Watchingcattle gives his take on this year’s Oscar contenders, along with a couple of words on his movie highlights from the last year… and a bit Well it’s Oscar time. Who will win? What will they wear? Does anyone really care?

It’s another of life’s great mysteries to me that the Oscars get the attention they do. It’s an industry award voted for by an industry who love nothing more than self congratulating themselves and usually have the worst taste in movies imaginable. I mean seriously – Crash! For fuck’s sake. If the world was fair we’d all sit down with baited breath and watch the “all round good people” award, given out to people who actually made a difference in the world. You’d get acceptance speeches like

“Yes it was hard to pull those fifteen people out of that burning building and yes I will miss my arm now that it’s been burnt off by the flames, and no this award won’t bring it back but thanks for the gesture. It means… well… not… a… lot but it means a bit to me… eh… and my Ma is really proud and it’ll look good on her mantelpiece so… eh… yeah thanks”

Isn’t that better than thanking Harvey Weinstien and God ?

This year there’s really not much to try to predict, no suspense, no tension at all. 12 Years A Slave will win everything it’s nominated for. Which isn’t bad because it is a fine film. Nebraska and The Hunt both deserved a bit more than they’ll more than likely get. Arguably Bruce Dern and Jonah Hill should have been in with a shout too. Although I haven’t seen it as yet but I hear that Matthew McConnaghey and Jared Leto are excellent in Dallas Buyers Club they probably won’t win, so McConneghey will have to settle for knowing he made my list twice and would have won my “Cameo of the century” award for his performance in The Wolf Of Wall Street which by the way is most certainly the year’s best comedy.

The actress honours are Cate Blanchette’s. No one has come close to matching her performance in Blue Jasmine, not this year, not any year really. She is just perfect. That said any other year Judi Dench would be clearing space on her mantel as Philomena is exactly the type of film and hers is exactly the type of performance that wins gold statues. The dark horse in all of this is Gravity; a film that didn’t make my list based on the fact that it’s dazzling to look at but horrible to listen to. If ever there was an argument for silent movies to make a come back it was this. Awful dialogue and a terrible back story made me cringe at times but there’s no doubting the fact that it was the years most spectacular visual.. ehhh… spectacle. Unfortunate, then, that what was basically Cast Away in space had George Clooney playing the part of the volleyball.

Bullock may win and that’s down to the fact that actors know just how hard it is to make films in a green box pretending that they’re surrounded by dinosaurs or a space ship when in fact there’s a grip with a mars bar hanging out of his mouth holding onto a rope which is attached to a harness which is strangling the actors genitalia. Imagine having to look astonished satisfied and amazed while a leather strap pushes your balls up your arse – that’s modern film making for you. The sympathy vote if you will.

Steve Coogan might win an Oscar. Isn’t that fucking mental ? Such a pity he won’t show up as Alan Partridge and tell everyone what he really thinks of them. Probably the reason they never nominated Jim Carrey, because he actually might have. Of course Coogan won’t win because he’s up against 12 Years A Slave and therefore hasn’t got a hope, but still it’s just great to be nominated, right Steve? You can practically hear him telling me to fuck off, can’t you?

U2 might win one too… you can practically hear the whole world telling them to fuck off though.

If you are going to bet on any of this then your accumulator banker should be the Best Original Screenplay category. Bet the favourite in everything else and then have a punt on anything in that one to make sure you get at least a few bob. It’s anyone’s really. I’d imagine Dallas Buyers Club will win it, but I wouldn’t rule out American Hustle, given the fact that it coined the phrase “Science Oven” or Blue Jasmine given the fact that Hollywood loves men who are accused of paedophilia.

The best film of the year – probably the best film of the decade so far – is The Act Of Killing, and it will win the best documentary award. If it doesn’t it’s clear that no one bothered their holes to actually watch the fucking thing. It really should win the overall prize but in a year when Blue Is The Warmest Colour didn’t get a mention because of some rule or other (maybe next year ladies) I suppose it’s not hugely surprising. Any way fuck it like I said who cares. Two words : Forest Gump. ‘Nuff said.

All in all it was a decent year for cinema. Not great but not bad. It was easy to compile this list because there were a lot of stand out films, on the other hand there were no really great thrillers, and the summer was utterly empty. Not one film really hit the mark and even though Pacific Rim had big fucking robots it still just didn’t wow me the way Gravity did. That said it didn’t piss me off the way Gravity did either so we’ll call it a draw.

Also please note that I haven’t seen Blue Is The Warmest Colour or The Great Beauty or Dallas Buyers Club or Her or Fruitvale Station yet, mainly because unlike other film critics out there in the world I have to pay for my cinema tickets. Although to be fair, my local cinema in Greenwich does give you a free Jameson and ginger ale with every cinema ticket if you’re a member, which might explain some of my choices here. Anyway I have it on good authority that the aforementioned films are all brilliant and that you should see them right away.

Here, though, are the best films I saw over the last year (and a bit).

Nebraska
There s nothing quite like an Alexander Payne movie. A friend of mine once described Amélie as one of the most rare things in cinema. A film which is funny in spite of the fact that it is never offensive. I had really never thought about it before but on re-watching that film I did see what he meant. It’s a rare thing these days and sure, the gross out comedy where the hero is a dyslexic sex addict and his best friend is an quadriplegic autistic is going to have a few good gags, and if you believe in it yes you are probably going to hell for watching the trailer, but what Amélie and all of Alexander Payne’s films have in common is that unlike those extreme examples where the humour is crude and the laughs superficial, the gags in Payne’s films have real depth. And they aren’t at someones expense.

That’s maybe the key thing to understand and in a sense this is Payne’s real genuine gift. He doesn’t just know his characters, he loves them. He makes every second of their existence on screen an elegy to humanity. whether it’s the pro or antagonist you never feel that the gag is “on” them. You are with his characters because you can feel his warmth in them. His films are funny but there is never schadenfreude, in watching his films you can see your own embarrassment and your own mistakes but you are still not the butt of the joke. He’s not interested in the Ricky Gervais school of savage comedy.

This is a gentle film which is often very funny and even more so very touching, brilliantly observed and perfectly performed. Every character here is well rounded and even in their most awful or idiotic moments there is a dignity which is inherent in their actions. This is everything that Wes Anderson tries to do, but ultimately gets too clever and fucking smug to really pull off (if only he manage to curb his need to put all the oomph in his third act… if only).

Similar in tone and content to David Lynch’s masterpiece (yes I do believe it may well be his greatest achievement) The Straight Story, Payne’s film is a simply wonderful film, bubbling over with affecting performances hugely entertaining moments and ultimately a real clarity of purpose. This is a bittersweet feel good American movie which bears all the hall marks of what a gift American cinema is to the world.

The performance by Bruce Dern is simply perfect; utterly believable, understated and … fuck it just perfect. The support from Bob Odenkirk as a successful son and June Squibb as his larger than life wife is excellent and, of course, as is my habit, I reserve my greatest plaudits for Will Forte who as I’ve said many times before is performing the hardest role in films of this sort: The straight man. He is the quiet centre which holds the family and indeed the film together. Too loud and it fails, too quiet and he becomes boring, and no one cares, and the film fails. To sweet and the film fails on the basis that it becomes saccharine and unbelievable. He gets his role spot on, drawing the audience to him with a warm and personable performance which sits with apt quietness between Dern and Squibbs more emphatic turns.

Possibly Paynes best movie (which is saying a lot) and one which had stayed with me in the days since I’ve seen it in the same way that his other two equally affecting films – About Schmidt and The Descendants (I’m on the fence about Sideways, to be honest). Well worth a look.

The Wolf Of Wall Street
Scorsese only makes two types of films: masterpieces, and flawed masterpieces. Well, maybe three kinds – Shutter Island which is part masterpiece, part complete fucking mess. Turn it off after Kingsley says “you’re dripping wet”.

There is no second in the three hours that this lasts where I was anything less than being in awe at the sheer ambition of the film making here. 

Is it perfect? No, far from it. It’s too long, its pacing is a little too schizophrenic, some scenes don’t really land with the weight that they should, and over all it’s very loud and crass and for some it’s far too morally ambiguous at best and down right amoral at worst. It’s ungainly, it’s completely over the top, it’s uneven, but for me (being Scorsese’s biggest fan n’ all) all of that almost adds to it’s charm. 

Some – typically, American – critics see the film as a celebration of debauchery which doesn’t pass judgement, it doesn’t call the behaviour out, pointing a finger and saying “look how terrible you are, shame on you” and that’s right, it doesn’t. But the American judicial system didn’t even manage that feat so the irony seems utterly lost on them. Playing out as a riotous comedy – Animal House for white collar pricks – rather than a dull thriller or an even duller polemic. This is a film which revels in the ill doings of a debaucherous lunatic. Why doesn’t the film feature some of his victims? Some schmucks that lost everything on a gamble? Why? Because fuck them, that’s why. This is the film that Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross wants you to see. Why are there scant repercussions in this film for the outrageous behaviour? Why? Because fuck you, there are scant repercussions for that behaviour in real life. If you’ve got money, then fuck you. If you don’t, then fuck you anyway because you don’t fucking matter.

Sadly this is probably the most honest and most accurate film about the evils of money, and if it angers you well then good, it’s supposed to, that’s the fucking point. It amazes me that so many film critics wanted a film which speaks for the common man duped by these cretins, when the fucking thing is based on a book by the head fucking cretin. 

Scorsese and everyone on down from there is having a ball. Marty whips his camera around like he’s a toddler. There are airplane orgies, cocaine in hookers asses – all the good shit. It’s somehow sleazier and more greasy than American Psycho… you’d want to hang around with Pat Bateman to get some down time from these fucks. Oh yes sir, this is that film. The one you knew was out there waiting to be made but you assumed that Paul Verhoeven would be the one to do it. Showgirls in $2,000 dollar suits

Di Caprio is brilliant in the main role, oozing charisma and unhinged arrogance from every pore as if it were puss. Margot Robbie takes the role of vapid trophy wife to a knew… eh… high? (Maybe that should be low… depends where you stand). You sit watching two people you’d love to punch and yet you can’t stop looking at them with near admiration for three fucking hours. The real acting accolades though go to –

Matthew Mcconnaghey who, as has been pointed out, is on the greatest roll any actor has been on since Brad Pitt went from 12 Monkeys to Se7en to Fight Club and managed to be taken seriously. McConnaghey must have watched something like Failure To Launch and actually went “Wait…. Fuck“. Here he gets one scene and it’s an instant classic. 

And to Jonah Hill who is simply perfect as an even bigger more debauched fuck up than the main character. He steals virtually every scene he’s in and that’s saying something.

Finally all of the supporting cast in particular the degenerate associates of Di Caprio are simply perfect. They don’t get much to do, but what they do they do so well that amid the insanity Hill and Di Caprio get up to, you do actually remember them. Again this is saying something

There’s plenty here that doesn’t work but the parts that do are wonderful. The funniest film I’ve seen all year and in any other year Hill would be polishing an Oscar soon. Pity Michael Fassbender exists isn’t it Jonah ? Better luck next time.

Ultimately you can file this under “Lesser Scorsese” put it in a triple bill with Cape Fear and Casino and revel in just how energetic and utterly ludicrous Marty gets sometimes. 

Definitely worth a look. See it in the cinema (where you’re supposed to see Marty’s films) because it looks amazing and at 3 hours long I get the feeling that if you see it on DVD or whatever you’ll probably want to take a break, which is a mistake, because the cumulative effect of the lunacy is really part of the over all experience. So stick with it.

American Hustle
So I was raving about Martin Scorsese’s latest The Wolf Of Wall Street, and now I get to rave about Marty’s even more latest, American Hustle… Wait – what do you mean he didn’t direct it?

Yeah I know David O Russell is the man behind this but it’s very easy to see that this film could not exist if Marty hadn’t made Goodfellas, Mean Streets, King Of Comedy and in particular After Hours. Here, O Russell is doing a cover version of his favourite Marty moments and he’s doing it right.

I’ve always said that originality is over rated. It’s true – movies, music, art, whatever, it doesn’t have to be original to be interesting it just has to be performed with a degree of skill and a degree of talent and above all a degree of belief in one’s ability to bring something new to the blueprint. This is a perfect example of my thesis.

American Hustle is basically a Scorsese picture, O Russel is seemingly trying to break Marty’s record for slow motion, still frames, voice overs, classic rock and more than anything else the length of dolly track laid by a film crew. He whips his camera around with impunity and must surely be aware that he is creating something of a cover version. However this is one which Marty would be proud of, and what’s more O Russell manages to stamp his own style on everything here. It’s high energy, it’s quirky, the characters are somewhere between deluded and unhinged and the whole thing is played for the fun of it’s own ridiculousness. This should be a failure. It should succumb to the weight of the Scorsese comparisons. But it doesn’t. It flies along at a crazy speed (I’m going to stop mentioning Marty but this is Goodfellas/The Departed pace) the dialogue is clever, and the acting is excellent.

Bale is great as the straightest man in the film, though to be honest everyone here is dysfunctional on a massive level. Bales character is the one trying to hold everything together and make sure they don’t all end up either in jail or coffins. He does a fine job although you can tell that subtlety is not his strong point. Jeremy Renner is great as a corrupt-ish politician and Jennifer Lawerence is her usual brilliant self as a simply bonkers wife. Best of all is Amy Adams who is amazing as a character who is as internally damaged and lost as any ever committed to film and yet it’s her reserved understated performance that hoists the film to the heights that it gets to.

Ultimately this is a little bloated, eventually the cracks do show and it’s fair to say that O Russell isn’t quite Scorsese just yet. The coda possibly is a little rushed and without Scorsese’s ability to slow the locomotive to really land the emotional punches it really won’t stay with you after you see it. All in all though it’s a highly entertaining film with some of the years best moments. Including a masterclass in upstaging each other set in a bathroom.

Oh yeah And fans of women’s breasts will not be disappointed, or actually, they might be … but in a good way. If you get me. Misogynist or nay, I couldn’t not mention it , I mean look at the fucking poster for christ sake. I’d be remiss as a film viewer not to mention it… I mean have you seen Shame ? Like, that’s got mickey right? C’mon I mentioned the mickey, right?

So Basically between the “lemons” in Wolf Of Wall Street and the “Science Oven” here you’ve basically got all the in jokes you need for the water cooler for 2014. Worth a look

The Act Of Killing
Every critic out there has fawned over this film, unabashedly stating that it is a masterpiece lauding it with high praise and generally insisting that everyone with eyes see it for themselves.

So is it that good ?

Yes. Yes it is, and then some. There is no way to describe how many levels this film works on. It’s unflinching, it’s humane, honest, gripping, galling, baffling, enlightening and challenging. At its core it’s utterly original, totally unforgettable and even on a purely theoretical cinematic level it manages to break a few inches of new ground. This isn’t just the best film of the year it’s the best film of the last 10 years. It’s the kind of film that Werner Herzog would eat his whole wardrobe to champion. He doesn’t have to because he’s the films executive producer. Maybe he did anyway, it is Werner we’re talking about. Nothing is perfect, but this is as close as I could ask for.

Lets start over.

Documentary features were once a sort of after thought. The cinema-going public’s relationship with the documentary was one of admiration if not love for it’s practitioners. An issue was always one of financial failure, the box office as such never fully engaging with the format. Sure it’s admirable that you want to tell the truth, but it’s lies that bring in the bucks. And so in spite of some great films being made (See – Heart’s And Minds, The Thin Blue Line, Little Dieter Needs To Fly and Gates Of Heaven, Hoop Dreams for example) it wasn’t really until 2002 when Michael Moore (of all people) managed to break through a sort of glass ceiling and really make documentaries a viable box office commodity with Bowling For Columbine.

Now, whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen, but since then it’s fair to say that the practice of documentary making has taken a turn toward experimentation which has been embraced by film goers and, lets face it, having documentary features playing in your local megaplex is no bad thing. Documentary makers have embraced the aspects of regular fictitious film making. Most notably documentarians started to use the conventions of feature film narratives to great effect. Recently, Man on Wire for example is to all intents and purposes a heist movie, The Impostor is film noir and Bowling for Columbine or The Queen of Versailles are essentially black comedies. Secondly, documentary makers like Herzog and Erroll Morris (who’s also an executive producer here) managed to use the camera and the act of making fiction, or re-enacting the truth so to speak, an aspect of the documentary. In a way The Act Of Killing is the masterpiece that may come to define this particular era.

Firstly lets get the cinematic theory part out of the way. Joshua Oppenheimer asks perpetrators of genocide to re-enact their crimes. In doing this the film explores cinemas ability to use fiction to shed new light on the fact. Through creating a fictitious version of history, the subjects are forced to re-evaluate their past actions. Films like 12 Years a Slave or Zero Dark Thirty play out entirely in this relationship between fact and fiction but this is the first time outside of Gillian Wearing’s brilliant video installation Bully that I’ve ever seen the participants in an event relate directly to the event through fiction. It’s not an easy one to explain, but the result is surprising and unsettling, raising the question of veracity versus verisimilitude. Suffice to say you could easily write an entire thesis on one scene here.

Did I mention that this is a brilliant film by the way ?

The reason that this works so well is because as an audience we are spared nothing by Oppenheimer or by Anwar Congo – the films main subject. Emotionally this is as draining for the viewer as it is for the subjects. This is a film about trauma, horror, debasement, the suspension of morality through indoctrination and the suppression of memory and guilt as a defensive mechanism. In the end this is a film about humanity’s darkest extremes and excesses, and it manages to present the full horror of trauma as part of the human condition for both the victim and the transgressor.

A difficult, surreal, baffling and disquieting film that won’t be for everyone. Something you can’t unsee. Highly recommended.

12 Years A Slave
Almost a shoo-in (Is that how that’s spelt ?) to win every Oscar going, 12 Years A Slave is one of the most ambitious, fascinating, beautiful and affecting movies I’ve seen since last years best film, Michael Haeneke’s near perfect heartbreaker Amour. The plot, what little there is is based on a true story and yadda yadda you know all of this so I won’t waste time. Suffice to say that the acting here is incredible, it’s an ugly and deeply unsettling film which is beautifully and thoughtfully shot, carefully orchestrated and extremely potent in it’s execution.

The reason why it works is firstly because of the sheer quality of the film making and secondly because the film makers have a lofty goal here. They don’t just want to present slavery as a historical matter of fact – it’s not enough that the physical brutality of the time is present in virtually every scene. What’s more terrifying is the psychology of slavery. The wilful ignorance a best, or the inhumane cruelty at worst, of the slave owners. The forced submission of the slaves is almost secondary here to the the almost spiritual toll of slavery. This is what is most effectively displayed here. By far it’s this aspect of the film which stayed with me the longest.

This is not the sanitised American apologetic re-telling of slavery in which the salt of the earth are brow beaten by the inherent system at large; this is not the Spielbergian story which Terry Gilliam criticises for being about success instead of failure. Every scene here is testament to social and moral failure. Scenes in which the slaves themselves disregard the most basic human kindness for their fellow slaves, suppressing their own decency and dignity for fear of the repercussions, are as troubling as the violence with which order is enforced. Even in the film’s finale it still manages to emphasise loss rather than redemption, and its emotional payoff in the audience is akin to exhaustion rather than the usual convenient conclusion in which the audience feels relief.

This is what film was invented for, it’s a challenge and, even if it isn’t perfect (it isn’t), the film makers still hold themselves up to a higher level of intent. This isn’t a simple biopic or a historical tale about the ins and outs of a period of time in a certain place. This is an invitation to think about what effects subjugation has on the spirit of a human being. It’s unsurprising that several people I’ve spoken to since the film have said things like “It’s hard to believe that that was only 150 years ago, thank god things have changed”. If 12 Years A Slave manages anything it maybe, at least for some, raises the debate about whether or not we as a species have really come all that far in the intervening years ?

Spring Breakers
The first time Harmony Korine made a statement about the nihilism of youth it was by writing Larry Clarks 1995 controversy courter Kids. This time he’s made his masterpiece. As an ode to nihilism, and the vapid vacuousness and joyful, malevolent abandon of youth he can surely never present anything as simultaneously brilliant, awful, utterly preposterous, original and deranged as this.

It’s weeks since I saw it and I still can’t make up my mind about it. What is for sure is that Korines style is polarising to say the least. Visually stunning and visceral throughout the film veers violently between thrillingly debauched, exhausting and irritating. The performances from the spring breakers themselves are strong although it’s fair to say that all most of the young ladies are asked to do is to behave in the most base manner possible, look good in a bikini and move between bored and malevolent at a moments notice. James Franco takes all the acting plaudits as an unhinged drug dealer but Selena Gomez is actually very close behind him as a convincing sheep in wolves clothing.

Midway through the film Korine decides to jettison any moral centre to the film and revels in it’s own aforementioned vacuousness. Whether the film is a vapid waste of time or a unique experience (for want of a better term) really hinges on how much you’re willing to go along with Korines madness. In the same way that a film about boredom is probably going to be boredom and if it isn’t it’s probably failed to correctly convey it’s subject matter to some extent – if Korine loaded this film with meaning or deeper themes or even any sense of commentary or morality it wouldn’t succeed in it’s aim.

Me ? I liked it a lot. One scene involving a Britney Spears song and a mega montage is probably the best sequence of the year and although this is cinematic marmite you get the feeling that Korine knows this and is complete control.

A deeply dislikable film which isn’t for everyone, in fact it’s probably deliberately made for no one. To say I enjoyed it would be a step too far but as an experience it’s definitely got … eh… y’know like… I don’t know….. like…..something.

Prisoners
In a year with no good thrillers I had to include one in this list. This was as good as it got though to be fair A place Beyond The Pines was also well worth seeing.

There’s a scene at the very start of this where Wolverine (Sorry Hugh Jackman) explains his world view. It basically involves people going crazy if they can’t get to the supermarket for a few days. This is supposed to explain why it’s important that his son learn to fire a rifle. Yes, that’s right, that actually happens.

From the get go this is the kind of american thriller which is performed at at an almost hysterical pitch.

It’s got easily the worst trailer of the year and the film takes nearly 40 or so minutes to finally catch up with what the trailer show’s you. Thankfully that’s only about one third of the film so if you stick with it through what is really just it’s opening act then it does finally settle down into a decent cop thriller with very strong performances. Hugh Jackman is excellent as a very unsympathetic father who takes the law into his own hands. Jake Gyllenhaal is also good as a driven and cop lacking in people skills. There’s good support from Maria Bello as a woman having a nervous breakdown for two hours and Terence Howard as the films moral compass and of course Paul Dano is excellent as a weak simpleton. It looks great as all Roger Deakins films do and over all once the film settles down it’s very watchable, suitably tense well paced and scripted and despite taking a few twists too many it does enough to keep you guessing without being just down right silly.

In the end this is a good thriller, probably one of the best of the year but to be frank that simply places it alongside Side Effects which is probably the only other out and out thriller worth it’s salt. I guess we’ll have to wait with bated breath until the next Ben Affleck effort arrives. Who the fuck would have ever thought you’d ever hear anyone say that ?

Worth a look but don’t think too hard about it.


Jiro dreams of Sushi

Sometimes cinema release dates are a bit mental. This came out in 2011 and then in cinemas in 2013. Either way it’s great

A documentary about Jiro Ono, whose family own and run a restaurant in Tokyo sells rather ridiculously priced sushi, and only sushi. No drinks, no frills, you sit at the counter and the chef prepares and serves you one piece of sushi at a time and then you eat it in front of him. It seems like the most intimidating dining experience on the planet. The film is an elegy to the simplicity and dedication, the singleness of purpose which is required to be the best. Jiro and his sons relationship is explored through their working lives and the film also has a bit to say about food as a commodity, it’s fetishism and ultimately it’s relationship to the earth and the creatures which live there. It’s all filmed beautifully and allows the main protagonists to have expound their philosophies in the typically Japanese polite and assured fashion. Jiro is a magnetic character at the heart of the film, more open than most Japanese men of his generation, his account of his life up to that point and his discussion of family make for some fine moments. Accompanied by the obligatory Phillip Glass score this is pretty much as close to Foodaquatsi as you’ll get. Well worth a look if you want a gentle portrait of a real life non-sporting Rocky

Bullhead
Same as Jiro, above, Bullhead was made in 2011 and only hit British/Irish cinemas in 2013 (according to the internet). That’s when i saw it anyway.

Set in rural Belgium Bullhead is both a character study and a crime thriller and is brilliant at being both. The central character, the Bullhead of the title if you will is a cattle dealer from the flemish side of the divide in Belgium. A brooding hulking figure who is played perfectly by Matthias Schoenaerts equal parts pitiful and terrifying Schoenaerts manages to imbue the man with a presence which devours the film. It’s plot and pacing is perfectly executed by writer/director Michael R Roskom. He keeps the tone somewhere between an out and out thriller and a family drama delivering a quite sinewy plot along side the quite shocking and affecting back story of the films major protagonists. This is Schoenaerts film he delivers such a powerful performance of melancholy and menace and easily takes the film across his broad shoulders and heaves it into a different class. Highly recommended.

Mud
Jeff Nichols has made some of the best movies of the last 10 years. I highly recommend Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories. They are both excellent. Here he presents us with one of those films which manages to be somewhat unique while at the same time is stealing from some of the most cliched genres cinema has. At it’s core this is a coming of age story about a teenage boy and at the same time, on paper this is in plot and tone something akin to a classic western. 

Lone stranger turns up on the outskirts of town with a gun and a shady past, a young boy befriends him and upon this framework the film explores that pains of being young and pure of heart, first love, true, misguided and unreciprocated love and does all this against with an undercurrent of the possibility of violence and the eroding of tradition and community amongst the disenfranchised poor of the American south. 

In the hands of a lesser director a film of this nature would itself succumb to the cliches that are inherent in most of the genres and it’s borrowing from and the themes it’s portrays but Nichols get’s it right for the most part. Moving at a steady pace and allowing Matthew Mcconnaghey and Tye Sheridan to turn in brilliantly nuanced performances. The film looks great and gets the mix of beauty and grit just right. A Hugely enjoyable if not world changing film. Well worth a look.

A Hijacking
So there’s a ship, then there are some pirates who hijack the ship and the main character is a cook who seems to have no fighting skills. So Is the cook played by Steven Segal? No? Right so it’s a real movie then, is it?

Well yes, yes it is. A Hijacking is Danish film written and directed by Tobias Lindholm who previously worked on the Danish drama series Borgen which in spite of it’s rather simplistic politics is still a very good attempt at a political drama and is (for me anyway) mostly notable for it’s damn fine performances and it’s genuine and heartfelt approach towards depicting a family under extreme strain. A Hijacking takes this extreme strain and ramps up the tension several thousand notches to depict the hellish experiences of captivity and the rather powerless frustration of those charged with negotiating their release.

Yes A Hijacking is a real film. The threat of violence hangs over proceedings throughout and there are no easy answers or breaks from the atmosphere of fear and intimidation. There are no wise cracking side kicks, no super human He Men and no foolish twists involving the presidents daughter or nuclear cargo. In many ways the film reminded me of Paul Greengrass’s excellent United 91. The super realistic look of the film the deliberately slow pace and the mounting of tension which remains present in every moment. This is simply a film about men forced together by desperation and poverty and for whom the only goal is simply survival. It’s men on a boat and others in an office with a phone and for the most part that’s it. Its power is actually derived from its claustrophobic feel and its sparing approach

Completely gripping and a welcome antidote to the thriller genre which typically throws too much at films like this and ends up with a mess of cliches rather than a bleak glimpse at something real which is all the more frightening and powerful. Well worth a look.

Amour
Michale Haneke is among the world greatest living film makers. If you’ve seen any of his films you’ll know what to expect. his films are uniformly unflinching, gritty, brave, affecting and provocative. In this regard Amour may well be his masterpiece. A tale about an elderly couple dealing with the “humiliation” and inevitability of ageing, this is not for everyone. It’s tough work to get through but it is never any less than utterly gripping, incredibly honest and a fitting elegy to the power of love. The performances by both Jean Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are nothing short of perfect. At times in fact it’s hard to imagine these people are actors.

What makes Amour a cut above all other films which deal with the subject of death and ageing is that Haneke manages to under play everything so that instead of having the jovial old coots banter back and forward in attempt to draw us in he instead presents simple and subtle realism which gives his characters a deep humanity and a dignity which is present even in the most humiliating of scenarios. This is heartbreaking and devastating stuff. Superbly written, delicately directed and above all brilliantly and bravely performed. Possibly the best film I’ve seen since Silence and undoubtedly one I will never watch again. I felt emotionally drained after this.

NB- Not recommended if you have a slight hangover and if your Grandmother died of a debilitating disease while being cared for by your family.


The Hunt

The Danish sure can make films and telly can’t they ?

The hunt is the latest work by Thomas Vinterberg, he of Festen fame. Without wanting to give away any of the plot it’s the story of a man in a small town whose life begins to unravel. That’s all I’m willing to say, save for the fact that this is one of the best films of the last few years and is well worth seeing. The performances by the cast are excellent, the direction is pitch perfect and the film as a whole is brilliant. Vinterberg manages to make proceedings gripping and tense without ever losing sight of reality and without resorting to stupid plot devices or idiotic twists. An unshrinking examination of small town society and paranoia as well as a brilliant character piece this is powerful adult film making by a director on top of his game.

Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen has been hit and miss now for about what 20 odd years. It’s fair to say his hits in that period have with the exception of the brilliantly warm and funny Sweet And Low Down have been hits which are more light pats which remind you that he was once the funniest and most accurate portrayer of the indignity and melancholy of human condition working in film. I liked, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Melinda And Melinda and Midnight In Paris. Sure, they’re not a patch on his work from the eighties but on their own merits they were light brisk and entertaining fair and that’s enough for me. His misses on the other hand have been some of cinemas most lamentable failures since Brian De Palma decided to kick start his career with Jack. It’s nearly impossible to write that without wishing to add the word shit to the title. 

Here though Woody gets it right. The supporting cast he assembles around Cate Blanchette are superb. Playing their roles with a naturalism that Woody’s best work is known for and delivering the occasionally sparkling dialogue with a lightness of touch and timing that brings the whole thing to life admirable.

The reason this film works as well as it does however is a simply amazing performance by Cat Blanchette. She’s simply perfect. Delivering a nuanced and extremely dignified perfectly pitched performance in a role that could have descended into the worst depths of ticks and mannerisms which all too often robs any dignity from the character and reinforces the idea that mental illness is a character types rather than an aspect of a complex character. All too often actors seem to play the illness rather than the person suffering. Here Blanchette creates a superbly complicated and difficult human being who is suffering through something she has little control over rather than simply in acting symptoms. The script is superb, it looks great and on Blanchette’s shoulders the whole production rests as comfortably as a pair of silk pyjamas.

Zero Dark Thirty
The there is nothing like a night of relaxing with a glass of white wine and sitting down to watch a film about torture. Yup nothing beats it. I have my feet up, glass in hand, comfortable seat. Bring on the blood spilling and the harrowing pain.

But wait, what is this? Zero Dark Thirty ran into so much controversy at the Oscars I was waiting for Saw 5: Stretch Thy Victims Upon The Iraq. (best pun I could come up with). But no…. wait…. there’s very little torture in this torture based filth fest. Where’s the fucking torture?

4 years ago Kathryn (I had to spell it awkwardly to fuck with the dyslexics) Bigelow and Mark Boal directed The Hurt Locker, a film which a lot of people have a huge issue with because of it’s supposed flag waving American Politics. Me ? I don’t see it. What I did see was a film about the underclass of the States putting themselves in the firing line over essentially nothing. There was a misfiring mid section in which a grunt goes off trying to do the right thing but essentially the film, for my money anyway gets a bad rap because the message which it asserts through out is – If you’re doing a fucking shit job your life is essentially fucking shit, and you may go a bit mad. This seems to be easy to confuse with “Support our troops” which is slightly bothersome as

A. Life is shit on the bottom is essentially the same message as every other war film (and most British films which are just about living in Britain ). I mean no one is watching or reading Johnny Got His Gun and saying “oh yeah well the subtext is that he’s essentially campaigning for more money to look after injured veterans”

and

B. There are films which really do there best to work outside of a political context. For me The Hurt Locker was the latest in a long line of American war films which try to remove the politics of the war being waged to explore the human carnage which ensues within the turmoil.

Another example of this is Steve McQueens film Hunger which can hardly be called openly political and yet is viewed by some as a piece of IRA propaganda. “Yes come sign up so that you can live in shite and starve to death” great message, I’m sold. What’s annoying is that it seems the setting and subject matter are enough for some folks to simply see something outside the screen creep in. For me there really is nothing in those films which is overidingly politically present. The worst example is Werner Herzogs Rescue Dawn “The way they all celebrated at the end turned my stomach, it’s such flag waving nonsense” Oh fuck off what did you want them to do ? Have a cup of tea and a lie down ?

Anyway rant over the most interesting thing about the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty is that there was any controversy at all. We’ve known for years that the U.S employed torture to get information from captives and really when you remember what the “man on the street” was saying in the U.S in the aftermath of 9/11 it’s amazing that anyone really cares if it ever happened. “I think they should go in and nuke them all, all those filthy *insert racist term here*” that seemed to be the general consensus among the voting public on september 12th so why all the hubbub now ? Oh you’ve grown up a bit since then, have you America? Well the sight of 50,000 WWE fans partying like it was 1999 when they heard that the man giving beards a bad name for a fucking decade had met his end would beg to fucking differ.

So is Zero Dark Thirty any use. Yes. It is it’s excellent. It begins with the water-boarding of prisoner of course. It’s hard hitting don’t you know. It ends with the much publicised storming of Bin Ladens gaf by about 25 Batman’s (or Batmen) in experimental helicopters. Surely that’s only a spoiler if you’ve literally been living in a cave in Afghanistan. It doesn’t pull it’s punches and all that jazz. Yeah and that’s fine but what happens in between those two sections is by far the most interesting thing about the film, i.e the parts that didn’t get bad press.

This isn’t a war film. It’s got the CIA in it but it’s not a spy film. By conventional genres it’s a detective story. It’s a smart move by Bigelow and Boal. This is more like David Fincher making a film about one of Americas most famous serial killers and when you finally see Zodiac it’s actually about a guy writing a book. In scope and execution ZDT is actually closer to The Wire than it is to any of the reference points that you might have expected. There are few Jason Bourne style covert ops, practically no gun play and really the only things that set it apart from things like The Wire is that McNulty and Bunk never wrapped a towel around Marlo Stanfield’s head and poured water over his face or kept him awake for a week by blasting him with strobe lights and speed metal.

Jessica Chastain is excellent as Maya, a CIA wunderkinde recruited out of high-school, presumably because she is really good at bullying on Facebook (I assume this is how the CIA works these days), who is part of a team charged with torturing their way to Osamas front door. She’s ably supported by several good performances but really this is Bigelows film. She moves everything along at a fine pace and keeps the tone and pitch thankfully low key. Focussing on the details and keeping the ins and outs of investigation and paying enough attention to the political background to allow it to inform the actions of those in positions of middle management, she makes this an intriguing detective story, rather than having anyone grandstand about the “deeper meaning” of their actions or bursting into tears at random to prove they reeeeeaaaaly love their country, bro. Even though you know the ending this is still gripping stuff.

For a film about the dehumanisation of prisoners by the Americans see Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris. For a well written and brilliantly directed detective yarn Zero dark thirty is well worth a look.

Django Unchained
I should really bite the bullet and start a blog or just change my name to TL;DR.

Some people don’t like Quentin Tarantino and it’s easy to see why. I like his films but to be fair his output since Jackie Brown have been marmite-esque. Tarantino loves cinema in the same way that Martin Scorsese loves cinema, he wants to do it all, he wants to try his hand at everything, to reference everything and to openly steal anything that he thinks will further his story and that’s fair enough. Where he differs from Marty is that Tarantino can only make one movie: A Tarantino movie.

Scorsese can make any movie and make it his own, whether it’s a period drama, a mafia saga, a kids film, comedy, biopic of the Dalai Lama or a tourist advert for Wichita. He can do it and make it great by any standard you want to judge film by. Tarantino on the other hand could do all of the above, but at the end of the day it would still be his take on that “genre”. That’s what sets these two apart and in fact sets Tarantino apart from most of the directors in cinema at the moment. That is, except for horror directors but I’ll get to that later. What I mean is that Tarantino needs to work with a small palette, and maximise the effect. He’s De Stijl school rather than old school if you want a dutch minimalist reference to hang on to. He needs to make a genre piece. While Scorsese or for example PT Anderson will steal from any genre you want and make a film which will in the end defy the logical limitations of whatever “genre” they’re supposedly working in and therefore expand the scope of that film. For example Anderssons Punch Drunk Love is a love story, but it has a villain. Goodfellas is a “gangster movie” yet most of the film is a about family. If you were to edit either of these films you could easily make Punch Drunk Love a dark thriller or equally make Goodfellas a coming of age family tale and both of them would make perfect sense.

Tarantino’s films on the other hand have their respective genres hard wired into every single frame. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs for example look like what they are, gritty crime stories – apart from two scenes in diners, every other frame is unmistakably a crime film. The costumes the lighting everything looks seedy. From Kill Bill onwards his films only make sense when viewed within the confines of the genre that he is, depending on your position – exploring or exploiting. For me this is perfectly fine. Like a horror movie (I don’t actually particularly like horror movies but bear with me) a Tarantino movie works only within the logic of the genre. Horror movie logic is of course utterly different from other movie logic in that the point of a horror movie is to make the audience consistently uncomfortable. No other genre does this over such a long period of it’s running time. Other types of films make you squirm occasionally, when the story demands it, but people who go to horror movies go to see them to be made uncomfortable. This is the point of them. In a Tarantino movie there isn’t necessarily a feeling he’s aiming for, what he wants is for his audience to think “wow, that’s cool” for 2 hours and so unless you do sit in your seat and think “wow, that’s cool” the common criticism is that there really isn’t any other level for his films to work on and as such are failures. Which is a pity because despite all of the showiness of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained there are aspects that get overlooked and as such do show that as a film maker Tarantino is growing up and actually has something to say. Hidden under the sheen and pomp of Inglorious Basterds for example there are a few scenes which scratch at the surface of something deeper and now there’s Django Unchained which within the confines of “Tarantino Revenge Movie” actually manages to do something interesting when it comes to how slavery is depicted in cinema.

Suffice to say it’s a ridiculous movie. From the outset the film is utterly overblown and verges on silly throughout. It looks great, The performances are everything you’d expect, Christoph Waltz and Jaimie Fox are excellent. Leonardo Di Caprio is brilliantly unbearable and Samuel L Jackson….. well he’s Sam L playing an old bastard so you can imagine what that’s like. Of course the real star of the show is Tarantino who is is visually assaulting the audience with his usual abandon. It’s fast it’s funny and depending on your opinion it’s very cool and sharp or it’s irritating and vacuous. Django hints at a new string to Tarantinos bow but never quite arrives at it. Here Quentin is making a point with his portrayal of slavery. It’s very easy to say yes “Slavery Bad” but then if Steven Speilbeg makes that point the critics queue up to lavish him with praise. What Tarantino wants to point out is exactly how horrific it was and portray the slaves society as internally classist. Tarantino doesn’t play by the same rules as Spielberg and the likes so when he shows torture, it’s horrific and when he shows how the slaves are treated like dirt then you better believe it’s not an easy watch. This is different from what most directors will allow on screen and there is always a feeling the Tarantino is only scraping the surface of what actually went on with regards to the treatment of slaves. It’s a filthy business and it deserves a filthy film. This is that film and If I were an American historian I’d wager it opens an uncomfortable can of worms as to exactly how much of it is accurate, and remember this is a Quentin Tarantino movie, this is a man who made it big by making torture a set piece.

Another thing that Tarantino manages is to have his hero exist within a social hierarchy, not just black and white, but within the black slave culture there are certain strata of status and the film has no problem getting it’s hands dirty here too. Of course like a horror movie this is all presented within the Tarantino Logic so it’s blackly comic without ever bothering to draw attention to it and should serve as a lesson to Spielberg and associates that the “message” should be contained within the film instead of the other way around. Of course the other aspect of Tarantinos logic is that his films moods swing violently and no character is safe, again this is somewhat like a horror film. One second you could be enjoying a witty scene between two major characters and the next second one of their heads could be shot in half, Tarantino loves to kill his stars and as a result when the film moved towards it’s close it still keeps a bit of tension pent up as everyone is expendable.

There are flaws, some of the music cues are cooler in QTs head than they are on film but overall I forgave this as the film does it’s best to exist as much as possible within an African American culture. So yes its a film about slavery why shouldn’t there be hip hop and soul on the soundtrack? Films about cowboys can have Bob Dylan singing over them why shouldn’t black culture permeate a film about this? Some shots and scenes which aim at “cool” miss the target completely and end up just being cheesy but over all it’s not enough to totally derail the film. I like Tarantino and I liked Django Unchained. It’s funny, highly entertaining and hidden somewhere there is a soupcon of a gruesome history lesson which the film manages get right which is no mean feat because it could have been utterly exploitative or utterly preachy.


Finally there are the films that didn’t quite make my list but that you should still see.

A Field In England was mental squared, left me with a headache and feeling a bit hollow but still an amazing piece of experimentation. A Place Beyond The Pines, promised much and felt a little uneven to me, still some great performances by it’s cast and Ray Liotta might give you nightmares. Oh and Pacific Rim had big fucking robots.

If you’ve read all the way to here congratulations. Have a cup of tea and a lie down,… on a psychiatrists couch you weirdo.

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