Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier', 'Under the Skin', 'The Past', and 'Starred Up': review round-up

'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' - Dir. Anthony & Joe Russo (12A)

A sequel to both Joe Johnston's charmingly Spielbergian WWII-set origin story 'Captain America: the First Avenger' and Joss Whedon's superhero team-up crowd-pleaser 'The Avengers', 'Captain America: the Winter Soldier' is tonally very different to those films and indeed to the rest of the Marvel Studios oeuvre to-date. Directed by the Russo brothers, this one is more of a conspiracy thriller and - without going all Nolan Batman and jettisoning fun and colour - it's a comparatively gritty and grounded affair. Much like the Ed Brubaker run in the comics, which introduced this film's antagonist the Winter Soldier (alluded to by the writer's cameo as one of the scientists behind his creation), the film does a neat job of including lots of outlandish and far-fetched comic book elements - from the winged exploits of Anthony Mackie's Falcon to the newly computer-bound consciousness of Toby Jones' Arnim Zola - with something altogether more grounded and grave.

The casting of Robert Redford as the political face of world peacekeeping force SHIELD, Alexander Pierce, is one of many nods to the classic thrillers of the 70s, as this film delves into more morally grey territory than its predecessor. Where once there was a struggle between the 'greatest generation' and the Nazis, Cap (Chris Evans) now finds himself in a world he doesn't recognise and which has seemingly abandoned the principles of freedom he fought so hard for in the 40s. Now SHIELD is starting to look like something more tyrannical and oppressive than it seemed when Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) first burst onto the scene at the end of the first 'Iron Man' film - creating huge, automated airborne battleships capable of detecting and erasing threats before they happen: in an obvious nod to both modern drone warfare and the NSA surveillance scandals of the last few years.

Against this background is a well-crafted superhero romp, which is also something of a mini-Avengers team-up as Cap unites with the aforementioned Falcon and Scarlett Johansson's espionage specialist Black Widow to stay one step ahead of SHIELD and discover the truth behind the agency's corruption - thwarted at every turn my a mysterious new enemy with a link to Cap's own past: the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). The action is hard-hitting, well choreographed and visceral, whilst the main players exhibit the sort of good chemistry needed to make all the bits in between fun. Especially Chris Evans in the starring role - an actor who imbues the title character with as much subtle depth as he does obvious decency.

'Under the Skin' - Dir. Jonathan Glazer (15)

A masterclass in editing and sound design, Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes on the form of a human female and uses this guise to seduce lonely, socially isolated men, who she then traps and harvests for... some reason probably much clearer to those who've read the Michel Faber novel. Though I'd argue the question of why she captures these men and what exactly becomes of them is a secondary concern in a film that works primarily on the level of visceral, sensory experience. In lieu of much specificity or explanation, this is simply the story of an outsider assimilating and attempting to fit in (albeit with nefarious intent), learning a certain degree of compassion for humanity and gradually becoming more unsettled by and attached to her newly acquired body.

Johansson is perfectly cast in the role, especially as the film is set in Scotland and she adopts a clean, regionally non-specific English accent when talking to her co-stars - mostly comprised of non-actors, supposedly oblivious (at least at first) to the fact they were part of a film. The audience is aware that she's a Hollywood movie star pretending to be English and, even if they don't consciously realise it, those she approaches must also have sensed this unease with and disconnect from the star in their midst: familiar yet just different enough to sow seeds of doubt. She's an impostor playing an impostor and it works brilliantly, especially as she glides around British high streets and shopping centres in her black wig and incongruous fur coat.

Moments of intense body horror and a heart-pounding finale combine with this playful casting and Glazer's technical mastery to create something truly memorable - potentially even destined for cult status.

'The Past' - Dir. Asghar Farhadi (12A)

In a style familiar to fans of his earlier films, such as 'A Separation' and 'About Elly', director Asghar Farhadi's maiden effort outside of Iranian cinema is still a tightly wound and faultlessly humane drama, peppered with extraordinary revelations and populated by nuanced and fully-formed characters who are lead by circumstance to ponder profound ethical questions. Ali Mosaffa stars as Ahmad, an Iranian man who travels to France to finalise a divorce from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, star of 'The Artist') from whom he has been separated for four years. Whilst there he is immediately thrown, quite against his will, into an unfolding family drama that he otherwise has nothing to do with, as Marie begs him to have a heart-to-heart with her eldest daughter from a previous marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), in order to find out why she's taken against her mother's new partner Samir, played by 'A Prophet' star Tahar Rahim.

After a half-dozen twists and turns we come to understand the various conflicting points of view all involved in the unfolding crisis, which this time revolves around the theme of forgiveness and moving on from what has happened before - of leaving an old life behind as you head into another. Something which none of the characters can quite face doing, at least without difficulty and heartache. Nobody in contemporary cinema (at least that I know of) is quite as brilliant as Farhadi when it comes to creating ensemble casts in which every character is so complex and well drawn. As with his other films, the four central characters here - along with another three or four supporting cast members - are each worthy of audience investment and sympathy, portrayed and written with great compassion.

'Starred Up' - Dir. David Mackenzie (18)

Muggin' everybody off, and generally causing no small amount of bovva on his cell block, in this gritty British prison movie is rising star Jack O'Connell as damaged, young offender Eric Love - a teenager prematurely moved up to big boy jail because of how violently he behaves. In service of drama, Eric is improbably moved to the same prison, and indeed the same wing, as his equally unhinged father Neville (the always intense and brilliant Australian Ben Mendelsohn) where he comes face-to-face with his past and some the issues which have played a part in his becoming a violent offender in the first place. Without explicitly stating it, there's undoubtedly a history of physical and mental abuse between them that's telegraphed mainly in how O'Connell's body language and demeanor change when confronted by his old man. Apparently known to audiences for his role in teen drama Skins, O'Connell makes an impressive transition to the big screen here: as charismatic as he is frightening and unpredictable.

The central drama concerns how Eric becomes a pawn in a broader game played between a powerful fellow inmate (Peter Ferdinando, who was excellent in the low budget crime film 'Tony'), a crooked and cruel prison warden (Sam Spruell), and a well-meaning volunteer psychologist (Rupert Friend). Friend's psychologist lobbies the skeptical prison establishment to get Eric placed in his self-help group (which they want to see fail for reasons of pantomime vindictiveness), where he can talk through his problems and learn to deal with his emotions without resorting to violence, whilst the prison authorities mostly just want to smash his face in - to the extent where all the police seem like irrational villains. It's the interactions between the various prison staff that ultimately bring the film down, though scenes between inmates (and especially those in Friend's group) are often gripping and compelling.

Friday, 14 March 2014

'The Grand Budapest Hotel', 'Only Lovers Left Alive', 'Nymphomaniac', 'Dallas Buyers Club', and 'A New York Winter's Tale': review round-up

'The Grand Budapest Hotel' - Dir. Wes Anderson (15)

If the move from 'Bottle Rocket' to 'Rushmore' onto 'The Royal Tenenbaums' marked a gentle progression of his style, Wes Anderson's subsequent films - 'The Life Aquatic', 'The Darjeeling Limited' and even the animated 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' - took the recognised tropes of that style and crystallised it into something that often flirted with self-parody. Then 'Moonrise Kingdom' came along and seemed to indicate a maturation of his by now well established visual motifs, storytelling themes and even the highly stylised performances drawn from his familiar band of recurring actors. It was a refreshing change of pace, which felt paradoxically both less self-conscious and yet more intensely focused. At a first glance his latest, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', superficially reassembles a return to the larger-scale, ensemble-driven fare that directly preceded 'Moonrise Kingdom', though it's actually a subtle synthesis of the two being expansive, broad, imaginative and, well, grand, whilst also being restrained, focused and tightly wound.

Though bookended in such a way that potenitally makes it a fourth-hand account of events, the film primarily follows Ralph Fiennes as the mannered and enigmatic Gustav H, widely-respected concierge of the titular hotel. After a regular guest and occasional lover (Tilda Swinton) dies in mysterious circumstances, Gustav goes on the run with his faithful lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and - with a big European war looming ominously in the background - attempts to solve the mystery, clear his name and uncover the secrets of her will - the contents of which set of their own chain of murderous events. Even as its focus remains on character detail and small-scale interactions, it's easily the most traditionally plot-heavy of Anderson's films - helping again to separate it from what's come before - and, even if death and grief play a part in all but one of his other movies, it's also one of the saddest - with an overriding feeling of entropy and a sense of sadness at the passing of time.

Fiennes, as the archetypal Anderson protagonist (with a passion for teams, uniforms and all things un-cynical), displays a great gift for comic timing and delivery, fitting in alongside cameos from members of the established troupe - from Owen Wilson to Bill Murray. Though most of the famous faces that dominate the film's marketing campaign have extremely brief screen time, it feels like a calculated use of star semiotics rather than an attempt to boost box office, with recognisable actors imbuing blink-and-you'll-miss-them characters with immediate personality. If a venerable and charming character actor like Bob Balaban pops up on the screen for a moment as an important hotelier it has an effect, and attracts a degree of audience investment in that minor character, that filling the role with an equally competent yet comparatively unknown actor would not. Not to say that's an approach that would suit every movie (sometimes a hotelier only need be a hotelier) but it's entirely appropriate for a Wes Anderson film, where characters are expected to arrive fully formed and to jump off of the screen.

'Only Lovers Left Alive' - Dir. Jim Jarmusch (15)

Languid and atmospheric - with musing about art, literature and music taking precedence over matters of plot - 'Only Lovers Left Alive' casts two supremely watchable actors, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, as Eve and Adam, a pair of above-it-all vampires whose love has spanned the centuries. Making the most out of its compelling leads, slick editing and a terrific soundtrack, the combined effect is something that washes over you for an enjoyable two hours without leaving much in the way of a long-lasting impression. That said, it is interesting to see vampires played as these eternal art critics, whose often downright snobbish opinions are invested with an unassailable amount of cultural capital when compared with us mere mortals. You're never going to impress these guys with a boast that you discovered a band before they were popular, because they knew William Lawes and Schubert and are good friends with a still-living Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).

With their longevity also comes, naturally enough, a nonchalance towards the passage of time and history (and even mortality itself), with a world-weary cynicism directed towards us "zombies" when Adam asks if we've yet started the, apparently inevitable, Water Wars yet. In this version we're the monsters, though not through our violence but through stupidity and ignorance and, worst of all, appallingly bad taste. There's an underlying tension, with violence often a distinct possibility due to the nature of the protagonists, but Jarmusch avoid treading that well-worn path for the most part, instead offering something more contemplative and mood-driven.

'Nymphomaniac' - Dir. Lars von Trier (18)

Technically divided, 'Kill Bill' style, into two standalone parts (volumes I & II), Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' does not really work on those terms. It's one ambitious, lengthy and typically (perhaps knowingly) controversial movie which only makes sense - thematically and narratively - viewed as a complete whole. In it Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Joe, a self-described nymphomaniac whose lifelong pursuit of love-free sex has contributed to her questioning whether she is a good or a bad person. On hand to judge is a middle-aged virgin named Seligman, who takes Joe into his disheveled, drab apartment after finding her beaten unconscious in a neighbouring alley. Determined to discover why she believes she's such a bad person he insists that she tell her life-story up to that night - interrupted only by his trite observations and strained analogies - and it's this recollection of events (which feature Stacy Martin as young Joe), mostly in chronological order, that occupy the bulk of the film.

Set in a dour and nondescript Northern European country, that seems to be something between England and the director's native Denmark, von Trier tells this story with his trademark mix of uncompromising, gritty frankness and confrontational, occasionally uncomfortable use of acerbic black comedy (one scene with a show-stealing Uma Thurman could easily be a sketch from Chris Morris' Jam). Divided into individually titled chapters, 'Nymphomaniac' uses different scenarios and brings in a number of disturbing and extreme characters to explore a wide range of sexual practices and fetishes, whilst also discussing (or providing a platform to discuss) attitudes towards them.

There is always, nagging in the background, the question of morality (to what extent are Joe's actions potentially "wrong") though the film makes no judgments in most instances - except when combatively challenging the judgements of others (for instance regarding the subject of so-called 'sex addiction' and, in it's bravest and best scene, attitudes towards pedophiles). Even its ending, that could read as a pessimistic final judgement on humanity - or, at the very least, men - is more even-handed than it might first appear, with denial of experiencing sexual urges the ultimate villain of the piece rather than an interest in or enjoyment of sexual behaviour itself.

'Dallas Buyers Club' - Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée (15)

Sporadic as posts are on this blog, in the time since I saw 'Dallas Buyers Club' both its lead actors - Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto - won Academy Awards for their respective roles in this watchable but fairly telegenic little biopic, made on a commendably low budget and built almost entirely around the charisma and skill of the two actors. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a brash, ignorant and oddly likable Texan electrician who's diagnosed with AIDS and given approximately 30 days to live by the local hospital. Heterosexual and prejudice, he is ostracised by his like-minded friends and forced to abandon his old life. Leto plays Rayon - a transsexual Woodroof reluctantly joins forces with as a business partner (and later befriends) after taking it upon himself to increase his life expectancy (and in doing so make a good living) importing effective yet legally unapproved drugs into America from abroad - giving the FDA and American Pharmaceutical industry the finger during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

Both actors are terrific, with Leto a big surprise after moving away from acting and focusing on his music career in recent years - and he perfectly underplays a role here that other actors might have made bigger or brasher. But it's McConaughey's film with the actor, whose relaxed charm and good looks had so long seen him associated with dire rom-coms, deservedly receiving mass acclaim - as much for his other recent, stunning work as for this. It's a meat and potatoes, by-numbers, "based on a true story" drama in many respects - solid but unspectacular. Though the two headline performances, combined with the extraordinary nature of the true story itself, make it stand out above similar movies of its kind, and its comparatively slender budget makes it admirable.

'A New York Winter's Tale' - Dir. Akiva Goldsman (12A)

After stunning audiences with his complete inability to sing in 'Les Miserables', Russell Crowe has outdone himself again in the shambolic mess that is 'A New York Winter's Tale' with his complete inability to do an Irish accent - made even funnier by the fact he's acting opposite actual Irishman Colin Farrell, who must've been struggling to suppress the giggles throughout the production. Not that Farrell has too much to feel smug about either, after adding this dreck to a dubious filmography that stands as a mockery to the great talent displayed in films like 'In Bruges' and 'The New World'. Joining them on this ignoble quest to shit away the last vestiges of credibility and integrity are Will Smith - whose last big roles came in 'Men in Black 3' and the Razzie-dominating 'After Earth' - who makes an unconvincing Satan and Jennifer Connelly, who confirms the difficulty faced in finding work for actresses in their 40s (even Oscar-winning ones) by accepting the thankless role of "mum of small child", and only turning up when the movies nearly over.

Standing uncomfortably in the middle of all this cinematic horror is poor Jessica Brown Findlay, a young, British actress who actually comes out of this looking fairly good but who probably won't find putting this on her CV a terrific boon going forward. There's far more that's wrong with this tonally inconsistent, shallow and cynical exercise - which spends most its time peddling comforting nonsense about how special each and every one of us are and culminates in a quest to save a sweet, little photogenic child from imminently terminal cancer - but those criticisms can be neatly summed up into a dismissive "everything is total rubbish". Which saves us all a lot of time.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

'Her', 'The Lego Movie', and 'The Armstrong Lie': review round-up

'Her' - Dir. Spike Jonze (15)


You meet somebody for the first time and instantly hit it off. As feelings develop, you nervously pursue a romantic relationship. The early days of that relationship are filled with laughter and a spirit of adventure - you never want to be apart from that person, who now occupies all your waking thoughts. Months go by and you settle into a bit of a muted groove. You get a phone call from that person whilst at work, and they can tell you don't want to talk. It's become slightly awkward all of a sudden, or at least there's a strange distance developing between two supposedly intimate people. Eventually it ends, possibly when one of you has outgrown the other. In Spike Jonze's 'Her', Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly experiences something exactly like this with Samantha (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) - the difference being that Samantha is a sophisticated OS (operating system) rather than a traditional human partner. But the rhythms and patterns and core experience of the relationship seem to be exactly the same in Jonze's non-judgmental and highly plausible account of the not too distant future.

Anyone expecting something broadly critical of our perceived contemporary over-reliance on and obsession with smartphones and computers is in for disappointment. This isn't a piece about the perils of technology, going for trite and easy targets - such as the widespread idea that we don't pay each other enough attention anymore because we're more interested in our Facebook pages. Instead it's a sincere exploration of love as a concept that looks at how this "form of socially acceptable insanity", as Theodore's sympathetic friend Amy (Amy Adams) puts it, works and what it means. If anything, Samantha's status as a non-human - as a more advanced, faster-thinking intelligence - enables the exploration and interrogation of entrenched concepts about the nature of love and traditional relationships. For instance, Samantha's ability to seemingly love potential thousands of people and fellow AIs with equal strength simultaneously (and Theodore's jealousy and indignation at this development) calls into question the possessive and perhaps selfish nature of most human love.

That's not to say the film is completely uncritical of why a person like Theodore - who Phoenix embues with tenderness, warmth and a certain lovelorn, world-weary sadness - might choose to date an OS over a human being. Through interactions with his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) we learn that he has difficulty expressing himself to others in person and finds people difficult, something also demonstrated by his career as a successful writer of other people's letters for the (I hope) fictional - with letters here almost de-romanticised as a method of communication that permits distance and perhaps even insincerity. That he's apparently a very good and well respected writer of other people's letters speaks to the fact that Theodore is not somebody who has trouble understanding emotions or feeling them, but that his difficulty lies with expressing himself openly. With the exception of a few isolated scenes (and one of those is an awkward date with Olivia Wilde's Amelia), Theodore is generally depicted alone among anonymous crowds or in his spacious apartment. But it's a sort of sun-soaked, almost triumphant isolation that seems extremely appealing, as he casually saunters around a very clean version of Los Angeles.

Perhaps dating an OS is giving him unhealthy permission to retreat further from public life, or perhaps it's the perfect relationship for somebody who's more comfortable keeping people at arms length. Do we all crave a relationship we can switch on and off? That we can put in our pocket and take on our travels? How you feel about that probably depends on your own feelings on technology and its rapid integration with every aspect of our lives, as much as it does your current mood regarding other human beings and the state of your love-life. Jonze certainly doesn't seem to be judging either way with this eerily prescient look at the future of love which, like all good science fiction, has just as much to say about the present day. 'Her' seems to show us a world we might soon inhabit, where complex relationships between humans and increasingly sophisticated synthetic life become the norm - and that's mostly OK.

'The Lego Movie' - Dir. Phil Miller and Chris Lord (U)

The worst thing I can say about Phil Miller and Chris Lord's hyperactive and characteristically gag-heavy 'The Lego Movie' is that the trailers were unquestionably front-loaded with all the best jokes. But that's not really the fault of the movie itself, which is still packed with funny moments, charming characters and surprising Lego character cameos (which I won't spoil here). It's also way more subversive and socially aware than you expect from a movie based on a toy license - with the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) using an army of robotic micro-managers to ensure optimum social conformity. In the same vein, it's a love of chart music and chain restaurants that tips off ass-kicking heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to the fact that generic, smiley Lego construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) might not in fact be "the special" - a prophesied "master builder" who will restore free-thought and fun to a land oppressed by the tyranny of the instruction manual.

The animation is superb, with Miller and Lord using an almost stop-frame aesthetic to bring the toy world to life, but through CGI doing things you might never be able to do with traditional animation methods. The world is filled with amazing details, like the ocean made to resemble a pattern of tessellating blue and white Lego studs, whilst supporting characters like Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day) and, yes, Batman (Will Arnett) are given life and personality that defies their limited Lego brick designs. Perhaps the best bit is that, without giving anything away, the writer-directors have managed to not only make a supremely enjoyable animated movie using the visual style and various licenses of the Lego brand, but also a film that is ultimately about Lego itself. Without being at all cheesy or seeming cynically motivated in the least, the film quickly becomes a celebration of imaginative play, creativity and childhood itself, with an enthusiasm that's infectious.

'The Armstrong Lie' - Alex Gibney (15)

Whilst not ostensibly as 'important' as his acclaimed and invariably powerful docs on corporate corruption, WikiLeaks or wars in the Middle East, Alex Gibney's look at the scandal that threw the career and reputation of cancer survivor, humanitarian and former multiple Tour De France champion Lance Armstrong into disrepute is still a compelling watch, whether you care about cycling or not. That's because, in true Gibney style, 'The Armstrong Lie' is more about our willingness (and the willingness of the news media) to be deceived by an appealing narrative than it is about sport and illegal doping practices. A cancer survivor who wasn't expected to make it comes back into the sport he never threatened to be the best at and, not only does he become a champion, but he completely dominates for the best part of a decade. It's a hopeful story about life after cancer and man's resilience in the face of adversity, so heartwarming and inspirational that everybody wanted to believe it.

That's the secret behind the Armstrong lie of the title: in spite of years of investigative journalists uncovering evidence of the athlete's use of performance enhancing drugs, in spite of testimony against him from former friends asserting that he used these drugs extensively throughout his seven Tour wins, and despite his public hiring of an Italian doctor known to be a specialist in developing ways to help cyclists cheat under the radar - he got away with it (to some extent, right up until the moment he confessed on Oprah in 2013) precisely because we all collectively willed it to be true. In his narration, Gibney admits that he was also in the thrall of Armstrong's public persona and larger-than-life success story - willing his subject to win, against the critics and fellow cyclists, during his ill-conceived 2009 comeback to professional cycling (which was originally supposed to be the focus of Gibney's documentary before the truth about Armstrong's use of drugs became public).

Armstrong is an interesting subject who, though he comes across thoroughly badly (in retrospect) in archive footage of interviews and press conferences - as he aggressively defends himself against allegations of drug use to the point where he frequently goes on the attack - is nonetheless an entertaining public speaker and frequently a charismatic presence on camera (for instance, when passionately explaining why kids love bikes). His is certainly a larger than life story worthy of telling, if in reality that's for vastly different reasons than we originally thought. What does seem clear is that the entire sport was rife with doping at the time in which he competed and your sympathy for Armstrong ultimately rests on how much you respect a professional competitor's "will to win" above all else and how much weight the "everybody else was doing it" defence carries.

Ultimately public anger at Armstrong, over and above his perhaps equally crooked fellow athletes, is perhaps completely justified and long overdue. Not only because he used drugs to build a reputation that made him a fabulously wealthy and powerful global celebrity (like no cyclist before or since), but because of what he actively tried to make himself represent and the damage his corruption does to whatever genuinely noble causes he was involved in. Gibney's doc gives him a forum to mount his case and it's one that is selfish, delusional and supremely arrogant. In retrospect the whole thing - the hero worship, the story, the celebrity, the sporting triumph - all seems so hard to believe. Gibney's film exceeds its bounds to become the story of our collective gullibility in the face of attractive mistruths.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

'The Wolf of Wall Street', 'Inside Llewyn Davis', and 'August: Osage County': review round-up + A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

'The Wolf of Wall Street' - Dir. Martin Scorsese (18)

Funnier than most straight comedies, Martin Scorsese's biopic of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is consistently entertaining over its daunting three hour running length. In many ways it's very similar to 'Goodfellas', albeit following a different (less physically violent) type of criminal, but the beats are the same and the same questions remain, namely "why would somebody choose to live this life?" - with the suggestion made that we will all envy the Belfort even as we come to despise him as a human being. And despicable he is. For all the moral panic about the film failing to condemn its protagonist, Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio paint a picture of a charismatic but morally bankrupt figure, ultimately without any real friends or meaningful human connections. He's an out of control, drug-addicted monster by the film's final third, punching his wife (Margot Robbie) and driving his young daughter into a wall. If you think the film doesn't make his life seem unappealing enough, or that it doesn't show the dark and sinister side of his character, then I don't know what version of the film you saw.

The performances are great across the board, with DiCaprio getting to demonstrate a deft comic timing and lightness of touch we haven't seen in years, whilst physically he's also required to do some incredible and very odd things. Yet the star performer is Jonah Hill as his business partner and supposed best friend Donnie Azoff, who owns the best moments and generates the biggest laughs in a film full of them. Matthew McConaughey is typically brilliant in what amounts to an extended cameo at the start and Kyle Chandler is similarly memorable as the straight-laced, incorruptible FBI agent seen in just a few key scenes. I also have to mention how enjoyable and inspired the casting of Rob Reiner is as Jordan's hot-tempered father - a force of nature who blusters into several key scenes to great comedic effect.

It's typically slick and punchy from beginning to end, carried briskly along by DiCaprio's playful narration and it never really stops for air. That Scorsese continues to make such dynamic, exciting and contemporary films in his 70s (long-serving editor Themla Schoonmaker is showing the likes of 'Spring Breakers' how it's done at 74) is quite something and possibly part of what makes his a unique and enduring voice.

'Inside Llewyn Davis' - Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (15)

A slight and deceptively simple entry into the Coen canon, in the mould of the criminally underrated 'A Serious Man', Oscar Isaac stars here as the title character - a struggling folk singer, moving from couch to couch in the Greenwich Village of 1961. As he bumbles from sometime lover to casual acquaintance we're introduced to a number of strange and variously pathetic and/or unlikable characters, given life by a half-dozen impactful cameos from the likes of John Goodman, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake. In the Coen tradition all of them seen to have some measure of private sadness, whether it's a hidden box of unsold records, a crippling drug problem or a decision to sell-out artistically and settle down in the suburbs. Llewyn is vaguely contemptuous of nearly all of them and yet he is simultaneously beholden to them as he endlessly rotates through his New York contacts for places to stay or people to hitch a ride with.

Llewyn is an interesting character. Superior, aloof and prideful - refusing to sell out his artistic sensibilities, living hand to mouth and playing 'real' folk music with thankless results and no commercial future. A user and a man without responsibility or attachments. Yet he is on occasion, paradoxically, upstanding and decent in his quiet way. Both humble and egotistical. Emotionally detached and yet harbouring his own grief and inner turmoil. A complex and nuanced character perfectly suited to Isaac's intelligent and introspective demeanor. He's not a hero in any sense; he's infuriating and maybe a little pretentious - but he's entirely human. The Coen's get criticised often for not liking their characters enough, but this kind of nuanced depiction of people - with all their faults and idiosyncrasy - to my mind comes from a place of empathy and understanding. I think they understand people very well, but they aren't afraid to admit that we're all basically a bit rubbish.

'August: Osage County' - Dir. John Wells (15)

I imagine a slight variation on this short conversation accounts for every single factor behind the making, distribution and ultimate viewership of 'August: Osage County': it goes "hey, Chris Cooper! We got a great part for you." "Yeah?" he replies "What's the movie about?" "Well, I'm glad you asked, Chrissy boy. It's an adaptation of a stage play about a dysfunctional mid-Western family dominated by a cruel matriarch and rocked by incest, substance abuse and general misery." "Oh, I dunno" replies Mr. Cooper "that sounds kinda interesting but I think I'll pass." "That's a shame, pal, because Meryl was personally extremely interested in you coming aboard with us." "Excuse me? Meryl?" "Yeah, didn't I mention Meryl Streep is taking the lead part?" "Oh my lord! Meryl Streep!? Where do I sign! This is going to be amazing!"

I think that's an accurate transcript of how this film came to be and the sum total explanation of why audiences are going to see it, in spite of the fact that it's a hoary old bag of cliches adding up to a glorified episode of 'Eastenders'. Though it's easy to see why Meryl Streep took the role: she's this out of control, bitchy, shouty monster of a mother, parading around in a bad wig with a drink in one hand and a fag in the other - falling over, maniacally cackling and not so much chewing the scenery as violently chomping it to within an inch of its warranty. It's a role and performance preconfigured to make audiences say "oh, how brave!" And as Meryl Streep sprints over the top, all of the other actors race to join her - most notably Julia Roberts, whose "eat the mother-fucking fish, bitch" rant rivals that bit in 'The Paperboy' (where Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo watch Nicole Kidman masturbate) for shear "oh my god, what am I watching and is it really happening?"-ness.

There's one very nice father and son sequence between Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the closest the movie comes to feeling genuine and intimate. Then there's the film's real stand-out performance, delivered by Julianne Nicholson who plays Streep's meek and downtrodden youngest daughter with tenderness, vulnerability and genuine heart. But the rest is all histrionics and 'dark heart of the rural American family' tropes that we've all seen a thousand times before in better movies. Maybe Tracy Letts' play works better on the stage, where hammy excess is often part and parcel of the experience - but this big screen adaptation borders on ridiculous as it goes from one melodramatic family revelation to the next in all its plate-smashing pomp.


Finally, I've been saddened by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman - a man who could legitimately have claimed to have been the actor of his generation. He was certainly one of my all-time favourites and I'm upset that we won't be seeing whatever he might have gone on to do as an actor and director. As an actor he was always believable and could be relied upon to be the best thing in the rare bad movie that he appeared in. He was one of those talents that elevated bad material and made great material really sing. There is no such thing as a bad Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, at least not that I've seen.

In tribute, below are some clips of my favourite of his roles.

A good scene (and great performance) from a less than great movie...


And one from the best film ever made...

I'm genuinely going to miss this guy.

Monday, 20 January 2014

'12 Years A Slave', 'Gloria', 'Short Term 12' and 'Last Vegas': review round-up

'12 Years A Slave' - Dir. Steve McQueen (15)

A towering achievement and one, I suspect, that will loom large over the careers of many involved - not least writer-director Steve McQueen and star Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film follows Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) a free and comfortably middle-class black man in the mid-nineteenth century - a few decades short of the Civil War and abolition of slavery - who's tricked into leaving his wife and family in New York to perform as a violinist in Washington DC, only to be abducted and sold into slavery. As you can guess from the title, and the fact Northup later published the memoir upon which the film is based, his ordeal is not quickly resolved and we see this man accustomed to a certain level of respect and hyper-polite, cravat-wearing cordiality in the free north subjected to number of horrific, dehumanizing abuses once he is sold down south - a contrast that underlines much of the subsequent tragedy.

Soon we're, along with Soloman, witnessing the rape of enslaved women, children torn from mothers and sold to the highest bidder, lynchings, and many other appalling acts of brutality. And we see many faces of slave ownership too, from the paternalism and impotent liberal-guilt of Benedict Cumberbatch to the blind hate of Paul Dano, who seems to take great pleasure in beating and tormenting the slaves as a means to reinforcing his own fragile sense of self-worth. Then there's the mercurial Michael Fassbender as the alcoholic and unpredictable Edwin Epps, whose religious fervor and cold conviction that his slaves are nothing more than property makes for an especially nasty villain - even if, like everybody else, he's played with great humanity. Obsessed with Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, Epps ends up using the film's most tragic character as an unwilling pawn in a domestic feud with his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, leading to several of the film's most shocking single moments of violence. Though there is a sense that all involved are victims (though some unquestionably bigger victims that others) with slavery an institution that ultimately demeans everybody.

Perhaps Hans Zimmer's conventional and overwrought score (sections of which are lifted note for note from 'Inception') is the film's only real weak-spot, with McQueen's use of diagetic music (songs sung by the slaves and Soloman's violin playing) much more genuinely heartfelt and raw than any moment the orchestra comes in. Indeed some of the sustained close-ups and long takes are made all the more memorable and stunning because they take place in complete silence. Though ultimately Ejiofor's performance is so strong, telegraphing a great deal of subtle character change over the film's titular time-frame, that it's difficult for anything to spoil it. '12 Years a Slave' is manifestly McQueen's most conventional and mainstream film to date, with his visual artist background and arthouse sensibilities more keenly felt in the cold and self-consciously difficult 'Hunger' and 'Shame'. What this film does is wed the director's compassion for difficult characters and interest in exploring unpalatable human truths with something more heartfelt and genuinely emotional - something built for an audience.

'Gloria' - Dir. Sebastián Lelio (15)

Paulina Garcia gives a sensational performance as the title character - a beguiling turn that earned her the Silver Bear for best actress at last year's Berlin Film Festival, playing a divorcee who combats feelings of isolation and unhappiness with hedonism and a slightly desperate attempt at romance. It's a perfect character study which is warm and humorous and sometimes even triumphant without compromising the well observed reality of the character and her underlying sadness. 'Gloria' is a particular joy due to its nuanced and atypical portrayal of a middle-aged woman, with the title character multifaceted and shown engaging in activities - such as clubbing, drug taking, having lots of sex, drinking, gambling - usually restricted to the under-40s as far as movies are concerned, none of which are played for easy laughs (as is the case in 'Last Vegas' - reviewed below).

A claustrophobic film, during which the camera never strays away from the protagonist (I'd be hard pressed to recall a single shot Garcia isn't in), director Sebastián Lelio has crafted something deeply compassionate and empathetic with a deceptive lightness of touch. It isn't showy and there isn't a loose scene or sequence in it, instead this is a well-crafted character piece told with great economy and forward drive that plants the viewer firmly in the shoes of its brilliant and quietly tragic central character.

'Short Term 12' - Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton (15)

More interesting when focused on the kids rather than the equally troubled adult care workers, 'Short Term 12' is an earnest and heartfelt American indie drama about a temporary care home for abused or otherwise traumatised youngsters. Brie Larson stars as Grace, a care worker who finds it difficult to listen to her own advice when it comes to dealing with her own difficult, abuse-ridden past, and she has rightly earned plaudits for the role which she plays with charm and great strength. However the stand-out actor is without doubt Keith Stanfield as Marcus, one of the troubled young people in Grace's care, who unfortunately isn't the focus of the film's main plotline even if he steals every scene he's in. It's tough and emotional without seeming cloying or manipulative, though a few strands are resolved a bit too satisfactorily at the end in a way which, though admittedly heartening, feels dishonest.

'Last Vegas' - Dir. Jon Turtletaub (12A)

Simultaneously offensive to older people - with "look! Old people doing young people stuff is funny!" being the film's only gag - whilst nakedly making a run on the so-called grey pound, Jon Turtletaub's nostalgic and sentimental romp is a waste of a fine cast. Featuring a fun and terrifically watchable Kevin Kline, a typically winsome Morgan Freeman, a suitably slick and slimy Michael Douglas and another lethargic, "where do I have to stand?" turn from Robert De Niro, 'Last Vegas' alternates between brash 'lads gone wild' antics, with wet t-shirt competitions, strippers and the dubious spectacle of veteran actors drinking spirits from an ice sculptures nipples, and schmaltzy, safe, judgmental moralising - the effect being that this is neither an "oh no they didn't!" amoral farce or a bittersweet foray into the trials of ageing and the power of friendship, though it obviously wants badly to be both. Falls flat as a comedy and as a drama, leaving a sour aftertaste.

Monday, 6 January 2014

'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug', 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', and 'American Hustle': review round-up

'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' - Dir. Peter Jackson (12A)

This second part of Peter Jackson's 9-hour adaptation of what's quite a slender children's book, 'The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug' has the same problems as its predecessor bar the songs. It's long, baggy, a bit twee, overloaded with un-engaging CGI chase sequences and full of pointless fan service for Jackson's original 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, with lots of business teasing the origins of things that ultimately happen in those other films. I didn't like the original trilogy - which feels like the sort of derivative, high fantasy trash Tolkien inspired rather than Tolkien itself - and I couldn't stand 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' either, so I won't spend long writing about this one. You're either a fan or not as this point, I would imagine. What I will say is that this second chapter is a marginal improvement on the first, mostly because there's a really terrific CGI dragon involved. True, you have to wait almost two hours (and sit through a lot of Orlando Bloom) to get to that dragon, but it is pretty spectacular when you do eventually get there.

On the subject of the derided high frame rate version (which plays at 48 frames per second as opposed to the usual 24), I was actually pretty impressed by the technology - even if it made this particular film look over-lit and cheap looking, like something you'd see on an HD TV channel rather than a major Hollywood movie. Perhaps the main benefit of watching the film in HFR was that I didn't get any sort of headache or eye-strain from nearly three hours of 3D movie. The other immediately noticeable boon was the fact that HFR seems to completely eradicate the motion blur which you usually get during sequences that involve fast panning shots with lots of action in 3D films. So basically, as it stands, it's a technology primarily aimed at improving the experience of 3D. I think it's also fair to say that the current cheap looking examples of the technology are far from representative of what it could potentially do if a film is lit specifically with the format in mind, as I'm guessing Jackson's films weren't (due to the fact the vast majority will be experiencing them in plain, old 24fps). I'm betting James Cameron will shoot 'Avatar 2' in this format and that's when we'll see it take off, just like 3D did back in 2009.

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' - Dir. Ben Stiller (PG)

The longest, glossiest advert I've ever seen. Ben Stiller's adaptation of 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' treats its audience with contempt, presenting itself as a completely sincere and resolutely anti-cynical movie, about living life to the full and self-improvement (in the most trite and superficial of ways), whilst bombarding the viewer with the most blatant, in your face product placement I've ever witnessed. Live life: Fly Air Greenland! Live life: order a Papa John's! Live life: eat a delicious Cinnabon! Live life: sign up for eHarmony! All movies feature product placement, of course, but 'Mitty' goes the extra mile of dedicating close-up after close-up to prominently branded drink cartons and suspiciously perfect looking airline food and by having the words "Papa John's" be perhaps the most often repeated in the entire movie with the possible exception of the character's name and (urgh) "the quintessence of life".

Most movies feature, say, a Heineken logo in the background (which this does, of course), but leave it at that. However 'Mitty' - which presumably made a high percentage of its money back from the off, entirely from these deals - folds product placement into the narrative directly and at every turn. It features two entire conversations about Papa John's (more specifically about how there's a Papa John's in Iceland, which is depicted as the only place in an otherwise barren land where people come together), a half-dozen phone conversations with an overly-friendly customer service guy from eHarmony (played by Patton Oswalt) which even features a line about how great service they provide is, a trip to Cinnabon (featuring lines like - and I'm paraphrasing - "you need a Cinnabon!" and "that's a plate of delicious, sugary goodness right there, my friend!") and many, many, many others. It's all just shots of Stiller Living Life(TM) (skateboarding, travelling, fighting a shark, looking at a rare species of leopard, playing football with tribesman etc) which marry the aforementioned products to a broadly appealing lifestyle. "Look at Mitty go", the film seems to cry, "be fun like him! Life is far too short! Travel abroad! Meet people! Buy a Papa Johns!"

These aren't the only problems with Mitty. It's not funny (an example of a 'funny line' Mitty wishes he'd said, to his boss with a stupid beard: "do you know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore." Zing!) and all the character's imagined fantasy sequences are so over the top ridiculous that there's no investment in them when they occur. The romance plot, between Mitty and Kristen Wiig's character, is perfunctory and unearned, and in many ways a little creepy - barely knowing her when he buys her a young son a gift and then dropping contact with her entirely because a man answered her door one time. Wiig, who I generally like, has the thankless task having to perform an acoustic guitar version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, with a pained expression on her face as if it's the most profound song of all time and she's just written it. Most symbolic of the film's dramatic deficiencies is the "nasty boss" stock character who shows up to downsize Mitty's workplace (played by Adam Scott) seemingly fresh from the set of a pantomime. He's so over the top mean to his employees - and Mitty in particular - that it doesn't relate to the world outside of the film at all. It's all bombast and sentiment devoid of real feeling or anything meaningful to actually say about the world outside of its relentless barrage of well-worn platitudes.

'American Hustle' - Dir. David O. Russell (15)

It's been trailed like a derivative, Scorsese-influenced crime film, but David O. Russell's 70s-set 'American Hustle' is best viewed as a black comedy. Every brilliant performance, every hackneyed line, every haircut, every sequence is a little warped, a little odd - from Jennifer Lawrence doing the housework whilst miming along to Live and Let Die to Christian Bale's pot-bellied, comb-over sporting conman seducing Amy Adams in the lost property room of his dry cleaning establishment. It embraces a That doesn't mean to say it isn't a decent and occasionally tense crime film, with its share interesting twists and turns in the plot, but it reminded me more of the Coen Brothers than 'Goodfellas', being about a group of variously flawed, morality bereft shysters who are often as pathetic and incompetent as they are resolutely unlikable. It's saying something that Jeremy Renner's charismatic local mayor is the only one of the bunch with any integrity and he's the victim at the centre of the big con.

Horrible people screwing each other over for the most part, but the film's refreshingly kind to the political class, who it depicts with uncommon humanity - with the mayor, as flawed and corruptible as he is, doing everything he can to help his constituents, who he earnestly strives to serve. It's careerist cops and conniving criminals who are shown to be the baddies here (even as protagonists), when we're usually sold the idea that organised criminals represent some sort of fraternity of direct, honest, old fashioned men with a strict code, as opposed to the lying, scheming cads that run the country. Instead when Bale's middle-rung financial criminal and Cooper's upwardly mobile, increasingly unhinged cop clash, there's no code of conduct or pretense of cool - nobody is in control or charismatically playing all the angles and holding all the cards. There's only a kind of ruthless, self-interested, survival of the fittest capitalism in play - and it's conscientious, civic-spirited people who get hurt in the crossfire.

Friday, 3 January 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2013: 10-1

For the first two parts of this list see 30-21 and 20-11.

10) Side Effects, dir. Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "Not the film you expect it to be following a twist at the halfway point, 'Side Effects' is a gripping thriller that takes many an unusual turn, stretching credibility all in the name of entertainment value. Partly a commentary on the power wielded by big US pharmaceutical companies over the medical profession - and on the power of doctors over patients - and the over-prescription of anti-depressants, the cold and methodical nature of the first half is reminiscent of the dry and earnest 'Contagion'... The second half is tense, gripping and hugely entertaining, though it's undeniably quite contrived and a little silly. Never more so than whenever Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as a rival psychiatrist who looks more like someone's idea of a "sexy librarian" roleplay fantasy than a medical professional. There's something exploitative about some her scenes with Mara in particular, but it didn't hamper my enjoyment of Soderbergh's latest in a run of recent (and varied) successes... Like most vintage Soderbergh, this isn't a film without flaws: but it's interesting, bold and dynamic cinema full of surprises."

It's over the top, elements of it are pretty trashy and the plot perhaps jumps the shark at least a couple of times, but 'Side Effects' is Soderbergh as a kind of Hitchcock for the RED Camera age, crafting a tense, high-concept thriller that keeps you guessing from start to finish. Or at least it keeps you guessing from the moment halfway through when it becomes clear that's the type of film this is, with the opening sections feeling like a genuine, straight attempt to chronicle the experience of one woman who falls prey to Big Pharma. It still is that film, of course, even as the plot takes a turn for the extreme, but it works on a less literal and procedural level than something like 'Contagion'. Through its twists and turns we still see the immense power of the pharmaceutical companies, who exercise a frightening control over doctors and those diagnosed with mental health issues - so it still has something to say about contemporary America. Yet the great joy of the film is the way it takes obvious pleasure in setting up a seemingly straightforward polemic (patient = victim, Big Pharma = bad), only to subvert our expectations and do something more interesting instead.

9) The Place Beyond the Pines, dir. Derek Cianfrance, USA

What I said: "Visually it's stunning, as shot by Steve McQueen's regular DP Sean Bobbitt, and somehow structurally tight in a way that belies its long running time. Factor in the fact that both Gosling and the recently Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper are on top, career-defining form and it's potentially a modern American indie classic. It's not the crime thriller a lot of people will be expecting (it's really a fairly patient and introspective drama), yet 'Pines' isn't for want of horribly tense moments or spectacular sequences - notably a one-take car chase shot from the perspective of police cars in pursuit of Gosling's motorcycle."

At the time of release, conventional wisdom seemed to be either that 'The Place Beyond the Pines' was only good for the first of its three distinct sections or that it was only let down by a baggy final third. I can see where that criticism stems from, of course. In the first instance, the narrative shift that occurs early on moves the film away from the one that was trailed and highly anticipated - and some people aren't going to be as interested watching a Bradley Cooper movie about a put-upon, workaday cop as they are a cool Ryan Gosling movie about a renegade, bank robber on a motorcycle with Eva Mendes for a girlfriend. On the second notion, the final chapter - which brings the children of Gosling's robber and Cooper's cop (played by Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, respectively) into conflict - is certainly a slower burn than the previous two and isn't about cops and robbers at all, shifting focus to more divisive cinematic fare: angsty teenagers. But these three connected yet distinct little dramas, which appropriately enough come one after the other with a sense of legacy, tell a compelling story about fathers and sons - and that's what 'The Place Beyond the Pines' was really about all along. Not photogenic, young pretenders to the throne of James Dean or the perils of being "one good cop in a corrupt force", but it's about choice and consequence and what we leave behind - it's about how the decisions of the father effect the life of the son. It explores these ideas moodily and beautifully over three acts that form a more fascinating whole and which would lose all meaning in isolation.

8) In the House, dir. Francois Ozon, FRA

What I said: "Ozon's film is always fresh and imaginative. For instance, we occasionally witness the same events told by Claude [Ernst Umhauer] in different ways, responding to the directions of his tutor. His style of storytelling and preoccupations also change in reaction to [Fabrice] Luchini's advice. We see Luchini pop-up and offer critique to his student, even as events in the titular house unfold, in a device that feels like something out of the best Woody Allen comedy. There's obviously something about storytelling as voyeurism going on here throughout - and also the way events can be warped and manipulated when described to an audience, but what I found especially intriguing is the way Ozon's screenplay - based on a Spanish stageplay by Juan Mayorga - eventually finds a way to come full circle and investigate the homes of the protagonists: their growing obsession with this one, pretty ordinary family, ultimately saying more about their own unhappy lives. Literature as theraputic release or as harmful self-delusion? The ending left me uncertain."

The word that springs immediately to mind when I think of Francois Ozon's 'In the House' is 'clever', though it isn't smug or overly self-conscious about it as it weaves deftly between fantasy and reality, multiple accounts of events and stories within stories - exploring how we project our own perceived inadequacies and disappointments onto the art we create and, sometimes, onto lives of complete strangers as they exist in our imagination. It's also slyly funny and charmingly perverse in the director's usual style, as ever resting just on the border of camp.

7) The Great Beauty, dir. Paolo Sorrentino, ITA

What I said: "It's a beautifully sad film punctuated by a bouncy, euro-dance soundtrack, which perfectly encapsulates the gilded cage that Rome has become for its protagonist. And it's also capable of being extremely funny, and more than a little wise with some really pithy dialogue worthy of future quotation. As you might expect from Sorrentino, it's sharply observed and offers a stinging, satirical rebuke to aspects of contemporary Italian culture: from a conveyor-belt approach to cosmetic surgery to the empty pretension of Rome's young avant garde set. Yet it's also a tender and sincere piece in which sex, death and the Catholic church all play a part. And gosh is it pretty to look at."

"I didn't just want to go to parties. I wanted to have the power to make them a failure." One of the best lines in a film full of them, most delivered with urbane wit by star Toni Servillo, playing a jaded intellectual who, on turning 65 at the film's outset, reflects on the dissatisfaction of his life to that point. He might be a self-styled king of parties, holding sway over the nightlife and certain intellectual circles in the most glamorous corners of Rome, but Jep Gambardella is otherwise a failure in his own estimation: with love and literary inspiration (he is said to have written one great novel) both abandoning him in his mid-20s, plunging him into a state of perpetual apathy and empty encounters with women. Sorrentino blends the modern (kitsch dance music and CGI flamingos) with the classically beautiful and culturally refined, painting a portrait of a modern day Italy rife with contradiction. Here we're shown a devoutly religious state that revels in licentiousness and hedonistic excess, with both equally vacuous. There's a sad overriding feeling of entropy over the whole movie, as if Rome and Jep, who have both seen better days, are both about to crumble into the Tiber. Yet, as you'd expect with something called 'La grande bellezza', it's also inherently life-affirming and, well, beautiful.

6) No, dir. Pablo Larrain, CHI

What I said: "In attempting to do the unthinkable and aid the "No" cause to victory - in an election assumed by most to be a formality, only staged to legitimise the regime's power - [Gael Garcia] Bernal's Rene successfully uses the language of vapid, feel-good empty consumerism rather than engaging in traditional political discourse... The film's final shots ingeniously play on our concerns about his victory, seemingly pondering whether a victory gained with empty, cynical consumerism can only lead to an empty, cynical and blandly consumerist society. It's a compelling point that renders the campaign's victory - almost a happy endpoint for the director's loose "Pinochet trilogy" - bittersweet. The decision to shoot the film on 80s cameras is likewise ingenious, allowing the fictionalised drama to blend seamlessly with contemporary news footage and the original campaign clips themselves. In featuring the original adverts - with their crude comedy sketches, cheesy imagery and despicably catchy jingles - the film also becomes a historical document and a sort of documentary about that period in the nation's history, further enhancing how engrossing and fascinating the whole thing is."

As the morally ambiguous protagonist of Pablo Larrain's latest masterpiece, Gael Garcia Bernal is perfectly cast. Not only is he a fine actor and effortlessly charismatic screen presence, but his place here also serves to represent the film in a microcosm. Much like the shallow, US-influenced political ad campaigns devised by his character were a break from the daily grind of life under the dictator, he represents the only bit of Hollywood glamour in the film's otherwise grainy and dour reproduction of 1980s Chile. It's star semiotics exploited to the movie's great benefit. Supporting Bernal is Alfredo Castro as his opposite number, playing the same role for the other side of the campaign and almost equally morally blank - Castro, the haggard star of Larrain's previous two Pinochet films ('Tony Manero' and 'Post Mortem'), in both of which he plays deeply disturbing psychopaths, is an altogether different animal in front of the camera and they play off each other brilliantly before even a word is spoken. As much as it's a good account of events that happened very specifically in Chile in 1988, what's brilliant about 'No' is its timely look at a culture of style over substance and of the victory of comfortable consumerism over political idealism. The dark beauty of 'No' is that it ends with the overthrow of a murderous tyrant and asks us if we really got a happy ending. How you win and how you argue are vitally important.

5) Mud, dir. Jeff Nichols, USA

What I said: "'Mud' is a beautiful and moving piece of work. Sincere and populated by warm, genuinely loving characters right through the cast. It goes unexpected places and sidesteps every cliche you think you can see coming along the way. Overwhelmingly it's a film about love - in all its forms - in all its fragility and with all its pitfalls, but which ultimately manages to be warm and optimistic without compromising the gritty stuff. Love is hard and sometimes impermanent, it says. You might throw everything into it and get your heart ripped out, or even find yourself publicly humiliated as a result of unrequited affection. Yet it's worth it: it's the best thing we have and the only thing in this world worth having. That is basically the lesson learnt by the young hero through his trials and tribulations, but all without seeming twee or saccharine in the slightest. Quite an achievement - and a noble one at that."

A breathtaking coming of age movie set on the Mississippi River, 'Mud' is about two young boys (played by the impressive Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who encounter a charismatic fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) holed up in the wreckage of a boat they had hoped to salvage for themselves. In an effort to get "their" boat back the boys agree to help this mysterious stranger, who calls himself Mud, bringing him supplies and getting messages to his lover, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), based in the nearby town. Before long Ellis, the boy played by Sheridan and the film's emotional centre, becomes personally invested in the success of Mud's romance with Juniper, not least of all because he needs his adolescent faith in everlasting love reaffirmed at a time when his parents head towards divorce. 'Take Shelter' director Jeff Nichols has spun an old-fashioned yarn - about boys playing by the river, picking up sticks and hiding a secret in their den - that's as much a bittersweet rumination on the nature of love as it's about growing up.

4) Bullhead, dir. Michael R. Roskam, BEL

What I said: "Matthias Schoenaerts, of 'Rust and Bone' acclaim, stars in this troubling and deeply moving Belgian thriller about meat and hormones. Ostensibly the meat in question is beef and the hormones are the various illegal testosterone supplements used to bulk it up - a dodgy practice Schoenaerts' Jacky specialises in, working with dangerous criminal gangs. But it goes further with Jacky himself a testosterone-filled piece of meat, driven (by horrific childhood trauma) to take the same illegal substances, turning him into a sweaty, aggressive and sex-obsessed bull... 'Bullhead' really seems to be an examination of what makes us functioning human beings - as opposed to animalistic bags of hormones, rutting and smashing in each other's skulls. One nasty and violent change to Jacky's anatomy turns him from one into the other, questioning how much control we have over our bodies and our behaviour. At what point does chemistry and biology take over?"

An odd one this, because 'Bullhead' is a bit uneven with some odd bits of toilet humour (possibly lost in translation) that confuse the tone and, in my view at least, some fairly needless police procedural drama - but when it's squarely about Mattias Schoenaert's intimidating cattle farmer Jacky you can't take your eyes off the screen. Such a titanic physical performance, with the handsome leading man somehow turning himself into this large, sweating, panting man-bull in front of director Michael R. Roskam's camera, Schoenaert's leaves you devastated by the year's bleakest, most intensely upsetting finale. It also has an interesting central premise that it explores in a variety of ways, with the idea that humans are bags of meat controlled by little more than hormones feeding its way into depictions of the sex trade and a retirement home - which is less heavy-handed in practice than it sounds on paper.

3) Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron, USA

What I said: "Essentially 'Gravity' is the story of one human's clawing, panting, sweaty fight for survival against desperately long odds, as Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone - a small-town medical engineer with minimal NASA training - tries to avoid being struck by a calamitous cloud of satellite debris and somehow make it back to Earth without a spaceship after her mission goes horribly wrong. Though Stone has some very real, physical challenges to overcome - such as a depleting oxygen supply and the aforementioned debris field - the chief obstacle she faces is her own weary indifference to life itself. The film is about what it takes for this person to make the difficult decision to live when lying down and dying would be much easier - and, even, more comforting. Through various visual metaphors and lines of dialogue we come to see Stone as someone eager to shut all of the world out in some doomed bid to return to the womb: where George Clooney's charismatic, veteran astronaut sees wonder, Stone appears indifferent and complains of feeling physically ill. At its heart this is a small-scale story about an introverted, deeply personal problem - albeit projected onto an epic and exciting story."

Beyond admitting the unmistakable fact that it's a groundbreaking technical achievement destined to redefine how we depict space on film and that it's almost peerlessly tense for its whole running length, many who saw (and even enjoyed) 'Gravity' have sighted "the script" (by which people tend to mean dialogue and story, even though everything that happens in that movie will be in the screenplay) as a terrible, near-embarrassing Achilles heal. The argument runs that Alfonso Cuaron's film is a shallow, silly thrill-ride and nothing more. First of all: so what if it is? Most heavy, life-changing dramas are not spectacular technical achievements that empty the entire cinematic toolbox in order to excite and astound us and keep us on the edge of our seats. But secondly: no, 'Gravity' isn't dumb or shallow or badly scripted or poorly written. It's simple and the characters (all two of them) are fairly broad archetypes, sure, but the story told in 'Gravity' is not a perfunctory excuse to take the audience on an amusement park ride. It's a human drama that uses this extreme situation as a way to tell a character-driven story in a total-cinema, sensory experience way. At its heart this isn't a movie about a rookie astronaut trying to get back to Earth against all odds: it's about choosing to live when it might be easier not to. It's about finding something to live for, whatever that might be. I saw 'Gravity' twice and found it extremely moving in part because of its directness and disarming simplicity.

2) Stoker, dir. Park Chan-wook, USA/UK

What I said: "'Stoker' is a stone-cold masterpiece in terms of direction, cinematography, editing and sound design. The plot itself is perhaps predictable and lacking in the sorts of twists and turns many have come to associate with the director of the Vengeance trilogy and 'Thirst', but the way the story is told is of the highest order. Some of the transitions between scenes are simply incredible, notably a shot that seamlessly goes from an actresses hair to a field of grass. The plot basically amounts to: hyper-sensitive and isolated teen, India Stoker, is troubled after the death of her father and resents her cold, dissatisfied mother (Nicole Kidman). After the funeral her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up and decides to stay in their house - only he has a secret and is more than willing to murder to protect it. But what it's really about - in keeping with the title's allusion to Bram Stoker of Dracula fame - is sex and death, both by way of touching lady-necks. Chan-wook is looking at the ability of blood, violence and mortal danger to both repulse and attract us - examining the erotic power of horror. In this context it's only natural that, after a spate of murdering, India comes to associate carnal desire with bone-snapping acts of violence, whilst seeming to fall for her mysterious and deadly new surrogate daddy. In other words, there's a lot going on here."

I pretty much cover why I loved 'Stoker' in the excerpt above. As with 'Gravity', it's a technical achievement of the very highest order - in this case due to incredibly imaginative, seamlessly implemented editing choices and especially terrific sound design. There's also a really visceral quality to the whole thing which will come as no surprise to fans of Park Chan-wook's previous Korean language movies, with sweat, dirt, blood and sex ever-present characters alongside a brilliant cast of actors - each of whom I've seen many times before and never been struck by. But here Matthew Goode is a sinister force of nature, Nicole Kidman is deliciously watchable as the protagonist's cold mother, and Mia Wasikowska is brilliant too, seemingly channelling early-90s Winona Ryder to perfection. I always describe it to people as a vampire movie without any vampires, due to its fascination with the awakening of female sexual desire and the relationship between sex and death, as well as the fact that Goode places his (apparently massive) hands around the necks of his victims. It's a fairly straightforward movie on a plot level, but there's a lot going on under the surface of 'Stoker', which makes it such a rich and rewarding experience.

1) Frances Ha, dir. Noah Baumbach, USA

What I said: "Co-written by Baumbach and luminescent star Greta Gerwig, the film depicts Frances as she drifts between temporary, low-wage jobs, flits between various apartments and generally struggles to belong in the world of adulthood that she is nominally now considered part of. A wannabe dancer who looks destined to fall short of being quite good enough to really make it, this is the story of a wide-eyed kid who is gradually coming to the realisation that they might not get to be an astronaut and may have to accept being just another normal person. But that's OK. Baumbach and Gerwig deliver this timely and sobering message with a lightness of touch and touching humour that stops it from being in any way bleak: Frances maybe a bit of a fuck-up, but she's a loveable fuck-up and one I can certainly relate to. This isn't simply one of the best films I've seen this year but, personally, it's the rare kind of film I can see making a lasting impression in the way very few films can lay claim. Usually, at the very best, films find ways to challenge or perhaps just effectively articulate how you feel about the world. But, for me 'Frances Ha' seems to bring into sharp focus truths about myself that actually help me better understand the world I live in and my own place in it. That's a rare thing for a film to do."

A supremely personal choice for my best film of the year, 'Frances Ha' is not pure cinema in the way 'Gravity', 'Stoker' and 'The Great Beauty' can claim to be - I still haven't seen it on a big screen myself, regrettably seeing it via a DVD screener instead - but nothing reached down into my soul this year like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's bittersweet, black and white comedy-drama. It's a movie that speaks, I think, to a fairly common problem faced specifically by people around my age (late-20s) downwards: that of aimlessness and dissatisfaction with your confused place in world. A sense that your place in the world isn't what you were promised - by the media, by the education system, by your parents. Gerwig's frustrating-yet-lovable Frances perfectly encapsulates this struggle to come to terms with reality and accept defeat, to some extent, in regards to her dreams, in that she will never be the dancer she has always dreamed of becoming. But the movie isn't pessimistic or downbeat in telling this story, and that's probably why it works. This isn't a tale of unrelenting, self-absorbed woe (that would be boring and irritating), but ultimately a testament to how falling short of your own lofty expectations is perfectly OK. It's somehow always realistic and a little tragic, whilst simultaneously being uplifting and optimistic. And that's why I love it. It isn't a denial of life's disappointments, but it's defiantly upbeat in the face of them.

For the first two parts of this list see 30-21 and 20-11.