So, after trawling through the many thousands of words written about cinema in these pages this year, I suppose you want me to come to some conclusions? Do some “summing up”? Help guide you through the great video store of life? Well, alright then. Here goes.
We don’t do Top Ten lists here at the Capital Times — they are reductive, facile and, frankly, you have to leave too many titles out. I have taken to dividing my year’s viewing up into categories: keepers are films I want to have in my home and watch whenever the mood takes me; renters are the films that I could happily watch again; then there are the films that I enjoyed but am in no hurry to repeat, the films I might have misjudged first time around, the films I can’t get out of my head (for better or worse), the films I am supposed to love but you know, meh, and most important of all — the films you should avoid as if your very life depends upon it.
First, the keepers: a surprise for some will be Fantastic Mr. Fox which was released after my 2009 Year in Review was submitted and the only film in the list that I already own. Animal Kingdom was the film I most recommended this year — a stunning, tense piece of work that gripped me totally.
After watching so many films that are so similar in content and construction that they are hard to tell apart, it is a real pleasure to come across something that contains no familiar faces, has a director whose name is unknown (to me at least) and takes an approach to storytelling that consistently surprises and delights – even if the story itself is about as dark as it gets.
Lee Daniels’ Precious, I’m pleased to gaboureport, is far more than just novelty, rising confidently (cinematically) above its kitchen-sink foundations to soar high above almost every drama I saw last year. Set in Harlem in the mid 1980s, it presents us with the unpromising figure of Clareece Precious Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe). She is 16 years old and overweight, abused at home and ignored at school, dreaming of something better but not hopeful of a way out. Her father has just made her pregnant for the second time and when the school finds out she is given the option of welfare (which sustains her grotesquely awful mother) or a special school for those with potential gifts – she has some talent for maths.
What I did on my holidays by Dan Slevin (aged 38 and a half).
After a few days off between Christmas and New Year I launched back in to the swing of cinema things with a “Disfunctional Royal Family” double-feature of The Queen (Stephen Frears) and Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola) at the Penthouse. Helen Mirren is wonderful in an endlessly fascinating tale of an institution realising that it that may have outstayed it’s welcome, while Kirsten Dunst radiates beauty (despite those wonky teeth) as the last queen of France. The problem with Marie Antoinette is that the protagonist doesn’t do any actual protagonising which means that we get a lot of beautiful tableaux but very little drama.
Ed Harris turns in a bravura performance as Ludwig Van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven (Agnieszka Holland) along with an almost impossibly beautiful Diane Kruger who plays the young composition student helping him complete his final masterpieces. The music is sensational. Late in 2006, the gifted Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky (Nine Queens) passed away leaving us The Aura as his valediction. Starring the redoubtable Ricardo Darin as an epileptic taxidermist, The Aura is moody and evocative but wasn’t quite enough to keep this reviewer awake on a wet Wednesday afternoon. If life wasn’t so short I’d give it another crack as I’m sure there was something going on underneath but it was soooo sloooow.
The five year old I took to Happy Feet (George Miller) was still singing songs from the film that night so very much mission accomplished on that front. It’s a hugely entertaining collection of set-pieces which kind of fall apart when the necessities of plot intervene and it turns uncomfortably dark, very quickly. Miller has had an interesting career: starting out as a medical doctor he then made the Mad Max films, kick-started the CGI talking animals trend with Babe and now tap-dancing penguins. Talking of talking animals, Charlotte’s Web (Gary Winick) managed to squeeze an unwilling tear out of me despite the feeling of manipulation throughout.
On a more grown-up level (though not by much) The Valet (Francis Veber) didn’t pull up any trees and in fact ended so suddenly I thought there was a reel missing. The most appealing character in the flick, Alice Taglioni as the super-model, gets no closure to her story. She’s left alone in her apartment crying. What’s that about? The Prestige (Christopher Nolan) was always going to appeal to me due it’s subject matter and the presence of perfect distraction Scarlett Johansson and it delivered. The film is about stage magic and uses stage magic principles to tell it’s very twisty story – though some might say it has one twist too many.
Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu) is one of the best films of this or any year, a serious, meditative snapshot of our world thorough a stranger’s eyes. Four stories are told in parallel, three immediately linked and the connections with the fourth gently revealed by the end. It has a kind of science-fiction feel about it as we see four very different world cultures presented as if they could be other planets, alien territory yet eerily familiar. If I had stumbled across Four Last Songs (Francesca Joseph) on television where it belongs I would have changed channels after about five minutes, so I did the cinema equivalent instead and went looking for some sunshine.
Lastly, I had the mixed pleasure of a “Sadistic Violence” double-feature at Readings: Saw III (Darren Lynn Bousman) and Apocalypto (Mel Gibson). Crikey. What possesses a screenwriter or director to sit in front of a virgin white piece of paper and then use it to dream up ways of dismembering people? Funnily enough, Saw III is the more respectable piece of work as it doesn’t try and pretend to be anything more than it is, while Apocalypto is the usual Hollywood rubbish dressed up in National Geographic clothing. Gibson is a dangerous extremist (not just in purely cinematic terms) and the foul politics of Apocalypto are not made up for by the boisterous filmmaking.
Not seen before deadline: Heart of The Game (Ward Serrill); Open Season (Roger Allers, Jill Culton, Anthony Stacchi).
UPDATE: Evidently there is no Capital Times this week so it looks like this opus will remain online only. You lucky, lucky people… Six more films are released this week and the world continues to turn relentlessly onwards.
UPDATE: Printed in the Capital Times, Wellington, Wednesday January 24, 2007.
Films like Kenny are usually called “mockumentaries” for two reasons: they appear to be documentaries but they’re not really and (in films like Spinal Tap and TV’s “The Office”) they usually “mock” their subjects. This is different.
In a delightful first feature by the Jacobson Brothers, porta-loo plumber Kenny Smyth is a paragon of a man: he loves his family; takes pride in his job; and finds the bright side of situations that would force most of us to jump head first in to a bath of deoderant. The film follows our hero (played to perfection by Shane Jacobson) through a few weeks of an event-filled Melbourne spring, culminating in the big one: over 125,000 people at the Melbourne Cup. While he performs his (literally) thankless tasks, Kenny stoically puts up with an unreliable ex-wife, a co-worker with diarrhoea (of the verbal kind) and a father who is one of the great screen monsters of all time (played with an admirable absence of vanity by the real Jacobson pere, Ronald).
Kenny is a philosopher-plumber, a bard of the bathroom, and has that mastery of the vernacular that Australians seem to excel at: “Mate, there’s a smell in here that will outlast religion!” is my favourite but there’s plenty more.
Kenny is my number one film of the year and the funniest Australian picture since The Castle. Highly recommended to anyone who has ever taken a dump (or had a Henry-Pissinger).
2006 is the Year Of The Veteran and following Clint Eastwood’s outstanding Flags of Our Fathers we now have an Australian salute to the men who served in the Pacific in WWII. Kokoda is the story of the Australians in Papua New Guinea in 1942, when they really were the last line of defence between the Japanese and the mainland and it is a tremendous example of efficient and atmospheric story-telling.
The film benefits from a lack of familiar faces as unnecessary star power doesn’t get between us and the characters, though lead Jack Finsterer has a bit of the young Mel Gibson about him. I’m not convinced that every Australian soldier in the Pacific had NIDA cheekbones and gym-bunny pecs but that’s a minor quibble for a film that convincingly hits so many other marks. Even more remarkably, the film was made over a two year period by a group of 2004-vintage graduates of the Australian Film, TV and Radio School but it would be a great achievement by anyone, even a grizzled old veteran like Eastwood.
Finally, Ridley Scott re-unites with Strathmore’s finest, Russell Crowe, for A Good Year, a bosom-obsessed throwaway about a self-involved financial trader who inherits a broken-down chateau and vineyard owned by his Uncle (Albert Finney). All involved seem to have spent the entire project with one eye on knocking-off time and why not if you’re surrounded by red wine in Provence in Summer? Australian one-hit-wonder AbbyAbbie Cornish plays a beautiful Californian wine-expert who may be Uncle Henry’s illegitimate … sorry, I’ve lost you, haven’t I? A Good Year is about three months too long but it’s a Russell Crowe film and, by definition, they have to be epic these days no matter how slender the idea.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 15 November, 2006.