Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Merry Christmas. Here's some David Bowie/Raymond Briggs

Merry Christmas readers! Apparently a new Snowman animation was on the telly yesterday (in the UK at least) - The Snowman and the Snow Dog or some such - and, according to chatter on Facebook, it was a load of old rubbish. So here's the original, as introduced by David Bowie wearing a nice jumper:

And, if that wasn't enough Raymond Briggs for you, here's the ultra-depressing Cold War era animation 'Where the Wind Blows' - also featuring Bowie:

That's basically two hours of watching an elderly couple slowly die of radiation sickness after naively following advice in genuine 1980s government pamphlets. Enjoy!

Merry Christmas, everyone! x

Friday, 21 December 2012

My Top 30 Films of 2012: 10-1

Here comes the final part of this year's epic list. If some of the entries seem shorter than in the last two articles, as it comes down to the very best films of the year, then that's probably because I find it harder to talk about the films I really love. It's intimidating and you want to do them justice. In some cases you don't want to spoil anything about them and in others it feels like there's little more that needs saying than "every single aspect of this is perfect".

Here is the top 10:

10) Dredd, dir Pete Travis, UK/SA

What I said: "Where the movie really shines is that this high-minded and timely political commentary is ever-present without being heavy-handed or suffocating how much sheer fun the movie is. The action is brutal and bloody in a way you really don't see any more - even in stuff like 'The Expendables', which exists solely as a throwback to that 1980s action era. It's handled imaginatively, never gets repetitive and there are plenty of clever twists along the way."

A film I wasn't looking forward to at all before it came out - I think I had possibly seen one trailer (or half of one) and been uninspired - 'Dredd' is without doubt the year's smartest comic book movie. In fact it's the year's smartest and most satisfying action movie of any stripe: packed full of bone-crunching violence and spectacle, but also neatly satirical - critical of its main character and the horrid dystopian future he inhabits. Judge Dredd, born of comic books from British publisher 2000AD, is not a character who has ever appealed to me before, perhaps due to a combination of the awful mid-90s Stallone movie and an assumption that its fascistic protagonist represented the world view of the book's authors and/or intended readership. However, it's apparent watching this adaptation that there's far more to the character than that. British TV director Pete Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland manage to get a lot of mileage out of using Dredd's uncompromising form of justice as a way to critique knee-jerk right-wing concepts of law and order, whilst also telling a really tight story. Not bad for a low-budget Brit-flick.

9) Everybody in Our Family, dir Radu Jude, ROM

What I said: "'Everybody in Our Family' could obviously be seen as a call for increased father's rights (a hot contemporary issue), with the heartbreaking reality that Otilia could stop Marius from seeing his daughter at the forefront of the drama. Yet it's equally the story about how otherwise quite gentle people might suddenly snap if pushed too far. The fact that Marius' actions, born of increased distress, are only adding to the likelihood that he'll never see his daughter again creates a sense of deep, inevitable tragedy."

Radu Jude's debut feature, 'The Happiest Girl in the World', was near the summit of this list back in 2010 and his follow-up proves that was no fluke. 'Everybody in Our Family' is every bit as naturalistic and maddening in its representation of a frustrated protagonist who seems incapable of articulating themselves. Here we follow a father as he attempts to visit his daughter at the home of his ex-wife. But a combination of the stubbornness of his ex-wife's new boyfriend - who refuses to allow him to take his daughter out - and his own obnoxious behaviour sees the situation escalate to a point where you can't see a clean way out for any of the characters. An extremely tense film, characterised by its boundless empathy and compassion.

8) Killing Them Softly, dir Andrew Dominik, USA

What I said: "It's a phenomenally violent film in short bursts, though the emphasis is on characters having conversations - about sex, money and business - against the backdrop of the 2008 recession and Obama/McCain presidential election. The whole thing is, as you might expect from the man behind 'Jesse James', shot incredibly stylishly, though without fetishising violence - again, like a Coen movie, there is an abiding humanism. There are no strictly good or bad people, just opportunists, idiots and dispassionate businessmen for whom hiring a contract killer is greeted with a world-weary sigh. Here murder, adultery and theft are just good capitalism. 'Killing Them Softly' is a modern American fable."

Smart and stylish in a way that shouldn't surprise anybody who saw Dominik's previous films - the anarchic and irreverent 'Chopper' and the elegiac, lyrical 'Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' - this is the best Coen Brothers movie the Coens never made. It's very funny, with the humour coming from the repeated use of certain phrases or peculiar words rather than gags, and a really tight crime thriller to boot. There's a Coen-esque quality to the story too, as it follows bundling criminals out of their depth, pursued by Brad Pitt as an ice-cold hitman (this is a great companion film to 'Killer Joe'). But this isn't some pale imitation without any style of its own, Dominik has his own visual style, whilst the film's heavy political subtext and running critique of the American dream sets it apart.

7) ParaNorman, dir Chris Butler & Sam Fell, USA

What I said: "The stunning character animation, detailed (and gloomily lit) scenery, clever script and well-cast voices would be enough to recommend the film, but the fact that it has such a delightful message - with the baddie ultimately being intolerance and fear of difference (rather than a nefarious person) - is what sets it apart. Especially as it has the strength of its convictions and seemingly none too worried about causing offence. The film is also terrifically well paced, with an economy of storytelling reminiscent of vintage Pixar."

Coming from Laika, the animation studio behind 'Coraline', it's no surprise that 'ParaNorman is good. What did surprise me though is just how good - how funny and unexpectedly moving it is, carried off with genuine maturity and respect for its intended young audience. One early sequence depicting Norman's walk to school is so beautiful and bitter-sweet, not least of all due to Jon Brion's score, that you'd have to be some sort of black-hearted cynic not to swoon. And for a kids' horror movie with the emphasis on comedy and kooky characters, there are some really scary things at play here psychologically. Clearly the best animated film of 2012.

6) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan, TUR

What I said: "An honest-to-gods masterpiece, this Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan has a lot in common with the almost equally excellent 2009 Romanian film 'Police, Adjective'. Both share the same fascination with the banal side of police work not usually explored in cinema, as ordinary cops perform quite boring duties. Both films have patience in common, allowing us to observe these men at work without any embellishment. But whilst the Romanian movie explored whether the semantic definition of law should hold more weight than our own understanding of morality, this feature ponders how such men can maintain their humanity when forced so often to encounter acts of barbarism."

That rare piece of European slow cinema that exceeds two hours without causing me to check the time, this is a captivating instant masterpiece. A police procedural, much of it taking place in real-time, in which you simply observe quite a lot of mundane stuff - a lot of it unrelated to police work, as colleagues chat about their home live's and whatnot. The photography is the year's most stunning, capturing natural light and Turkish landscapes in a way that leaves you in awe from the first shot.

5) The Avengers (AKA Marvel Avengers Assemble), dir Joss Whedon, USA

What I said: "'The Avengers' succeeds on every level it's trying to and gets everything right when it comes to making the ideal comic book movie. The various superpowers are used (and combined) imaginatively, the balance between action and dialogue is perfect, and Hiddleston's villain is deliciously charismatic, every bit as entertaining as the heroes. The gags work and even moments of pathos find the target when they arrive. It's a very different beast to Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'... being unabashed, escapist fun rather than a rumination on The Patriot Act or an exploration of how a costumed vigilante might really be viewed by the world as we know it. But in being so proud of its pulpy routes, giving us daring deeds painted broadly and in bright colours - as Norse gods battle men in Star-Spangled spandex - it's arguably a far braver and much tougher movie to get right. And Whedon gets it completely right, painting this epic battle on a suitably large canvas."

I don't think I've ever sat in a cinema with a bigger grin on my face than I did during this one, even on my third viewing. 'The Avengers' is the most fun I had this year doing pretty much anything, let alone in a cinema. It looks easy and straightforward now, but how Joss Whedon managed to combine characters from a half-dozen previous films without making a cluttered and uneven mess is a cause to wonder. This could so easily have been a car crash, with egos, audience testing and box office figures dictating what percentage of relevance each member of the ensemble would have - but instead we get almost equal amounts of Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) combing and playing off each other in ways both humorous and exciting. The perfect super hero movie.

4) About Elly, dir Asghar Farhadi, IRN

What I said: "We follow a group of middle-class friends from Tehran as they go on a weekend getaway to the seaside, bringing along a relative stranger - Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) - in order to introduce her to their recently divorced friend. However, when Elly goes missing (presumed drowned), the group is forced to confront how little they really knew about their guest. There are moral dilemmas and grave twists that will be familiar to those who saw 'A Separation' (in a good way) and, like much contemporary Iranian cinema, the film is rich with social critique for those willing to look below the surface."

Released in Iran in 2009, Asghar Farhadi's film prior to the sensational 'A Separation' (2nd on last year's list) only received its UK release earlier this year. There's not a lot I'd like to say about it because, like that previous film, the less you know the better. But I will say that it's every bit as immaculately acted and written as that more famous follow-up. A supremely humanist film of ideas populated by characters of stunning depth.

3) Moonrise Kingdom, dir Wes Anderson, USA

What I said: "Though I personally loved 'The Life Aquatic' and 'Darjeeling Limited', those films seemed to represent Anderson's movies becoming bigger and, to some extent, less tightly focused. The star-studded ensemble is no less eclectic here but 'Moonrise Kindom' instead feels stripped back somewhere closer to the simplicity and economy of 'Rushmore'. It's a change that's kept the director's formula from wearing thin, coming at the right moment. It's a film that makes Wes Anderson exciting again, as opposed to the master of an increasingly predictable framework (however lovely). I used to say that 'Bottle Rocket' was my favourite but conceded that 'The Royal Tenenbaums' was Anderson's most mature and accomplished film. 'Moonrise Kingdom' calls into question both ends of that statement."

Anderson's style changes just enough so that it's still recognisably there but it feels fresh, whilst his recent excesses have been toned down to make something that still feels ambitious and imaginative but also uncharacteristically tight. It's also perhaps his best looking movie to date and one of his most touching, as it deals with young love. The gathered ensemble (including Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) is perfectly cast and the young leads (Jared Kilman and in particular Kara Hayward) are revelations. Anderson's near-obsessive attention to detail and penchant for naive and wholly non-cynical characters have not been this inspiring since 'Rushmore'.

2) A Royal Affair, dir Nicolaj Arcel, DEN

What I said: "Everything about 'A Royal Affair' is stunning. Its ambitious scope in terms of subject matter, its intelligence, its brilliant cast of actors (I'll now happily watch anything with Alicia Vikander in it), and its lavish production values. I cried at the end... and I laughed far more and far harder than I have at the last dozen or so comedies. The story of a doctor who gives a king new confidence and inspires him to greater things, it could easily be billed as Denmark's answer to 'The King's Speech'. It's far better than that."

I don't know if this is any indication of how they make period movies over in Denmark, but 'A Royal Affair' is lightyears away from the staid, conservative, heritage bollocks we serve up here in the UK. If the sight of monarchs wearing ruffled shirts and extravagant ball-gowns is - not unreasonably - enough to put you off a movie by this point then you'll really be missing something special here. Along with the titular story of forbidden love, and the visceral sense of heartbreak and tragedy that goes along with it, 'A Royal Affair' is at heart a film about ideas: about compromised idealists and revolutionaries ahead of their time. It's about social change and how difficult it is to impose lasting improvements to the lot of the rest of us as long as they run counter to the wants of the super rich. It may be set in the 18th century Danish court - where it tells a sensational and scarcely credible true story - but this is a film of 2012.

1) Tabu, dir Miguel Gomes, POR

What I said: "Despite the fact the entire film is black and white, framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, a lot of it reminded me of the hyper-colourful films of Wes Anderson: with Portuguese language cover versions of 60s popular songs, childlike romanticism of the colonial spirit of adventure, characters with obscure quasi-celebrity status, and a highly precise sense of composition. Funny, bizarre, imaginative, unique, and emotional in that way that hits the hairs on the back of your neck - I'll be surprised if [this year's Berlin film festival] goes on to present a better film than 'Tabu'."

Wow. A work of genius and a probable future contender for film of the decade. A tale of love and loss which begins in Lisbon, showing us the final days of a bitter and extremely infuriating old and lonely widow - estranged from her daughter and a drain on her neighbours - only to then spend the second portion with the same woman as an impossibly beautiful and accomplished person in her 20s, living a romanticised colonial dream in Africa. The decision to follow a different protagonist in the first half (a well-meaning, busybody neighbour), with the elderly woman seen through her eyes, is especially interesting as it positions the main character as less relevant in her old age, making the subsequent flashback tale even more interesting - and perhaps saying something about our attitudes towards older people. The vibrant and ultimately tragic second half of the film makes the first half even sadder. It says a lot that whilst 'Tabu' is entirely shot in black and white (with the second half free of dialogue save narration from an estranged lover), in my mind it exists in full colour - so evocative and powerful the imagery, so ingenious the storytelling.

If you missed the earlier parts of this list, here they are: 30-2120-11

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

My Top 30 Films of 2012: 20-11

This is the second part of my top 30 films of 2012 run-down. The first part can be found here.

Here are films 20-11:

20) Searching for Sugar Man, dir Malik Bendjelloul, SWE/UK

What I said: "Undoubtedly one of the film's that's effected and fascinated me the most this year, 'Searching for Sugar Man' is a great and stylishly put together documentary about a mysterious 1970s singer-songwriter whose unjust obscurity in the US is made all the more strange by his rock god status in apartheid South Africa. The bizarre and moving story of Rodriquez is probably best left for the film to tell in detail, but rest assured it's a compelling tale about a humble man of immense charisma. It's a less comic yet far classier version of 'Anvil', to sell it in crass marketing terms."

An interesting story told very well, 'Searching for Sugar Man' inspired me to seek out both of Rodriquez's albums soon after leaving the cinema. The subject himself is an inspiring individual, without pretension and showing no signs of bitterness after his early "the next Bob Dylan" tag never translated itself into record sales or success in his home country. It's also provides a rare and interesting look at youth counter-culture in white South Africa during apartheid, as young people sought alternative ideas and art to that provided by their conservative state.

19) Sightseers, dir Ben Wheatley, UK

What I said: "Like the two Ben Wheatley films that preceded it, 'Sightseers' could appear cold, cynical and nihilistic to some. However, the unease the director makes you feel at each killing, quickly making you question each knee-jerk laugh, shows to my mind a sort of humanism that elevates the material even further. The characters themselves maybe glib about killing and dismissive of their victims, but Wheatley's handling of each act is certain to have you torn awkwardly between horror and laughter - with no act of violence seeming to lack consequence (on friends and loved ones, if not the happy murderers)."

Very droll, as one might expect from Wheatley, 'Sightseers' is a near-perfect pitch-black comedy which should achieve long-lasting cult success. Especially given how many quotable one-liners and strange turns of phrase there are here, my favourites being "he's a pig in clothes, Chris" and "he's not a person, he's a Daily Mail reader". Very British in terms of its references and social-class based humour, it's great to see some UK filmmakers catering for the domestic audience rather than chasing the (much more lucrative) export market.

18) Amour, dir Michael Haneke, AUT/FRA/GER

What I said: "It's an accomplished film, perhaps slightly over long, but boasting terrific lead performances and painting a very complex and non-judgemental picture of both a terminally ill woman wishing to die and her distraught, occasionally rash husband - who, in one tough scene, is driven so angry by her refusal to take food that he strikes her frail and immobile body. Yet this is overall a story about love, or rather which seems to redefine love or at least view it through a different lens. It's the final days of a couple who, it seems safe to assume, have lead happy and successful lives together, and yet we focus on a man caring for his sick wife and dealing with uncaring nurses and unwanted visitors (including the couple's demanding daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert). Haneke seems to be saying this is what love is, that everything else is perhaps the build up to this the greatest test of affection and, in a sense, romance."

Is it a pro-euthanasia film or merely an extremely compassionate account of why people are driven to that measure in desperation? I'm not sure - and it probably doesn't matter. 'Amour' is a film that sticks with you, putting you in a very dark place and leaving you there to think for a while. I haven't been forced to watch the slow deterioration of an elderly couple on film in this way since 'Where the Wind Blows' - and at least the characters in that film were killed by nuclear fallout! By comparison this is an all too relatable and frightening story, given that a similar fate to that of the old timers here quite likely awaits us all. I told you it was bleak.

17) Cabin in the Woods, dir Drew Goddard, USA

What I said: "An incredibly funny and whip-smart take on the horror genre from producer/co-writer Joss Whedon and writer/director Drew Goddard. It's got the splatter horror humour of 'Evil Dead' and is similar to 'Scream' in that it deconstructs the slasher genre and subverts its tropes. But unlike 'Scream' it does this without ultimately becoming just another slasher movie: it goes much further than that, delving into what makes such movies work and questioning why they satisfy audiences in the first place. It grapples with such concepts as audience complicity in movie violence and the way young people are portrayed in American movies, as well as being hilariously funny, incredibly gory and full of imagination. When it all kicks off in the final third, I can promise you there is nothing quite like it."

Completed years ago and only belatedly released this year to cash in on writer/producer Joss Whedon's Avengers success, 'Cabin in the Woods' was left to a fate usually reserved for major duds. Yet it's genuinely one of the most surprising and inventive films of the year. One of those "Christ, I never saw any of this in the trailer" types of movies that are so rare in the post-internet world. Perhaps the fact that it lingered in a vault, seemingly forgotten for a few years, actually helped cool interest in this project enough for nobody to bother spoiling it? In any case, it's a really entertaining horror that subverts genre cliches and comments on the very existence of such movies in our culture (whilst also being a dammed good one). And comic actor Fran Kranz is exceptional.

16) Haywire, dir Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "In what seems like a direct challenge to the modern action movie, Soderbergh shoots his hyper-realistic fight scenes with an unfashionably immobile camera - give or take a few lengthy tracking shots. He allows action to unfold within the frame for long spells, giving us an unobstructed view. This decision is no doubt influenced by the fact that he's not having to play tricks in the edit to convince us that Carano can kick ass: she really can and we're allowed to see that."

I fell a little bit in love with Gina Carano earlier this year, with the former MMA fighter demonstrating extreme physical skill in Soderbergh's brisk thriller - and a surprising degree of acting talent. It also doesn't hurt that she's beautiful without having a traditional Hollywood physique. By which I mean she isn't skinny. If it sounds like I'm going off on one about Carano (and I am) rather than talking about the film, that's only because Carano IS this film. 'Haywire' is really only a vehicle for her powerful and energetic fight moves, with the star-studded (mostly male) supporting cast existing chiefly to have the crap beaten from them. It's brilliant and Soderbergh really shows the rest of Hollywood how to shoot action coherently and excitingly.

15) 21 Jump Street, dir Phil Lord & Chris Miller, USA

What I said: "Hill and Tatum make for a funny and charismatic double-act, whilst the film's many in-jokes at the expense of formula cop series (like the original) and tropes of the high school comedy allow for a disarming bluntness about the stupidity of its own premise.There are perhaps too many action scenes, with car chases and gun battles now a staple of the Hollywood "dude comedy", and these do drag the film down for long spells. But when it's funny it's funny enough that you more or less forget all the bits you didn't like... and it's funny about 50% of the time."

On paper it looks like this one would be as dumb as its wannabe cop protagonists, yet '21 Jump Street' is a lot of fun thanks mainly to the chemistry of the leads. It's the film that made me laugh the most this year and I was delighted to discover, after watching it, that its co-directors are the duo behind the equally funny animation 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs' - so perhaps it wasn't a fluke. This one will have you tripping major ballsack long into the credits - which, by the way, are possibly the funniest part of the film by virtue of their sheer preposterousness.

14) The Master, dir Paul Thomas Anderson, USA

What I said: "'The Master' is not, at least to my mind, an immediately gratifying film. There are immediately gratifying elements, to be sure - the cinematography and Anderson's use of camera is one of the most obvious, as are the two central performances - but this story-light script is much more of a character study and exploration of various themes (such as religion as institutionalism and whether it is truly possible to be your own master). There's nothing wrong with that at all, and in fact the most interesting films are usually about characters rather than a narrative sequence of events, but 'The Master' takes this to an extreme, with very little happening outside of its broader exploration of themes."

I'm fairly certain I'll look back in years to come and wonder why I didn't place this higher on the list, for I've only seen 'The Master' once at the time of writing and have a strong feeling it's one that will improve with repeat viewings. Not least of all as I begin to properly understand what the point of it all is. At the moment though it's here by virtue of how beautiful the cinematography is and how stellar the two lead performances are. I bow to no one in my appreciation of Paul Thomas Anderson, so when I say that several of the scenes between Jaoquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman rank among the best things he's ever filmed, you better believe that means something.

13) The Descendants, dir Alexander Payne, USA

What I said: "It's as much about quirks of fate as it is coming to terms with loss or taking responsibility. Why should Clooney have inherited all this land through no work of his own and why should he decide what happens to it? Why did Elizabeth decide to jet ski on that day rather than drive the boat as planned? Why should Alex have stumbled upon her mother's indiscretion by chance? When Clooney finally confronts his wife's lover he is told that the affair "just happened". "Nothing just happens" is King's response, giving rise to perhaps the film's definitive line: "Everything just happens.""

Sometimes the films you see at the start of the year get lost by the time all the lists are being made and awards are being handed out, but Payne's 'The Descendants' overcomes this obstacle quite easily. A bittersweet and introspective movie about forgiveness, loss, entitlement and a whole lot more, this one is deceptively light and breezy on the surface but yields a whole lot more on closer inspection. Clooney is ever superb as the wounded male lead and the scene's featuring his comatose wife verge towards harrowing as the film reaches its end. A beautiful piece of work, not least due to its non-judgemental humanism and Payne's understanding that bleak and serious drama is not incompatible with a sense of humour.

12) Killer Joe, dir William Friedkin, USA

What I said: "Director William Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts - author of the original stageplay - deliver a memorable and disturbing little picture, which culminates in a masterful third act which plays out as one scene set around the family dinner table - one which won't help drive sales of KFC and may serve as a cold shower for any ladies still breathless from seeing the lead actor parading about as a male stripper the week previous. The whole thing plays as satirical, especially in its darkest moments, though it isn't entirely clear what the target is. That would ordinarily leave me struggling to justify the ultra-violence, but 'Killer Joe' is too well crafted and cast for that to present much of a problem."

I don't know where Friedkin has been since his 'Exorcist'/'French Connection' heyday, but 'Killer Joe' is arguably right up there. Along with the aforementioned 'Carnage' - also based on a stage play - as well as the likes of 'Haywire' and 'Sightseers', there is a theme on this year's list of films that manage to go by a decent clip and come to a satisfying end in well under two hours. 'Killer Joe' is one of those, being economical and well plotted, driven by eye-catching performances (notably from McConaughey) and culminating in a scene of mind-melting tension that will linger long in the memory.

11) Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, dir Lorene Scafaria, USA

What I said: "Perhaps the year's most pleasant surprise, this apocalypse dramedy sees Steve Carell and Keira Knightley forming an unlikely friendship with only days to go before an asteroid destroys the planet. It's a sublimely sweet little movie from 'Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist' scribe Lorene Scafaria, which skillfully combines genuine heartfelt emotion with black comedy. There are some really profound musings on love, life and regret here, but also some of the best comic moments of the year as people react to the end of days in a myriad of psychotic and self-deluding ways."

Sometimes how good a film is has more to do with your own mental state going in, and I saw this one days after being dumped out of the blue by my girlfriend of seven years. I quite honestly would have welcomed the end of the world and - like many of the characters here - would probably have taken a lot of heart from a mutual sense of misery at the futility of existence. It's all better now and I don't feel anything like that bad about the whole thing, but it was during this time that I saw and loved 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World'. A film that was, for me, the right amount of sweet and bitter - and a disaster movie that had the strength of its convictions. It also doesn't hurt that the first half is extremely funny, depicting the mass hysteria of an oncoming apocalypse in a way I've never seen on screen before.

Check back later for films 21-11. If you missed them, check out entries 30-21.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

My Top 30 Films of 2012: 30-21

It's that time again! Time for the annual top 30 film list, in which I rank my favourites. People ask me "Rob, why do you insist of compiling a top 30, rather than, say, a more traditional top 10?" And I say to those people, with limitless patience, "because even compiling this year's top 30 has seen me leave out such stunning films as 'Francine', 'Elles', 'Just the Wind' and 'Postcards From the Zoo' - to say nothing of documentaries such as 'Tabloid', 'Dreams of a Life' and 'Woody Allen: A Documentary'." I have also neglected to include films that came out too late last year to be included in the 2011 list. So, whilst magnificent, 'Moneyball', Fincher's 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' and the surprisingly funny 'Arthur Christmas' don't feature.

Anyway, here is the first part of this year's list. Films 30-21:

30) The Woman in Black, dir James Watkins, UK/CAN/SWE

What I said: "In places it's truly frightening, even if it is (by design) playing on oft-seen horror tropes. It doesn't do anything new but it does the old stuff very well. Radcliffe is a good fit for the protagonist, seeming both vulnerable and capable. Some are bound to find his youthful appearance and image as a boy-wizard a distracting incongruity, especially given that here he is playing a father, but I didn't find this to be a problem. At 22 Radcliffe is an adult who could feasibly have a child - this is simply a fact. If anything his most famous role compliments this one, with both Harry Potter and solicitor Arthur Kipps being of unfailingly good nature."

Regular readers will know I'm not a horror fan, but I did really enjoy this one despite seeing it with a tittering teenage audience that found every aspect hilarious. The fact that it still made me jump (more than a couple of times) and genuinely creeped me out, is all the more impressive given the circumstances. An old fashioned type of horror movie that's refreshing in an age of all-out gore-fests.

29) Magic Mike, dir Steven Soderbergh, USA

The scene where Matthew McConaughey teaches Alex Pettyfer to sexy dance in a mirror - sweatily gyrating against him in spandex - is one of the funniest things I've seen all year long, matched only by the incongruous appearance of McConaughey in an Uncle Sam hat later in the same film. Marvellous. I'm not sure how much of 'Magic Mike' is supposed to be funny but I had a blast watching it. I also have a real soft spot for Soderbergh of late. Let's hope he isn't really about to retire.

28) The Muppets, dir James Bobin, USA

A little ray of sunshine - blissfully free of irony or schadenfreude in a world where both are dominant. 'The Muppets' isn't solid gold all the way through - it lags in the middle for a bit and some of the gags fall flat - but it's impossible to watch without a smile on your face. The songs are great and there are some really inspired gags too. This is one I've already gone back to several times on DVD.

27) The Grey, dir Joe Carnahan, USA

One from way back at the start of the year, 'The Grey' sees Liam Neeson again in action hero mode, but this time he's battling the elements, a pack of ravenous wolves and himself (coming to terms with the loss of his wife and a new-found dislike of humanity). It's supremely effective and an interesting change of direction for the director after making that forgettable 'A-Team' movie a couple of years back.

26) Side by Side, dir Christopher Kenneally, USA

A timely film arriving at the end of the celluloid age, 'Side by Side' would be interesting enough if it were simply a dry look at the difference between the old technology and digital and the potential problems and advantages arising from the change. But it's much more fun than that, however, with Keanu Reeves interviewing a stellar line-up of filmmakers, actors, producers and technicians that includes Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and an especially enthusiastic Danny Boyle. The likes of David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh provide some extremely memorable and amusing quotes too, ensuring this is a must-watch movie for anyone with an interest in filmmaking - even if they aren't necessarily bothered about competing storage media. Though those who go in without an opinion are sure to leave 'Side by Side' feeling pretty strongly one way or the other.

25) The Hunger Games, dir Gary Ross, USA

With extremely low expectations I read The Hunger Games in the run-up to the summer movie and, to my surprise, really enjoyed it. Enough that I swiftly read the next two books and got pretty into that world. I'd be the first to admit that the books are flawed, but they are pretty good and the film lives up to the first one and - in a couple of ways - improves upon it. It made for an interesting film and one which leaves me excited enough to want to see the sequels.

24) Carnage, dir Roman Polanski, FRA/GER/SPA/POL

Great performances from the cast and a really smart script, this is a tight, little drama with a sharp wit. It's the best film Polanski's made in at least a decade. Not a lot more to say about it than that without going into specifics and reviewing it all over again... so there it is.

23) Chronicle, dir Josh Trank, USA

A slick mix of horror, "found footage" movie and super hero actioner, 'Chronicle' - written by Max Landis, son of John - is inventive, exciting and tense. The film even finds time to become a drama about growing up and to some extent an angsty teens new-found abilities form part of a commentary on high school shootings and the sorts of troubled kids who perpetrate them: the anti-social and violent side of the geek empowerment fantasy around which all super hero stories are built.

22) Brave, dir Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, USA

A huge improvement on the studio's last two films - both sequels - 'Brave' is only just short of being up there with 'Up' and 'Wall-E' in the Pixar canon. It succeeds mostly because it's not the film you think it's going to be based on the trailers. This isn't a trite story about a woman who doesn't want to be pretty but wants to be a warrior instead - the usual route of female empowerment being depicted as increased masculinity - but rather the tale of a stubborn teenager and her equally stubborn mother trying to improve their mutually antagonistic relationship during a tough transitional time in their lives. This is the story of a mother getting to grips with her daughter's increasing independence from her care, whilst that daughter has to juggle with discovering who she is and what she wants to do. The popular culture is full of stories about father-son bonding and that relationship in general, but this is the first mainstream children's movie I can recall that's all about the relationship between mother and daughter.

21) Argo, dir Ben Affleck, USA

Whilst not my favourite film of the year - in fact it's 20 spaces off the top spot - 'Argo' could easily be crowned Best Picture at next year's Oscars. Ben Affleck has established a good reputation behind the camera, with 'The Town' already seen as an unlucky loser last time around despite strong early buzz, whilst the Academy traditionally loves actors-turned-directors. It's also got a liberal political stance on the situation in modern Iran, laying the blame for the current regime at America's feet. Yet overall it isn't going to alienate more conservative voters, because it's a film in which the CIA are the good guys and "bringing our boys home" is the objective. It is - spoiler warning - an American success story in a part of the world where those are currently difficult to come by. And, finally, much of it takes place in Hollywood and lampoons that community - but in a gentle and affectionate way that can only be received warmly. Thought of that way it's a pretty safe movie, especially as - in terms of plot and the way it's shot - it recalls the sort of 1970s political thrillers they just don't make any more. It is, however, also very good - so I wouldn't begrudge it any of that success.

Check back later for films 20-11.

Monday, 17 December 2012

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey', 'Alps', 'The Hunt' and 'Seven Psychopaths': review round-up

'The Hobbit: An Expected Journey' - Dir. Peter Jackson (12A)
The first of three(!) instalments of Tolkien's short and sweet prelude to Lord of the Rings, as envisaged by the enemy of brevity Peter Jackson, is as punishingly long as you might expect. Factoring in twenty minutes or so of ads and trailers, this first hit represents over three hours at the movies. You would think that would give ample time to tell the entire story as written, but the money men and Jackson's own inflated ego - which has seemingly survived 'King Kong' and 'The Lovely Bones' unscathed - intervene to instead sell us what feels like a mix of DVD deleted scenes from his previous trilogy along with countless, interminable minutes of battles which feel like you're watching somebody else playing a video game. The various skirmishes that take place between the merry band of Dwarves and assorted ugly (and therefore expendable) sentient lifeforms - such as orcs and goblins - are bland and uninvolving, with no sense of jeopardy at all and even less sense of time and space. As ever it feels less like Tolkien and more like the imitators his imagination inspired, such as Warhammer or World of Warcraft.

Whilst Jackson and company had to condense the previous trilogy in order to turn it into films, here the decision to expand upon a much slimmer volume leads to a baggy narrative filled with incidental remembrances and incidents either wholly made up or pulled from obscure references in the appendices of LOTR. This accounts for why we spend fifteen minutes or so watching Sylvester McCoy, as Radagast the Brown, mug his way around a forest, on a rabbit-pulled sled, saving adorable CGI hedgehogs from god knows what. It's all entirely pointless. As is the scene in which Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Galadriel (Cate Blanchet), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) meet up to have a conversation that isn't in the book at all - much like half those characters - just so they can hint at the grim future events previously seen in a separate set of films. It's fan service for a film made less than ten years ago and on a huge budget. In fact, it's basically the last ten minutes of 'Revenge of the Sith' all over again - and that's probably the best way to describe this entire film, as it attempts to play off nostalgia rather than doing anything new.

Jackson's 2nd unit again attempt to dazzle us with grand helicopter shots of Great Men walking across New Zealand's mightiest mountains, but it feels like a greatest hits re-run - ironically making it the exact opposite of inspirational. Even the riddle sequence with Gollum (Andy Serkis), which is closely lifted from the book and forms the film's highlight, is stretched out and provides too many opportunities for Serkis to riff and showboat, capitalising on his character's popularity, with straightforward storytelling never the film's primary motor.

The increased length of the piece also means that, this time around, we aren't spared adaptation of Tolkien's song/poems (the bits you traditionally skip over when reading the books). And so the Dwarves sing a jaunty washing up song like something out of a Disney parody and then they hum an ominous hymn with uncomfortable earnestness. Later the Elves gaily prance and play the pan pipes and serve vegetarian food and speak in breathy tones and dare you to smash them in the face with a rusty spade. It's all quite high on it's own imagined cultural significance and emotional power, yet that doesn't stop the filmmakers from filling the screenplay with awful jokes and slapstick comedy that would make 'Attack of the Clones' era C-3P0 die of shame. Literally the gags include: small man on a horse and fat man eating food (and later: fat man climbing tree).

I just posted this on Facebook, but I think it's a decent summation of this review and my feelings for the whole 'Lord of the Rings' movie oeuvre:
The wikipedia entry for The Hobbit (book) sums up the difference between Tolkien and Peter Jackson beautifully: "Beorn never actually shape-shifts between man and bear-form during the narrative of The Hobbit book: he is encountered in both forms, but his actual transformation appears "off-screen", away from the point of view of the main characters. Comments made by [special effects company] Weta Workshop indicate that in the adaptation, Beorn's transformation from man to bear will be a major special effects sequence." And probably one lasting twenty minutes accompanied by soft-focus and pan pipes and Enya set in the idyll of a cheese ad and filmed on top of a mountain, as captured by a 2nd unit helicopter crew.
On the positive front, Martin Freeman makes for an appealing Bilbo Baggins and does a very good (and subtle) impression of Ian Holm - who plays the elder version of the character, in the previous films and at the beginning here. Much like Ewen McGregor in 'The Phantom Menace'.

NOTE: I wasn't able to see the film in the higher frame-rate that's attracted so much negative criticism, so I couldn't possibly comment on that. However, I think the 3D is pretty good, for whatever that's worth. Clearly shot with stereoscopy in mind and never gimmicky.

'Alps' - Dir. Giorgos Lanthimos (15)
Speaking of directors coasting of memories of their previous films, Greek filmmaker Giorgos Lanthimos channels a lot of what made 'Dogtooth' so great into his follow-up, which follows a group of people who impersonate deceased loved ones in order to aid the grieving. The strange, stilted style of dialogue, phrasing and delivery continues here, as does his clinical, cold and detached aesthetic. Yet it doesn't work so well a second (or third, for those who saw the risible copycat that was 'Attenberg') time, perhaps chiefly because the sterility of 'Dogtooth' seemed entirely appropriate in the context of a story about adult-children who had never left the house and consequently had been unable to socialise in a normal way. Watching that film you could imagine that outside the gates of their sheltered family home you'd find a normal, recognisable world. Yet 'Alps' makes that stylistic choice feel like an affectation rather than commentary. So it's a follow-up that not only borrows heavily from a previous work but also diminishes it by association.

Whereas 'Dogtooth' seemed theme-rich and entirely clever, 'Alps' feels aimless and hollow: all style. There are moments where it really works - where the disconnected protagonists with their monotone voices say and do things which are really funny - but it's difficult to care overall. I'm at a loss for what it's about, to be completely frank. It might be saying something about acting as a profession: positing the trite idea that actors are all lost and shallow people without identities, who perform out of a desire to become somebody else and to please people. In this case becoming not only someone other than themselves, but doing it to please another and in doing so live vicariously off that affection.

Or perhaps, with its repeated a theme of dominant male characters (like 'Dogtooth', 'Alps' has a few violent patriarchs), it's saying something about the role of women in society? Pressured into conforming into various roles and so forth. A reading supported by the opening scenes which focus on female characters whilst disembodied male voices bark instruction. But in either case, it isn't effective or particularly thought-provoking, since it's hard to care at all when the characters themselves are so remote and unaffected.

'The Hunt' - Dir. Thomas Vinterberg (15)
Danish Dogme 95 pioneer Thomas Vinterberg directs the stellar talent that is Mads Mikkelsen in a taught and gripping drama about a primary school teacher in a small village who is (wrongly) accused of sexual assault by a child in his care. To make matters worse, the little girl in question is his best friend's daughter, very much leaving him without friends in town where his reputation goes from charming, eligible bachelor to paedo scumbag overnight. It's immensely frustrating to watch as a good man's reputation is disintegrated without reprieve or the hint of redemption, though that unhappy scenario does at least afford Mikkelsen the opportunity to give another stunning performance in a year in which he has also starred in the excellent 'A Royal Affair'.

A hard watch but a timely one, in an age where paedophile moral panic is at its greatest and media witch hunts routinely assassinate the character of public and private individuals. What makes the film so strong is that you believe that this one lie - spoken in anger by a troubled child - is all it would take to turn everyone you know against you and totally ruin your life as you know it. Perhaps the message of 'The Hunt' is that we shouldn't be so quick to pass judgement and join a hate mob based on hearsay and speculation - even if it seems to be coming from a source of authority: here in the guise of the well-meaning head mistress to whom the lie is first told. Though social media doesn't factor here, it is easy to relate this story to the world of Facebook and Twitter where such band-wagon jumping campaigns are able to gather steam like never before and with increasing frequency.

Perhaps this is why we, curiously enough, never see the trial or the justice system in action during 'The Hunt', with that taking place during a rare stretch of the film in which Mikkelsen is absent. This is a film about mob rule, in which guilt is assumed the moment the accusation is made and sustained even when all the facts go against it. In that way it would make a good companion piece to the similarly themed American film 'Doubt', though scenes of the character's day to day life in town following the trial reminded me most of Tilda Swinton's guilt-wracked mother in the aftermath of the events of 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' - incidentally, another film that deals with heinous culturally taboo crime perpetrated against children.

'Seven Psycopaths' - Dir. Martin McDonagh (15)
The most common complaint I've heard directed at 'Seven Psycopaths' is that it isn't as good as writer-director-playwright Martin McDonagh's earlier 'In Bruges' - and it isn't. But then what is? The main thing is that, whilst the film is certainly a little baggy and unfocused, it is still riotously funny. It stars Colin Farrell as probable author insert Martie - a screenwriter struggling to write a film out in LA, joined by Sam Rockwell as his actor best friend Billy and Christopher Walken as Hans, a quiet and philosophical religious man who makes a living from stealing and subsequently returning rich peoples' dogs. However the trio become enemies of a gangland psychopath played by Woody Harrelson when Billy steals his prized Shih Tzu and attempts to ransom the dog back. Things get messy, with tragic consequences as Hans and Martie are pulled into the conflict. All the while Martie is gathering material for his screenplay: 'Seven Psychopaths' - which becomes a sort of film within the film/self-fulfilling prophecy a la 'Adaptation'. And Tom Waits is in it too.

It's frequently hilariously funny, with Rockwell and Walken both particularly brilliant and Farrell clearly relishing working under McDonagh again, not least of all because this is a rare American film in which he is allowed to retain his Irish accent. A sequence in which Rockwell gives his account of how the shoot-out at the end of the film should play out is particularly inspired and brilliant and McDonagh's screenplay is every bit as uncompromisingly darkly funny as 'In Bruges', even if it misses the smaller scale two-men on the road setting. It's perhaps too big and there are too many characters, with the connections between some of them fairly tenuous, but you can't fault the writer for ambition. And if that sounds like a contradiction of my above review of 'The Hobbit', then chalk that up to 'Seven Psychopaths' being half as long and infinitely more fun to watch.

Monday, 10 December 2012

'Sightseers', 'Amour': review round-up, plus Special Ben Wheatley Interview Podcast!

Quick update with a couple of short reviews, but first I wanted to flag up the fact that the latest Splendor Cinema podcast is an interview with 'Sightseers' and 'Kill List' director Ben Wheatley. iTunes subscribers can get that now, whilst it will take a few days before it's uploaded to sound cloud (and streamable from this blog).

The interview was recorded during a Q+A I conducted with Wheatley following a rare screening of his debut feature 'Down Terrace' at Brighton's new cinema Duke's @ Komedia. It was the first such event hosted at the new venue and I was honoured to be able to host it. During the Q+A, the director talks about all three of his already released features as well as next year's 'A Field in England' and a few others besides.

Anyway. Reviews.

'Sightseers' - Dir. Ben Wheatley (15)
The pitch-black humour of this British comedy - about a resolutely ordinary, working-class couple on a caravanning holiday around Yorkshire who become serial killers - will come as no surprise to those familiar with the directors other films. 'Sightseers' finds Wheatley's by now traditional mix of the mundane and the ultra-violent, all with a low-key, sardonic sensibility. It's a film in which people's heads are staved in with visceral, cover-your-eyes detail only for the perpetrators to bemoan that their ghastly crime has "ruined the tram museum" for them now. Other gems in a smart and quotable screenplay include "he's a pig in clothes, Chris" and "he's not a human being, he's a Daily Mail reader"! It's a terrifically funny hour and a half that should build a lasting following over the years to come, in no small part due to the performances of co-writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who create a memorable screen duo.

Like the two Ben Wheatley films that preceded it, 'Sightseers' could appear cold, cynical and nihilistic to some. However, the unease the director makes you feel at each killing, quickly making you question each knee-jerk laugh, shows to my mind a sort of humanism that elevates the material even further. The characters themselves maybe glib about killing and dismissive of their victims, but Wheatley's handling of each act is certain to have you torn awkwardly between horror and laughter - with no act of violence seeming to lack consequence (on friends and loved ones, if not the happy murderers).

'Amour' - Dir. Michael Haneke (12A)
Michael Haneke's previous Palme d'Or winning film film, 'The White Ribbon', was one of my favourites of that year. And though his follow-up also snagged that prestigious prize, 'Amour' is not in the same weight class - either in the way it's been made or in terms of narrative. It's a smaller film with a more intimate feel and a subject matter that - whilst huge in that it deeply effects each and every one of us - feels much more personal. As such the movie is fittingly filmed around one location - several rooms of a nice Parisian apartment - and features only a half-dozen actors, focussing for the most part around only two: an elderly couple hauntingly played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.

It's an accomplished film, perhaps slightly over long, but boasting terrific lead performances and painting a very complex and non-judgemental picture of both a terminally ill woman wishing to die and her distraught, occasionally rash husband - who, in one tough scene, is driven so angry by her refusal to take food that he strikes her frail and immobile body. Yet this is overall a story about love, or rather which seems to redefine love or at least view it through a different lens. It's the final days of a couple who, it seems safe to assume, have lead happy and successful lives together, and yet we focus on a man caring for his sick wife and dealing with uncaring nurses and unwanted visitors (including the couple's demanding daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert). Haneke seems to be saying this is what love is, that everything else is perhaps the build up to this the greatest test of affection and, in a sense, romance.

It's a film called love in which, at least as far as I can recall, nobody says "I love you" or shows anything like passion. But 'Amour' is unmistakably a love story. Even if it's a troubling and depressing one without a solitary shred of hope! A terrific film, and an important one, but the scope and technical prowess of Haneke's previous instant classic (perhaps unfairly) casts an inescapable shadow over this more modest endeavour.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Keanu Reeves Interview: Neo himself talks about documentary project 'Side By Side'

Quick post to say an interview I did with Keanu Reeves and director Christopher Kenneally is now online, on the website of Brighton's Cinecity Film Festival. The star-studded documentary, based around the current debate about whether or not filmmaking should go digital or stay rooted in photo-chemical processes, sees Reeves interview top people including directors (too many to mention, but dozens of BIG names), cinematographers, actors, producers and beyond. It's so good that I saw it twice in Berlin earlier this year, which is where I caught up with Mr. Reeves.

Anyway, if you live in or around Brighton you can see 'Side By Side' for yourself this weekend as part of Cinecity. It's playing at 15.30 (3.30pm) at the Duke of York's Picturehouse and you can book tickets here.

My review of the film is up here.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

'The Master' review:

Aside from general tardiness, the reason I have taken so long to review 'The Master' - in spite of the fact I made sure I saw it first thing on the day of release - is because I haven't been entirely sure what to make of it. I make no secret of the fact that director Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Punch-Drunk Love' is my favourite film, which means watching the filmmaker's first feature since the almost equally brilliant 'There Will Be Blood' comes with a certain weight of expectation and a desire on my part to avoid a reactionary response which I might regret later! Mostly because I suspected (and continue to suspect) that his latest is a film which will gain a lot from repeated viewings.

'The Master' is not, at least to my mind, an immediately gratifying film. There are immediately gratifying elements, to be sure - the cinematography and Anderson's use of camera is one of the most obvious, as are the two central performances - but this story-light script is much more of a character study and exploration of various themes (such as religion as institutionalism and whether it is truly possible to be your own master). There's nothing wrong with that at all, and in fact the most interesting films are usually about characters rather than a narrative sequence of events, but 'The Master' takes this to an extreme, with very little happening outside of its broader exploration of themes.

The story boils down to: a mentally troubled man (the chameleon-like Jaoquin Phoenix) leaves the Navy after WWII and finds it difficult to maintain a job or relationship upon his return home. Circumstances lead to a chance encounter with a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose sheer force of personality and assumed place of authority subdue Phoenix and make him feel as though he belongs, becoming the cult's least questioning acolyte, intolerant of the slightest criticism of Hoffman and given to violence against perceived enemies of The Cause (a clear analogue of Scientology). Things happen, of course, but they aren't presented as a series of cause and effect events. Rather, various encounters between Phoenix and Hoffman, and all the incidents in between, serve as vehicles to explore the film's themes. Making it a difficult but potentially rewarding watch.

Hoffman's every mannerism and intonation is inspired, with the master already one of his best characters, whilst his customary ability to switch from gentility to rage is exploited here to its very best, and it's his scenes opposite the quiet, unhinged menace of Phoenix that are the film's clear highlight. In fact an interrogation scene between the two and their final scene together at the end - in which Hoffman delivers a truly brilliant monologue - are among the best individual scenes Anderson has ever filmed. Meanwhile Jonny Greenwood again provides the score, which whilst not as visceral and consistently unsettling as his work on 'There Will Be Blood' (or Jon Brion's mesmeric score for 'Punch-Drunk Love') is still one of the year's best.

I'll return to this film in the near future and will probably come back to talk about it some more when it's clearer in my own mind. In the meantime, it goes without saying that it's worth seeing and a masterpiece in so many ways, even if I'm not yet certain how great it is overall.

'The Master' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is on general release now in the UK.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

'Skyfall', 'Argo' and 'Rust and Bone': review round-up

'Skyfall' - Dir. Sam Mendes (12A)
By far the glossiest looking Bond film to date, this 50th anniversary edition of the spy series arguably brings top tier talent behind the camera for the first time - with an Academy Award winning director in Sam Mendes and the legendary Roger Deakins serving as DP. The result is something very pretty indeed and a film in which London - so often centre of attention in this Olympic year - is made to look especially cool. This seems to be the chief aim of 'Skyfall': to celebrate Bond as a British icon, and by extension celebrate Blighty. It's the first of the current Daniel Craig led series to be made in the coalition era and, perhaps not incidentally, it's a very conservative movie - which frequently invites us to look backwards.

In some ways this is harmless, as we're expected to coo at the screen return of a vintage car or an old character (inventor Q returns to the series, played by Ben Whishaw). Yet in other ways this is more insidious as the series to some extent jettisons the sensitive and fully-featured Bond of the past two instalments - the one who lost the love of his life in 'Casino Royale' and then went on a revenge mission in the derided 'Quantum of Solace' - in favour of a return to a Bond who makes glib jokes as a women he's recently bedded is killed. Yes, in the traditional style, once Bond beds the bad guy's woman she no longer has anything to offer the narrative and her only recourse is to serve as an example of how ruthless the big baddie is. Whishaw's Q - who seems to be channelling Moss from 'The I.T Crowd' - makes a self-aware joke at one point that the series has grown-up beyond exploding pens and other extreme gadgets. What a pity the sexual politics of old was not thought equally out of date.

In any case, that's Bond for you I guess. If it seems churlish to complain that a Bond movie falls in-line with long-established Bond conventions, I only do it because the series did seem to be taking a conscious step in another direction before this reversal. In fact, by the end of 'Skyfall' the series traditional status quo - and with it oak panelled patriarchy - is fully restored. One bright spot though is the appearance of Javier Bardem as the villain of the piece. Bardem is magnetic in every scene and brings out the best in the material. His mode of speech and every subtle mannerism is interesting and makes the film worth watching even for self-confessed non-fans like me.

'Argo' - Dir. Ben Affleck (15)
Following on from the enjoyably meat and potatoes, Michael Mann-lite crime movie 'The Town' and his Clint Eastwood-like directorial debut 'Gone Baby Gone', Ben Affleck has now turned in an entirely effective political thriller in the mode of the late Sidney Lumet. The actor-turned-director still hasn't really displayed any particular style of his own behind the camera, but it doesn't really matter in this instance because everything about 'Argo' is at least solid, often going some way beyond that. In fact, for the last hour, it's incredibly tense and terrifically well-paced, leading to the sort of air-punching, applause baiting finale usually reserved for fight movies.

Based on a true and recently declassified story, 'Argo' is about a marverick, young CIA operative (Affleck sporting a nice beard) who creates an elaborate cover in order to sneak into Tehran and rescue six American embassy staffers as they wait in hiding during the hostage crisis of 1979-81. The six had escaped the embassy during the takeover and are hidden in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, however it is only a matter of time before the authorities discover that they are missing and begin to search for them. With the clock ticking, Affleck comes up with "the best bad idea we have" - deciding to try and sneak the six out of the country posing as a Canadian feature film crew scouting for a location for a science fiction epic called Argo.

In order to make the cover realistic however, Affleck has to journey to Hollywood and gather interest in the film - getting a script and storyboards done, as well as attaching a special effects guy (John Goodman) and a big-shot producer (Alan Arkin). This makes for some neat, affectionate satire of the film industry and some pretty decent comic relief which helps to relieve the sometimes unbearable tension of the action taking place in Iran. Roundly superb performances (Bryan Cranston is in it, fagodsakes) and a humanistic attitude to the whole crisis, with attention paid to the complex history of the rift between Iran and the US, 'Argo' is the sort of smart and gripping thriller you didn't think they made anymore.

'Rust and Bone' - Dir. Jacques Audiard (15)
Following on from the over-praised prison drama 'Un Prophete', French director Jacques Audiard takes a change of direction to tell this rather more compelling and left-field story about the redemptive power of love. Here Marion Cotillard's double amputee regains her lust for life after embarking a complex relationship with Matthias Schoenaerts' uncouth, selfish part-time doorman and wannabe prize fighter - an errant father and petty criminal. It's the story of two lost souls finding their way in the world together and complimenting each other perfectly, seemingly against the odds. The most appealing thing about 'Rust and Bone' is that Audiard doesn't judge his characters, in spite of their doing some pretty horrible things from time to time. They are wounded and troubled people, but not caricatures and this makes their finding solace in each other all the more powerful.

In fact there is something bitter-sweet about their relationship as it seems born, to some extent, of compromise and circumstances. They have fallen into this partnership together because neither's life has gone as planned and that's sort of sad, albeit in an extremely mundane way. That is until the ending, which seems to artificially rectify the situation with a change of fate that doesn't feel foreshadowed or particularly warranted. Perhaps the film's final moments are an ultimate tribute to the transformational and life-affirming nature of having love in your heart - and that's a very nice sentiment - but it still rings false as a piece of storytelling.