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My Favourite Films of 2013

While ranking this list, I was thinking that while 2013 didn’t have one movie that took over the conversation for the year, like The Master last year, that only means that there were so many good films released this year that we were faced with an embarrassment of riches. Plus the vagaries of international release mean that the films of this year’s Oscar season that American critics are currently raving about won’t arrive until into 2014; see Twelve Years A Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street, among others. So take this to be the list of best films that I saw due to cinematic/home video release in the UK in the calendar year 2013, and come back next year when I’ll probably end up ranking more of 2013’s best as I’ve actually been able to see them.

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15. Blue Jasmine

Dir. Woody Allen

USA / 2013 / 98 mins

“Money isn’t everything…”

A testament to control of tone, Jasmine is a far darker character study than Allen’s trademark breeziness (and incessant jazz tootling away in the background) makes it appear. As much as the culture clash between Cate Blanchett’s brittle society wife fallen on hard times and her new West Coast acquaintances is played for laughs, there’s a genuine sadness and tragedy always close to hand. Blanchett’s intensity and skill at portraying an emotional maelstrom just beneath the surface carries the film.

An excellent supporting cast round out the proceedings; Sally Hawkins is especially good as Jasmine’s long-suffering sister, and Bobby Cannavale imbues what could have been a two-dimensional buffoon with a surprising amount of depth and pathos. Alec Baldwin (appearing entirely via flashback) as Jasmine’s ex-husband and Madoff-esque swindler is in his element as a charming white-collar sociopath.

It’s not a perfect film; the plotting is contrived in at least one moment, and a late-film scene muddies the issue of Jasmine’s innocence or otherwise. However, the degree to which Allen wants you to empathise with Jasmine is more or less irrelevant when Blanchett so perfectly embodies such a neurotic, maddening, fascinating character.

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14. Behind The Candelabra

Dir. Steven Soderbergh

USA / 2013 / 118 mins

“I love to give the people a good time.”

A director with as detached and clinical a style as Soderbergh seems like he’d be interested in the artifice and spectacle of Liberace in his Vegas prime, giving virtuoso performances for audiences of Midwestern squares who never suspect anything about his private life. But as we follow dog trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) into Liberace’s bed, household and life, it becomes a moving love story.

Michael Douglas’ amazing performance gives us Liberace as an essentially vulnerable, lonely man, shuffling around his mausoleum-like mansion (Soderbergh’s wide angles and use of depth of field are particularly good at deepening the sense of isolation). His alternate possessiveness and fear of attachment, which show in the relationship’s rough patches and ugly ending, weigh against his need to be loved. The film could have been a satire of showbiz vanity and delusion, and it feints towards that (especially in Rob Lowe’s cameo). But Soderbergh’s skill at uncovering the pathos beneath the glamour makes this a worthy note to bow out on.

 

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13. The Act of Killing

Dir. Johua Oppenheimer

Denmark, Norway, UK, Finland / 2012 / 115 mins

“He’s a happy man.”

By now, the basic premise of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is well-known enough. Oppenheimer, working with a mostly-anonymous local crew, approached a few of the perpetrators of mass killings that took place in the wake of the US-backed military coup of 1965, and asked them to re-enact the murders on camera. Unpunished and unrepentant, they happily oblige, and the result is a fascinating statement on the role of the investigator as confessor, the creation of fiction in place of suppressed memory, and the human capacity for rationalisation.

Retired gangster/paramilitary Anwar Congo and his small group of cronies, who helped to slaughter their neighbours decades ago, now live happily as minor local celebrities, their own personas informed by Hollywood. This creates a bizarre feedback loop where the men act out their past deeds through a thick filter of genre cinema, starring in their own version of the gangster movies they used to watch.

Oppenheimer’s smart enough not to tip his hand (although he has spoken extensively in interviews about the film), but one gets the sense that as horrifying as Congo’s past crimes are, he sees him as a different kind of victim; playing the role of genial old war hero, trapped by guilt he can’t even acknowledge, let alone process. The film’s real rage and contempt is reserved for his blithely uncaring superiors, and the government minister who pumps up a crowd of extras for a village massacre scene, before smoothing over his image once the cameras are off.

Beyond the compelling subject matter and presentation, Oppenheimer brings some eye-catching visuals to the screen; the technicolour fantasias of the gangsters’ musical number, the urban vistas of empty streets, and the open doorway in that final shot, a telling absence where reckoning should be.

 

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12. Blue Is The Warmest Colour

Dir. Abdellatif Kechice

France, Belgium, Spain / 2013 / 179 mins

Abdellatif Kechiche’s three-hour-long, Cannes-endorsed romance pretty much lives up to the hype; it’s a moving portrait of the first flush of youthful romance and what happens when that isn’t enough anymore.

Most of this is down to the two leads; Adèle Exarchopoulos (as Adèle) carries more or less the entire running time on her shoulders; she’s rarely out of shot, usually filmed in close-up, and the camera explores every contour of her face as she builds her character through subtle shifts in expression. It’s a remarkable performance. Her chemistry with Léa Seydoux, who plays the older Emma, gives weight to the film’s portrayal of a budding relationship, its disintegration and the emotional fallout that follows.

The film is all about life, as lived fully as possible. Adèle eats voraciously; she loves with a fierce passion; when her heart’s broken, she’s crushed. The section of the film set at the height of the relationship explore Adèle’s fierce loyalty to Emma as lover and artistic muse, but also emphasises that living solely for someone else isn’t enough; at some point, you have to become your own person.

The strange rhythm of the film, including numerous time jumps and ellipses, mirrors the experience of time rushing by as you grow up; schoolfriends left behind, days and weeks lost in the wake of a major breakup.The length of the film works in its favour; the cumulative effect of those moments builds to communicate the weight of a person’s past. We leave with the feeling that despite the elisions, we really have seen Adèle grow up before us.

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11. The World’s End

Dir. Edgar Wright

UK / 2013 / 109 mins

“I. Hate. This. TOWN!”

Edgar Wright’s fourth feature film, and his latest genre comedy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (billed as the concluding entry in their “Cornetto Trilogy”) has the same furious pace and rapid-fire gags of their previous two collaborations. But there’s also a darkness there that their past films didn’t have. It’s a film about the inevitable disappointments of life, about how nostalgia and conformity can trap us, and about the cost of breaking free.

All involved have stepped their game up significantly. Pegg leaves behind his usual lovable-manchild schtick; his Gary is a selfish, unrepentant fuck-up obsessed with recapturing the glory of his schooldays. Frost is more serious than usual, playing a man with responsibilities and a longstanding heap of justified resentment towards Pegg’s character. For his part, Wright applies the stuntwork and fight sequence chops he displayed on Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to this film, creating ridiculously entertaining set-pieces that punctuate the schoolfriends’ long journey into the night. (The fact that it’s a bunch of out-of-shape fortysomethings involved in these furious brawls makes it even funnier.)

The sci-fi trappings bounce off the domestic drama in a way that enriches both (especially the poignant subplot featuring Eddie Marsan’s character and the former school bully), as Gary races towards a reckoning with the responsibility he’s been dodging his whole life. There are flaws, such as the underdeveloped supporting cast, and the audacious denouement that feels oddly underexplored. But it’s still  the most entertaining and resonant action comedy of the year.

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10. Stoker

Dir. Park Chan-wook

UK, USA / 2013 / 99 mins

“We don’t need to be friends. We’re family.”

Park Chan-Wook’s English-language debut is an expertly-done series of icily efficient crescendos in tension, combining the slow burn of Thirst and JSA: Joint Security Area with the bravura setpieces of his revenge superthrillers. Mia Wasikowska is predictably excellent as the young girl whose coming of age is marred by the death of her father and near-simultaneous appearance of her charming but mysterious uncle.

It’s a wonderful-looking film; the camera glides smoothly around the Stoker family’s cavernous mansion, alternating between poised, elegant steadicam work and eerie off-kilter compositions. While the script echoes Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt, another obvious touchstone is David Lynch, with ultra-creepy soundscapes, flickering electric lights, rictus grins and frosty domesticity poised over an ocean of barely-concealed horror. “Realism” or “restraint” is the exact last thing I want from a director like Park, and it’s an utter treat seeing his heightened pulp-opera stylings play out within the Southern Gothic fairytale atmosphere of this film.

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9. Room 237

Dir. Rodney Ascher

USA / 2012 / 102 mins

“And that is the moon room, this is where everything happens.”

Probably the most fun you’ll have watching a documentary about a bunch of people watching a film, Rodney Ascher’s unconventional video essay takes as its subject obsessive rewatchers of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and their far-fetched theories on the classic chiller.

Two decisions taken by Ascher elevate this premise into something special. The first is to never show the interviewees, keeping them as disembodied voices unpacking their interpretations. The second is to compose the film exclusively of archive footage and excerpts from The Shining. The Adam Curtis style patchwork of footage makes it seem like an eerie found product that grew out of some vast film archive, as the interviewees calmly parse out their takes on the film, sometimes frame-by-frame.

Some of the theories seem quite plausible (the numerous reference to the genocide of the Native Americans); some are genuinely interesting (mapping the impossible layout of the Overlook Hotel); some start off low-key and then take a hard right into lunacy (the moon landing one … ’nuff said). But as we travel further down the rabbit hole of the hermetic, conspiratorial side of film theory, The Shining takes on the characteristics of the Overlook; a labyrinthine enigma that has trapped these poor souls within a never-ending maze of signs and portents. For film obsessives, it’s scarier than Jack Nicholson with an axe.

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8. Gravity

Dir. Alfonso Cuaron

USA / 2013 / 91 mins

“I hate space.”

Alfonso Cuaron’s years-in-the-making survival-against-all-odds space thriller/groundbreaking effects showcase/well-deserved career revitalisation for Sandra Bullock is the most visually astounding film of the year. An exercise in sustained tension that’s the equivalent of the last ten minutes of Jaws extended to feature length, the film draws its greatest dramatic charge from the primal terror of isolation in the pitiless emptiness of space.

The technical brilliance is always apparent but never overwhelming; Emmanuel Lubezki’s long takes are unfussily precise in the way they track each character and position them in relation to each other and the point they’re trying to reach. The film also mines the potential of 3D to make it an integral, immersive part of the cinematic experience.

For all the sense of scale and visual spectacle, it works because in terms of cast, plot and theme, it’s stripped down the most essential core. (Some critics were sniffy about the script; my take is that there’s a difference between simple and simplistic.) I found the focus on determination and will to survive inspiring, with the triumphant finale ranking as one of my favourite scenes of the year.

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7. In The House

Dir. Francois Ozon

France / 2012 / 105 mins

“What are we doing in the story?”

Treading a fine line between creepy and charming, In The House ingratiates itself with the audience before pulling off a nimble series of twists and reversals. It’s a film about voyeurism, wanting things seen from a distance and the lengths we go to believe in perfection.

Pompous schoolteacher and frustrated novelist Germain (Fabrice Luchini) takes his calm, self-assured pupil Claude (Ernst Umhauer) under his wing, aiming to nurture his writing talent. Claude delivers bitingly sarcastic dispatches from his best friend Rafa’s seemingly perfect middle-class family home.

The balance of power between the two slowly shifts, with Germain rationalising away his interest in these dirt-dishing reports, and encouraging this infiltration of the oblivious household despite himself. Claude’s actions begin to have consequences, and Germain wakes to his complicity in events too late to make a difference.

Writers, Ozon suggests, are a selfish breed. They take the world around them as raw material for their work, and would rather analyse the motivations of their characters than attend to the feelings of real people. The film takes a clear-eyed look at how powerful, enticing and dangerous the creative impulse can be. After all, everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

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6. Zero Dark Thirty

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

USA / 2012 / 157 mins

“Fuck does that mean?” “It’s a tautology.”

This is a monumental film about the national security leviathan that America built for itself, viewed from inside the belly of the beast. It’s peopled by characters who have willingly turned themselves into tools of the system, who torture wholeheartedly, who sublimate their jihadist zeal for vengeance into a bloodless bureaucratic structure.

It’s maybe the only war on terror movie that’s become more, not less relevant after the NSA surveillance revelations. The film charts a process of sifting through a formless morass of information, of a picture slowly coalescing out of suppositions and probabilities. (Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns” also apply here.)

Bigelow’s expert blocking and shot choices belie the look of faux-docudrama realism. The film really lives in the gulf between the grim displays of pain meted out in the name of revenge and the uncertainty and hunger for information that defines the hunt. Its cipher-like operatives swim in immense, abstracted patterns of data, lost in a never-ending fog of unknowns and probabilities. The masterful, horrifying raid sequence takes us back down into the realm of the real, of bloodstains and dead bodies. There’s no catharsis, no triumph – just more data to feed the machine.

 

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5. Frances Ha

Dir. Noah Baumbach

USA / 2012 / 86 mins

“I’m sorry … I’m not a real person yet.”

One of the funniest films of the year (only The World’s End competes on a pure gags-to-runtime ratio) and one of the most charming. It’s a partial softening of Baumbach’s acidic worldview, perhaps thanks to the input of star Greta Gerwig (who co-starred in Greenberg and co-wrote this film with Baumbach).

It’s still fairly sardonic towards Gerwig’s Frances; flighty, self-absorbed and more than a little unsure about who or what she wants to be. But there’s a balance struck in not treating twentysomething ennui too seriously, or too trivially. The understated, slightly grainy black-and-white photography tracks her running, dancing and stumbling through a New York that seems at once full of possibility and forbiddingly difficult. It’s this empathy that makes it such a hilarious and touching film.

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4. Before Midnight

Dir. Richard Linklater

USA / 2013 / 109 mins

“It’s not about time … more, perception.”

This third entry in Linklater’s Before… series hits harder and goes deeper than its predecessors. It’s no longer just about romance, but about what comes after; the hard work of commitment, along with bitterness, disillusionment and the accumulated dead weight of history.

The witty interplay between Hawke’s Jesse and Delpy’s Celine, now settling into comfortable middle age with family of their own, still remains, as do the unshowy single takes that track the couple as they wander around beautiful locations talking about everything and nothing.

But time has taken its toll, especially in the decision made by Jesse to leave his first wife and share custody with his son. He and Celine are no longer connected by contingency, but in this for the long haul. The underlying tension all erupts in the late-film hotel room argument, a brutal eruption of suppressed discontent from two people who’ve been together long enough to know intimately how to push each other’s buttons.

The romanticism of a couple in love walking around Europe’s most beautiful tourist spots only lasts for so long. This far down the road, you have to reckon with the disappointments of the past and the frustrations of the present, and this film is all the richer (and maybe even more romantic) for the inclusion of serious fractures within this latest snapshot of Celine and Jesse’s relationship.

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3. Drug War

Dir. Johnnie To

China, Hong Kong / 2012 / 107 mins

“High risk, high reward. High reward, high risk.”

This is one of Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To’s greatest works; a relentless procedural thriller in the Mann/Friedkin tradition which portrays cops and crooks as equally-matched gangs going toe-to-toe within the confines of a rigged, self-perpetuating system. When meth dealer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is hospitalised after a lab explosion, he’s captured by hyper-professional Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) and coerced into cooperating with the police in a scheme to entrap his colleagues, in the hope of avoiding a mandatory death sentence. There’s no grudging respect here; both men consider themselves the smartest guy in the room. What happens when that isn’t the case provides the series of hugely entertaining switchback plot twists.

In To’s movies, action is character. Every act has a purpose, and a consequence. There’s next to no expository dialogue in this film; the audience is simply shown characters doing, as if we’ve come into the scene a beat or two late, and left to unpack the meaning. The massive climactic gunfight, which tracks three separate groups through the carnage and makes room for significant character moments, is a masterpiece of action filmmaking.

As To’s first film made in mainland China, it takes pains to cooperate with official strictures, with its straight-arrow cops and moralistic Crime Does Not Pay ending. But there’s a note of bleak irony underneath. The supposed victory for law and order at the end feels ultimately hollow, with the numerous corpses strewn throughout the story left as casualties of an unwinnable war.

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2. Django Unchained

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

USA / 2012 / 165 mins

“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?”

This is Tarantino putting his love of genre – Western, blaxploitation, good old mythic hero’s journey – to use in an assault on both the antebellum South and its representation onscreen. You feel his glee in demolishing the genteel Gone With The Wind Southern cliches; as with his previous film Inglourious Basterds, he fights the good fight he only way he knows how – with cinema.

The squib-heavy gunfights and geysers of old-school Hollywood blood are pure filmic joy. (And for all the shade he gave John Ford in the film’s publicity tour, Tarantino’s clearly learned from the master in how to shoot widescreen American landscapes.) Foxx is akin to Melanie Laurent in Basterds as the film’s steely avenger who anchors the more baroque Tarantinoisms through force of character.

He’s more than able to hold his own against Waltz’s fussy old-world gunfighter Schultz, and the reptilian slaver Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio, chewing scenery like he’s just come off a starvation diet.) But it’s Samuel L Jackson in an extraordinary performance as Stephen, the house servant who’s spent so long under the barbarism of slavery that his canny survivor’s instinct has curdled into his own brand of bigotry, that’s the most audacious and disturbing aspect of the whole thing.

It’s not a perfect film, but you don’t watch Tarantino for perfection. The wild ambition, the bizarrely misfiring comic riffs, the odd indulgences: they’re part of his films’ DNA. It’s a pleasure to watch him steer his ramshackle masterpiece to a triumphantly cathartic ultraviolent conclusion.

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1. Upstream Color

Dir. Shane Carruth

USA / 2013 / 96 mins

“The water before you is somehow special.”

There wasn’t a film of last year more purely cinematic than Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s follow-up to his mind-bending time travel debut Primer, arriving after almost a decade of Carruth trying to make several projects with as much independence as possible. On a surface level, they couldn’t be more different; while Primer was a dry, sterile hard SF exercise, Upstream is impressionistic, concerned with selfhood and subjectivity, with a beating emotional core.

While somewhat elliptical and abstract, it’s never obtuse. Indeed, the focus on conveying details through cinematography, editing and sound design mark it out as particularly in tune with the strengths of cinema as a medium. Voiceover and shot choices are combined so that both convey information independently. The muted colour palette creates a strong visual identity for the film. The sound design deserves particular appreciation, both in its use in building the disorienting ominous mood through the film, and its presence as a plot element.

Amy Seimetz and Carruth play two vulnerable, unsure people with a strange trauma lurking in their pasts who drift together, sharing a hesitant connection and eventual romance. On one level it’s a story of two damaged people learning to overcome their separate hurts together, and it loses none of that strength for operating in a possible metaphorical space. As a film of ideas, it’s richly ambiguous and thought-provoking, allowing a lot of conceptual leaps that never lose the audience.

There’s a distinct note of Cronenbergian body horror within the film, stemming from the concept of the body as a biological system connected yet separate from our consciousness. In a way, it does for biology what Primer did for physics. If Primer is about the damage caused by running up against the hard, unyielding physical laws of the universe, then Upstream is about the tension between accepting that we are simply biological organisms and reckoning with what consciousness means in light of that. Where does that intangible thing that makes us human reside? It’s an ambitious, smart, and incredibly assured film. I can’t wait to see what Carruth does next.

 

 

And to finish up, the best non-2013 films I saw last year:

Outrage (Takeshi, 2011); The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Yates, 1973); Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950); Skeletons (Whitfield, 2010); Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock, 1943); The Kid With A Bike (Dardennes, 2012); The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963); Southern Comfort (Hill, 1981); Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Ceylan, 2011); Cascablanca (Curtiz, 1942); Wild At Heart (Lynch, 1990); To Live And Die In L.A. (Friedkin, 1985); Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002); They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Pollack, 1969); Margaret (Lonergan, 2011); Black Caesar (Cohen, 1973); Real Life (Brooks, 1979); McCullin (Morris/Morris, 2012); Exiled (To, 2006); Jaws (Spielberg, 1975); The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafaelson, 1972); Oslo, August 31st (Trier, 2011); The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, 2011); Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959); Enter The Dragon (Clouse, 1973); Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (Hyams, 2012); Trading Places (Landis, 1983); Sightseers (Wheatley, 2012); Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957); Wake In Fright (Kotcheff, 1971); Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1979); Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947); Classe Tous Risques (Sautet, 1960); Side By Side (Keneally, 2012).

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2012 in Film, Part 2: Miscellaneous Awards and Shout-Outs

The ever-so-slightly-overdue Part Two, featuring stuff I wanted to mention or write about the films that didn’t make my top 15 back in Part One.

The Disappointing

Prometheus
Dir. Ridley Scott (USA/UK, 2012)
124 minutes

Watching Prometheus is like being served a delicious cake where around one in three slices is guaranteed to contain a human tooth. It’s a gorgeously shot picture with a truly epic visual ambition (it’s no surprise that Scott quotes directly from Lawrence of Arabia), where the connective tissue of characterisation and plot is thin to the point of transparency. It’s a film featuring great performers at the top of their game which gives them so little to grasp, only Fassbender comes out with anything resembling a character arc. It wants to have its cake as an austere, thought-provoking science fiction puzzle piece, and eat its cake as a monster-movie slasher (wait, how many cakes are there again? This metaphor got away from me). In its mixture of ambition and frustrating shortcomings, it’s not like any other film I saw this year. I loved looking at it. I can’t say the same for watching it.

Berberian Sound Studio
Dir. Peter Strickland (UK, 2012)
92 minutes

The first two thirds of this Lynchian psychodrama, featuring Toby Jones as a repressed British sound director working on a gory Italian giallo film in the 1970s, are pure magic, a supremely unsettling marriage of uncanny sound design and Jones’ slow disintegration as the violence he’s exposed to through his work starts playing tricks on his mind. The final third is where the film chooses to gutter out into inconsequentiality, tragically squandering all of the tension it so expertly built up before. That it would have ended up in my best-of list with a stronger third act is testament to how frustrating I found its botched ending.

The RapGenius.com Award for White Devil Sophistry

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin (USA, 2012)
93 minutes

This magical realist drama set in a never-named stretch of American swampland uses the obvious connections to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina to bring up wider resonances it neither earns nor makes any effort to explore. Framing the story through the precocious voiceover narration of a young girl frees the filmmakers from any obligation towards subtlety, allowing them to emotionally bludgeon the audience with cutesy truisms.The presentation of the Bathtub’s “community” as a bunch of dissolute drunks who resist any attempt at outside assistance or “civilisation” speaks not only of some patronising conception of how the poor live, but of fetishising this stereotype. The father’s aggression and violence towards his daughter is similarly indulged as part of this “authenticity”. An excellent star performance from Quvenzhané Wallis and the cinematographer’s clear gift for staging arresting shots can’t save the film from drowning in its own smugness and incoherence.

Now, on to better things…

Best Performance
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Toby Jones, Berberian Sound Studio
Ebizô Ichikawa, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Best Supporting Performance
John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Michael Fassbender, Prometheus
James Gandolfini, Killing Them Softly
Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
Amy Adams, The Master

Having typed out these lists quickly aiming for gut reaction, I took a look back and realised the lack of female performers was glaring, and a let down on my part. So to redress the balance somewhat, I want to mention the excellent performances this year from Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene; Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises; Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild; Stephanie Sigman in Miss Bala; Emily Blunt in Looper; Juno Temple in Killer Joe; and Greta Gerwig in Damsels In Distress, who either made their films stand out from the crowd, or did a lot to make up for any deficiencies said films otherwise had.

Best Double Act
Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, The Cabin In The Woods

Best Couple
Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), Moonrise Kingdom
Runner up: Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) and Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), Rust and Bone

Performance(s) by an actor who I had written off until this year
Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe, Magic Mike
Runner up: Charlize Theron, Prometheus, Young Adult

Best performance by an actor using 20-30% of their face
Bane (Tom Hardy), The Dark Knight Rises
Runner up: Dredd (Karl Urban), Dredd

Best Cameo
Harry Dean Stanton, The Avengers
Runner up: Sigourney Weaver, The Cabin In The Woods

Scenes of the Year
1. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) “processes” Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) for the first time, The Master
2. Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) walks with Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) through a derelict department store, Holy Motors
3. Charlie Parker shares his suspicions about the Barclays, The Imposter
4. Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) does her old routine to Katy Perry’s “Firework” on the balcony, Rust and Bone
5. Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt)’s final conversation with his employer (Richard Jenkins), Killing Them Softly
6. The family K-fried-C dinner, Killer Joe
7. Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton) rescues Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel), Moonrise Kingdom
8. The disappearing fingers, Looper
9. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) confronts Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), Cosmopolis
10. Mavis (Charlize Theron) explodes at the baby-naming party attendees, Young Adult

Action Sequence of the Year
1. Iko Uwais’ police officer and his brother versus “Mad Dog”, The Raid
2. Gina Carano versus Michael Fassbender in a Dublin hotel suite, Haywire
3. Dredd (Karl Urban) going hand to hand with a corrupt Judge, Dredd
4. James Bond versus a guy with a stolen hard drive on a speeding train, Skyfall
5. The Avengers versus Loki and bunch of aliens in central Manhattan, The Avengers

Best Cinematography
The Master
Runners up: Skyfall, Miss Bala

Best Soundtrack
Bombay Beach
Runners up: The Master, The Imposter, Haywire

Best Music Cue in a Film
“Strokin’” by Clarence Carter, Killer Joe
Runner up: “Let My Baby Ride” by R.L. Burnside, performed by Denis Lavant et al, Holy Motors

And as a reward for sitting through all that verbiage, let’s close this out with David Ehrlich’s ridiculously enjoyable montage of his best films of the year. Here’s to 2013.

 

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2012 in Film, Part 1: My Favourite Films of the Year

Yes, that’s right, part one. The traditional best-of list follows, with an upcoming collection of awards for stuff that might have escaped mention here. As always, there are films I didn’t get to see in time that will probably be on next year’s list, and films that I liked but not enough to make the cut. And now, on with the show.

Image15. Bombay Beach
Dir. Alma Har’el (USA, 2011)
80 minutes

Bombay Beach is a strange, impressionistic documentary that values aesthetics over reportage. It looks into the lives of individuals and families in a run-down lakeside community in California that we would otherwise dismiss or never even hear of, and shows them as simply people, trying to make the best of a bad situation, but all capable of connection and love. It’s impossible to watch scenes like the Parish family struggling with their ADHD son, or the old man who philosophises to the camera about the hard life he’s led, and not see them as people who deserve far more than what they’ve been given.

But the film doesn’t contend itself with “realist” documentary miserablism. There are wonderful moments where the participants dance amid the semi-rural decay of Bombay Beach while the Beirut/Bob Dylan soundtrack thrums beautifully in the background; scenes that imbue their run-down surroundings with a kind of dreamlike beauty. It’s “anti-realist” in the best possible way; it shows an ideal of a better world and lets this world’s inhabitants act it out.

Image14. Killer Joe
Dir. William Friedkin (USA, 2012)
102 minutes

This was the year that Matthew McConaughey became an actor I took seriously, and a lot of that had to do with his revelatory performance in Killer Joe; a comically heightened Southern-fried pulp/noir blowout that gradually morphs into a folkloric cautionary tale of what happens to people who invite evil into their lives. The final extended scene betrays its stage-play origins, but the go-for-broke insanity of the whole thing (McConaughey in particular) turns it into a viscerally disturbing black comedy tour-de-force.

13. Carancho
Dir. Pablo Trapero (Argentina, 2010)
107 minutes

A bracingly nasty Argentinian neo-noir, unashamed to have its protagonist plumb the depths of scumbaggery. He’s a disgraced lawyer turned ambulance chaser (the “vulture” of the title) who’s not above faking accidents with the help of homeless people to earn some extra cash. Scuttling through the endless night of Buenos Aries, he strikes up a relationship with a paramedic who’s developing an addiction to opiates.

It’s dark stuff, but there’s room for a tender love story that, as with all things in this film, shades into desperation as the couple struggle to escape the corruption all around them. Gritty, hand-held cinematography chases the characters through ever-narrowing avenues. Crunching  collisions of metal soundtrack a story about the trauma inflicted by a brutal world.

12. Looper
Dir. Rian Johnson (USA, 2012)
118 minutes

Looper starts out as a zippy, high-concept sci-fi/noir exercise but quickly goes to some pretty dark places as it asks questions about how much of other people’s futures we would sacrifice to protect our own past. There’s also a weighty element of subtext on arrogant old age meeting cocksure youth, and the blame directed to the previous generation for leaving the present a screwed-up world.

Weird facial prosthetics aside, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty great, Willis actually seems to be trying and there’s a great scene-stealing turn from Jeff Daniels as a hangdog crime boss. The cinematography and production design conjures some unique images from among the fields and run-down post-industrial cityscapes of 2044. The restless camera tilts and whirls during the shootouts and chases, keeping us as disoriented as the uncomfortable ambiguities in the script.

Image11. Chronicle
Dir. Josh Trank (USA, 2012)
84 minutes

Like the most effective B-movies, Chronicle takes a simple premise (teens gain superpowers, document the experience via camcorder) and makes much more out of it. As with most found-footage movies, the filmmakers have to strain a bit to stick to the gimmick (although the characters’ powers do make for an elegant way around some obstacles). It turns from a teen drama to something far bigger and more disturbing, without sacrificing the low-key presentation – which at times makes it feel almost like a horror film. It’s one of the (very) few superhero movies I’ve seen that actually puts across how weird and unsettling superpowers would actually be.

You can read it as many things: as a film about the emotional and moral consequences of living in a world of social media, where being the star of your own movie necessarily relegates others to bits parts. As a critique of the superiority complex inherent in most superhero narratives. As a questioning of why our culture’s dreams are so often ones of power, violence and rage. And none of this subtext ever overwhelms the drama.

Image10. Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai
Dir. Takahshi Miike (Japan, 2011)
126 minutes

Miike returns to historical samurai drama after 13 Assassins, toning down the delirious ultraviolence of that film to offer something more cerebral, but no less gripping. Narrative expectation is upended is the story we think we are watching becomes about something else entirely. Miike uses the conventions of stately, classical samurai films to deconstruct not only the much-romanticised historical period, but the films that portray it admiringly; the chivalry and codes of honour are a farce, as hollow as an empty suit of armour.

Image9. The Raid
Dir. Gareth Evans (Indonesia/USA, 2011)
101 minutes

All-time outstanding achievement of this year in wrecking shit. Brutal, non-stop violence as a small group of cops take on an army of crooks in a tower block turned warzone. An action movie that’s inspiring for how well it lives up to its promise, and for its utter stripped-to-the-bone commitment to mayhem. Every perfectly-choreographed storm of blades, feet and fists is a gauntlet thrown down to everyone else working in this area, saying: Raise Your Game.

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8. Haywire
Dir. Steven Soderbergh (USA, 2011)
93 minutes

Almost the opposite number to the previous entry, this is a series of bone-crunchingly realistic fight setpeices set within a classic Soderbergh “process” film about characters who are defined by their jobs, and all the little actions they perform in service of those professions. In using an actual professional fighter as lead, Soderbergh can stage lengthy, complex fights where you see the characters work out in real time the best move to make. Every grab, punch, kick and slam is just professionals doing their thing.

There are so many funny moments – the guy under the door giving the finger, Carano running into shot behind a certain character, the final line – and a pleasingly retro jazzy soundtrack, that make it obvious Soderbergh’s having great fun with this. That it refuses to take itself too seriously is a big part of the film’s charm.

Image7. Miss Bala
Dir. Gerardo Naranjo (Mexico, 2011)
113 minutes

A brutal and often viscerally uncomfortable chronicle of the violence done to innocents in Mexico’s drug war, which achieves its aim through monomaniacal focus of one of those innocents. Our protagonist Laura is rarely off screen; the camera tracks her constantly like a lover (or a stalker). The film unfolds in a series of long takes that create an unbearable claustrophobia; we are trapped in each scene with Laura as she struggles to get out of every situation alive. (A sequence where she emerges from a crashed car into a running gun battle between cops and criminals has its own surreal beauty.) It’s an unflinching exploration of how corruption chews up and spits out anyone who tries not to take a side.

Image6. Moonrise Kingdom
Dir. Wes Anderson (USA, 2012)
94 minutes

Anderson fully indulges in whimsy and building perfect diorama-like worlds even as he delivers his saddest and most honest story, about a forbidden romance and elopement between two kids leading the adults around them to assess where their lives have gone wrong. In a sly inversion of their usual personae, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis play the pair of sad sacks in charge of the search efforts, and regular Anderson players Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman make welcome appearances. but the film truly belongs to Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as the lovestruck couple lighting out into the wilderness. Alternating between slapstick and poignancy, it all builds to a rousingly silly climax that still allows for a lot of heart; a perfectly constructed gem.

Image5. Killing Them Softly
Dir. Andrew Dominik (USA, 2012)
104 minutes

Grimy and despairing, this ultra-downbeat crime drama filters its narrative through the financial collapse and Presidental election campaign of 2008 to tell a story of an America where the most secure institutions and the rules they play by seem to be in slow-motion collapse.

A pair of scuzzy, none-too-bright low-level hoods (Scott McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rip off a mob card game in an excruciatingly tense sequence. Brad Pitt is the consummate professional brought in to clear up the mess, but continually stymied by the equivocations of his bosses and the incompetence of his peers (including James Gandolfini in a film-stealing performance as a lugubrious, alcoholic hitman).

The film takes place in a New Orleans more decaying and rain-lashed the the anonymous metropolis of Fincher’s Se7en, playing on the theme of how capitalism devours its own without knowing or caring. It’s as brutal with the ways people can manipulate others into doing their bidding as it is with the beatings and shootings. The whole sordid story builds to a black-hearted punchline that equals the ending of There Will Be Blood for sheer mordant humour.

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4. The Imposter
Dir. Bart Layton (UK, 2012)
99 minutes

A supremely unsettling documentary, which uses its anti-realist techniques (such as reconstructions often  overdubbed with the participants’ own voices) to draw the audience into the sheer bizarreness of its story and the twists encountered on the way. It owes a lot to Errol Morris (said reconstructions, the Interrotron-style presentation of interviewees speaking straight to camera), and is similarly concerned with his regular themes of the flexibility of truth and the stories people tell to conceal unpalatable facts from others and from themselves. Unfortunately, that to tell much more would spoil the effect, so I’d ask everyone to go see it with as little information as possible, and get caught up in the stomach-churning series of revelations.

Image3. Rust and Bone
Dir. Jacques Audiard (France/Belgium, 2012)
120 minutes

What could be worthy, melodramatic subject matter is given real weight by the naturalistic direction and the raw power of Cotillard and Schoenaerts’ performances. The film is unabashedly rooted in the physical; Audiard’s camera lingers on flesh and skin in all its rough beauty, variously scarred, bloodied and tanned by the sun. Vulnerability comes through at every turn, with the characters’ interactions alternating between brutality and tenderness. The coupling of physical and emotional trauma is key to this story of damaged bodies, damaged people, and what it means to heal.

Image2. The Master
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (USA, 2012)
137 minutes

A film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible; huge landscapes and the surface of individual human faces are given the same level of loving, detailed exploration. Phoenix and Hoffman are truly exceptional; every indication you’re watching an actor perform falls away as you’re lost in the fine details of these characters. It’s a thorny, paradoxical tale of two men struggling with the unspoken connection they appear to have, both too headstrong to settle into the simple prophet-and-follower pattern. Set against the dawn of 50s conformism, it shows people who yearn for something more, wrestling with their own natures, trying to make sense of their lives. But even setting the acres of subtext aside, it’s as rewarding to simply enjoy the film as a gorgeous tactile thing and luxuriate in it.

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1. Holy Motors
Dir. Leos Carax (France/Germany, 2012)
115 minutes

Leos Carax’s latest film makes no attempt to disguise its self-reflexive nature; it’s an endless hall of mirrors of film commenting on film. The tale of one day in the life of “Monsieur Oscar” (Denis Lavant), being chauffered around Paris in a limousine between different “assignments”, laboriously applying different disguises as he goes, is the framework on which Carax hangs a number of vignettes from downbeat drama to farce, with room for a musical number or two.

All of the surreal moments and Russian-doll nesting of different performances could make it very arch and distant, but there are moments of real emotional heft. Lavant’s weathered face has a kind of ruined charisma that shines through all the disguises and prostheses – whether dressed to the nines or clad in rags, he looks like a man who has seen far too much, and knows he’ll have to see much more. There’s a moment where he and Kylie Minogue (yes, really) take a walk through a derelict department store, reminiscing about the past. And while we’re unsure whether they are both actors taking a moment to acknowledge their past relationship, or whether they’re both just playing another role, it’s a truly moving bit of acting by them both.

With its irrepressible bursts of silliness and refusal to stay still, this is a film lovers’ film in the best way possible – so convinced of the possibilities of the form it’s hard not to get caught up in its enthusiasm yourself.

And as a bonus, the best non-2012 films I saw for the first time this year (please excuse my embarrassment at the number of classics I’ve somehow only just got round to watching):

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Gondry, 2006), Blue Valentine (Cianfrance, 2010), Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011), Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977), Hard Eight (Anderson, 1996), Shaft (Parks, 1971), P.T.U. (To, 2003), Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, 1958), Targets (Bogdanovich, 1968), A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944), The Driver (Hill, 1978), Rope (Hitchcock, 1948), Groundhog Day (Ramis, 1993), Fat City (Huston, 1972), Certified Copy (Kiarostami, 2010), Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, 1970), The Last Detail (Ashby, 1973)

Part Two coming soon…

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Chaos Reigns? Technique in modern Hollywood action cinema

A pair of short video essays I watched recently have got me thinking about modern action cinema, what it does, and who does it well.

Chaos Cinema Part 1 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

Chaos Cinema Part 2 from Matthias Stork on Vimeo.

They came via Matt Prigge, who rightly says:

except that Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films do this well and aren’t simply about chaos. They’re about lightning fast thinking.

Now action on screen is one of those things I think about a lot. Stuff like fights, chases and shootouts are easy to put on screen, really hard to do well. Cheap thrills are embedded in the DNA of cinema. They’ll always be around. We get a kick out of excitement and violence. Basically, the “Chaos Cinema” thesis isn’t (or shouldn’t) be about modern action cinema being ruined forever by those awful modern techniques. It’s a question of whether these techniques are realised competently or not.

Of the directors whose work is shown in the videos, the ones best at using the jittery, verité aesthetic are Paul Greengrass, Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan. (I’d put Neil Blomkampf on this list too for the terrific District 9, but I don’t want to judge him based solely on one feature film.)

Greengrass is known as the guy who brought shaky-cam into the mainstream, after importing it from his docudramas such as Bloody Sunday. As a former director for World In Action, he’s interested in blending a feeling of the factual into Hollywood.

His Bourne films require the jittery, quick-cutting pace because they need to reflect Damon’s Bourne reacting almost instantaneously to the threats ranged against him as his super-spy training kicks in. In United 93, the hand-held docudrama format takes you inside the horrifying situations better than a more conventional style could. Likewise, Green Zone (as with Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) uses that same style to evoke the reportage and amatuer footage from chatotic war zones that has spilled across our screens in recent years. Form informs content, and vice versa; I don’t see why a director should be pilloried for taking a stylistic decision that unambiguously works for the film he/she’s making.

Consider Nolan. He’s a director whose action chops have steadily improved with each film; the fights in Batman Begins were fairly awful, over-edited and confusing. The Dark Knight caught a fair bit of flak on the editing front, but on the big set-pieces he excels. I mean, tell me there isn’t some of the visual grammar of the big car chase in Bullitt (quoted admiringly in the the first video) in the Bat-pod chase sequence.

By the time he made Inception, he’s come on in leaps and bounds. There’s something of the low-key style of 70s actioners in the controlled, lengthy mid-shots during the van chase and hotel fight scene – he even built a costly and complicated revolving set to get around having to cut away during the latter sequence. Claiming him as part of the “Chaos Cinema” phenomenon doesn’t hold weight for me.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s definitely a move towards louder and more incoherent blockbusters. Aside from mere incompetent attempts to ape Greengrass-style verité, there’s also a cynical deliberate attempt by some directors to bludgeon the audience into submission, to not so much distract them as wear them down so they become accepting of ever more grimly mediocre Hollywood product.

The “anti-style” of directors like Michael Bay and Tony Scott is still an auteur’s style – in that it is recognisably their own – but contrary to classic auteur theory, which talked about the director’s control of style, it reflects the auteur’s lack of control. And in tandem with their films’ content and worldview, it’s a gleefully teenage celebration of base impulses.

And this is the problem with the wide net cast by the “Chaos Cinema” thesis – it mistakes a technique for a malaise, and ignores whether its practitioners exercise judgement, taste and competence or not. Those make all the difference.

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On having opinions

I’m currently helping to shortlist submissions for a local short film festival. Watching films and having to instantly mark them out of ten has thrown the odd processes of the art appreciating part of my brain into the light. I constantly worry that I rate everything too highly, and then try to force myself to be less lenient in my opinions. The reason is that while I enjoy debating with the other jurors, my final judgement is made with one simple criterion in mind: is it worth the audience’s time?

I’ve been in the audience of enough short film showings to know how long (or short) a film can be before it outstays its welcome. I feel it’s an immense privilege to be able to see all these wonderful works that I would otherwise never hear of, and I owe it to the potential audience members to select a programme that is worth every minute they spend looking at the screen.

At the moment, my writing on art (such as films, books, and television) is only a hobby. And as such, I prefer to spend my spare time talking about things I like. However, learning to be harsh on bad films as well as rhapsodising about good ones has revealed something to me about why I love the arts, why I love good criticism and why bad criticism pains me so much.

A critic’s job is to offer his opinion, when possible backed up by a degree of knowledge in their chosen field. It offers a chance to show people something magical, to explain the response it provoked in them and bring the most subjective of responses to the outside world, and offer a chance for people to share a communal experience in appreciation of a creative work.

Whether criticism is good or bad depends not on positive or negative attitudes to an individual work of art, but on the critic’s attitude towards their job. A high-handed or self-satisfied approach to the act of criticism can result in the critic judging the people who disagree with the critic’s opinion, rather than the work itself.

I want to be unflinchingly honest in my writing. I want to warn people off bad things as well as recommend good things. But I never want to be the kind of person, whether famous or obscure, who mocks and tears down other people for the opinions they hold. We identify ourselves by the art we love, and a good critic should always forgo personal insults in favour of a genuine airing of their emotional and intellectual reactions to art.

Because I feel that, in the end, it’s the greatest privilege to have the chance to introduce someone to a book, or film, or something else that changes the way they see the world. Short of creating art myself, there’s nothing that brings me more satisfaction.

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Dream A Little Dream Of Me: Inception and the art of storytelling

Full disclosure from the off: I’m a big Christopher Nolan fan. I think he’s one of the few people working in Hollywood today who can deliver big-budget, populist entertainment while indulging his own thematic preoccupations and carving out a style of his own. From the moment I first saw the Inception trailer above, with its moody The-Matrix­-meets-Heat aesthetic, I knew I’d be eagerly looking forward to seeing this film. And thankfully, it did not disappoint.

What I admire about Nolan is that within the space of a decade, he’s gone from an indie film shot guerrilla-style on black-and-white film for £2000, to a $150 million action film based on a world-famous superhero franchise and filled to the brim with A-list actors. Yet there’s a very clear through-line from Following to The Dark Knight, and into Inception, and the same elements abound through all Nolan’s films: plot twists, psychological gamesmanship, meditations on duality and doppelgangers, obsession, and characters whose guilt has grown to define them.

Essentially, Inception is a heist film. Nolan has always been adept at lashing his own agendas to genre-fiction plots, and this is no exception. You have the team of thieves being drawn back in for “one last job”; you have the leader, the tough guy, the cocky guy, the wise adviser, the new recruit. The characters are, to a certain extent, schematic, but never feel lifeless. While Leonardo DiCaprio anchors the film with an extremely capable performance, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt provide a very funny back-and-forth rapport, and Ellen Page adds unexpected depth and emotion to her largely expository role. They’re playing pre-defined roles within the narrative just as they are within the team, well-oiled components operating at peak performance to fulfil the demands of the plot and tell us a compelling story.

And what a story. It’s a futuristic conceit, but explored without any of the detached sterility that’s often a risk for science fiction. The idea of people entering a person’s dreams in order to steal their secrets (which are usually “locked away” in a representation of their subconscious – a safe, basement, or fortified military installation) is simple and ingenious at the same time. But as Nolan takes us down the rabbit hole, on an elaborate long con which keeps as much from the audience as it does from the team’s “mark”, we become aware that something much larger is at play.

The film’s big hook is the concept of an “inception”: instead of stealing an idea, the team must plant one deep in the subconscious of their target. Does this remind you of anything? After leaving the cinema my head was buzzing with interpretations of the film, and ideas for what the shared-dream technology would mean for the wider world. The film had conducted its own “inception” on me – and on many of my fellow audience members, I’d wager.

Inception, to my mind, can be read as a metaphor for the creative impulse – for something that seems a little dangerous and exciting while you’re doing it, where the most important work takes place in a strange dream-world that looks like our own, but can be manipulated to your own ends. This rather neat interpretation (WARNING: contains spoilers) dovetails with my own views on the twist at the end, and offers a decent explanation of the film on a narrative and thematic level.

There’s a telling line of dialogue in the film; at one point, DiCaprio’s Cobb says “An idea can grow to define us, or destroy us”. His relationship with his wife (played brilliantly by Marillon Cotillard) is the emotional lynchpin of the film, and the source of the guilt that has come to rule his life and seep through into the dreams in which he operates. Cobb’s journey to reject that guilt, move on from the regrets of the past, and save himself and his team is typical Hero’s Journey stuff, but rather than overtly spelling it out, Nolan implicitly asks us to see the idea of competing narratives battling it out inside Cobb’s head.

The stories we tell ourselves end up defining us. Nolan knows this, and has used it in his films before, from the tattoos covering Leonard Shelby’s body in Memento to Bruce Wayne’s oath to avenge his parents’ death by becoming a figure of the night. Inception is many things, but it’s a brilliantly entertaining bit of genre film-making, a fine story about telling stories, and a meditation on the nature of reality, and what that should mean to us.

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Cambridge Film Festival review – Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train (1951)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock (USA)

101 minutes

Screened: Friday 26th September 2008

I tend to divide Hitchcock’s work in a strangely arbitrary fashion; between his black-and-white and colour films. Although he used a lot of innovative camera tricks throughout his career, I can’t help but think of the Technicolour panoramas of North By Northwest or the psychedelic craziness of Vertigo, and see his black-and-white films as restrained by comparison. In Strangers on a Train, rescreened as part of a Warner Bros. retrospective at this year’s CFF, this restraint works, as a nightmare unfolds from a seemingly innocuous event.

Strangers was adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, and her and Hitchcock have many preoccupations in common. Highsmith’s novels and short stories read as if they’re filmed in tight close-ups, dragging you into the protagonists’ distrubed minds and desperate actions, which are terrifying precisely because of their seeming banality. The film begins on a lighthearted note, as starstruck Bruno encounters famous tennis player Guy on a commuter train. Guy tries to fend off Bruno’s attempts at conversation, but by the end of the journey, a plan for the two men to “swap murders” has been set in motion, without Guy knowing it.

Late ’40s/early ’50s America is a good-looking, peaceable place in Strangers, but with a secret rottenness to it. Both the pivotal event of the film – the murder of Guy’s estranged wife, Miriam – and its climax are set at a fairground, and Hitchcock wrings equal amounts of irony and suspense from the location. The former scene is a masterpiece in slowly building tension, as Bruno tails Miriam through the rides and stalls, and eventually strangles her. Heightening the eerie atmosphere, the murder is seen reflected in the victim’s glasses, soundtracked by the haunting lilt of fairground music.

The downside to this is that when we spend more time with Guy, the film grows curiously inert. As Guy, Farley Granger has an endearing woodenness which actually works for the purposes of the film, like Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. Strangers never recovers the disturbing atmosphere of the fairground scene, but offers up an entertaining set-piece in which Guy must race Bruno to the site of the murder in order to prevent him planting evidence – but not before winning a tennis match. The climax, too, is well-staged and terrifically paced. Unfortunately, the bizarre shift in tone afterwards, with Guy going from murder suspect to free man in five seconds flat, and on the flimsiest of evidence, rings false. Still, the fact that we want to spend more time with the cold-blooded sociopath is credit to Hitchcock’s skill, and perhaps proves his point about the murderous nature of seemingly ordinary people.

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