Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The best of the best with honours 2009

I was recently asked to participate in the inaugural Sydney Film Critics Best Of 2009 (cick to read SFC's top 20) poll organised by Matt Ravier of Last Night With Riviera. The following is my humble submission as to the movies that made my 2009 an unforgettable year in cinema...

How exactly do you measure the quality of a year in cinema? Top 10 lists sure are one way; for film journalists they are bread and butter as well as the staple we love to hate. There might be some truth, however, to the idea that a better measurement of the quality of a year in cinema is the films that didn’t make the cut, the ones painfully disregarded in the formation of one’s own subjective best of the best of the best. With honours.

Much maligned though it was Watchmen just barely failed to make my final list – years later it will be considered one of the great American literary adaptations. Or how about Rachel Getting Married? As genuine a portrait of a loving, dysfunctional family I’ve seen in several years. These movies made me laugh uncontrollably, cry inconsolably, boil with rage or otherwise reached into my soul, with their truth, importance or spectacle in ways that reminded me exactly why I love cinema as I do: Three Blind Mice, Avatar, The Girlfriend Experience, District 9, Public Enemies, (500) Days Of Summer, UP, Drag Me To Hell, Inglorious Basterds, Balibo, A Serious Man, The Cove.

Any one could have made my top 10, which is as reliable as a dead narrator.


10. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, USA)
9. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
8. Moon (Duncan Jones, UK)
7. Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia)
6. Che (Steven Soderbergh, USA/France/Spain)
5. Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)
4. Encounters At The End Of The World (Werner Herzog, USA)
3. Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, USA)
Probably the most satisfying slow-burner of the year. Solemn and melancholic for sure, but deeply emotional and personal also. Only one film made me cry harder and longer in 2009...
2. Milk (Gus van Sant, USA)
Van Sant didn't set out to reinvent the biopic here, only to tell the story of one man and his fight for quality. Inspirational might be a cliche term for such a film, but I dream of a world where 'leaders' in Copenhagen, Washington and Canberra had even a drop of Harvey Milk's dedication to social justice.
1. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, Italy)
An astonishing film that literally pulverised me into desperate submission with a relentless exposé of the violent, corrupt and bleak world that consumes a small Italian community in Naples, framing its inhabitant's very existence from which there is no escape. Never has the mob underworld be so unromantised, so grimy or so deadly.


10. Beaches Of Agnes (Agnes Varda, France)
9. 35 Shots Of Rum (Claire Denis, France/Germany)
8. Up In The Air (Jason Reitman, USA)
7. In The Loop (Armando Lannucci, UK)
6. Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, USA)
5. Humpday (Lynn Shelton, USA)
4. The Road (John Hillcoat, USA)
3. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, USA)
2. Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson, USA)
1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigalow, USA)

NB: Anders Østergaard brilliant documentary Burma VJ was supposed to be on my final unreleased in Australia list but I somehow left it off (infuriatingly).


Film review: Where The Wild Things Are

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Max Records, James Gandolfini
Country: USA

I don't want you to go, I'll eat you up, I love you so – KW

If Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic story Where The Wild Things Are is the year’s most anticipated film, it might also the year's most flawed work of art. On the surface it is a simple story about childhood angst and flight into fantasy, but beneath that rough irreverent topsoil lies something so deeply personal and individual no one person’s experience can easily be compared to another.

Feral child Max (newcomer Max Records) is a force of nature who literally consumes the screen; chaotic energy in wolve’s clothing, wrestling a canine companion. Jonze whisks the audience back to its childhood as Max builds an igloo, preparing snowballs for an assault on his big sister’s friends, a plan that that does not quite go accordingly. Igloo in ruins, the young lad is left to nurse a damaged ego, with only his imagination to provide comfort.

Herein lie the most prominent themes of Where The Wild Things Are: loneliness and fantasy. Max’s reality is one defined in by an absent father, a distracted mother and a sister who doesn’t seem to care. That we see so little of the later two and none of the former is crucial when Max takes flight into the unknown night, before discovering a sailboat and crossing an ocean to an island inhabited by giant furry beasties. Through a mixture of brash courage and childish naivety the monsters declare Max their king, thanks to the attention of Carol, a much-desired patriarch (voiced by James Gandolfini) who simultaneously embodies the film’s overlying sense of melancholy.

Taking a book which contains only nine sentences and turning it into an $80 million feature film is no mean feat and writer Dave Eggers retains the original’s erudite approach to dialogue. As a result the slow-paced second act struggles to find meaningful narrative for its protagonists while the film’s Wild Things never really seem that threatening, beautiful though they are realised. Despite the technical expertise at work, Jonze somehow fails to find penetrate the greater depths of his ambitions.

Yet as WTWTA speeds to its conclusion, whatever angst we've suppressed in our sub-conscious, whether our relationship with our parents or our own adulthood, is suddenly and unceremoniously exposed. It is not so much a nostalgic yearning for childhood that is evoked as a need, the burning desire to belong. Family matters; and while we might wish to escape from those closest to us, Jonze reminds us that saying goodbye can be the hardest thing of all.


Film review: Antichrist

Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Country: Denmark

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and, by all accounts, it is the mind of master provocateur Lars von Trier. When the filmmaker’s latest work debuted at the Cannes it was immediately guaranteed a place in the annals of the film festival’s history; booed and hissed throughout, Antichrist provoked numerous walkouts and sent a few more sensitive patrons into bouts of fainting spells thanks to scenes described by more than a few commentators as ‘needlessly graphic’.

That after all these years von Trier is still able to shock so effectively is impressive, that he is able to do so at a time when torture porn has reached the mainstream is surprising. For all the controversy and criticism dividing audiences down the middle, Antichrist remains a bizarrely beautiful film to watch. Hideous too, but there can be no denying that with the structural rigours of Dogme filmmaking set aside, von Trier remains a director of considerable artistry.

The film opens to a monochrome prologue in which Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (neither’s characters are given names, known only as He and She) make love (though thanks to the jarring insertion of a penetration shot there’s a implied sense of pure carnal fucking) in the shower as water droplets cascade in slo-mo over their bodies. Their lust (or is it self-absorption?) is inter-cut with the misadventures of the couple’s child who, escaping from his cot, climbs onto the window ledge as snow falls outside. As She and Him climax in erotic bliss and the child falls to the accompaniment of a Handel aria, it is difficult not to be intoxicated by the devilishly interplay of beauty and tragedy. It is also the first level of disturbing material von Trier toys with as the film ups the ante in each of the proceeding chapters entitled: Grief, Pain and Despair.

After a month in hospital, Dafoe’s professional therapist decides he knows best and takes his wife home to continue her recovery, after all, “no therapist can know as much about you as I do.” Fair comment maybe, but there’s little room for doubt where his arrogance is concerned as therapy becomes a synonym for control, allowing for an argument of sly feminism in von Trier’s babbling essay. To a remote cabin the woods they head to allow Her to confront her fears. It is here curiosity about the occult, nature as Satan’s church, talking foxes and infamous genital mutilation all occur.

Amid the controversy much fun has been made of von Trier’s final cinematic insult, dedicating his film to one of the greats, Andrei Tarkovsky, a credit not necessarily as glib or blasphemous as presumed. Antichrist might be an elaborate joke, but it is anything but a shallow one.


Film review: Moon

Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Sam Rockwell
Country: UK

The silent loneliness of space seems long forgotten in science fiction of the last two decades, more obsessed as the genre has been with the noisy theatrics of space opera since Stars Wars in 1977. A few films both before and after have defied that populist approach to big screen, high concept action, instead pursuing the conceit – in one way or another – where in space no-one can hear you scream when crazy shit goes down. Even before Ridley Scott informed us on this piece of trivia, film such as Solyaris (1972), Silent Running (1972) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had already warned that the infinite, black vacuum was not the safest of playgrounds for the fragile human psyche. And now here in 2009 we find ourselves propelled back to that golden age of hard space sci-fi with Moon, a film that wears its cinephilia on its sleeve, masking the brilliant manipulations is deploys.

Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a man incarcerated by his job on the far side of the Moon, the sole supervisor of a mining facility. At some point in the not wholly distant future, mankind (or rather a company known as Lunar Industries) has solved the energy crisis thanks to a Hellium-3, a substance extracted from lunar rock that provides Earth with a pollution-free form of nuclear fusion. The mining is all largely automated and so Sam’s role is to be the human fixer at the facility and he is fact approaching the end of his three year tenure where his only companion is Hal-9000 reminiscent Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), a computer with emoticons to express sardonic empathy for his human counterpart when called upon. Not all is well for Sam though, he seems to be getting ill, hallucinations haunt his waking hours and a broken satellite prevents him from communicating live with his wife and young daughter.

As this remarkable debut feature from Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, begins to unfold with deeply satisfying and taut storytelling it becomes quite apparent that whilst derivative of its predecessors Moon has achieved a kind of cinematic self-awareness; and as a result stands tall as its own film, with its own ideas. Central to this is the highly talented, and wholly underappreciated Rockwell who is able to convey so much emotion with very little effort, wrinkled eyes masking an underlying well of sadness. For such an understated film, produced on a budget of merely US$5 million, Rockwell is the perfect star. Jones has made something akin to an agronomical masterpiece in filmmaking, with production, story and performance all in near perfect harmony, with a message that will resonate with thoughtful viewers for long after the credits have rolled.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Film review: Sin Nombre

Director: Cary Fukunaga
Country: USA/Mexico

Every day we see news reports of malnourished, scared immigrants aboard ramshackle floatation devices, desperately chasing dreams of a new life. That we call them ‘boat people’ might assuage our own conscience but doesn’t change the reality that such people cling to what might sometimes be more suitably defined as driftwood. In the political arena they are a thorn in the side of governmental policy-makers and in the media they are merely fodder to be chewed in the daily cycle of 24-hour news. In Sin Nombre, Spanish for ‘without a name’, we are reminded that they are parents and children, each with their own story, compelling and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Director Cary Fukunaga’s remarkable debut feature tells the story of two not so nameless teenagers who risk their lives in the pursuit of the American Dream, one that doesn’t necessarily entail white picket fences and an SUV. Their dream is simply to escape the violence or poverty that surround and imprison them. Sayra is a young Honduran woman who, along with her father and uncle, embarks on the long trek across Central America by foot, boat and train to the North. Willy (Edgar Flores) is a teenager attempting to escape real-life gang Mara Salvatrucha after its leader murders his girlfriend from a rival neighbourhood. It is on top a northbound train, packed by similarly anonymous immigrants, that their paths cross and friendship is kindled.

Fukunaga expertly weaves politics, love, drama and violence into his own script and is rewarded with some breathless performances from his young cast. Evoking memories of City Of God’s baby gangsters and the grit of Amores Perros’ first chapter, Sin Nombre proves as visually assured and as rich in composition as it is in story. With the devil in the details, Fukunaga leaves little room for doubt of his familiarity with the subject matter so filled is the journey with nuances of the trails and perils lying along the road. As Sin Nombre grounds to its inevitable end never for a moment does it become anything less than engrossing, giving names to the nameless, leaving a mark on your soul long after the credits have rolled.