December 24, 2009

Them Bones: The Voice list

The Village Voice film poll for 2009 is out and it's not good news for Peter Jackson: The Lovely Bones is the third-worst film of the year, according to the 94 critics questioned, with four of them -- Karina Longworth, Wesley Morris, Adam Nayman and Andrew Schenker -- calling it their very worst. No one put it in their top ten.
Film of the year? Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. Of the decade? Mulholland Drive, which was the second choice of this website.

December 22, 2009

The best of 2009

1. Che – Part One: The Argentine and Part Two: Guerrilla (Steven Soderbergh)
The Hollywood biopic has become a set of tired conventions: the cautious adherence to the three-act structure and the story arc of promise, struggle and redemption, the oversized and sometimes too thoroughly researched impersonation in the lead (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, and so on and on), the psychoanalytic approach to character and behaviour, the insistence on helping us understand the great man or woman at the centre. If Gus Van Sant’s Milk was a disappointment for following all these conventions so closely, especially after four extraordinary experimental features from Van Sant that played games with mainstream cinema's received ideas about time, story and character, then Soderbergh’s Che Guevara diptych was something like the stringent, wilfully uncommercial antidote. Best seen as one four and a half hour movie with an intermission rather than a two-part miniseries, Che isn’t the most "entertaining" film on this list – it could even be the least – and it risks boredom by telling stories in two hours (the slow success of the military campaign during the Cuban Revolution; Guevara’s dismal failure to do a similar thing in Bolivia a decade later) that most biopics would chew through in 20 minutes. As Guevara, Benicio Del Toro (pictured) is working with mega-charisma but at a minimalist level – it doesn’t feel like American movie acting and is a long, long way from a show-off impersonation. But you could also argue that Walter Salles did the conventional biopic work in The Motorcycle Diaries -- the story of how one young man from Argentina was politicised -- which gave Soderbergh and Del Toro the freedom to go this way.
2. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
For the swimming pool massacre scene. For all of it, really, but especially for the swimming pool massacre scene.
3. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton)
Stark and unsentimental observations of Aboriginal life and everyday racism in and around Alice Springs. And by no means as offputtingly earnest as that sounds.
4. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
See here.
5. Synecdoche New York (Charlie Kaufman)
See here.
6. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Jarmusch: "Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means." More here.
7. Avatar (James Cameron)
Both Hollywood-archetypal and deeply, personally weird, James Cameron’s Gaia-loving space opera manages to be an allegory for everything, maybe all of human history, but especially: the loss of Native American lands and cultures, war in Iraq, war in Vietnam, “the environment” and our relationship to it, rainforest clearances, Cameron’s own purported journey from gun-loving machinery-nerd to feminine-side ecologist. I think of it as Malick’s Pocahontas story The New World with Apocalypse Now battle scenes (indeed, as a years-in-the-making war film with deeper meanings, this probably is Cameron's Apocalypse Now) and it is also surely a need-to-see-it-in-cinemas overhaul of viewer expectations and technology just as The Matrix was in 1999 and Jurassic Park was in 1993. So, after all that, why do I feel like I don’t love it as I should? Maybe because the storytelling is perfunctory, even juvenile – which you could never say about Cameron’s two Terminators (it's this perfunctory: people named Miles and Grace define the militaristic and peaceful poles of its human experience). Maybe because it can feel like watching someone else play a computer game. Maybe because two hours and 40 minutes is a long time to be looking at that artificial scenery and those artificial people. But, yes, the phosphorescent jungle at night was very, very trippy in 3D.
8. Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s digital video art-movie about the Prohibition gangster era is as personal and wayward a directorial project as Avatar. More here.
9 and 10. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore) and Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)
Both include eulogies for vanished working-class (and Catholic) communities and histories in industrial cities – for Moore, the city is Flint, Michigan; for Davies, Liverpool. Moore's 1950s childhood was an era of super-abundance when one auto worker's income could easily provide for an entire family (the title of his film may not be ironic, just nostalgic). Now, Flint and Detroit are ghost towns of abandoned factories and houses -- in a characteristically effective example of Moore tearjerking, we see the factory his father worked in as a pile of bricks. Davies grew up amongst the sooty terrace houses we know from a million northern stories -- a place and a past now completely lost to 80s and 90s era urban renewal and with it, Davies' sense of community and belonging.

December 15, 2009

Sad song

From the comments section of – don’t ask how I ended up there – Moby’s blog in July 09, comes this small, sad story. The context is that Moby has just told his readers that he’s playing a festival in Novi Sad, Serbia, with Patti Smith and Kraftwerk. In the comments, someone called "Mystery World" writes:
Did you get to hang out with Patti Smith?
Some of her music is really special to me. A friend of mine made a film called In My Father's Den and it featured songs off Patti Smith's album Horses. It was his first feature film and it got into film festivals around the world then he died of cancer.
"Free Money" played at his funeral, right at the end, when they were carrying out the coffin and all of the people were slowly leaving the cathedral.
So if you see Patti Smith, tell her that Brad McGann had "Free Money" playing at his funeral. He really loved that album Horses. I did too. When I first met Brad back in 1985 I had him over to my house and I put on Horses and we played it over and over and over.
I'd love to know if Patti Smith watched his film and what she thought of it.
It's an amazing film. If you haven't ever seen it Moby, I thoroughly recommend that you watch it.

No idea who "Mystery World" is, or if she -- why do I guess "she"? Maybe I'm thinking of Jodie Rimmer's character in the movie and the way she listens to Horses -- is a New Zealander. Although that's likely. Anyway, it doesn't look like Moby answered.
My review of the superb In My Father's Den -- a film that starts with a funeral and contains that innovative use of Patti Smith -- is here.

December 11, 2009

Two hours in Buddhist hell: the hijacking of The Vintner's Luck

There are two words that don't appear in the one hour, 50 minute-long podcast of a recent Vintner's Luck discussion -- Unity and Duality: When Angel and Demon Are One (a title that is actually meaningless in relation to the book) -- at the Rialto cinema, Auckland. Those two words are Elizabeth Knox. Who's she? Just the author. Imagine a nearly two hour discussion of Atonement that didn't mention Ian McEwan or two hours on Where the Wild Things Are that forgot about Maurice Sendak and you have some idea of how this story has been hijacked. The Knox story of a man and an angel in 19th century France is really, we now learn, a Buddhist parable in which the angel is merely "spirit". There are three speakers: director Niki Caro, co-writer Joan Scheckel (who dominates the session) and special guest, Buddhist monk ZaChoeje Rinpoche. The event was timed around the Dalai Lama's appearance in Auckland.

I have nothing against Buddhists or Buddhism but there was little in this nearly two hours of well-meaning waffle about happiness, truth and duality that struck me as remotely profound, especially in relation to this problematic film. But I was struck by the arrogance and self-absorption of Joan Scheckel. "These are early days for spiritual content in films," she says. "Not many film-makers attempt it." Really? Go tell it to Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Carlos Reygadas, Michelangelo Antonioni, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr (and Gus Van Sant), Terence Malick and any number of other film-makers who you might loosely identify with a style that Paul Schrader famously defined back in the early 70s as "transcendental".

Somewhat patronisingly, the American Scheckel tells her New Zealand audience that only in Maori culture could she freely bring up the subject of spirit. She goes on: "Everything we're talking about tonight is very new terrain in cinema." Again, no names from the above list are cited, not even in relation to an audience question about how to put "everydayness" on screen. In fact, Scheckel names just one other film-maker and film within the entire talk: "Scorsese made an incredible film of Kundun but then retreated to violence." Right, now we get it -- it's only "spiritual" if it's overtly Buddhist.

My review of The Vintner's Luck is here.

December 7, 2009

Decades: the best films, music

“This future – the year is 2027 – is a plausible extension of right now. The same red double-decker buses wind through the same wet London streets, although they are now joined – in a brilliant touch – by rickshaws. The same sullen crowds, the same Tube stops, the same terrorist bombs in the city. The same burning cows in fields, the same black, sooty air … Contemporary Britain’s phobia about asylum seekers has been magnified: now they’re in cages on the side of the road, pleading in all the world’s languages, threatened by Abu Ghraib-like border guards and barking dogs. Entire towns are heavily policed refugee camps."

The above is from my review of Children of Men back in November, 2006. This is the film that felt the most like this decade.

With two films in the top 20, Alfonso Cuaron had a good decade. As did David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant -- especially when you think about how things looked for him in 1999, between his Psycho remake and Finding Forrester -- and Michael Winterbottom. Were the list a little longer, Richard Linklater could have easily added a few more (I was never a fan of Before Sunset, preferring to imagine my own sequel to Before Sunrise, but Tape, A Scanner Darkly, The School of Rock ...). A real shame that Lynne Ramsay hasn't made anything since Morvern Callar. Kind of a shame that David Lynch made the fitfully brilliant but largely muddily self-indulgent Inland Empire. Perhaps a shame that Scorsese is here for a doco not a drama.

The top 50, 2000-2009:
1 Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
2 Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
4 Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
5 The New World (Terence Malick, 2005)
6 Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)
7 Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
8 Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
9 Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
10 Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
11 Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
12 Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
13 Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
14 There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
15 In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)
16 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
17 Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
18 Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
19 Let the Right One in (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
20 Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004)
21 In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
22 Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)
23 Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
24 The Child (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2005)
25 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
26 The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
27 The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003)
28 Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad, 2005)
29 The Others (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001)
30 Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)
31 Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
32 Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)
33 Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
34 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
35 A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005)
36 The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
37 Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)
38 Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
39 The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2003)
40 For My Sister (Catherine Breillat, 2001)
41 City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
42 American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
43 Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
44 Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
45 The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki, 2002)
46 Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)
47 Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
48 Little Fish (Rowan Woods, 2005)
49 Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)
50 Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

The ten best New Zealand films
1 In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann, 2004)
2 Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies, 2006)
3 Rain (Christine Jeffs, 2001)
4 Rubbings from a Live Man (Florian Habicht, 2008)
5 Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002)
6 Eagle vs Shark (Taika Waititi, 2007)
7 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
8 Rain of the Children (Vincent Ward, 2008)
9 Woodenhead (Florian Habicht, 2003)
10 The Devil Dared Me To (Chris Stapp, 2007)

The ten best films about music
1 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
2 No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
3 Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005)
4 DiG! (Ondi Timoner, 2004)
5 End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia, 2003)
6 Joy Division (Grant Gee, 2007) – with Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
7 Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)
8 The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
9 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004)
10 High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2004)

Musick to Play in the Dark Vol 2, Live One and Constant Shallowness Leads to Evil – Coil; Kid A and Amnesiac – Radiohead; Person Pitch – Panda Bear; Burial and Untrue – Burial; Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and White Chalk – PJ Harvey; Earth and Om; I Believe You Are a Star – Dimmer; The Visitors – Cyclobe; the Fall; the Dead C; Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven and Yanqui UXO – Godspeed You Black Emperor!; The Woods – Sleater-Kinney; NYC Ghosts & Flowers – Sonic Youth; Kesto – Pan Sonic; The Disintegration Loops and The River – William Basinki; Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice; Stars of the Lid; Exterminator – Primal Scream; Passover – the Black Angels; In the Future – Black Mountain; Grinderman; Third – Portishead; The Hawk is Howling – Mogwai; Sleep Has His House – Current 93; the White Stripes; Six Organs of Admittance; The Eraser – Thom Yorke; American IV: The Man Comes Around – Johnny Cash.