. The result is that even though the set pieces are on a grander scale - with a dragon battling a huge sea serpent around an elaborate galleon on a tempestuous sea at the film's finale - they actually feel smaller and less tangible.

The film's pacing is also amiss, as the characters are each presented with moral trials which are overcome far too quickly and easily, the film just jumping from event to event without conveying any feeling of significance or genuine peril along the way. It also suffers from Apted's decision to replace Eddie Izzard with Simon Pegg as the voice Reepicheep. Izzard brought a debonair, swashbuckling charm to the character in 'Prince Caspian', whereas Pegg's voice work is less sincere and fun. My girlfriend's description of the change was that "because you have the other voice in your head, it just feels like he has a cold or something." That about sums it up. Caspian's voice has also changed, with Barnes presumably told to drop the faux Italian accent his people had in the last film, but whilst this might be sensible in some respects, it does break the films' internal continuity and he returns as an unfamiliar character.

Narnia, as a concept and as a literary world, clearly isn't a place I want to take my imagination. But even with that in mind, it is difficult to see that fans of this series will be too upset when an adaptation of the next book, 'The Silver Chair', is not forthcoming. In truth it's a series that wanted to be a high-profile, fantasy spectacle in the mould of 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Harry Potter' but has ended up feeling more like 'The Golden Compass'. Unlike Potter or Rings, the Narnia films have only a very loose overarching continuity and, with the series' most enduring story ('The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe') over and done with straight away, it seems people weren't really moved to come back for seconds, let alone thirds. Or maybe those people have started going to church for their sermons and not the multiplex? Just a thought.

'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' is rated 'PG' by the BBFC and is out on general release.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

My Top 30 Films of 2010: 10-1

The earlier parts of this top 30 can be found here:

10) Of Gods and Men, dir Xavier Beauvois, FRA

What I said: "Any good film is a film of ideas, even if those ideas are transmitted through seemingly disposable entertainment. But rarely are films so consciously about ideas whilst remaining so unpretentious... 'Of Gods and Men' lives up to its billing as one of the year's strongest films, with its sombre, contemplative mood as captivating as it is a profoundly moving experience."

The most recent entry into my top ten, I saw (and reviewed) 'Of Gods and Men' very recently after it's UK release earlier this month. 'Of Gods and Men' is a sober and thoughtful film based on the true story of a group of French monks who lived in an Algerian monastery until they were apparently beheaded by Islamic militants (though their actual killers are disputed). The film doesn't detail their deaths, but rather spends its time observing the conversations the men have as they ponder whether to stay or leave. It's a film about ideology and the idea of morality. It is also full of beautifully composed images and the use of the monks' Gregorian chanting (actually performed by the terrific ensemble cast) is haunting and powerful.

9) Ovsyanki (Silent Souls), dir Aleksei Fedorchenko, RUS

What I said: "It never out-stays its welcome and always has something new and interesting to show you, in its slow, deliberate and beautifully banal way, sometimes with an odd and unsettling atmosphere. Silent Souls also has plenty to say about culture, tradition, belief and love. Many films today say far less over 3 hours than this film manages in 75 minutes. Which isn’t bad going."

A strange Russian film about ritual and tradition, set in a remote part of the country and following a forgotten people with a distinct set of cultural practices. It's a film of long, still takes in which we are left to observe these curious ceremonies in real-time. One such scene sees a bereaved husband and one of his co-workers cleaning the dead body of his young wife. How the lady died is never mentioned (was she sick? Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered?) with the film just focusing on the final journey of her body as the two men embark on a sort of macabre road movie - and we are invited along on a sort of sedate, malancholic cultural safari. All the while there is the sense that it is about more than the passing of one man's wife, but about the death of an entire culture - which we are almost lead to believe is only being practised by these two stern and quiet men. For such a slow and simple film, 'Ovsyanki' is also full of surprisingly bravura shot choices. For instance, director Aleksei Fedorchenko executes a amazing panning shot which takes us 180 degrees around the inside of a moving car. 'Ovsyanki' was one of the major highlights of this year's Venice Film Festival and a film that I sadly can't see receiving any sort of UK theatrical release.

8) Police, Adjective, Corneliu Porumboiu, ROM

What I said: "[Police, Adjective] quietly paints a picture of urban decay, bureaucracy, and even seems to have fun satirising the conventions of the police procedural genre. There is no action or excitement here: no gun wielding, no interrogations, and [the protagonist] doesn’t even have a partner to accompany him on his long, eventless stake-outs, following a child suspected of a petty crime. There is also a great awareness of the hypocrisy of his task, as he offers one child (an informant) cigarettes and alcohol – arbitrarily deemed socially acceptable drugs... As the title suggests, the film is also concerned with the nature of language, specifically as a route to meaning. The final exchange between [the cop] and his superior is magnificent, ending a mostly silent film with a terrific scene of funny dialogue and top-class acting."

The 'Un Certain Regard' section of the Cannes Film Festival was especially good in 2009. All four of the chosen films found limited releases in the UK this year and all four of those films have been in this top 30 ('The Father of My Children' #22, 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' #14 and 'Dogtooth' #13). But for me the pick of the bunch has to be the Romanian police procedural 'Police, Adjective'. Never has the "procedural" part of that genre been so heavily emphasised - not even in brilliant TV shows like 'The Wire'. In this film there is no action, no major crime bust in operation. There is just one Romanian cop doing seemingly endless paperwork in the pursuit of the most juvenile of offenders at the insistence of his pedantic superiors. Like 'Ovsyanki', this is a patient film of long, slow takes and the most exciting scene is one sustained shot as three men defer to a Romanian dictionary in a discussion of ethics and the social purpose behind policing. Totally absorbing and entirely brilliant, with a wicked, dry sense of humour that seems to characterise the New Romanian cinema.

7) Greenberg, Noah Baumbach, USA

What I said: "The most breathtakingly beautiful moments of the film are those that follow [Greta] Gerwig as she sings along to Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” in her modest studio flat or gets dressed after a one-night stand. When she impulsively asks Greenberg “could you ever love me?” the moment is profoundly moving and totally honest, never becoming saccharin... Greenberg is also impressive in the way that it depicts anxiety, ageing and social awkwardness (by now a sub-genre in itself), in a way which is just as precise and heartfelt as The Squid and the Whale."

Many will just flat-out hate Ben Stiller's title character, a self-obsessed, delusional and whiny loser, but I found 'Greenberg' immensely moving and poignant - never more so than when Rhys Ifans' character (whose music career was curtailed by Greenberg's selfishness) tells his friend that "It’s huge to finally embrace the life you never planned on." 'Greenberg' is a film about damaged people who haven't necessarily gotten what they expected from life. As a screenwriter and director, Noah Baumbach has come to specialise in this sort of sympathetic portrayal of these sorts of fully-developed and deeply flawed characters. Ultimately, I love these kinds of films that are honest about human frailties yet never resign themselves to ever-fashionable apathy or hopelessness.

6) Mother, Joon-ho Bong, ROK

What I said: "The film is suspenseful and tense, but also darkly funny throughout... Joon-ho is supremely skilled at mixing genuine tension with humour in this way. Maybe Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers strike the same delicate balance when working at the peak of their powers, with these filmmakers able to inject absurd, black comedy into horrific events without detracting from their impact. Like those American directors, Joon-ho is also to make his scenes of graphic violence extremely visceral without verging anywhere near the "torture porn" end of the spectrum."

In retrospect I don't know that I think 'Mother' is as good as his last film 'The Host', but Joon-ho Bong has now established himself as one of the directors to watch in "world cinema". His films are so witty, so packed with satire and so very mad whilst always somehow just clinging to credibility. 'Mother' is a sort of detective thriller, where a lone middle-aged woman embarks on a fight against the odds to prove that her mentally handicapped son is not guilty of the murder he has been imprisoned for. It is at times quite jumpy, but the stand-out aspect of the film is the overriding creepiness Bong creates as we see the disturbingly close relationship between the mother and her son. As well as featuring many of the director's ongoing preoccupations (including the portrayal of South Korea as a seedy and corrupt place with a mobile phone fetish and overzealous media), the film works as a powerful meditation on the idea that a mother's unconditional love can work as a force for evil as much as good.

5) Another Year, Mike Leigh, UK

What I said: "[Another Year] moved me close to tears with Leigh's customary blend of well observed, wonderfully acted human drama. As always, even the smallest roles in Leigh's film feel imbued with real depth."

'Another Year' has a stunning cast, which includes Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville, who bring to life another banal, slice of life story from Mike Leigh - without doubt my favourite living British director. It's a film of wonderfully observed moments and rich, three dimensional characters that resonate with you on a gut level. One of the film's great strengths is that its characters are fully formed people who can be taken in many different ways. I have spoken to several different people about it and hear contrasting reactions to each of the characters. Some see the central couple (Broadbent and Sheen's comfortably middle-class Tom and Gerri) as being judgemental and even hateful, whilst I saw them as being tender and quite accommodating (trying their best to help their friends but finally accepting that there is nothing they can do to help people who aren't open to the idea of happiness). Lesley Manville's overbearing Mary was someone I felt was tragic and very real, whereas I have heard people say that her character is too extreme and too unlikeable.

As with a number of other film's on this list, such as 'Greenberg', 'Life During Wartime' and 'Submarine', enjoyment of it is subject to how much you can tolerate the idea that the life you lead owes a lot to luck and that almost everyone is a fuck up in one way or another. It also depends on how accepting you are of those people when you can see their many, obvious character defects. If you're the sort of person that just wants to slap them or tell them to "get over it", then you'll find this film (and many others on my list) infuriating. However, I found 'Another Year' to be deeply humbling and incredibly sad, with Leigh's bittersweet, gentle brand of humour (which hones in on small character moments and speech patterns) as effecting as ever.

4) 13 Assassins, Takeshi Miike, JAP

What I said: "Miike is less enamoured with the ancient traditions and the bushido warrior code than Kurosawa was. It is true that Seven Samurai does express – through Mifune’s peasant – a critical view of the samurai class, comparing them to bandits (something this film also does in its own way). But the tone and resolution of 13 Assassins, make it quite clear where Miike’s sensibilities lie. At one point, the most typically formally beautiful character – the bad guy and a Lord – comments on the great “elegance in fighting one on one” during a climactic duel. Miike then cuts to the warriors feet, shuffling through the mud. He continually employs touches like this to undermine Japanese traditions of formal beauty and a culture that finds nobility in violent death."

'13 Assassins' is prolific Japanese director Takeshi Miike's insane take on the central idea behind Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai': that one noble, old samurai must protect the weak by forming an elite gang and staging an epic all-or-nothing battle against an overwhelming adversary. There are three major differences though that set this film apart from that old classic. Firstly, it is graphically violent in the extreme. Secondly, the set pieces are much more high-octane, exaggerated and cartoonish (but in a way which thrilled me immensely). And thirdly - and most crucially - this film is far more critical of the samurai class and Japanese tradition than even Kurosawa was. In fact the film could be seen as the sort of direct challenge against the old guard that was typified by the Japanese New Wave of the 70s. This film has no respect for tradition and ceremony - or in the bushido code of the warrior - although it depicts all of that stuff in meticulous detail even as it sneers at it.

There is a lot going on in Miike's playful film (in terms of commentary on class, violence, beauty and on movies themselves), but its single best feature is that it is so very entertaining and inventive from start to finish. As soon as the credits rolled I wanted to see it all over again and I am more excited about re-watching this one than any other film I've seen this year.

3) The Happiest Girl in the World, Radu Jude, ROM

What I said: "[The Happiest Girl in the World] provoked an incredibly visceral response from me whilst I sat watching it. I felt like I wanted to shout at the girl for being so selfish and giving her folks such a hard time. I wanted her dad to be able to get her signature and sell the car before the day’s conclusion. At times I was gripped with suspense uncommon in this sort of quiet, low-key film as I genuinely worried about what decision the girl would make. But the biggest strength of all is that I wasn’t led to feel that way particularly (or at least I don’t feel as though I was, which is just as good). I can just as easily imagine people wanting the girl to keep her car and I can see people thinking badly of her parents for pushing her into selling it for them."

A brilliant little Romanian film about a small town girl who journeys into Bucharest with her parents to collect a brand new car that she has won after entering a competition on a soft drink label. Her pragmatic mother and father, who have lived through the more frugal communist years, want to sell the car and use the money to invest in a business that will see them through retirement. However, the girl just wants to ride around in her car with her friends. It's another excellent piece of slow cinema, with long takes and little action. Most of the film takes place on the set of a soft drink commercial the girl must complete before she can collect her prize. In the advert she must repeatedly say that she is "the happiest and luckiest girl in the world", with increasing irony as she argues with her parents about the prize between takes and becomes quite sulky and miserable. There is a lot of fun to be had from watching the filming of the commercial itself, as the director battles with the girl's incompetence and bad attitude, combined with the pushy, interfering executives of the soft drink company, who keep insisting on changes which slow down the shoot.

There are so many dynamics at work in 'The Happiest Girl in the World', which can be seen as a tale about young Romania versus old Romania, the small town versus big city, communism versus capitalism and also about filmmaking, and this is what makes it is such a rich and enjoyable film.

2) The Social Network, David Fincher, USA

What I said: "I have some sympathy with business writer Andrew Clark at The Guardian when he asks: "does a 26-year-old businessman really deserve to have his name dragged through the mud in a murky mixture of fact and imagination for the general entertainment of the movie-viewing public?" Probably not. But whatever the "truth", and whatever the moral implications of this type of dramatised treatment of very recent history, 'The Social Network' is a quite brilliant piece of entertainment and a wonderful example of American cinema at its very best."

I saw this film twice within twenty-four hours and it was even better a second time, mainly thanks to the joy of listening to Aaron Sorkin's famously quick and clever dialogue. Everyone speaks like they are a genius, which given that most of this film's characters are Harvard students and top lawyers is probably not too much of a stretch. This writing is coupled with Fincher's restrained and tight directing which has the effect of making a film about nerds suing each other feel like an intense thriller. Everyone is superb in it too, from Jesse Eisenberg - as Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook - to Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake. My favourite exchange of dialogue is this one:

Lawyer: Mr. Zuckerberg, do I have your full attention?
Mark Zuckerberg: [stares out the window] No.
Lawyer: Do you think I deserve it?
Mark Zuckerberg: [looks at the lawyer] What?
Lawyer: Do you think I deserve your full attention?
Mark Zuckerberg: I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.
Lawyer: Okay - no. You don't think I deserve your attention.
Mark Zuckerberg: I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.
Mark Zuckerberg: Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

After saying those words there are shots of everyone in the room, including Zuckerberg's own lawyers, looking embarrassed (presumably as much for him in his arrogance as for themselves at being outwitted by him) accompanied by an ominous note on the soundtrack, which itself deserves a mention. Along with Hans Zimmer's resonating tones from 'Inception' and Robbie Robertson's innovative work on 'Shutter Island', the film features one of the year's best scores, written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

'The Social Network' is not that "film about Facebook" everyone wrote off a year or so ago. It's a powerful document of the world we live in (where huge wealth and power rests in the hands of the likes of Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs), yet also a timeless Shakespearean tale of friendships broken by betrayal and ambition, where the protagonist - in trying to become so popular - in fact becomes even more lonely: ironically a symptom of the kind of social isolation brought about by the same Facebook Zuckerberg helped to invent.

1) Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, USA

What I said: "Aronofsky said, at the post-film press conference, that he always likened Black Swan to The Wrestler in his own mind... But that he felt it properly combined his earlier, perhaps more experimental and less literal style, with that later film’s more realist documentary aesthetic. I think that maybe a key ingredient behind this film’s success. It is the perfect marriage of those two styles and the real beginning to Aronofsky’s claim to true greatness. Time will tell if he can do it again. But regardless, Black Swan is a towering achievement. Both as cinema and as an unadulterated emotional ride."

'Black Swan' is my favourite film of 2010, narrowly defeating 'The Social Network', but way ahead of everything else. I was absolutely stunned by it, and at times gripped by intense fear, when I saw it on the opening day of this year's Venice Film Festival. It comes out in the UK in the new year and I suspect it will at least be nominated for every major category at next year's Academy Awards, though I predict it will lose out on the big prizes to 'The Social Network' (with its mighty "95" rating on metacritic) and 'The King's Speech'.

Natalie Portman is simply amazing in a physically demanding role which required her to spend the last few years learning ballet to a high standard. This central performance is complemented by a film that is a perfect blend of sound and image. Not overly literal or dialogue heavy, 'Black Swan' pushes at the boundaries of what cinema can be as a sensory experience. It feels as though there isn't a flabby, unnecessary shot (let alone scene) in the whole piece, which is about as meticulously crafted and tightly directed as it's possible for a film to be. Like the title character, it goes sublimely from being as delicate and beautiful as bone china, to being horrifying and bone-crunchingly brutal - a fitting analogue for ballet itself, with its mannered public face hiding years of disfiguring, back-breaking effort within a world of jealousy and intense rivalry.

So that's 2010. In an outstanding cinematic year I couldn't even find a place in the top 30 for films as strong as 'Shutter Island', 'The Kids Are All Right', 'Sons of Cuba' and 'Post Mortem'! I hope 2011 provides the same problem with as many really excellent films. If you didn't read the first two sections of this top 30 list, then they are available here:

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Top 30 Films of 2010: 20-11

This is the second part of my 2010 top 30 films list. If you haven't already read through entries 30-21 then do so here.

The final top 10 is available here.

20) Capitalism: A Love Story, dir Michael Moore, USA

What I said: "‘Capitalism’ is a fiery essay, delivered by a master propagandist and manipulator, but it is never less than compelling and exciting, and is a skillful piece of documentary filmmaking. Even if you come away unconvinced or even angered by Moore’s opinions, I for one am very glad he is airing them in this way. Especially on this subject which usually goes un-discussed, yet has such total and invisible control over our everyday lives. The fact that Moore can turn this discussion into populist entertainment is his unique gift and I for one applaud him for it."

Nothing this year has left me feeling as enraged or as energised as Michael Moore's documentary on world capitalism. Moore's critics point to a lack of "balance" or "objectivity" in his films, but for me they work for this reason. They take a view and argue that point. I don't particularly like the wacky stunts he pulls, such as closing off Wall Street with crime scene tape, as these moments have the effect of trivialising the other more serious points he is making, of which there are many. What I really liked was the sequence that linked the rise of Reagan to the rise of capitalism and advertising, and the bit where he talks about FDR's siding with striking workers over the police, sending the army to protect them (a moment that actually made me punch the air with joy). It is populist and manipulative in the extreme, but "the left" needs a voice like this in a world where shamelessly biased, right-wing media organisations like Fox News dominate the ratings on American cable news.

19) Ponyo, dir Hayao Miyazaki, JAP

What I said: "I loved ‘Ponyo’. It was purely and immensely joyful and if my fandom of Miyazaki has in any way compromised my judgement and rendered me unable to find any negatives in this film, then I am entirely happy with that outcome. In an age where most children's films have a post-modern, knowing cynicism about them, it is really refreshing to find something so sincere in its unabashed enthusiasm and childish naivety."

Miyazaki's most childish film since 'My Neighbour Totoro', 'Ponyo' is a little undiluted capsule of raw fun. It takes place in that recognisable world of his where the sky is the brightest blue and the grass is the lushest green and where there is no such thing as "evil" or "bad guys". As in all Miyazaki films - with the exception of one - the villain of the piece is redeemed rather than killed and everyone is more or less decent. He also continues to be one of the keenest observers of the behaviour of young children in all of cinema. His last film 'Howl's Moving Castle' is richer and more detailed in terms of storytelling, but it is great to see a film aimed a really young children that is so respectful of that audience and brimming with imagination.

18) Lebanon, dir Samuel Maoz, ISR

What I said: "Of course, the film is anti-war, but without seeming like a polemic. Maoz doesn’t stand on a soapbox: he simply presents the events to us as he saw them and in doing so we come to share his viewpoint. You could not sit through that experience and come to any other conclusion than war being a terrible exercise... But the strength of Maoz’s picture is that, confined to the men in the tank and bereft of any political context or discussion, we just see the humanist plight of people in a nonsensical situation asked to wreak violence upon their fellow man."

Sam Maoz documented his personal experiences, during his compulsory time in the Israeli army during the first Lebanon war, in this film which takes place entirely within the confines of a tank. All we see of the world outside is what we are permitted to see by the vehicles viewfinder. As you'd expect the result is tight and claustrophobic. It's a film about the horrible things men do to each other and the immense pressure put on young people to do them - usually for reasons they don't understand.

17) Submarine, dir Richard Ayoade, UK

What I said: "Rarely in a debut feature do you find a director so in command of the form, as you sense that everything in 'Submarine' has been carefully played out in its director's head and translated exactly that way onto the screen... 'Submarine' is as sweet and at times unsettling as it is beautifully made and wonderfully acted. It is funny - but not too funny - and also melancholic and above all truthful, in spite of that fact that it takes place in a reality heightened by its narrator's ego."

Richard Ayoade's debut feature film reminded me equally of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. It has all the detail and French New Wave inspired mise-en-scène of the former, but with the narrator - a Welsh teenage boy with delusions of grandeur - sharing dark thoughts in a cheerful and amoral way that channels Alex from 'A Clockwork Orange'. It is witty and at times bizarre, yet at its core it's a very sincere family drama and a heartfelt coming of age story.

16) Tangled, dir Byron Howard/Nathan Greno, USA

What I said: "For years I've been a hand-drawn snob who felt that by going over to computer animation Disney had lost their way - along with all of their charm. 'Tangled' has won me over wholeheartedly, putting a recognisably Disney style into computer animation for the first time. If they keep this up, the studios identity crisis might finally be over and the problem of differentiating Walt Disney Animation Studios from their more lauded cousins PIXAR might finally be solved."

My favourite animated film of the year, which is no small feat when you consider 2010 saw the UK releases of superb return to hand-drawn animation 'The Princess and the Frog', as well as Miyazaki's 'Ponyo'. Not to mention the charming likes of 'Chico & Rita' and 'The Illusionist'. (I didn't care much for Pixar's slide into sequel excess, 'Toy Story 3'.) Walt Disney Animation Studios has finally made a decent computer animated film, something I thought would never happen. The secret seems to be that they have moved forward with the technology (the best hair, water, light and fabric effects I've ever seen), but looked backwards with the storytelling. Like all classic Disney it is a fairy tale (based on Rapunzel). It is also a Broadway-style musical to rival the best of the Disney renaissance from the 90s. The whole thing feels like a hand-drawn Disney movie pulled out into 3D, rather than the sort of charmless, personality-free stuff that came to typify their output of the last decade.

15) Four Lions, dir Chris Morris, UK

What I said: "Whilst nobody in the audience is encouraged to agree with the measures Omar takes to try and register his political dissatisfaction as a British Muslim, in ‘Four Lions’ we are given a humanistic picture which demythologises the bogeyman of the evil suicide bomber. This is arguably a laudable aim if, like me, you see empathy and understanding as crucial to finding a future peace... ‘Four Lions’ will certainly not be to everybody’s taste, with some scenes destined to make audiences uneasy, but long term fans of Morris will find it to be a satisfying and devastatingly funny experience."

"If they're about to blow themselves up in wrong place, you've got to make sure they blow themselves up in the right place" counsels the wife of a disillusioned British suicide bomber on the verge of giving up. The couple's young son is equally encouraging in a scene that reminded me of something from director Chris Morris' unsettling sketch show 'Jam'. I love the way that scene plays on movie convention, as Morris' film picks apart the recognised formula of a Hollywood narrative (here the "hero" has a crisis and is helped by his family) by transposing it onto a group of would-be terrorists. I expected 'Four Lions' to be clever and funny, being from the maker of 'Brass Eye' and 'Nathan Barley', but I never expected it to be so tender and moving as it was in the final minutes.

It is also a deeply humanistic film that looks at the different reasons people go along with Omar's plans: one is brainless, another younger man wants to be seen as a radical and thinks it'll be cool, another guy (Barry) is just homicidal and wants to blow people up and is using his shaking grasp of Islam as an excuse. Omar himself is motivated by sincere conviction, but even then he is not shown to be a dedicated Muslim, but is instead driven by a misguided sense that terrorism is some kind of ultimate form of anti-consumerism. Characteristically, Morris doesn't pander to anyone or sanctify anything, so the practicing Muslims are also satirised, keeping their wives in a cupboard ("it's not a cupboard, it's a small room") and playing football in impractical clothes. The police are equally nonsensical, with a sniper shooting the wrong man during the London marathon ("is a wookie a bear?") Like his frequent collaborator Armando Iannucci (who directed 'In the Loop'), Morris plays up basic human absurdity with a straight face. To both men incompetence and ignorance can be found at the root of all "evil".

14) No One Knows About Persian Cats, dir Bahman Ghobadi, IRN

What I said: "Aesthetically, the film sometimes looks a little amateurish and the music video sequences (whilst clever) can seem a little cheesy. But that said, ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is an enjoyable and at times poignant look at a modern Tehran, which provides a really good insight into the social and cultural life of that city. The film tantalisingly blurs the line between fact and fiction in many ways. For example, the lead actors boast the same first names as their characters and the bands they encounter are real bands playing themselves. But more relevant and interesting is the movie’s opening scene in which a character talks of a great movie that will be made about the underground music scene in Iran. After seeing ‘Persian Cats’ I was left in no doubt that this is that great movie."

An interesting look at the hidden artistic life of a secretive and fascinating country, 'No One Knows About Persian Cats' looks at the great variety and vibrancy of the music on offer in Tehran for those who know where to look. It is a film that shows young people in Iran referencing Western movies and 60s rock music, which reveals something both wonderful and tragic: there is vibrant, modern youth culture here, but it is being stamped on by an authoritarian regime. As you'd expect for a film made on location in Iran which features real footage of underground musicians performing banned music, 'Persian Cats' at times feels amateurish and cheap - with the extended musical sequences looking laughably unsophisticated as they try to ape Western music videos without the glamour or the technology. Yet as a film it is ultimately every bit as hopeful and heart-breaking as the modern Tehran it presents so vividly.

13) Dogtooth, dir Giorgos Lanthimos, GRE

What I said: "For something so thoughtful and demanding of close analysis, ‘Dogtooth’ is also more purely entertaining than it has any right to be: equal parts harrowing family drama and subtly amusing black comedy. The film is sometimes tense, occasionally funny and often disturbing. The performances are perfect across the cast, with Mary Tsoni and Aggeliki Papoulia particularly effective as the two daughters. They imbue their young-adult characters with childlike mannerisms, particularly in one scene where they perform an excruciatingly bad dance for their parents. All the actors transmit a certain coldness and convey that the characters have no real understanding of how to be affectionate."

An incredibly rich film that you could probably read as being "about" three thousand different things. For me it was about the arbitrary nature of language and meaning, as it looked at three "children" (now adults but still treated as infants by their parents) who have never left their high-walled family home and whose socialisation has been left entirely to their strange parents. They are taught different meanings for any words that imply an outside world. It is explained to them that cats who enter the garden are dangerous and evil creatures and that passing airplanes are made of paper and thrown into the air by their parents as a game. It all goes "wrong" however, when the father invites an outsider into the house to teach his son about sex. Soon the siblings are consumed with a curiosity to discover more about sexuality and this mysterious outsider. 'Dogtooth' is unsettling, darkly funny beautifully shot.

12) Micmacs, dir Jean-Pierre Jeunet, FRA

What I said: "[If] you are one of those who didn’t get swept up in the whimsical charms of ‘Amélie’, then I would suggest you will not find much more to enjoy in ‘Micmacs’. If you hated that film's sensibilities (as a great many seem to do) then I don’t think this is the film for you. Conversely, I think fans of that film will find much to recommend about ‘Micmacs’, as it has the same oddball sensibility, along with many of Jeunet’s familiar visual motifs and thematic preoccupations."

Like ever other Jeunet film before it (including 'Alien 4'), 'Micmacs' follows a set of quirky oddballs - social misfits who find strength in banding together. It feels like exactly the sort of film Terry Gilliam would be making if he was French and if he was given money and control. It's a highly visual modern fairy tale about a group of homeless people fighting to destroy two major arms corporations - a sort of slapstick, silly 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' for the modern age. It's sweet, warm and sentimental (just as Capra was), and its heart is so definitely in the right place, that it is just such good, uplifting fun from beginning to end. Along with del Toro, Gilliam and Burton, Jeunet is a modern auteur who fully embraces imagination and the possibilities of cinema as a visual medium. Also, French comic star Danny Boon is brilliant in the lead role, especially during one pantomime scene of which any of the great silent clowns would be proud.

11) Life During Wartime, dir Todd Solondz, USA

What I said: "By far the best reason to see ‘Life During Wartime’ (aside from the performances, the drama and the directorial precision) is for the riotous black comedy. As with Chris Morris’ ‘Four Lions’, some may squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, but I personally found it struck the right note throughout. Solondz never pulls back, never flinches. We are always taken right to the dark core of his chosen subject matter and we laugh along the way. It is often said that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry – that laughter is the best medicine. In Solondz case this is true, as he examines difficult social problems which, without his wonderfully comic writing, might prove too much to bear."

Chris Morris and 'Four Lions' is perhaps the best point of comparison for Todd Solondz 'Happiness' sequel. Both directors take a knee-jerk social issue and run at it head-on, seemingly without fear. For Solondz that subject is arguably even more controversial than a comedy about Islamic terrorism: he is looking at sex in suburban America and even paedophilia. And just as Morris aimed to understand the terrorist by looking at him as just another flawed, complex human being, Solondz give a matter of fact representation of a paedophile as a man driven by desires that have ruined his life (time in prison, break down of all his family relationships and shattering of his reputation). Again, as in 'Four Lions', we are not asked to sympathise with or support the vice itself, but to feel some empathy for the man who (for whatever mental reason) commits that act. Finally, both men use razor-sharp comedy to look at these issues, to get to the core of the absurdity at work in the human psyche and to avoid the despair that would otherwise accompany such an honest look at what lies within all of us. In Morris' film that takes the form of more obvious jokes and wordplay, whilst Solondz gets laughs from social awkwardness and a very real desperation which operates at the heart of all his very sad characters.

It's not an out and out comedy, but rather it's funny because people are funny, even in their blackest moments. The film is equally a visceral punch in the guts, especially in a key scene in which the paedophile attempts to reconcile with his now adult son.

The final part of this list, detailing my top 10 films of 2010, will be online tomorrow. If you haven't read the first part (films 30-21) then you can do that here.

If you want to see the top ten, then that is now available here.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

My Top 30 Films of 2010: 30-21

Yesterday I posted that I would soon be making a top 30 list for 2010. I was going to wait until I'd seen the new Peter Weir film, 'The Way Back', before making my final selections, but owing to the fact that I'm not certain I'll even get to see it I've decided to jump the gun and start writing it now. I say "start" writing it because I am going to publish it in three chunks. This is the countdown from 30 to 21 and the rest will follow in the week.

However, before I get that underway I wanted to give a mention to films from the last year that I haven't seen so as to account for their absence. Notable omissions might be the apparently excellent documentary 'Catfish', the Oscar-winning Argentine film 'The Secret in Their Eyes' and the terrorist biopic-epic 'Carlos'. With that caveat, here are numbers 30-21:

30) I'm Still Here, dir Casey Affleck, USA

What I said: "Whether it’s down to a genuine absurdity or to a dedicated genius performer (he’s kept this act up for two years now), I’m Still Here is really funny. I was in stitches for long spells of it and had the best time I’ve had in any film here [at the Venice Film Festival]."

'I'm Still Here' really appealed to me when I saw it at it's preview at this Summer's Venice Film Festival. Then the principle discussion surrounded whether or not it was a "hoax" or a genuine documentary. Subsequently director Casey Affleck has admitted to what many (including myself) had suspected: that it wasn't really the record of actor Joaquin Phoenix meltdown. But full credit to Phoenix, who kept up this act for a really long time and who was seemingly willing to do permanent damage to his public reputation to make this film - on both counts an even more impressive feat than even the characterisations of Sacha Baron Cohen. To my mind, the film works as a look at the savagery of media reporting on celebrity and the callousness of almost everyone when it comes to pointing and laughing at a public breakdown. The real targets of this film are bloggers and gossip columnists who feed off this sort of thing, and in some way I suppose that includes many of the film's audience who came hoping to see a crazy actor becoming a public spectacle.

The film eventually tanked at the box office - and I know more than one person who thought it was utter garbage - but it made me laugh and it had some good things to say about celebrity and the ruthless way we consume celebrity.

29) Barney's Version, dir Richard J. Lewis, USA

What I said: "I don’t know if anybody [at the Venice Film Festival] expected it to be as charming, as funny or as moving as it was. The central reason for this emotional ride is Giamatti, who is transformed to look much younger and much older than he is using make-up, but it’s his posture, voice and mannerisms that make each stage convincing. He underplays things too. There isn’t anything hammy, there’s no scenery chewing here... as far as acting goes, Paul Giamatti’s wonderful and complete performance in Barney’s Version is at the head of the pack."

Still awaiting a January 28th release here in the UK, 'Barney's Version' was another of the films that left an impression on me in Venice. The story follows an irascible - and to many I suspect unlikeable - man as he experiences a life full of loves and losses and missed opportunities. What makes it so compelling is the central performance of Paul Giamatti who left me in tears by the film's end. It's a rich and humanistic story that follows someone who really isn't anyone's idea of perfect with great tenderness. It's also quite funny and it has Dustin Hoffman in it. In the words of today's alternative youth: "win".

28) Kick-Ass, dir Matthew Vaughn, USA/UK

What I said: "‘Kick-Ass’ was terrifically good fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to go to the movies, sit back and get entertained. It is equal parts funny and exciting and (if it performs at the box-office) may provoke a new wave of independent movie blockbusters."

I had (and have) major reservations about 'Kick-Ass'. It is pretty much a right-wing wish fulfillment fantasy in the same vein as 'Harry Brown' (also produced by Matthew Vaughn) and it's representation of society, crime and the criminal leaves a lot to be desired. It is the opposite of 'Barney's Version' in terms of its view of the human condition. As a film it is also shamelessly derivative of Quentin Tarantino and 'Kill Bill' in particular.

Yet I'd be a great big phony if I didn't admit to loving it. I saw it twice, enjoyed it both times and found the action scenes every bit as exciting as I was supposed to. Chloë Moretz and Nicolas Cage were especially funny as father and daughter vigilantes, with Cage doing his best Adam West impression to great effect. I'm still not a fan of comic book author Mark Millar's cruel and hate-filled sensibilities, but 'Kick-Ass' was one of the year's best blockbusters by a mile (even if it didn't end up catching the popular imagination on release).

27) Cemetery Junction, dir Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant, UK

What I said: "‘Cemetery Junction’ is a moving and often funny film which serves as a tight and accomplished filmmaking debut from the Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant partnership. Unlike anything in recent British cinema, it is certainly one of the most exciting films I’ve seen this year so far... there is some ironic humour (“Why are you playing this gay music? Stick some Elton John on!”), but ironic distance isn’t the film’s default position and it is more than happy to earnestly explore themes of friendship, love and happiness without smirking... ‘Cemetery Junction’ may just be the finest thing to have come from the partnership so far. It will be exciting to see what they do next, though they have now set the bar pretty high for themselves. We will have to wait and see whether it heralds a new New Wave of British filmmaking or not, but either way this is a special film."

Wow. What a fall from grace and so very undeserved. 'Cemetery Junction' not only bombed at the UK box office, but then suffered the ignominy of being released straight-to-DVD in the US. It is a shame too as it really is a sincere and tender film with its heart in the right place. It is funny, but not really a laugh-a-minute riot as a comedy. Instead it is a coming of age drama with a few genuinely tear-jerking moments (Emily Watson is, as always, superb). The film's young cast is also really decent. Especially the luminescent Felicity Jones, who I hope is an up and coming star for the future.

26) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, dir Werner Herzog, USA

What I said: "writer, William Finkelstein, is a veteran of [the police procedural] on television... But what stops this film from sinking into the mediocrity that writing pedigree would suggest is the collaboration between the film’s two insane geniuses: Herzog and Cage... Cage gives a great physical performance as he carries himself with a slight hunch due to his back injury and looks and sounds increasingly on the edge of full-on, drug-induced breakdown... Herzog is an equally pivotal part of what makes this film, largely, successful. It is hard to imagine that anybody other than the German director wrote the film’s closing lines, in which Cage asks “Do fish dream?” It is equally hard to imagine that the shooting script contained [reference to] ultra close-up shots of iguanas and alligators or the scene in which a dead man’s soul starts break dancing. All these elements must be things which Herzog brought to the party and it is these sorts of touches that elevate the material."

In a busy year which has seen Herzog (depending on where you live) release three feature-length films (this, 'My Son, My Son...' and documentary 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'), 'Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans' is unquestionably the most commercial of the bunch. After all, the film stars Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes and Xzibit in a slickly made cop thriller which combines sex, drugs and gangland shootouts. The difference though is Herzog's taste for all things odd: all things which subvert and challenge the structured, sanitised way that we are encouraged to make sense of our world. Then add Nicolas Cage to the mix, in the form of his life, acting every bit as unhinged as Klaus Kinski ever was. The result is something that is at once fresh and conventional, a genre piece and an art film.

25) Noi credevamo, dir Mario Martone, ITA

What I said: "Probably the best thing about the film is that, despite the fact that its release is close to the 150th anniversary of unification, it is not celebratory or patriotic. The men we follow see their lives marked by hardship and tragedy thanks to their dedication to a life of violent struggle. At one point the actions of the nationalists are seemingly likened to those of the IRA or ETA, as a plot to blow up Napoleon III in Paris fails to kill the monarch, instead it brings about the massacre of a number of ordinary French citizens. And once the country is unified, the surviving revolutionaries find themselves irrelevant in the new Italy, which doesn’t live up to their original egalitarian ideal (“Italy is petty, hauty, murderous” bemoans one man)."

Long historical epics are more often than not ponderous bores, though when they are done well there is almost nothing as grand and truly "cinematic". Mario Martone's 'Noi credevamo' is one such film that tells a big story on a big scale over a 204 minute running-time. And it is a rare film that needs that running length, yet this one does as it traces the decades running up to eventual unification of Italy as a nation state in 1861, following three revolutionaries through their lives and looking at different philosophies of revolution and resistence, as well as at the events themselves. It is a film of stunning quality which will probably never find a theatrical release in the UK at all. Though anyone with an interest in historical epics or the effect of nationalism on nineteenth century European history should seek it out on DVD when it becomes available.

24) Lourdes, dir Jessica Hausner, FRA

What I said: "To say that ‘Lourdes’ is a slow moving film of subtle observations and small moments would be an understatement, as to many it would probably fit the description that “nothing happens”. There is a story here, but it is slight. It is in the interactions of the characters and specifically their treatment of Christine that the film is strongest. It is odd perhaps that a film that accepts the possibility of miracles could be so matter of fact and naturalistic, but maybe that is the point: in a world where miracles exist (and are indeed scrutinized and recorded by the Church) are miracles simply as banal as everything else?"

'Lourdes' is a subtle and quietly effecting film about a disabled woman named Christine who is on a Catholic pilgrimage seeking a miracle to mend her legs. There is a respectful tone over the whole thing which never overtly criticises the church, yet there is lots of low-key satire directed at some of those within the church and their attitudes towards each other. The film also revels in the banality of the Catholic church as an institution, with rules and bureaucracy to rival any government (as I suppose it ultimately is). The film is also formally beautiful and boasts an eye-catching central performance from Sylvie Testud.

23) Essential Killing, dir Jerzy Skolimowski, POL

What I said: "this film doesn’t talk in platitudes in order to solicit empathy. It doesn’t need to soften the edges and make excuses in order for us to understand its characters’ basic humanity. Instead, like the Chris Morris comedy Four Lions, it asks you to accept more complicated truths about our nature."

'Essential Killing' played in Venice last summer, where it picked up a couple of prizes - the biggest being for Vincent Gallo as the festival's best actor. He certainly deserved it - and that's coming from someone who isn't a huge fan of the pretentious former model. In 'Essential Killing' he is at his intense best, carrying the film with a wordless performance as a Muslim insurgent on the run from his American captors after escaping an Eastern European detention centre where he is tortured. The film brilliantly (and brutally) subverts the Middle Eastern war movie of the last ten years, as we follow the "terrorist" and see his murderous actions through his eyes as acts of survival. The first half an hour is an adrenaline ride which would rival any action film, though for the most part it is a slow and introspective film following a confused and increasingly desperate man in an unfamiliar landscape.

22) The Father of My Children, dir Mia Hansen-Løve, FRA

What I said: "‘The Father of My Children’ is certainly an accomplished piece of work. The performance of Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Grégoire is everything it must be. Afterall, it is said (more than once) within the film that his character is charming and charismatic, which he certainly manages to be. He is also warm and funny in the scenes with his children (the eldest of which is played superbly and with real intensity and intelligence by his real life daughter Alice), and this is perhaps the most crucial part of the film. But he is also equally adept at getting across the sense of depression and desperation crucial to understanding the character's eventual suicide... [the film] takes a mature and considered look at the roots of suicidal depression as well as its ultimate selfishness and futility, and without being judgemental."

A film about a movie producer who is hit by the threat of bankrupcy and is driven to take his own life, 'The Father of My Children' is an empathetic and unsentimental look at the causes and aftermath of one man's suicide. The first half of the film follows the man and his gradual mental decline and the second half takes the perspective of his family and friends. It is a haunting and moving portrait of a harrowing situation made in an unembelished style which gives the act itself all the more poignance for its being so fleeting and lacking all romance.

21) The Princess and the Frog, dir Ron Clements/John Musker, USA

What I said: "There are some awkward moments, as I felt uncomfortable hearing Tiana’s father sermonise about the value of effort and hard work in achieving success (especially as we are told he works triple shifts whilst never achieving his dream), but whilst the film is a little too “American Dreamy” for my tastes, it is ultimately hard to fault the moral: that you have to work hard if you want to fulfil your dreams. In live-action, maybe I would dismiss this movie the way I have dismissed the last few Will Smith vehicles, about upwardly mobile, hardworking believers in the American way of life. But as a handsome 2D animation, with a fantastic score and a delightful cast of characters - who exist on just the right side of “wacky” – ‘The Princess and the Frog’ is a charming and essential new Disney film, and the studios best since ‘Lilo & Stitch’."

One of my favourites of the year, without doubt. I have since seen this delightful return to Disney hand-drawn animation a number of times on Blu-ray and it continues to thrill me. The animation is fluid and detailed and the Randy Newman songs are brilliant, revealling a lot of hidden depth that rewards repeat viewing. 'The Princess and the Frog' also has one of the best "Prince" characters in Disney history, as he isn't a dull pretty-boy, but an amusing character in his own right. Not only is this one of the best Disney animations of the last ten years, but I am increasingly starting to think it is better than most of the films of the Disney renaissance, including Ron Clements and John Musker's own 'Aladdin' and 'Hercules'. Hopefully, this proves that the last decade has been - like the 1980s - a temporary blip for the studio's in-house animation wing. One that looks set to come to an end.

Next up: numbers 20-11.