The Films of 2009: Part Four

=3. Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009)
=3. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Both Antichrist and Martyrs arrived in cinemas amidst hails of accompanying moral uproar from both expected and unexpected quarters of the media, yet as always these blew over after the failure of either a) society to collapse or b) the world to stop turning after their releases. Viewed as a pair, they can both be seen as experiments in toying with the language of horror cinema, as well as both being exhaustingly intense viewing experiences.
Antichrist, from renowned enfant terrible Lars Von Trier, plays like a vulgar joke told with the straightest of poker-faces; shot luminously by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and with an air of Bergmanian seriousness, the plot nevertheless dismantles conventional horror notions about unconscious feminine evil, doomed masculine rationality and the uncontrollable ferocity of nature, often in such a deliciously hammy way as should be impossible for anyone to take it at all seriously. And yet the joke seems to have eluded many stern-faced viewers, so much so that the final punchline, a throwaway dedication to cineaste’s demi-god Andrei Tarkovsky, drew horrified gasps rather than titters when the film premiered at Cannes.

Martyrs, by contrast, could not be more deadly serious, a bleak stare into the metaphysical void rather than an exercise in audience manipulation. Inevitably placed within the recently-coined trends of Extreme French Horror and so-called ‘torture porn’, it is certainly more significant than most of what has come before in either, though not lacking in the graphic content associated with each. Like Antichrist, though, the film is in the realm of the experimental, and what comes through most strongly is how confidently it takes in familiar tropes and jumps between sub-genres, a narrative stubbornness which leaves the viewer as disorientated as its confused protagonist(s). Let The Right One In may have been a triumph for its unexpectedly effective matching of genre and tone; the achievement of Martyrs is its successful exploitation of the mores of horror sub-genres to form a coherent, singular story.

2. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)

The most successful of the films which have in some way tried to deal with 9/11 and its aftermath have not been those which have focused on the larger questions of the justness or otherwise of the subsequent ‘War on Terror’; Kathryn Bigelow’s suitably muscular entry into the canon joins Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006) and Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha (2007) as one the films which has instead sought to reflect the moral uncertainties of our times, through the lens of characters living on the front line of conflict.

Bigelow, a director for whose films the adjective ‘macho’ never seems far from critics’ word processors, has made the most bombastic and testosterone-filled war film of recent times, such a vigorously cacophonous entry into the field as almost literally to blow away the opposition: one suspects cinema screens adjacent to those showing The Hurt Locker were likely to have been caught up in the film’s sonic blast radius. This is understandable given its subject matter, a team of soldiers whose job it is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in post-invasion Iraq, but the real triumph of the film is not its pyrotechnics in themselves, but how effectively the unbearable internal mood of claustrophobia and tension of its characters is conveyed – an extraordinary combination of dizzying handheld cinematography and a carefully constructed sound design, an overall effect which left me in nothing short of a cold sweat in my cinema seat.

The film never makes the mistake of overlaying a full-blown commentary on the Iraq invasion, looking into the faces of the locals seems to convey enough. Instead the central core is the soldiers’ own questioning of just why they personally are in such a far-flung, hostile theatre of conflict. For Sergeant William James, our eventual protagonist played with superb nuance by Jeremy Renner, the answer is that the adrenaline rush resulting from a successful defuse is for him a very real addiction, and one which is likely one day push him over the threshold to his death. Bigelow’s films have frequently meditated on the personal, seemingly irrational desire for men to throw themselves into danger; by alighting on the subject matter of the US military complex, she has made the best war film of the decade.

The Films of 2009: Part Three

=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.

The Films of 2009: Part Two

=9 Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
=9 District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

Two of the most visually spectacular and biggest grossing blockbusters of the year seemed to share a link in their considering of society’s relation to an ‘otherness’ in the allegories they drew. The similarities between them are striking: both feature protagonists ‘going native’ and finding sympathy with alien races rather than warmongering humans, and in both cases ideas of mixed-race hybridisation – and a consequent rejection by both races – is considered.

So too do the films have their differences: James Cameron’s much hyped Avatar occurs on an alien world being exploited by humans and is much more straightforwardly didactic in its approach to its politics, while first-time director Blomkamp’s District 9 is set on an Earth being settled by prawn-like aliens and by comparison affords more of an air of moral uncertainty. The former is much more outwardly a demonstration of new technology, in particular its much-talked-about use of digital 3D, while the latter is equally impressive but more subtle in its clever blending of live action and CGI ‘prawns’.

The films are in many ways like negative images of each other. While District 9’s allegorical content openly invites parallels to apartheid, it is a much more elegant and wide-ranging polemic against all forms of discrimination and segregation; by comparison while Avatar seems to have broad anti-war and pro-environment themes, it is actually the more restricted vision, really only commenting post-Vietnam US war economy rather than the world or history as a whole. If I have a preference, Avatar seems the more balanced, consistently constructed film, but in isolation the opening twenty minutes of District 9 are the most astonishing.

=8. Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009)
=8. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

Another year, another great Pixar film. It is easy to get blasé about the quality of their output, and perhaps this has affected my slight underwhelmment with their latest offering Up, a quietly moving film about an old man trying to come to terms with life after the death of his wife. Dealing with mortality in such an unsentimental way seemed a little odd against the sheer beauty of its visuals, but this is not a negative comment – I suspect a further viewings will yield a greater understanding and admiration for what they have produced here.

The other great animation of the year was Coraline from A Nightmare Before Christmas stopmotion genius Henry Selick, based on a short story for children by Neil Gaiman. A young girl moves with her family to another town far away from her friends, but in her unhappiness finds a mysterious tunnel which transports her to an alternate universe where people have buttons for eyes and everything is a much more spectacular version of her drab, boring life on the other side. Soon, though, she discovers that all in this world is not as perfect as it seems. A delightfully entertaining gothic Alice-like tale, and truly a feast for the eyes. And what is it about buttons that are so scary? (see also Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell)

7. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

A merciless cruel streak runs through much of the Coen Brothers’ work, a tendency which gains them detractors as well as fans, and A Serious Man is unlikely to change the opinions on both sides of this argument. Poor Larry Gopnick, a Jewish university professor in late 1960s US suburbia, sees his life slowly fall apart, leading to him to seek the answer to a simple question – why is this happening to him? A series of progressively older but so too increasingly out of touch Rabbis appear to be of no help at all in these matters, though he appears to find no solace in reason either. Black comedy is the brothers’ signature, taken to new heights in this, a very personal project revisiting the Midwest of their youths. Where their previous work has worked within the parameters of genre, A Serious Man falls into a category all of its own; what notable is that it is one defined by their back catalogue, and consequently as the brothers’ purest film d’auteur it may well prove to be their most significant film to date.

The Films of 2009: Part One

NB: If Roger Ebert gets 21 choices then so do I.

=12. Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008, UK)
=12. Better Things (Duane Hopkins, 2008, UK)
Two films are not enough to announce a movement, but there is enough in these two aesthetically disparate but thematically linked British films to suggest a new direction in filmmaking in these isles. Sleep Furiously, a profoundly lyrical and beautifully composed observance of life in a small village in rural Wales, and Better Things, an altogether more harsh, downbeat work set in the aftermath of a death of a girl in the Cotswolds, both are confident and highly distinctive looks at settings and ways of life seldom brought to the big screen. Very welcome relief from those films suggesting the British population consists solely of slimy gangsters and bumbling Richard Curtis types.

11. Trick ‘R Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2008, USA)
Shamefully sent straight-to-video by distributors Warner Brothers, Trick ‘R Treat proved to be the standout film at this year’s Frightfest: an outstanding piece of genre filmmaking, consisting of a series of four modern folkloric tales set around Halloween, all of which interweaving into one elegant, beautifully constructed whole. In a genre – horror-comedy – which is so often populated with tired, soulless trash, director Dougherty brings wit, invention, intelligence and genuine warmth to a film you just want to embrace tightly. Very special.

=10. Katyń (Andrzej Wajda, 2007, Poland)
=10. In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009, UK)
=10. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009, Austria/Germany/France/Italy)

Three very fine films, between them spanning the last 100 years of history, but with the common themes of war and the sinister truth lurking beneath the veneer of officialdom. Firstly Katyń, veteran director Andrzej Wajda’s adaptation of a popular novel which examined the killing by the Russians of tens of thousands of Poles during the Second World War, and then the subsequent blaming of the massacre on the Nazis by the post-war Communist regime in Poland. The tone is at times a little too overwrought, but the overall effect is extremely powerful, a grand lesson in how ‘official’ history can be rewritten for political ends.

Similarly In The Loop, though set in the near-present and ostensibly a comedy, illustrated the disparity between what the public is and is not told through the media. A spin-off of the superb television series The Thick of It, the story features an American government attempting to justify a war in the Middle East, a careerist UK MP who accidentally gets involved, and Downing Street’s vicious spin doctor who desperately tries to manage the situation. A hilarious farce in the manner of Dr Strangelove, showing how global politics is as much about ineptitude as ideology, but also suggesting how quickly small idiocies can transform into major catastrophes.

Finally, The White Ribbon, winner of the Palme D’or and to my mind the most mature and complete piece of work from Austrian director Michael Haneke. The setting is a small German town on the eve of World War 1, and this sinister film glacially reveals the underweave of violence and cruelty beneath this society’s tranquil surface, suggesting that later events may have been shaped by its suspension in Lutheran repression and brutal patriarchy. As always with Haneke there are questions regarding his handling of theme and subtext, but there is no denying his absolute mastery of tone.

Encounters Short Film Festival 2009

Celebrating its fifteenth year, Bristol’s Encounters Short Film Festival runs from 17-21 November, screening the best in short films from around the world. This year’s field is as usual a bewilderingly eclectic mixture of local and international talent, featuring more than 150 films in competition from 58 different countries, as well as guest appearances from such luminaries as Andrea Arnold, Andrei Khrzhanovsky, Jem Cohen and triple Oscar winner Richard Williams. Details can be found here, and follow me and my fellow festival bloggers at the official blog here as well as up-to-the-minute updates on Twitter here.