I begin each year with the heady intention of watching a film a day. A goal I’ve so far fallen short of (187 for ’09 as of today), but if I ever do reach it God alone knows how much extra hair pulling and gnashing of teeth it’ll take to get down to this final list of ten? And so before I get to the ones that made the cut, lets spare a thought for Alexander the Last, We Live in Public, Precious and Anvil! The Story of Anvil which only just missed out on the final glory. And so to the list proper:
1. Humpday – Lynn Shelton
On paper the conceit of Humpday sounds like you’re in for at best a clumsy tongue in cheek comedy, but that is far from the case. If you haven’t heard about the ‘event’ in the film I urge you to not read any potential spoiler reviews and instead jump straight into the film. What you have at its base is two friends whose paths have diverged into hipster, free spirit and settled down soon to be family guy. An off hand, drunken suggestion places them both in a situation neither feels able to back down from; hipster guy feels the need to prove his artistic merit and therefore his life, family guy needs to prove he’s not constrained by his life/wife. I think Humpday made my list mainly because I could substitute any number of friends, and myself, into the conversations. Perhaps not going to the extremes here, but with that need to validate yourself and prove you’re still the mind’s eye version of you. Also it’s a Mumblecore flick (at its most accessible?), so double yea.
2. Fish Tank – Andrea Arnold
Has anyone actually seen Lynne Ramsay in recent years? Because I have a theory that the ever-talented Andrea Arnold has body snatched her or at the very least promised to keep her seat warm while she finishes up We Need to Talk About Kevin. Arnold is such a confident director whose work strips back the lives of the ‘ordinary’ to reveal the interesting and complex. Here she marries the never bad Michael Fassbender with new comer Katie Jarvis to reveal a troubled girl’s desire for more than life is currently willing to offer her.
3. The Road – John Hillcoat
Run, hide, forage, run… I can’t think of an occasion where a film has had me so gripped by its story but at the same time sickeningly worried about my family beyond the cinema and their welfare. To say the world Hillcoat brings to screen from the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name is bleak, would be a ridiculous understatement, but Viggo Mortensen & newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee’s onscreen father/son relationship made me hope where there was none and question my own abilities as a father.
4. Thirst – Park Chan-wook
I love the vampire. No really, I spent an embarrassingly large chunk of my life playing Vampire: The Masquerade *cough* both book and ‘live action’ versions and cast a critical eye over many a blood sucker flick. Which is to say I’m never expecting a director to grab the genre for their own but rather pay a respectful homage to what’s gone before. Last year Let the Right One In did just that, but hot on Tomas Alfredson’s heals comes Park Chan-wook and his conflicted priest vampire with brutal blood glugging love interest in tow. Easily a stand out of the genre.
5. Down Terrace – Ben Wheatley
When I hear the phrase ‘British gangster film’ my eyes glaze over as I prepare myself for a pointlessly tedious parade of mockneys with shooters. However, Ben Wheatley has shown me the error of my ways and reminded me that there are still pleasant surprises left to be discovered in the genre. Down Terrace does what all great films do, it sets up a world that the viewer may have no experience in but is simply a backdrop to the personalities which inhabit it. The genius of the film is how the petty squabbles and minor disagreements, of which we’re all guilty within our lives, can take on a far more fatal bent in the world of crime.
As a side note I got to do a face to face interview with Ben last month and really believe he’s a director who understands story and should be kept an eye on in the future.
6. The Limits of Control – Jim Jarmusch
Oh the suits, the characters, the repetition, the Christopher Doyle cinematography, the soundtrack…I fell in love with The Limits of Control from the opening frames. Jarmusch’s measured and unnamed hitman’s (played impeccably by Isaach De Bankolé) journey through this cryptic world of matchboxes and coffee, was a welcome early morning London Film Festival screening that set me happily on my way for the day to come. Also it had my favourite piece of dialogue of the year:
“How did you get in here?”
“I used my imagination.”
7. Antichrist – Lars von Trier
Regardless of what you think about Lars von Trier the man or his body of work, there’s no denying that his is, amongst a select few directors (Herzog, Noé, Haneke), a filmmaker who is as equally interested in the ‘form’ of film and cinema as he is in delivering a story. It’s a shame that Antichrist became bogged down in a mire of ‘graphic violence & sex’ and I can’t help feeling that if I hadn’t been forewarned by critics, alarmists and unfortunately the promotional poster itself, and had had the opportunity to go into it completely blind, I’d have enjoyed the film even more, if only for Anthony Dod Mantle’s sumptuous Phantom V4 shot, black & white slow motion opening. As always I’ll be waiting with baited breath to see where von Trier pushes cinema next.
8. American: The Bill Hicks Story – Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas
You have to be brave to take on the story of a man such as Bill Hicks. Hicks who has transcended his comedic genius and political awareness to become the embodiment of the inquisitive mind with a built in bullshit meter cranked full to 11. That is what Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas did, but instead of the expected parade of influenced famous faces, the pair wisely constrained the focus to those that actually knew Hicks the man, as opposed to Hicks the idea. The film also uses a new form of animation (which hopefully won’t become known as ‘Documation’) most closely seen in (but surpassing) The Kid Stays in the Picture which firmly places the audience in the moments being recounted, at times creating a strange paradox where we’re laughing at Hicks’ stand up along with the ‘live’ audience present at the time.
9. The Exploding Girl – Bradley Rust Gray
‘That was the summer, which was significant but didn’t change my life as such,’ may not be as snappy as the usual rendition of that phrase, but goes a way to describing the experiences of Bradley Rust Gray’s lead Ivy played by Zoe Kazan. I love the measured pace of The Exploding Girl and Gray’s decision to shoot much of the film with a long lens, passersby moving through the frame, sometimes obscuring the actors and a soundtrack that’s as much Brooklyn city sounds as it is dialogue. All this combines to give the film a natural feel and carry you along with Ivy’s minor, but major to her, mishaps and disappointments.
10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – Werner Herzog
You never know what to expect from Herzog, which is why I skip into his films excited and open to what he’s cooked up for me this time. With his re-imagining of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant he’s done the unimaginable and raised the dead. Yep Nicolas Cage was dead to me. I loved his Wild at Heart, Red Rock West era but then he not only slipped into mediocrity but actually hurled himself off a cliff with The Wickerman remake (it still haunts my dreams). However, in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans he’s been given just enough rope to be crazy Cage without derailing the film into babbling nonsense, all of which I lay the credit for firmly at Herzog’s door. Hopefully this reprieve has got Cage’s acting soul dancing again.