Anyone wondering whether the great Pedro Almodóvar had lost some of his edge at the ripe old age of 62 should immediately check out his new film The Skin I Live In which is as deranged as anything else he has produced in more than thirty years of feature film making. Puss In Boots himself, Antonio Banderas, plays a successful plastic surgeon with a dark secret. Many of his greatest medical achievements are a result of the experiments he conducts on a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) held captive in his mansion.
Who is she? Why is she there? These questions are answered in the film but have to be skirted around here for even the tiniest hint at spoilers will wreck some of the twistiest (in all senses of the word except perhaps confectionary) surprises you will experience all year. It’s enough to say that if this film had been made in the 1950s then Banderas’ character would have been played by Vincent Price (think House of Wax) and that everyone involved would have been run out of town by the authorities.
Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip is the best picture about middle-aged male angst since Sideways, and it’s possibly even better than that fine film. Two privileged English celebrities spend a week driving around the North of England from one fine restaurant to another, eating and drinking themselves silly on someone else’s dime. And yet, something darker is up.
Self-absorbed “Steve Coogan” (Steve Coogan) is separated from his girlfriend, distanced from his children, desperate for recognition as a serious actor but all too often welcomed by strangers with a warm-hearted but annoying repetition of his great TV catchphrase (Alan Partridge’s “Ah-ha”). On the surface, “Rob Brydon” (Rob Brydon) is a happily married man with a young child, a moderately successful TV and stand-up career but, as Coogan points out in a pathos-ridden trip the ruined Bolton Abbey, there’s something about Brydon’s neverending celebrity impressions and forced bonhomie that suggests he hasn’t quite got to grips with the real world.
Before Jerry Dammers and The Special AKA wrote that song about him in 1983, I didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. When I bought the record and read the story on the back I was horrified – 23 years as a political prisoner, much of it in solitary confinement. I knew the South African regime was unspeakable, but now I had a focus for my anger. Who would have thought that only a dozen years later, Mandela would be in the middle of a second chapter of his life – President of South Africa and international statesman – and that his stewardship of the transition from apartheid to majority rule would be a shining beacon of tolerance, forgiveness and humanity. It really could have gone terribly wrong.
Mandela, then, is the great hero of my life, my political and personal inspiration, so I can be forgiven for being quite moved by Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of those crucial first years in government, culminating in the Springbok’s victory over New Zealand in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final. Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman (too tall, accent some distance off perfect, but still somehow managing to nail the essence of the guy) and the other name on the poster is Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. It’s another characteristically generous performance from Damon who is turning into a character actor with movie star looks.
And so, after 191 films viewed and reviewed here I get to sum up the 2007 cinema year. As I said back in September it’s been a great year for good films but a poor year for truly great ones. Even my (obviously unimpeachable) Top Ten list contains only a few that I think will be regarded as classics in 20 years but these are all films that I’d happily see again or even own on DVD if the chance arises.
Best of the year turns out to be the most recent: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is the real deal. As beautiful to look at and listen to as the finest art film, but remaining down to earth, it features a star-making performance from Emile Hirsch leading an ensemble of fine screen actors and it ultimately delivers a message that is completely different to the one you expect: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
The next two selections are also notable for being the lowest-grossing films of the year: the mesmerising Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait followed one man around a football pitch for an entire match and the wondrous and glowing aboriginal film Ten Canoes reminded us that great story-telling can be found anywhere, from the camp fire to the multiplex. The finest performances of the year from grown-ups were found in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie were a couple reeling from the impact of Alzheimer’s: the pressure of the disease slowly unravelling a relationship that on the surface seemed so pure. Best performance of the year from anyone was little Kolya Spiridonov as “orphan” Vanya in The Italian, determined to find his Mother wherever she may be rather than go to the west with new parents.
Best documentary turned out to be the unpromising Deep Water: a film about a yacht race that ended up being about the deepest, darkest secrets kept by a fragile human soul – it was even better second time around. Atonement was a sweeping and romantic drama showcasing the many skills of the latest generation of British movie craftspeople, not least director Joe Wright who, annoyingly, is only 36 years old. Best local film in an uneven year (and justifiably in this Top Ten) is Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark: funny and sweet and sad and the product of a singular vision rather than the committee that seems to produce so many New Zealand films.
My favourite commercial film of the year was the sweet-natured and very funny Knocked Up about a slacker and a career-girl getting to grips with responsibility, relationships and parenthood: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata once again. Finally, I’ve spent all year trying to justify leaving Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver out of this Top Ten with no luck whatsoever: the complete lack of flaws of any kind mean it gets in despite the fact that I didn’t love it like I did some others.
It’s a tough time for local paper film reviewers around the world. Cinema critics from publications like the Village Voice have been given the flick by penny-pinching publishers and even the Sunday Star-Times in Auckland has started running film reviews from sister papers in Australia rather than pay someone locally to represent you. So, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to watch all these films on your behalf and want to thank the Capital Times for indulging my desire to cover everything rather than a select few releases. Thanks, also, to all the Wellington cinemas who have graciously hosted me despite my fairly constant bitching about standards. But, above all, thank you for reading. See you next year.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday January 2, 2008.
Here’s the review I submitted to the Capital Times for this week. Who knows which one they’ll print as they have a couple up the spout and this was delivered very late. Time for bed — I’ll add some links during the day tomorrow if you care to return.