=6. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)
=6. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
In the year of the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, it seems fitting that not one but two of the best space science fiction films of recent years should be released, though they share little more in common with each other. Firstly Star Trek, J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the long-standing franchise, elegantly if preposterously redrew the Trek-verse in the space of one sweeping plot point, freeing us up to travel along with a younger, wet-behind-the-ears version of the USS Enterprise crew of the original television series and early films. The most relentlessly entertaining blockbuster of this and many a year, it is only let down by a weak, generic final act and the occasional unwise downshift into slapstick and pratfalling comedy. Personally, though, I could watch this minipop version of those familiar characters, in particular Karl Urban’s hilariously grumpy McCoy, all day long.
Amazingly made for just one fiftieth of Star Trek‘s budget, Moon was practically the opposite film: slow moving, intimate, and clearly an aspirant philosophical treatise rather than pure popcorn entertainment. A phenomenal solo central performance from Sam Rockwell holds together a compelling story about a man whose lonely job operating a mining base on the surface of the Moon begins to affect his mental stability, and for whom a dramatic, startling discovery leads to him beginning to question the nature of his own existence and mortality. Clearly following in the existential tradition of Solyaris (1972) in using science fiction as a vehicle for exploring metaphysical questions, Moon is a thoughtful, low-key pleasure, not quite a classic but an extremely promising first feature from Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones.
=5. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
=5. The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Released towards the start of the year, these two surprisingly similar films examined nature of celebrity, in particular what remains in its aftermath. Documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil introduces Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner, the remaining members of the eponymous band who apparently were one of heavy metal’s should-have-beens back in the early 1980s, and who despite their repeated failures continue to perform today. Firstly, it is hugely funny to see their Spinal Tap-esque idiocies and disasters on tour, but what emerges even more is a captivating and surprisingly moving story of resoluteness in the face of adversity; and as has been suggested elsewhere, the relationship between Lips and Reiner really is the year’s greatest cinematic love story.
The Wrestler, though palpably not a documentary, both looks and feels like one, and the presence of famously washed-up mess Mickey Rourke playing a formerly-famous washed-up mess invites comparisons to his sad fall from grace from his heyday. It is more than likely that his character, former wrestling megastar Randy ‘The Ram’, would like a song or two by Anvil: at one point, confiding to stripper friend Pam, he mourns the passing of the overblown musical artifice of 1980s hair metal in the wake of Kurt Cobain and self-wallowing ‘realism’. This is significant to his character because likewise in the modern-day wrestling arena, theatricality has given way to brutal reality – razor blades, barbed wire, broken glass – a ‘reality’ which is likely to lead him to an early death. Aronofsky’s film excels at showing the dark, addictive side to performers and their need for an audience, and feels as fleshily visceral as David Cronenberg at his best.
4. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
Vampires were unavoidable this year, whether on the big screen in Park Chan Wook’s Thirst and the second instalment of the continuing Twilight franchise or on television in the HBO drama True Blood, but the real highlight seemed barely about vampires at all. Indeed, Let the Right One In resembled more closely Lucas Moodysson’s much underrated Fucking Åmål (1988) than the writings of Bram Stoker, substituting in the boredom of being young and isolated in drab Stockholm suburbia for the gothic goings-on in Transylvania. Instead at its heart is a strong emotional core: Oskar, a young boy who is being mercilessly bullied at school finds a kinship with Eli, a mysterious newcomer to his apartment block who seems to understand and share his loneliness.
It comes as no surprise what Eli’s big secret is, but what is novel is how the story goes against the tropes of the genre; there is a overriding sadness to film’s blood-sucking elements, so that rather than the act being sinister, evil, even sexual, we see how it is for Eli a reluctantly-performed but necessary life-giving ritual. Although the film tonally has the icy chill of a Scandinavian winter and a glacial pacing which may deter viewers expecting more full-on gore, this is ultimately its main strength; in successfully placing familiar generic elements in a completely new tonal and emotional context, Let The Right One In feels like a breath of fresh air, as well as being an affecting meditation on friendship, trust, revenge and loyalty.