Another year, another hundred or so films reviewed, filed and ordered. There have been some actual crackers this year, some predicted and some complete surprises. There has also been some middling, tatty throwaway stuff you fortunately will only see at a festival, or should stay well clear of if it creeps onto a DVD shelf. Either way, the opinions expressed are completely my own and could well be the opposite of yours if you saw the same film.
I think I've just invalidated the existence my entire blog.
Weeeeeeeeell, ignoring that. Here are links to the festivals I went to this year.
local indie cinema, why not give one a go?
As usual comments are open.
Best Film - Micmacs (France)
Long-time readers will know my love-hate relationship with French cinema, which can give us the highs of action-packed thrillers or beautiful love stories, through to the lows of confusing, pretentious, downright annoying arty crap. Yes, other countries' output can have this same description levelled at them, but not to such a polarised degree.
Anyway, Micmacs continues the Jeunet trend of producing succulent, juicy, velvetty films that reveal more detail on each viewing. Micmacs' tale of an underdog uprising with a complicated array of likeable characters (including some long-time Jeunet collaborators) lasts a long time but you are too busy enjoying it to notice. Out now on DVD.
- Third Star (AKA Barafundle Bay) (UK)
Benedict Cumberbatch is a name to watch. Already with a string of performances behind him (including a small part in last years' Creation) he brought his talents to this fantastic film about childhood friends gathering for one last very English hurrah, at their favourite beach. A funny, unpredictable, deep film that in its last few moments grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.
- Elling (Nor)
Spawning a pair of sequels, Elling was shown as part of a retrospective segment at Leeds. It's a Norwegian comedy about two disfunctional men living in a flat, trying to make sense of the scary world, having just been released into it. But it is absolutely brilliant. Achingly funny and able to make you care about the two well-played leads.
- Inside Job (US)
The reasons for the latest fall into global economic debt, the largest so far, are told in a refreshingly non-dumbed down style by Matt Damon (sorry, Matt), in an epic documentary (and I mean that in a good sense) that shows that when we have let capitalism completely off the lead it will run rampant and destroy itself. I don't doubt that in 10-20 years we have an even bigger crash, down to the stupidity, greed, incompetence and inaction of those in power just not listening, but this film does all it can to say how it happened, and how it might be avoided.
- Inception (US)
Shock-horror. A mainstream film! Yes, a mainstream film with a complicated, interesting concept, made clear and compelling without simplifying it to the level of the dumbest yokel in the seats. Inception is full of special effects, which puts it in my targets for criticism, traditionally, but manages to avoid them by being so damn good.
- Mai Mai Miracle (Jpn)
In-between waiting for the masters of animation at Pixar and Studio Ghibli to do their next thing, this lovely film surprised me and won me over, having thought it was very much a poor man's Miyazaki film. Quiet, considered and intelligent, but at a child's level like Totoro, there is enough here for children and parents alike who are prepared to look past the kiddy name.
- Russian Lessons (Geo/Rus)
A very disturbing look at the conflicts between Russia and Georgia over the past few years, told by a husband and wife team of journalists who risk their lives to get through to the most ravaged areas of the war and report what they see. Not a film to forget in a hurry.
- Evangelion 2.0 (Jpn)
The experience would be even better if you watch 1.0 first, but the shocks in 2.0, as the story and characters implode in on themselves is tense, adrenaline-pounding stuff. Evangelion is the best example of the 'big robots' anime out there, a genre I am not so keen on, but even I had to admit to being utterly glued to the screen.
- Home from Home (Ger/S. Kor)
This unassuming documentary film about German men and their Korean war brides moving to a German-themed village in Korea is made infinitely watchable by the characters, in particular the unassuming old man who for the most part wears a weary scoul, but occasionally shares his alter ego side with the camera, and we are privileged.
Best Short Film - The Astronomers Sun (UK)
Evoking the best nostalgic memories of short Christmas films from the 80's, devoid of [obvious] computer graphics and instead sprinkled with the glitter dust you could buy down the newsagents, the Astronomers Sun is a short and beautiful paean to the life work of a man. I dare you to have dry eyes at the end.
- Scent (UK)
A quietly shocking film about the days of an elderly man when his wife dies and he finds he can't let go.
- Love and Theft (Ger)
There are no more odd, disturbing or hypnotic films I saw this year than Love and Theft. The characters you know from childhood, plus more besides, are animated, morphed and mutated as one long psychedelic sequence. An experience to behold.
- Uncle David (UK)
An example in the British can-do attitude, one to give you a warm feeling. In the face of teen confrontation and the same scene greeting him every day, a retired man takes it upon himself to clean the local park and surrounding area of litter, and worse; all lovingly captured by his nephew.
Best Animation - Mai Mai Miracle (Jpn)
Quiet and unassuming but with hidden depth, Mai Mai Miracle will pass many people by. But if you loved films such as Ghibli's Only Yesterday, you should definitely try and see this.
- The Astronomers Sun (UK) - A gorgeous stop-motion animated film that could easily be a rediscovered childhood memory from 80's television, but is actually brand new.
- Evangelion 2.0 (Jpn) - The Daddy of all 'big robot' anime just got remade, and this second installment came laden with heavy drama.
- Avatar (US) - Yes, this is only 'sort of' animated, but I couldn't leave it out of the plantpots entirely. A rare, decent use of 3D, the most fantastic melding of computer graphics and live action - period, and a pretty strong storyline on top (which does admittedly sound a lot like a load of others but lets just sweep that criticism under the carpet). And yes, I mean the James Cameron film, not that other abomination.
- A Town Called Panic (Fr) - If those Cravendale adverts exude any charm at all for you (and they do for me) then this is a must for you, because it is what they are in homage to. An energetic, frenzied feast for the eyes that barely lets up through the entire film.
- Love and Theft (Ger) - A short film bringing back memories of all sorts of cartoon characters, and then mutating them in wierd, nasty but brilliant ways. A psychedelic way to zone out your brain for five minutes.
- Jackboots on Whitehall (UK) - Curiously absent from mainstream cinemas so far, this puppet animation borrows heavily from the excellent Team America, with a thoroughly British World War II theme. If you want to see Hitler in a dress, you come to this.
- Redline (Jpn) - Even though it lacks a bit of meaty story, there is no denying that this comes as close as we're probably going to get to F-Zero The Movie. At least, until the American movie studios start sniffing around the franchise (please, no). It's insanely fast, a bit saucy, and a good laugh as well.
- Pigeon Impossible (US) - A promising talent in Martell Animation brings us what should be the first in a long line of quality animation films, as a secret agent is foiled by an over-intelligent pigeon.
Best Documentary - Inside Job - (US)
By a country mile, Inside Job is the most important, authoritative source for the problems we have found ourselves in financially, and why, sadly, it will probably all happen again sometime soon, thanks to greed, incompetence and stupidity.
- Russian Lessons (Rus/Geo) - The husband and wife documentary duo risk everything over several years to bring a comprehensive account of the Russian/Georgian conflict to the screen.
- Home from Home (Ger/Kor) - A fantastic, funny and heart-warming documentary about German men and their Korean wives being tempted to live out their retirement in a German-style village built for them on the Korean coastline. Deceptively able to get under your skin.
- Uncle David (UK) - A lovely short film about one man's determination to make his environment a little bit better.
- Article 12 (UK/Arg) - A subversive rallying call to those in the UK, who are the most surveyed in the world, about how our privacy is being massively eroded by cameras and laws, imposed on us in the name of protection.
- Dive! (US) - A positive look at the problem of massive worldwide food waste, from the point of view of one American man trying to feed his family, and ending up doing his bit for the community.
- Restrepo (US) - Just about the most in-depth, shocking and authoritative documentary on the war in the middle east this year.
- Countdown to Zero (US) - An American take on the threat of Nuclear War, which only just outshone the UK equivalent, Beating the Bomb, which was also shown this year.
- 43565 (US) - Films like this shouldn't work. No plot whatsoever, just film footage of the goings on of the various residents of an American town. But this one did work, about as well as something like this could.
- Face the Wall (Ger) - A handful of Germans talk of their treatment by the Stazi in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Slow, and can be a bit stodgy at times, but equally harrowing and compelling stories.
Enjoy The Journey Award - The Art of Negative Thinking (Nor)
Norwegians have some of the blackest humour, and it's clear from the off that inviting perverse disabled drunk Geirr into the fragile world of a support group is going to end up with the other members being comprehensively destroyed. But just how it is carried out is one of the highlights of the year. Hilarious, unpredictable and very enjoyable from start to end.
- Sweet Little Lies (Jpn) - The two leads of the film are in a loveless marriage, and though it is obvious what will happen when their attentions are picked up by others, the quiet nature of the film keeps you watching.
- The Woman who Dreamt of a Man (Den) - The whole film is basically the title. A woman dreams of a man, and then sees him in real life. She becomes besotted, to the cost of everything she knows. Even though you know all this is coming, her comprehensive self-destruction is compelling viewing.
- Blue Bus (US) - Two men go on a road trip from LA to New Orleans, in memory of a friend. As with the best of these films, the value is in the journey, as the two characters fill out nicely on their journey.
- 43565 (US) - This documentary asks nothing of its' viewers but to sit back and relax, and look in on the lives of the people the camera meets. You don't even need to keep a plotline in your head.
- The Taste of Tea (Jpn) - A deeply oddball comedy from Japan, about a quiet family with unusual habits. Little goes on, other than the members interacting in the way families do, with the odd smidge of magic thrown in. The final few minutes will grab you much more than you expect them to.
After the Credits Roll - Leap Year (Spain)
Few films will have you putting your guard up more than Leap Year, as it's quiet character study of a lonely woman evolves into a disturbing realisation of her innermost demons. A powerfully unsettling film that leaves you with memories for a long time after.
- Dogtooth (Gre) - Completely out there, this brilliant film manages to be both barkingly abstract and completely relevant to the world at large. A shrinking down of a society to the size of a single family, under the rule of an uncompromising dictator overflows with excellent social and psychological observation.
- Third Star (UK) - What begins as a jolly, buddy film quickly deepens as it becomes clear what the ultimate aim of James' last trip to his favourite seaside spot before cancer renders him incapable. The final scenes will not leave you in a hurry.
- Vital Signs (Fr) - A beautiful tale of one woman who finds meaning in the care of the elderly people at an old folks home.
Emotional Kick - Third Star (UK)
Just as you are getting used to James' terminal cancer, he goes and throws a bombshell at the end of the film that leaves you hugging your coat.
- Never Let Me Go (UK/US) - Though a little too thick in syrupy schmaltz, this emotional adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is still capable of pulling at the heartstrings, as the second-class children of an alternate Britain learn of their commoditized existence.
- Face the Wall (Ger) - The tales of the German survivors of the Stazi treatment prior to the reunification of Germany tell of a stifling existence for anyone even thinking of stepping out of line.
- Elling (Nor) - A great piece of character comedy with a surprising ability to get under the skin.
Twist Award - Evangelion 2.0 (Jpn)
If you had seen it first time round, then the reboot would hold little in the way of new things, but I am glad I got to see this for the first time on the big screen. Anno decides from the halfway point of the film to let all hell loose, and if you don't see it coming, it'll floor you.
- Third Star (UK) - The final stage of the film completes the transition between light-hearted final hurrah to something far darker.
- Inception (US) - Multiple levels of story are all going on at once, and never once are you able to predict where it will turn, right down to the final seconds of the film.
- Leap Year (Spn) - The scene where Laura waits patiently for her 'lover' to arrive is one of the most highly strung in recent movie history, the audience having been floored by what she is expecting to happen in that very room when he does.
Cleverest Film - Dogtooth (Greece)
There are few films so inventive as Dogtooth, a cleverly imagined view of a dictatorship and its corrosive effects. I for one am very glad that video tapes are being replaced by DVDs.
- Micmacs (Fr) - A magical underdog story, packed with a thousand little touches like only a Jeunet film can be.
- Inception (US) - Dreams within dreams, folding cities and the power of suggestion. It's complicated themes and ideas are presented cleverly and intelligently without trying to patronise the viewer.
- Avatar (US) - The best example so far of 3D integration, and the most convincing meld of computer graphics and real life.
- Love and Theft (Ger) - A fantastic short film that puts your mind in a trance.
Biggest Laugh - A Town Called Panic (France)
Horse, Cowboy and Indian, three little figurines in the style of those farmyard animal sets you played with and stuck up your nose as a small child. They seemed to have little potential as the central characters in not only several episodes of a cult French comedy, but also a full-length feature film, and against the odds they pull it off. Masses of energetic action, near constant machine-gun gaggery fired at the poor, helpless audience, and precious few places to catch your breath between laughter.
- The Art of Negative Thinking (Nor) - A film all about going through the mincer and hoping to come out better against the odds on the other side. Geirr is the most horrible, self-loathing heap imaginable, but he has something his fragile little support group doesn't, and that is a grounding in reality that they have long since let go of, and it's a brilliant laugh seeing them learn this lesson.
- Skeletons (UK) - A brilliant and funny low budget British effort, Skeletons is both funny and charming with its tale of two lonely men trawling the countryside for closets to empty.
- Elling (Nor) - A great and now classic film about learning to live in the big scary world.
- The Bothersome Man (Nor/Icl) - A funny and surreal Prisoner-esque film, with a black streak of humour running right through it. The subway scene will have you simultaneously laughing and wincing.
- High on Hope (UK) - One for the acid house crowd. The idea of a load of bored Lancastrians arranging spontaneous garage rave nights, keeping one step ahead of the law and only just able to stop themselves flying through the air on direct current is retold in this touched-up and very funny documentary; well worth a watch even if you weren't part of the scene.
- My Invisible Friend (Spa) - A great little short film about a fat kid and his invisible friend, the only one he has the courage to talk to, suddenly becomes real.
A Thousand Words - Avatar (US)
Leaving aside any talk of lifted plotlines, Avatar does one thing at least exceptionally well, and that is give your eyes a serious feast. You could watch the entire film without even considering any plot and just looking at it, and you would still get your money's worth. It's also one of the few films in 3D I've seen so far that actually benefits from it.
- Micmacs (Fr) - A beautiful, rich velvety film, filled to the brim with little Jeunet-style incidental details.
- Mardock Scramble (Jpn) - Cyberpunk future Japan has been done a million times before, but they're getting very good at it now. Mardock Scramble has some achingly beautiful backdrops and character models.
- The Illusionist (Fr) - The world of 1950's England is brought back to life with this gorgeous animation from the creator of Triplets of Belleville.
- The Sky Crawlers (Jpn) - Although it became largely forgotten under all the other films, Oshii's latest is an undeniably beautiful film, especially the gorgeous aerial scenes.
Best Indie to Show Your Friends - Inception (US)
Many other films might have beaten Inception if they had been in English, but the old problem of subtitles will no doubt always push foreign language films down the list in this category. However Inception is a brilliant way of showing people that a film can be intelligent and complex, and not be hard to follow or boring.
- Elling (Nor) - If you can get them to accept the subs, Elling would be my first choice for showing friends. It's a funny and charming film that takes it's time without getting dull. I sat with an almost constant smile on my face through it.
- Neurosonics Audiomedical Labs Inc. (UK) - A brilliantly barmy short film, with a simple concept. Computer trickery puts the dismembered heads of beatboxers onto turntables, and they are played in front of your eyes.
- A Town Called Panic (Fr) - Even though it's in French, there is so much visual humour here that you can't help but laugh.
- Jackboots on Whitehall (UK) - Funny and unsubtitled, Jackboots on Whitehall is the ideal film for when you're a few hours away from going down the pub. A good lads film.
- The Astronomers Sun (UK) - A beautiful short film with no dialogue. If this doesn't show it's face on Channel 4 next Christmas (they made it) then I'll eat my own head.
The Manky Sankey Awards
Mankeys are the films that, in my humble opinionation, are best avoided, because they frustrated, angered, confused, wasted my time, or rendered me comatose.
Biggest Let Down - I Am Not Your Friend/I Will Not Be Your Friend (Hun) (UK)
After the controversial Taxidermia, and the (so I read) charming Hukkle, György Pálfi did not manage to pull off the triple. What could maybe, if the circumstances were just right, have been a successful experimental film where the actors were just plucked off the street and asked to completely ad-lib themselves a plotline, wasn't. Too often, the actors (who looked seriously out of their depth) just passed the buck to their opposite when put under pressure to move the story forward, resulting in a massive game of 'I don't know what to say you have a go' ping-pong. It wasn't funny. It wasn't thrilling, and after the first ten minutes, even the novelty stopped being interesting. Please never do this again.
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thai/UK/Fra) - Supposedly, this won all sorts of awards, but I just can't see why. It started so promisingly, as the spirits of friends and family are attracted to the final breaths of a dying man, but it didn't take long to completely break down into a mushy soup as they took a journey through a cave.
- The Secret of Kells (Fra/Bel/Irl) - Undeniably beautiful, Kells was high on my list and I just had to see it at Leeds, having missed it at least twice previous. It had a reasonable start, a strong middle, and then.... it finished. At the point where you expected a big finale, it just stopped dead.
- Mundane History (Thl) - Another one that could have set the hair on fire but didn't, Mundane History decomposed into a soup of apathy, as the story built up in the first half is thrown out of the window and replaced with a 2001-style abstract journey of healing in the second.
- The Blacks (Cro) - A team of soldiers find themselves in dire circumstances in a forest somewhere, this poor mans' Memento flashing backwards through their story to some epoch moment, meaning, rather predictably, that there was no ending.
- Toto (Aus) - Bloody Toto and his memories. A 2+ hour film of a man sl-oo-oo-oo-wly working his way through his thoughts - which half of it you can't interpret because it's subtitled and in black and white - which are so disjointed as to not be worth investing the time and effort required to parse his enormously long and protracted sentences.
- A Spanking in Paradise (UK) - The local Edinburgh lasses who took part in the film had filed in, tanked up on booze, and were there at the front to give their precious film every cheer that they could. And they tried, bless them, to make the film appear more entertaining than it was, but the fact was that there were other films (Perriers Bounty, Bad Family, Animal Kingdom, The Misfortunates) that managed to pull off the same plot in a far better way.
Most Pretentious - Kosmos (Tur/Bul)
Kosmos had some good things going for it; if it weren't for my haggard, cynical attitude I might have viewed this with more kindness. It's story of a man who trudges through the snow to a remote village, and bewitches its inhabitants with his mystery has a bewildering, sometimes magical charm, but it's the sort of charm that would be best suited to a short film. He becomes quickly tiresome in a full-length feature.
- Mr Bradley Mr Martin Hear us Through the Hole in Thin Air (UK) - A short film where the words of William S. Burroughs are jumbled and assorted so he sounds like a confused old grandad trying to keep a hold on the last threads of sanity. Perhaps mysterious and beautiful for some, confusing and annoying for others.
- The Pandrogeny Manifesto (Fra) - Oh you frenchies. This is what happens when you let French people loose with a little bit of information, some abstract religious concepts and a few recreational drugs. They are meant to be a new version of humanity.
- Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts (UK) - What twaddle I had to sit through. Overly self-aware rubbish that took itself way too seriously. The only film I have walked out of.
- Verdrehte Augen: Videoversion-2 - A self-important mess of a film about some people talking, cutting up fish, and getting assaulted in a car.
Most Drawn Out Scene - The Silent House (Uruguay)
Filmed in one long take, The Silent House annoyed the hell out of me because so much of it was trying to make up for the deficiencies you get in a film when you can't cut between scenes. After a certain amount of build-up, it was just one long shot of a once-terrified-but-now-bored teen girl shining her torch at various ornaments and objects in a darkened house.
- Freezer Fright (US) - There is no more grating intro than the one at the start of Freezer Fright, where the filmmaker 'treats' us to a static graphic of the film title, to the sound of her own guitar and some bird sqwaeking outside. FOR FIVE TORTUROUS MINUTES.
- Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts (UK) There were far too many arty shots of the man going round the tram system for them not to be annoying, mixed with repetitive abstract shots of this and that.
Most Annoying Film - Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts (UK)
The only film I have ever walked out of. Unfathomably bad. The film was a badly written, recorded and scripted mess of a guy sat on a tram all day waiting for a woman to appear, while a stupidly realised conspiracy theory of the Rainbow Warrior sinking is crowbarred into the already confusing thoughts of this pretentious idiot on screen. There is nothing, literally nothing, to recommend in this truly awful film.
- The Pandrogeny Manifesto (Fra) - Mercifully short, the two women blathering on about their transformation into the next stage of humanity made me want to slap them many times until they got themselves a proper job.
- The Sickness Is Coming or, The Blind Man's Television (UK) - A completely nonsensical short about teenagers in a future wasteland of rubbish book-to-film conversions.
- The Temptation of St. Tony (Est/Swe/Fin) In an attempt to out-French the French, Tony's monochrome journey was a creepy, disjointed nightmare of a man who is little more than a passenger to the stupidity around him. It started off strange, got a couple of semi-coherent plot threads going, and then snapped them all and vomited over it.
- Freezer Fright (US) - Kudos to Nancy Silver for inviting us into her house and pretending that her freezers and those of her neighbours are filled with plastic toys and dildos, but the combination of the drawl, the obvious fakery and the damn annoying intro made the breaking of the film partway through nothing short of sweet release.
It will be three short months until it all starts up again; the Bradford Film Festival is in mid-March, with Edinburgh a month or so after that, and I get my holidays reset in a few days so I get some time to take off for them!