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.

Pigs Eels and Insects: Reassessing Imamura Shohei

If there was any unified conclusion to draw from Pigs Eels and Insects, a symposium examining the legacy of Japanese director Imamura Shohei, it was that there are many difficulties in positioning such a unique and at times contradictory oeuvre within a broader analytical framework. For starters, as Jasper Sharp explained in his outline of the industrial and cultural backdrop to Imamura’s film-making, the group of Japanese directors of the 1960s commonly grouped together under the umbrella term Nuberu Bagu (New Wave) could hardly be considered to be part of a homogenous thematic, aesthetic or political movement.

Nor is Imamura’s output thoroughly consistent, despite in many respects and for a large part clearly suggesting his status as a genuine auteur; Patrick Crogan’s appraisal of the later work Black Rain (1989) found thematic and stylistic kinships with the great Ozu Yasujiro, under whom Imamura worked as an assistant and whose subject matter of quietly-suffering members of the lower-middle-classes is ubiquitously viewed as the younger director’s anti-inspiration for choosing to focus on the Japanese underclasses ignored by ‘quality’ cinema. But Black Rain, with its elegaic tone and focus on familial disintegration shows that perhaps the older master’s influence was not entirely negative.

Mark Bould also cast doubts over received critical opinion, in this case that suggesting Imamura to be a pro-female director, a tag which perhaps owes much to the frequent comparisons to his similarly-labelled compatriots Naruse Mikio and Mizoguchi Kenji. Rightly questioning whether the strong-willed protagonists such as those in The Insect Woman (1963) and Intentions of Murder (1964) could be considered in any way female role models, at least according to Western models of feminism; all-too-frequently Imamura’s heroines achieve some form of triumph and economic independence only through some form of submission, usually reduced to their biological sexual and maternal fuctions. Bould payed special attention to the difference between the English word feminist and the similar-sounding word used in Japanese criticism feminisuto, whose definition is more connoting of a woman’s sexual availability.

Where then to place the director’s work? Isolde Standish argued that the focus of his films was placed on marginalised characters largely removed from modern Japanese history in order to overcome not only the Westernisation process being imposed on the country since the Allied Occupation, but so too that of the Meiji State, instead going back to what the director considered a more essential ‘Japaneseness’ found in the folkloric studies of Yanagita Kunio, and thus free the national cinema both from the channels of ‘official’ history, and also the imported neo-Confucianism of the Samurai rulers. As a unified theory it holds much water, offering an insight into his choices of subject matters: the early films with their emphasis on the underbelly of society, the mid-period documentaries looking at the subjective nature of truth, and films such as The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) which focused on the agrarian peasantry.

Taking an aesthetic approach, Alastair Phillips focused mainly on early scenes from Vengeance Is Mine (1979) looking at how Imamura visual style in what is one of his less typical films still manages to emphasise some of his recurring themes. Despite being a film with a much higher shooting ratio, appearing to counter the director’s favouring of ‘messy’ cinema, the use of odd, fractured framing and a careful manipulation of looking relations within the cinematic frame combine to create a feeling of temporal and spatial instability. ‘Inside’ and ‘outside’ are prominently defined, and part of a larger aesthetic strategy with undertones of voyeurism and spying – here once again surfaces the often blurred distinction in Imamura’s films between documentary and fiction, and parallel ideas about the relationship between society and the individual recur.

One final note: Sharp commented that while the starting point for Japanese ‘Pink’ Cinema is often taken as being the notorious Flesh Market (1962), some critics in fact consider Imamura’s own The Insect Woman as the first example of such a film; another reason along with those others discussed as to why the work of this uniquely distinctive director is ripe for reappraisal.

10 Years of Frightfest

Having outgrown the bijou surroundings of the Prince Charles Cinema as well as the larger Odeon West End, Frightfest, London’s annual celebration of contemporary horror films this year moves to the more spacious surroundings of The Empire, Leicester Square. The main screen this features a line-up of premieres of both major domestic and international genre films, and for the first time this year there will be a second smaller screen entitled the ‘Discovery Screen’ will be used to show a variety of lesser-scale delights. The festival’s continued expansion is illustrative of not only an increasing appetite in the UK for cinematic thrills and spills but so too the rude health that the genre continues to be in internationally.

Among the highlights this year include world premieres of Christopher Smith’s Triangle, The Descent Part 2, Philip Ridley’s Heartless, Aussie thriller Coffin Rock, the highly-tipped Italian thriller Shadow and the bizarre-sounding Human Centipede, as well as first UK showings of Swedish Euro-sensation Millenium, Michael Dougherty’s already-classic Trick R Treat, and cult Norwegian Nazi Zombie flick Dead Snow. All in all, more than thirty different films from twelve different countries, and the extra promise of special guest appearances and introductions by cast and crew members.

Frightfest runs from this evening through to Monday 31st August. Festival passes have long since sold out, but tickets for single films will still be available for many films. See the official Frightfest website for details:

And be sure to follow my (hopefully) live coverage on Twitter (see sidebar link) or my post-festival roundup here early next week.

Looking beyond the canon

One of the great difficulties when writing about film history, as with doing any other type of history, is the need to strike a balance between on the one hand positioning the film(s) in question within the broader framework of a coherent historical narrative, whilst on the other hand making sure one is not falling into the trap of applying too reductionist a view of the context in which one is placing said texts. The most difficult aspect of this to overcome is the idea that there exists such a thing as ‘the canon’, that unspecified number of films which are considered as both artistically significant in isolation, and as important to the development of film as an art-form worthy of serious consideration.

As an illustration, consider the recent poll of the ‘Greatest Films’ undertaken by Iain Stott over at The One-Line Review blog. Unlike the decennial Sight and Sound poll which asks for contributors’ top ten films, this poll expanded the number to fifty in the hope of spreading the net wider to include personal favourites alongside the usual canonical suspects. As the S&S poll has done since 1961, the survey was inevitably topped by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, that perennial favourite perceived as only being enjoyed by the critical elite rather than the wider public. Elsewhere, the rest of the top fifty predictably consists of recognizably canonical films, and only one made after 1990 (Pulp Fiction), another symptom of the tenedency for older films to domniate such lists, a phenomenol which Adrian Martin refers to as ‘the Citizen Kane canon’.

Yet beneath this apparent tacit agreement with traditional view of film history, the real devil is in the details: of the 3037 films suggested, over half of them were suggested by only one of the 187 participants. Whilst weight of numbers favours the ‘great’ films, there is an underlying diversity of opinion which is under-represented in the collation, but can be seen to exist outside of traditional top ten polls. Stott’s next project is entitled ‘Beyond the Canon’, and seeks aims to look beyond the paradigmatic view of the story of cinema and highlight these less well known but important films. After all, regardless of their critical stature, are not the most important films those which we have the greatest personal connection to?

For more information, and details on how to submit suggestions, see here:

Happy 50th Birthday Antoine…

…and by extension, a happy 50th birthday to the French New Wave, not necessarily initiated with the release on May 4th 1959 of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but that film marked the first major artistic achievement of a movement which, regardless of one’s opinion of individual films and directors, unarguably changed cinema forever. Quite how has been and will be a matter for film historians to debate and revise, probably for as long as film remains a serious art form.