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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

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 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.

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.

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.

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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Sex And Sterility: Steve McQueen’s Shame

Seeing Steve McQueen’s Shame and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience within a week of each other is interesting. The two films have obvious points of similarity: both take place in a New York represented as a city of commerce and performance, where moneyed sterility and urban grime intermingle; and both feature stylish, ultimately blank protagonists whose lives revolve around sex in entirely different ways.

And of course, they come from different places. The Girlfriend Experience is another Soderbergh film concerned with people doing things; about what it means to have a vocation you take seriously, about all the little processes and actions that go into someone practicing the job or activity that defines them. Shame is an addiction drama (and an old-fashioned one at that), where mood, tone and theme take precedence. It’s a curiously uneven film, that paradoxically is at its most affecting when it stays on the surface.The film begins with a close-up shot of protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lying in bed. It’s presented at a 90-degree angle, with his body lying sideways to fill most of the frame. This notion of Brandon as a man trapped within the confines of the screen is reiterated again and again. As he paces like a caged animal around his pristine minimalist apartment, great care is taken to position his body against the edges of the frame.

For a film that aspires to a kind of low-key naturalism, Shame is a very deliberately thought-out bit of work. McQueen owes a lot to Kubrick in terms of obsessive attention to detail, especially with regard to sets and costumes. In particular, for all the nudity in the film (and there is a lot), the characters’ clothes play a clear role in delineating how they see themselves and what facade they present to the world.

Brandon is always impeccably dressed, armoured up in overcoat and ever-present grey scarf for the subway commute to work. (The scarf is important; look closely at the final scene.) There’s something in the way that Brandon’s boss and sister are both pointedly shown adjusting some part of Brandon’s pristine outfit, in a way we never see his call girls or casual hookups do.

There’s also a certain amount of information about power relations to tease out. Brandon’s office wear is standard creative-casual; suit with an open-necked shirt. His boss Dave (an excellently oily James Badge Dale) takes the so-important-I-don’t-need-to-dress-smartly route, spending most of the office scenes in a truly ugly hooded sweater.

Dave in particular is a very funny character, alternating between glib everyone’s-friend modern manager in the office and coked-up lothario on his nights out with Brandon. The scenes set among the nightlife of up-scale New York professionals are an excellently-observed study of embarrassment and social competition.

It’s kind of curious how so much of the film can be so deft and clever, and yet the scenes set around the mutually destructive pairing of Brandon and his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) so often lapse into overly schematic melodrama. Mulligan does a decent enough job with an underwritten part; her Cissy is if anything more of a cipher than Brandon, one dependent on the cliche of the flighty, hysterical woman who exists in the narrative merely to provide angst for the hero.

Nevertheless, Fassbender and Mulligan are good enough actors that their conversations, shot with a claustrophobic intensity, result in some powerful scenes. It’s when McQueen layers more techniques over the spare visual style that the film becomes too mannered for its own good.  The heavy, cloying strings ladled over the opening scene and the lengthy “bottoming-out” sequence (threesome and Fassbender sex face ahoy) did more to pull me out of the film than any of the “explicitness” promised/threatened by critics.

Shame is definitely a film worth watching. Fassbender is a truly magnetic performer, and McQueen has a masterful control of cinematography that focuses the viewer’s eye on the important details in every shot. For all the chatter surrounding the treatment of sex addiction, the film is ultimately at its best when its focus is at arm’s length. That doesn’t count as a failing; I feel one of McQueen’s strengths as a director is being able to interest you in a character or situation that is presented in such a detached manner. And taking such an intellectual tack on such an emotional subject is a way to explore addiction without either moralising or throwing a titillating gloss over the scene.

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My Favourite Films of 2011

It’s been an odd year for film. It may not have had the immediate cachet that last year displayed, but it was still split between old masters coming out of the woodwork to re-establish their claims and newcomers making incredible debuts. Beyond the assured money-spinners of Harry Potter and The King’s Speech, the British film industry delivered a number of excellent films with fairly minimal fanfare – many of them reviewed here. In addition to the great Brit-flicks on my list, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a very well-crafted film that harked back to a more slow-paced, cerebral type of spy story. And John Michael McDonough delivered a great debut with mordant Irish crime comedy The Guard, featuring Brendan Gleeson in a standout role as a shambolic small-town policeman clashing with Don Cheadle’s straight-man Fed. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List was matched in ultraviolent intensity by Simon Rumley’s US-UK production Red, White and Blue and Bong Joon-Ho’s Korean revenge thriller I Saw The Devil. In Hollywood, summer blockbusters like Thor and Super 8 were very well-made, combining spectacle with a Spielberg-esque light touch. (Transformers 3 was predictably awful. I saw it in a double bill with Super 8. The less said about it the better.) All told, I think this year has at least as much quality releases, but any narrative surrounding them has yet to emerge. Anyway, I hope you enjoy my entirely subjective top fifteen.
15. Kill List
Dir. Ben Wheatley (UK, 2011)
95 minutes

This gripping horror-thriller provided one of the most disturbing film-watching experiences I had last year. A tale of two ex-soldiers turned hitmen taking on a job that goes very badly for them both, it turns on an audacious narrative shift that somehow comes with the inevitability of a nightmare. The grim landscape of anonymous chain hotels and suburban housing developments lends a perfectly bizarre incongruity to the increasingly gruesome storyline. Director Wheatley uses jump cuts and eerie soundscapes to keep the audience constantly on edge, lending domestic arguments and scenes of bloody violence the same unsettling atmosphere. Not for the faint-hearted, but still astounding.

14. Archipelago

Dir. Joanna Hogg (UK, 2010)
114 minutes
A drier-than-dry comedy of manners about a well-to-do family’s holiday on the Scilly Isles doesn’t sound a promising prospect. But Joanna Hogg’s latest feature fashions an absorbing drama out of those raw materials. Through lengthy, static camera shots, she achieves an almost anthropological focus on the awkward upper-middle-class social manoeuvrings. Tom Hiddlestone stands out from an excellent cast as the first son preparing to embark on a volunteering mission for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. And despite the distanced direction, we still feel for this dysfunctional but essentially caring family.

13. Attack The Block
Dir. Joe Cornish (UK, 2011)
88 minutes

In a year full of foul, poisonous rhetoric from our political classes directed towards the disenfranchised, it took a low-budget sci-fi film from comedian-turned-first-time-director Cornish to humanise inner-city youth. The protagonists aren’t whitewashed; they first appear mugging a young woman on her way home. But an alien invasion inspires them to fight back in defence of their block, and the rough-hewn community within. Block is fast-paced, witty and extremely well-crafted for a debut feature. And underneath the action, it poses serious questions about how we live together. It’s a hopeful and humanistic picture, unafraid to wrap big ideas in populist entertainment.

12. Bridesmaids
Dir. Paul Feig (USA, 2011)
125 minutes

Bridesmaids is well worth discussing beyond the cultural conversation it started about women in comedy; it’s a sharp-eyed, extremely funny look at growing up. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph are excellent as the childhood friends whose relationship is tested to destruction over the latter’s impending wedding. Wiig’s Annie is impressively three-dimensional; immature and often unlikeable, she perfectly portrays a young-ish adult unhappy with the turns her life has taken. The supporting cast all put in good work — particularly Chris O’Dowd and the hilarious, scene-stealing Melissa McCarthy — and despite the overlong runtime, it’s an enjoyable ride with people who feel real.

11. 13 Assassins
Dir. Takashi Miike (Japan, 2010)
126 minutes

Master of ultraviolence Takashi Miike here delivers a more toned-down historical samurai picture – which still makes it crazier than most action films out there. The setup — former samurai recruits the titular group of swordsmen to assassinate a sadistic young lord — is a long, slow boil, containing questions of honour, duty and sacrifice. It all leads up to the film’s centrepiece; a delirious 40-minute battle sequence, staged in a booby-trapped village, with the 13 assassins versus a small army. Miike stages the carnage expertly, creating a grippingly visceral sequence that ebbs and flows like a real battle. You stagger out of the cinema privileged at having watched a master at work.

10. Drive
Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, (USA, 2011)
100 minutes

A stylish throwback to the ‘80s LA-set thrillers of Michael Mann and William Friedkin, Refn’s first US-set film is also of a piece with his previous studies of violent men, shot with a lyricism that belies the brutality they carry with them. Ryan Gosling’s taciturn stuntman/getaway driver isn’t just a Hollywood archetype; he’s a character who’s internalised those those archetypes to show a better face to the world. And although his budding relationship with Carey Mulligan is tenderly believable, it’s only when he’s plunged into the middle of a botched gangland deal that his true nature comes to the fore.

The film benefits from an excellent supporting cast, including the aforementioned Mulligan as a beatific single mother, Bryan Cranston as Gosling’s sad-sack boss, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as a pair of vicious gangsters. But for long stretches Refn chooses to present the film as a near-mute Zen pulp poem, letting the electronica-heavy soundtrack do the talking and concentrating his camera on the architecture of LA, Gosling’s blank expression, the glare of neon or a spurt of rich red blood. It’s a strange fusion of noir and fairytale, with familiar elements retooled and let loose on the road once more.

9. Meeks’ Cutoff
Dir. Kelly Reichardt (USA, 2010)
104 minutes

Though it contains few moments of violence, Meek’s Cutoff is one of the tensest films I saw in 2011. Kelly Reichardt’s low-budget Western takes place among a group of emigrants journeying to Oregon. Travelling by wagon, horse, and on foot, they are constantly vulnerable to the smallest accident marooning them in the parched landscape.

Tensions shimmer like heatwaves between the members of the party, particularly shifty guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and self-assured traveller Emily Thetherow (Michelle Williams). Reichardt’s unobtrusive direction and use of minimal dialogue or music draw us inexorably in to this almost alien world, where the creak of wagon wheels is the only sound. It’s a journey that leads us not towards a traditional climax, but a brief, surreal moment of epiphany.

8. The Interrupters
Dir. Steve James (USA, 2011)
125 minutes

I’ve unfortunately missed out on most of the critically-acclaimed documentaries released in 2011, with one exception. This powerfully affecting story of death and life in inner-city Chicago follows a group called Ceasefire, composed of former gang members, who walk the streets doing what they can to stop the cycle of retaliatory violence spinning out of control. In each nervy conversation with a young person they’re aiming to dissuade from violence, you see the toxic combination of youthful bravado and rage borne of desperation. And as the members themselves tell their stories, you’re left with the sense that each of them feels a furious need to try and relieve future generations of the kind of pain they’ve both caused and suffered.

It’s a film short on moralising and easy answers. The people featured are themselves the story; their self-justifications, reminiscences and struggles to make it through day a reminder of universal human frailty and the capacity for hope.

7. Weekend
Dir. Andrew Haigh (UK, 2011)
97 minutes
Haigh’s debut is a honest, melancholy but uplifting relationship drama about two people coming together in a one-night stand turned brief romance. The slightly shy, introverted Russell (Glen Cullen) picks up Glen (Chris New) at a club, and while both assume it’s a one-time thing, they end up hanging out and getting to know each other over the course of the weekend.It’s a rare example of a film featuring a gay couple that doesn’t play as a tragedy or worthy issues-based drama. The closest it comes to polemic is the presentation of the simple urgency of the affection Glen and Jay feel for each other; no one could watch this film and come away unconvinced of the relationship. The flat, affectless handheld camera work makes you feel like makes you feel present in the the most intimate moments, and both Cullen and New give excellent performance, with all the hesitations and awkwardness of real conversations. As the weekend goes on, each becomes more and more exposed to the other until their conversations are raw and almost painful in their honesty. It’s a wonderfully made love story that manages to be truthful about love.

6. Submarine

Dir. Richard Ayoade (UK, 2010)

97 minutes

Comedy genius/music video director Richard Ayoade (you might know him from such Britcoms as The IT Crowd and Darkplace) branches out into feature filmmaking with this coming-of-age tale. Set in a small Welsh seaside town, it follows Oliver Tate, a precocious schoolboy who, like most teenagers, views himself as the heroic protagonist in the film of his life. But strains in his parents’ marriage and the arrival of his first crush threaten to throw his world into confusion.

Ayoade has crafted a brilliant vision here, alternately laugh-out-loud and moving. The distinct look of the film, riffing on Wes Anderson and the French New Wave, is enhanced by the gorgeous retro soundtrack from Alex Turner. Newcomers Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are excellent as the star-crossed teenage couple, with the adult supporting cast (Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine) holding up their end. But in the end, this is a film all about youth; how we romanticise ourselves, and the inevitable heartbreak that comes when we have to reconcile that image with the real world.

5. True Grit
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (US, 2010)
110 minutes

There are few films that can make me leave the cinema with a sens of aboslute glee. This year, True Grit was one of them. Was it the sense of being in the hands of directors who have absolute mastery of their craft? Was it the excellent performances from Hailee Steinfeld as steely fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, and Matt Damon as conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf?

Maybe it was that for a Coens film, this is remarkably straight-faced. There are extremely funny lines, thanks to the dry wit of the novel remaining in the script, and moments of off-kilter humour. But as the film takes us to the deserted wilderness beyond American civilisation, it becomes a ripping adventure yarn where the central trio are tested, parted, and then brought back together to help each other.

It’s utterly thrilling to see a directorial team firing on all cylinders, working with excellent actors, bringing a great story to the screen. The perfect climactic action sequence, a non-stop series of impasses and reversals, and the moving coda set years after the main narrative, are a perfect closer to this wonderfully-crafted film.

4. The Skin I Live In
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar (Spain, 2011)
117 minutes

Almodóvar’s latest is a bizarre melodrama/thriller featuring Antonio Banderas as disturbed plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who keeps a young woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), as a pampered but de facto prisoner in his home. The three inhabitants of the mansion – Vera, Ledgard, and his housekeeper – spend the early part of the film dancing around each other in a strangely self-aware performace of their required roles. The ever-present monitor screens and microphones in the house by which Ledgard keeps watch over Vera makes the audience complicit in his voyeurism, and draws us into the bizarre family set-up, before it is blown apart by a relevation which recasts all that has gone before.
Banderas has never been better, his soap-opera-star-gone-to-seed looks perfectly suited to the charismatic but dangerous Ledgard. Elena Anaya is, if anything, even better; the smallest changes in her expression and body language suggest a world of torment under her placid exterior. As with most Almodóvar films, there is a depth beyond the pulpy subject matter, and the chronological trickery only enhances the film’s themes. For all the acting and gameplaying going on in the film, this is a story about identity and the inner strength needed to remain true to oneself.

3. Animal Kingdom
Dir. David Michôd (Australia, 2010)
113 minutes

After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, J (James Frecheville) is sent to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver), the matriarch of a family of criminals in suburban Melbourne. Caught between his family and the detective pursuing them (Guy Pearce), he must rely on his own wits to stay alive.

The plot, a “relative innocent caught up in criminal underworld struggling to break free” set-up, is well-worn in crime films. Where it differs is in the depiction of murder in the midst of banal Australian suburbia. The operatic tone of a Goodfellas is absent here – these are frightened, desperate men, crashing around cramped under-lit houses. And even Pearce, the nominal “hero”, fights a battle between morals and expediency. The wonderfully foreboding atmosphere makes Animal Kingdom feel like both an excellent crime thriller and examination of a dysfunctional family, looking at the lies we tell our relatives and ourselves.

2. Take Shelter
Dir. Jeff Nichols (USA, 2011)
120 minutes

I’d heard the praise for Jeff Nichols’ latest film long before it arrived in my neck of the woods. But I was still unprepared for how it affected me. This is an unbearably tense film, with scenes scarier than most horror films. And the most terrifying thing about it is that all the threat comes from inside the protagonist.

Michael Shannon plays a taciturn Midwestern blue-collar worker plagued by bad dreams and premonitions of doom. While the film doesn’t strain for topicality, it’s easy to read into Shannon’s nightmares modern-day America’s fear of terrorism, plagues and natural disasters, to say nothing of fear as a pathology in itself.
We never shake the sense that Shannon and his family are under terrible threat, both from his own mind and the insanity and barbarism of the US health care system. The more his condition worsens, the greater the chance of losing his job (and the health insurance that comes with it) becomes. Like a toppling row of dominoes, every mistake and bad decision leads inexorably to a worsening of their situation. Shannon’s massive, slablike face (probably the closest our puny “reality” will come to channeling a Jack Kirby drawing) is brilliantly expressive, registering the tiniest shifts from love to dread to stoic determination. While we see Shannon’s gradual breakdown staged against a mundane semi-rural background, the claustrophobic cinematography and eerie sound design draw us deep inside a world where one’s own senses can’t be trusted.
Take Shelter remorselessly presses on the nerve marked “fear of your family turning against you”, and even worse, it teases the possibility of Shannon turning against his family. It’s a film about fear, isolation, and the unique torment that is facing mental illness without support. But Nichols recognises that relentless pessimism is as much of a cop-out as unearned optimism. Any happiness gained during this film is hard won, but comes with the honesty of looking your problems in the face, and relying on the people who care most about you.

1. The Tree Of Life
Dir. Terrence Malick (USA, 2011)
139 minutes

During the time I’ve spent on this list, I’ve been trying to sum up what my greatest cinematic experiences of last year meant for me. I feel that the very essence of film lies in its power to transport you, for that giant screen to be a gateway of sorts to another world. More than anything, Terrence Malick’s latest film reminded me of the essential wonder of cinema. You are held rapt, and given a glimpse of something wonderful.

A young boy in small-town 50s Texas. A grown man, ill at ease among towers of steel and glass. The beginning of the universe, the making of the world, and the struggle of life in all its forms. Malick weaves these threads into a tapestry that contains all the questions on life, nature and spirituality that he’s been asking over his entire career.And it’s remarkable how subtly these themes are integrated into the DNA of the film. The constantly roving cinematography, taking the POV of a silent observer flitting in and out of rooms and wandering along bucloic country roads, is the viewpoint of an endlessly curious child. When the scenes switch to a detached, almost Kubrickian exploration of the early universe and primodial life on Earth, we carry that sense of childlike wonder with us. Every instance of creation — the birth of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s children, the musical signatures tapped out on the piano, the massive arrays of machinery that Pitt works with — echoes that primal moment when something was born from nothing.

While the film is a distillation of Malick’s favourite themes – man vs nature, sin and grace, how a child sees the world – it also feels like an expansion of his vision, an attempt to do something even more impressionistic and abstract. It might not have worked for some, but I was riveted. I assume there will be more to discover on further rewatchings, but one showing was enough to make a deep impression on me. It’s what film should be about.

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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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My Favourite Films of 2010 (Part 2)

And here, at long last, is the ridiculously late Part 2 of my favourite films of 2010. Arriving just in time for the Oscars, no less! (Having seen only 4 of the Best Picture nominees – two of those in 2011 – I’m not going to be judging my choices against the Academy’s decisision, but thought it was a nice coincidence.) Anyway, on with the show.

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Dir. Edgar Wright (USA/UK/Canada, 2010)

112 minutes

Edgar Wright was one of my favourite people in pop culture during the 2000s, first creating the wonderful and witty Spaced, then expanding his TV success onto the big screen with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Now he’s staked a claim to the same level of achievement during the 2010s, adapting Bryan Lee O’Malley comic-book series about a lovelorn slacker battling his way through seven evil exes to win the girl of his dreams.

It’s a ridiculously fast-paced movie, cramming in visual gags and little asides every chance it gets. This is what I enjoy about Wright’s movies: he loves the audience, and he has enough respect for them that he trusts them to catch all the details. His films are made for watching again and again, and the amount of care he puts into them is obvious.

I’m an unapologetic Michael Cera fan, and he offers up some interesting variations on his usual “sensitive nerd” persona, bringing the more unpleasant aspects of Pilgrim’s personality to the fore without having the audience lose sympathy for him. Able support from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman, Jason Schwartzman, and a hilarious turn from Keiran Culkin as Scott’s roommate help to round out the cast.

While Scott Pilgrim may not have set the box office alight, its obvious enthusiasm and dedication to entertainment shines through in every whip-fast bit of comic banter and deliriously flashy action set-piece. It’s a film for a generation raised on indie music and video games, who still need to learn how to love.

Standout scene: The battle of the bands competition – and the first fight.

Standout line:

Ramona Flowers: You have a band?

Scott Pilgrim: Yeah, we’re terrible. Please come.

4. Greenberg

Dir. Noah Baumbach (USA, 2010)

107 minutes

Let’s talk about likeability. To what extent must the audience like and admire a character to be able to identify with him? Well, obviously the anti-hero tradition has been established in fiction for a long time, but those guys usually have plenty of charisma to keep us on-side. What’s braver: playing a cocky, swaggering rogue, or a complete douchebag?

Having given us an uncomfortably close view of family breakdown in The Squid and The Whale, Baumbach concerns himself in Greenberg with a curmudgeon’s efforts to throw away the comfort blanket of glib, self-absorbed cynicism and just grow up. Ben Stiller gives a surprisingly restrained and adept performance as Roger Greenberg, a grouchy NYC resident who flies out to LA to house-sit for his wealthier brother and forms an awkward sort-of relationship with Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), the family’s live-in help.

There are some hilariously uncomfortable moments as Greenberg’s self-absorption and unpleasantness test our empathy with him to the extreme, even as Gerwig’s performance as a sensitive but directionless twentysomething engages our sympathies. This is a story of two people who are damaged in their own ways, trying to make something better out of a world they can’t quite figure out.

While the antisocial-male-meets-gorgeous-and-understanding-female film is a genre that’s way too overexposed, Greenberg gives it an emotional dimension that belies the scornful nature of its protagonist.

Standout scene: Greenberg’s birthday party.

Standout lines:

Ivan: Youth is wasted on the young.

Greenberg: I’d go further. I’d go: ‘Life is wasted on people.’

Florence: [to Greenberg] You like me so much better than you think you do.

3. Inception

Dir. Christopher Nolan (USA/UK, 2010)

148 minutes

In a summer season that was generally a pale imitation of last year, Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi/heist/psychological thriller stood head and shoulders above the competition. As a team of operatives in a dystopian future break into their target’s subconscious, they remain unaware that the crippling psychological baggage carried by one of them threatens the entire mission.

The great thing about Nolan’s intricate puzzle of a script is that while it literalises an internal conflict by presenting it as a daring mission to plant an idea in the target’s mind, the traditional hero’s-journey arc that is so often shoved to the forefront in much mediocre Hollywood product is here subtly buried within the narrative. The characters’ background informs their actions, but how much of said backstory we can trust remains a mystery.

Nolan’s action chops have also been steadily improving from film to film, and here he confidentially stages a series of thrilling set pieces that get the adrenaline flowing as the rest of the film exercises the mind.

Standout scene: You know what it’s going to be: the famous rotating corridor fight scene. Once you know how it was done, it becomes even more astounding.

Standout line:

Cobb: An idea can grow to define us, or destroy us.

2. Winter’s Bone

Dir. Debra Granik (USA, 2010)

100 minutes

The standout film of this year’s Cambridge Film Festival, Debra Granik’s mix of crime drama, modern-day Western and examination of rural desperation packs a devastating emotional punch, pitting an innocent yet steely teenage girl against the malevolent forces preying on her community.

Newcomer Jennifer Lawrence delivers an outstanding performance as Ree Dolly, full-time carer for her younger siblings and disabled mother. When the local sheriff announces that her criminal father has skipped his court appearance after putting their house up for his bond, Ree sets off to find him before the house is forfeited.

Granik expertly conjures an air of menace from the bitterly cold, devastated landscape of the Ozarks, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and burnt-out meth labs. There is excellent support from John Hawkes as Ree’s tortured and terrifying uncle Teardrop, Garrett Dillahunt as the sheriff, and Dale Dickey as the matriarch of the local meth ring.

Winter’s Bone is a feminist text, simply by dint of filming a traditionally masculine adventure story with a female protagonist, but builds the audience’s admiration for her without stacking the deck. Ree is brave, resourceful and determined simply because she has had to be to live in this situation and provide for her family.

There’s a startling clarity throughout the film; of form, performance, visuals and story, informed by the sheer toughness of life in that location. It’s a singular and gripping film that tells a great story of nobility in the face of deprivation.

Standout scene: The confrontation between Teardop (Hawkes) and Sheriff Baskin (Dillahunt).

Standout line:

Ree: Never ask for what oughta be offered.

1. A Prophet

Dir. Jacques Audiard (France/Italy, 2009)

155 minutes

Jacques Audiard’s crime drama made a few people’s best of 2009 lists, but only came to my local art cinema early last year. No matter; I’m giving it its dues right now. Following the progress of Arab teenager Malik (Tahar Rahim) from clueless newcomer to a brutal French prison into a ruthless criminal boss, Audiard thrusts us into a nightmarish world where violence and power rule. Yet beyond the Scorcese-ish flourishes of explicit violence, Audiard finds room to examine the immigrant immigrant experience in French society. In prison, Malik is caught between his fellow Arabs and the ruling gang of Corsican separatists, led by the terrifying Cesar (Niels Arestrup) – neither group is accepted within the outside world, and Malik feels at home with neither. Yet, armed with nothing but a certain low cunning, he manages to claw out a position for himself within this world, and to flourish within it.

Audiard tells this epic story without casting judgement on the protagonist, but without endorsing his crimes either. Malik may be a wide-eyed innocent at the beginning, but he leaves a trail of bodies along his rise to power. Rahim’s face alternates between blank canvas and devastatingly effective portrayal of a young man scarred by every killing he commits.

At the same time, Audiard alternates the true-crime grit with a strangely abstract and lyrical visual sensibility, including the on-screen appearance of ghosts of the dead and a visual motif of deer running through the woods. It elevates the film to something more than just an exceptional gritty crime drama, but it’s the shocking violence, the well-choreographed action sequences, the witty script and the fine performances from all the central players that make this a truly great film.

Standout scene: Malik’s mission to assassinate a fellow inmate using a concealed razor.

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