I’ve been watching reactions to other people’s “Best of 2011” with interest. It’s fascinating to see online commentors insist that films they have seen are so much better than films that they haven’t. Even though I do, in fact, watch everything I’m not going to pretend that this list is definitive — except to say that it gets a lot closer than most…
I also don’t believe in the arbitrariness of “Top Tens”. I have my own entirely arbitrary scale: Keepers, Renters and Respecters.
Keepers are the films that I loved so much I want to own them — films that make me feel better just having them in the house. The first film I adored this year was slushy Disney horse racing story Secretariat. It should have been everything I hate — manipulative, worthy, a faith-based subtext — and yet I cried like a baby — expert button-pushing from director Randall Wallace. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was my favourite blockbuster. Superb direction by Rupert Wyatt overcame the flaws (ahem, James Franco, ahem) and it carefully walked the tightrope of both respect for its predecessors and kicking off something new.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is my favourite film of the year by a long stretch. A second viewing allowed me to stop thinking about it and just feel it, meaning that I got closer than ever before to the soul of a film artist. Profound in the way that only the greatest works of art are. Tusi Tamasese announced himself with one of the most mature and considered debuts I’ve ever seen — The Orator placed us deeply inside a culture in a way that was both respectful and challenging of it. That film’s journey hasn’t finished yet.
Like students swotting for exams New Zealand film distributors seem to have run out of year for all the films they have to release so there are some really big names being squeezed into the next two weeks. If you can’t find something to watch on — the inevitably wet — Boxing Day next Monday, then I suspect you don’t really like movies at all. And if that sounds like you, why are you still reading?
The biggest of the big names this Christmas has got to be The Advenures of Tintin. Despite Steven Spielberg’s name on the tin, it’s almost a local production when you consider the technology and skills that went into its manufacture, so we all have a small stake in its success. Luckily, Europe has embraced it so a second film has already been confirmed — and will be made here.
But enough of the cheerleading — what did I think of it? It’s good, really good. The performance capture and character design works better than ever before, Spielberg has embraced the freedom from the laws of physics that animation allows and throws the camera around with gay abandon — but always with panache and not to the point of motion sickness. Many of the visual gags are terrific and Andy Serkis as Haddock proves that there is no one better at acting under a layer of black dots and ping pong balls.
Expat Kiwi auteur Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) somehow always manages to tap in to the zeitgeist and with new sci-fi thriller In Time his own timing is almost spookily perfect. A parable about the modern political economy, In Time isn’t a particularly sophisticated analysis but while protestors occupy Wall Street, St Paul’s in London and the City to Sea Bridge here in Wellington, it seems almost perfectly calculated to provoke a big Fuck You! to the bankers, speculators and hoarders who are rapidly becoming the Hollywood villains we love to hate.
In Niccol’s world, several decades into the future, time is literally money: human beings have been genetically modified to stop (physically) ageing at 25. Which would be lovely apart from the fact that a clock on your writst then starts counting down the one year you have left to live and the time on your wrist becomes currency. You can earn more by working, transfer it to others by shaking hands, borrow more from banks and loan sharks or you can spend it on booze to blot out the horror of your pathetic little life.
Firstly I want to apologise that there is no review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in this week’s column. I saw it during the Festival and like most audiences was perturbed, baffled, challenged and ultimately awed but I needed a second screening to make sense of it. Arguably less sense rather than more sense was what I would be aiming for.
The film opened commercially this weekend at a couple of locations but neither of them offered the sort of grandeur (i.e. screen size) and quality (i.e. DCP 2k digital transfer of the kind I am starting to love) so I thought I would hold off until it reaches a few more screens. I know — I sound like a pompous ass but that’s as genuine a response to The Tree of Life as I can muster. A more considered response next week.
But that omission gives me more room for the rest of this week’s releases. Florian Habicht’s Love Story charmed (most) of the Film Festival, including your correspondent. Habicht’s indefatigable curiosity and demonstrable love of people powers this strange romantic comedy made while he was living in Manhattan on an Arts Foundation residency.
For years I’ve been complaining about films that give audiences everything on a plate — they tell what you should be thinking and feeling, leaving no room for us. This week I have nothing to complain about as three out of our four make you work for your rewards (although three tough emotioanl and intellectual workouts in one weekend turns out to be pretty draining).
Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine is a terrific indie achievement, brave and uncompromising, emotionally raw but intelligent at the same time. A relationship is born and a relationship dies. Bookends of the same narrative are cleverly intercut to amplify the tragedy (and tragedy is a fair word to use — there’s a beautiful child getting hurt in the middle of all of this).
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet and fall in love. He’s a dropout starting again in New York. She’s a med student with an unhappy home life and a douchebag boyfriend. Five or six years later she’s a nurse trying not to think about unfulfilled potential and he’s a house painter who drinks too much.
Compelled once again by Christmas deadlines to sum up the year in cinema, I have been thinking a lot about how some movies stay with you and some don’t, how some movies have got average reviews from me this year but have grown in my affections, and how there are some films you want to see again and some you’re not so bothered about — even when you admire them.
So I’m going to divide my year up in to the following categories: Keepers are films I want to own and live with. Films I can expect to watch once a year — or force upon guests when I discover they haven’t already been seen. Repeats are films I wouldn’t mind seeing again — renting or borrowing or stumbling across on tv. Enjoyed are films I enjoyed (obviously) and respected but am in no hurry to watch again.
The “keepers” won’t come as any great surprise: The Coen’s No Country for Old Men and PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were both stone-cold American masterpieces. NCFOM just about shades it as film of the year but only because I haven’t yet watched TWBB a second time. Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children was the best New Zealand film for a very long time, an emotional epic. Apollo doco In the Shadow of the Moon moved and inspired me and I want to give it a chance to continue to do so by keeping it in my house. Finally, two supremely satisfying music films: I could listen to Todd Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. again and again, and watching it was was much funnier than I expected. Not minding the music of U2, I didn’t have a big hump to get over watching their 3D concert movie, but what a blast it was! Immersive and involving, it was the first truly great digital 3D experience. For the time being you can’t recreate the 3D experience at home so I hold out for a giant cinema screen of my own to watch it on.
Next layer down are the films I wouldn’t mind watching again, either because I suspect there are hidden pleasures to be revealed or because a second viewing will confirm or deny suspected greatness. Gritty Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has stayed with me since I saw it in March. Be Kind Rewind was rich enough (and good-hearted enough) to deserve another look. Martin McDonagh’s bizarre hitman fantasy In Bruges rocked along at such a decent clip I need to see it again to make sure I didn’t miss any of it’s eccentric pleasures. I liked and respected the Coen’s other 2008 entry Burn After Reading more than every other critic so a second viewing would be useful, if only to confirm that I appreciated it better than everyone else did… Or not.
If I could just clip the Robert Downey Jr. bits from Tropic Thunder it would be a keeper, instead I look forward to seeing it again over Christmas. The same goes for the entire first act of WALL•E which I could watch over and over again. Sadly the film lost some of that magic when it got in to space (though it remains a stunning achievement all the same).
Into the “Enjoy” category: Of the documentaries released to cinemas this year, three stood out. The affectionate portrait of Auckland theatre-maker Warwick Broadhead, Rubbings From a Live Man, was moving and its strangeness was perfectly appropriate. Up the Yangtze showed us a China we couldn’t see via the Olympics juggernaut and Young at Heart is still playing and shouldn’t be missed.
Mainstream Hollywood wasn’t a complete waste of space this year (although the ghastly cynical rom-coms 27 Dresses and Made of Honour would have you believe otherwise). Ghost Town was the best romantic comedy of the year; The Dark Knight and Iron Man were entertaining enough; I got carried away by Mamma Mia and the showstopping performance by Meryl Streep; Taken was energetic Euro-pulp; Horton Hears a Who! and Madagascar 2 held up the kid-friendly end of the deal (plus a shout-out for the under-appreciated Space Chimps) and, of course, Babylon A.D. (just kidding, but I did enjoy it’s campy insanity).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 December, 2008.
Note that I deliberately avoid choosing Festival-only films as directing people towards films they can’t easily see is just cruel.