Wes Anderson may be the currently working director least suited to using 3D. His scenes are often flat tableaux with his characters spread out laterally across the screen. If he was telling the story of Moonrise Kingdom 1,000 years ago it would be a tapestry, like Bayeux, and I think he’d probably be OK with that.
That visual style suited the puppetry of the delightful Fantastic Mr Fox but this new film populates the flat, theatrical, planes with living, breathing human actors – not just actors, movie stars (including Bruce Willis and Ed Norton).
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.
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.
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.
Back in 1968 the world was amazed to see a simian-looking creature displaying rudimentary (and yet clearly) human qualities. But enough about my birth, I’m here to talk about Planet of the Apes, the nightmarish vision of a world turned upside down: apes that speak, humans that are mute and enslaved, orangutans doing “science”. And of course, the big shock back then was that “it was Earth all along” – we’d caused this catastrophe ourselves with our environmental pig-headedness and our nuclear arrogance. The success of that blisteringly effective original prompted several sequels to diminished effect – although the sight (in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) of Charlton Heston pushing the final atomic button to destroy the planet in disgust at the whole sorry mess was seared on to my childhood brain forever.
In 2001 the series got the re-boot treatment courtesy of Tim Burton, a miscast Mark Wahlberg (when is he ever not?) and the final triumphant display of latex ape mask technology. Now the apes are back and there’s no sign of rubber anywhere to be found – except in some of the human performances perhaps. Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves as a prequel to the Burton film rather than a total from scratch effort – although there’s no equivalent in the original series – and the film does a terrific job of setting up a story that many of us already know as well as fondly honouring many details from the original series.
Of all the remakes, sequels, franchises and comic book adaptations we are being offered this winter Captain America: The First Avenger is the one least likely to send a shiver of excitement down a Kiwi filmgoer’s spine. And yet, from relatively modest beginnings a half decent adventure film grows – it isn’t going to change the way you think and feel about anything but Captain America at least won’t make you want to run screaming for the exits in embarrassment and shame.
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans from Fantastic Four) is a weedy, sickly kid from Brooklyn – digitally de-hanced if that’s the opposite of enhanced – who desperately wants to fight the Nazis for Uncle Sam. After several humiliating rejections kindly scientist Stanley Tucci enlists him in an experimental super-soldier programme, fills him full of what looks like blue Powerade and turns him into a muscle-bound, fast-healing, über-grunt.