It's become traditional to look back on the films and DVDs of the past twelve months at the end of that year and I sometimes wonder why. As a world we are somewhat obsessed with numerology, marking and cataloguing events and experiences by numerical units and celebrating the arrival of a new year not because of any actually physical change it represents, but because there's a different number at the end of the date when we write it on cheques or letters. But it does provide you a socially approved point to reflect on the recent past, and in my case give a mention to some of the films that I wanted to push but which slipped through the sizeable holes that appeared in our review net.
It has, on reflection, been a difficult year for this site, with serious family ill-health putting movies on the back burner on at least four occasions, the result of which has seen us get behind in our reviews and even force us to drop a few (plus another that was repeatedly promised and never arrived, a curse that probably dogs all hobbyist sites at one point or another). The year can be gauged in part by the fact that when I came to draw up a shortlist of films I'd enjoyed I had trouble remembering what I'd actually seen, let alone when I'd seen it. It did occur to me that this was symptomatic of a year in which I saw less stand-out movies than usual, itself partly the result of the aforementioned family problems – when you've got a close relative lying in the emergency room you don't tend to keep that looked-forward-to movie date, even if you helped arranged the screening. And so I missed a lot this year and had to let a few discs pass by unseen and unreviewed. It's a situation I'm keen to correct – I'm in the process of catching up on a couple of those lost reviews as I type (well, not AS I type, obviously, that would involve two brains and four hands), the aim being start the new year ahead of the game. Damn, that sounds dangerously like a resolution.
But before I get to the movies that made my year worthwhile, I feel the need to mention three movie-related things that put a downer on it. One is due to the misfortune of fate, another to economics, the third to greed and a complete lack of imagination and vision. Can you guess which district of which city that's going to involve?
1. Premature departures
No, I'm not being metaphoric, but genuinely mourning the passing of two industry figures who died well before their due time.
The first was Australian actor Heath Ledger, who like his countrymen Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce had made such a smooth transition to Hollywood that a good many of his fans didn't even realise he WAS Australian. His role in Monster's Ball (2001) attracted attention, but it was his award-winning, Oscar-nominated turn in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain that moved him up to leading man status. But it was two character roles that followed that were for me to really define his extraordinary range as an actor. As Robbie in Todd Haynes' superb I'm Not There he gave probably the most low key performance in the film, one that was almost overshadowed by Cate Blanchett's extraordinary Bob Dylan impersonation but which stuck in the memory precisely because it did not in any way call attention to itself, if that makes any sense. The other, of course, was as The Joker in Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight, a performance so explosive and so unpredictable that it left the rest of the cast struggling to keep up. The real tragedy is that this was the very performance that would have made Ledger an A-list star and would doubtless have given him the pick of pretty much any role he wanted. It's a career that was cut short not by wild living, but an accidental overdose of prescription drugs at just 29 years old. What a loss.
The second was Romanian director Cristian Nemescu, whose first feature California Dreamin' announced the arrival of an exciting new voice in world cinema, one who must have seemed destined to join his countrymen Christi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) and Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in establishing new Romanian Cinema as THE (albeit unofficial) film movement of the moment. Yet just days before the completion of post-production on the film, Nemescu was killed while riding in a taxi when it was hit by a speeding (British) driver in a bloody Porsche. He was just 27 years old. Of course one fine film does not an auteur make, but to see any new talent cut down so early in their career leaves you with a tragic sense of what might have been.
2. The Demise of Tartan
This is not a kilt factory closure reference but a mourning for the passing of one of the UK's most distinctive distributors, one whose back-catalogue is a treasure trove of international and independent film gems. That's not to say they didn't take some flack in their time and with good reason – the transfers on some of their early Asian cinema DVD releases were shockingly poor, they would often use NTSC to PAL transfers rather than PAL originals, and more than once they delivered discs that did not appear in the version that had been promised (DiG! was a prime example). Of course in retrospect this can be seen to be a matter of simple economics – an independent distributor providing a steady stream of titles for a minority audience has only so much money to spend, and compromise is sometimes inevitable. Nonetheless they still produced a great many premium quality discs with excellent transfers – their releases of both Primer and Oldboy, to name but two, were exemplary – and they were responsible for bringing a slew of titles to the UK that I firmly believe would never had seen the light of day here were it not for founder Hamish McAlpine's enthusiasm and keen eye for eclectic cinema.
That the label has undergone a resurrection of sorts under the name Palisades Tartan has yet to impress – so far this has only ensured the availability of a small sprinkling of back-catalogue titles, while other distributors engage in a feeding frenzy over the rest. Only time will tell if other enterprising indie labels will take up Tartan's quest. In the meantime I'd hang on to any currently unavailable Tartan titles in your collection, as their rarity has seen their value soar – their Michael Haneke Trilogy, once available for under £20, is currently changing hands on-line for £125.
3. The unbroken march of the Hollywood Remake Machine
I used to run a small listing on on the site of upcoming Hollywood remakes, but abandoned it simply because there were so many and the quality so consistently inferior to the original that there seemed no longer any point in banging on about it. But the flood has continued in 2008 and looks set to gain further momentum in the next couple of years as the ideas bank runs completely dry, with the focus slowly shifting from Asian cinema (although this year we were still treated to poor rehashes of One Missed Call, The Eye and Bangkok Dangerous, to name but three) to the glory days of American studio and indie classics. Years ago I was asked rhetorically by a friend, "Why does Hollywood only ever remake great movies?" He knew the answer, of course, but his point is valid – a weak movie with an interesting central idea is surely more ripe for reworking than one that got it right first time round.
But this is not about art, of course, but money and a target audience who consider any film made before 1990 as ancient history. They've not seen the originals, and if they have they're likely to have been bored by them, at least that's the thinking. I'll admit that for the most part I've started to steer clear of such remakes on their initial release, but still manage to catch up with them later when they hit DVD or TV and in every single case am supplied with good reason for avoiding the next one. Thus it's only this year that I finally caught up with the rehash versions of The Hills Have Eyes (started OK, but the mutant family were hilarious), Dawn of the Dead (no thank you), Rob Zombie's Halloween (he's a big fan of the original, so what was he thinking here?), The Fog (just awful) and The Wicker Man (words fail me).
The 2008 remakes I did catch included the above trio of Asian cinema downgrades, Nelson McCormick's shockingly bad Prom Night and the recently released The Day the Earth Stood Still. Now I know this last one got a cautious thumbs up from fellow reviewer Camus, but he and I rather notoriously disagree on a good many of Hollywood's bigger products, and for me this was everything I feared it would be, and in a way that rather neatly sums up the current Hollywood approach to remaking classic films for a 21st Century audience. It takes one of the greatest of all 50s science fiction films and upscales it in every respect, from the special effects (see the snippet of info at the end of Camus's review), to the volume and visual messiness at which a good part of it is played out. Keanu Reeves gives a fence-post performance as Klaatu and in the process turns one of science fiction's most fascinating aliens into one of its dullest. Of course the thinking behind this is obvious – he's like a robot carrying out his duty until he learns some understanding of humanity from Professor Cleese and Helen and that annoying brat of hers. Geddit? That the film waves a few green credentials cuts no ice with me. I remember some years ago a Hollywood bigwig (I wish I could remember who) being interviewed about the switch in politics in Hollywood films from the left-leaning works of the 70s to the right-wing actioners of the 80s. The interviewee was amused at the naiveté of the question and replied that Hollywood wasn't interested in the least in politics, only in making money, and if left-wing, anti-establishment films were selling then that's what they'd make. Right now green politics are selling, and indeed have been for some time – there's even an eco-warning message at the heart of the otherwise vacuous Day After Tomorrow, while pro-ecology components in action movies goes back to Steven Segal's 1994 On Deadly Ground, which for all its faults was made when it wasn't so trendy to include them – and you can expect to see that pro-environment message in good few more Hollywood movies before this year is out. I don't believe for a second that this will win any converts to the cause, but should give a few empty shells the respectability of meaning.
To end on a downbeat note, here are a spattering of the Hollywood remakes already in production or pre-production. I've noted the attached director or producer when that seems to send a message of its own. The order is deliberately random. Well, most of it.
Taking of Pelham 123
Tony Scott is in the director's chair and Denzel Washington and John Travolta star. I shudder at the thought.
Probably the only proposed remake that holds any interest for me, given that it's being adapted and directed by The Shawshank Redemption's Frank Darabont and that the book is open to a very different interpretation to Truffaut's original, which novel author Ray Bradbury is said to be something of a fan of.
Do not mess with Big Dave. For the record this will be remake number 2 as there was also a TV mini-series adaptation in 2000.
Producer Jerry Weinstraub and director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, oh joy) are apparently in charge of this completely unnecessary update of Michael Crichton's 1973 classic.
Inevitable and awful. Oh look, we can do CG birds. Millions of them. And Michael bloody Bay is producing this one.
Clash of the Titans
Last House on the Left
Oh good, another remake of a 1970s horror favourite. What's more, given that Craven's film was based on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, this is actually a remake of a remake.
Joel Silver's producing this one. No problems there, then.
And yes, it's Michael Bay producing again. Fabulous.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
OK, first of all I can't believe they're doing this, and second, Michael Bay is once again the producer. Will someone please stop this man?
I have nothing to say on this one.
Oh do me a favour. Original writer-director Clive Barker's involved in this too – he really should know better.
3D. Can you imagine? Nothing like giving a low budget gem a witless big budget makeover. To be directed Alexandre Aja, the man who fucked up The Hills Have Eyes and gave us Mirrors.
The Lives of Others
It's a great movie, but it's in German, you see, and... Who do you reckon? Nicolas Cage?
You can blame High School Musical for this one. But I had no time for the original so have no axe to grind here.
When Worlds Collide
To be directed by Stephen Sommers, the man who brought us The Mummy and Van Helsing. What a pedigree.
Unbelievable as it may seem, Darren Aronofsky is attached to this. Why?
Well that should about complete the pointless remakes of the great works of George Romero. Someone named Breck Eisner is directing.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon
Kim Newman once argued that all efforts should be made to keep Steven Sommers away from this. They succeeded, but it's been given to, hang on, Breck Eisner...
A tacky original but a fan favourite, and this one's going to be directed by, wait a minute, Breck Eisner. Who IS this guy?
I can't even begin to tell you what's wrong with this idea.
The Illustrated Man
To be directed by Zack Snyder, the man who ruined the Dawn of the Dead remake and made the wildly over-praised 300.
Given the current standard of remakes of John Carpenter films, we can charitably expect this to be dreadful.
I'm actually surprised it's taken Hollywood this long to fuck up one of the greatest crime movies of all time.
This one really depresses me. One of the finest, darkest films of recent years needs no remake and certainly doesn't need the sort of watering down it will get to make it palatable to a mainstream American audience, and with Steven Spielberg slated to direct and Will Smith starring, that's who it's going to be targeted at.
The Seven Samurai
I've saved the worst for last. I know Seven Samurai has already been remade as The Magnificent Seven, but this time they're keeping the samurai and the original setting, and there's little that churns my stomach more than a Hollywood take on historical Japan. To confirm my worst fears, Harvey and Bob Weinstein are executive producing.
|the good stuff: the movies
I decided to restrict myself to 10 movies and 10 discs, much as I've done before, with the usual rule that if I saw it for the first time this year then it counts, even if it was released earlier.
I know, it was made in 2006, but I didn't catch it until early this year and it was worth waiting to see it in the company of a large and receptive audience. Prime proof that plot isn't everything, the film tells a simple story in bewitching fashion – the performances are winning, and unlike many stories of talented musicians on the verge of discovery, the songs and their performance are dynamite.
Another one caught too late to qualify in last year's list, David Fincher's immaculately executed study of investigative obsession seamlessly infuses the style and tone of 1970s conspiracy thrillers (complete with a score by David Shire, who provided the music for All the President's Men, the film Zodiac most obviously draws inspiration from) with subtle CG work and some genuinely disturbing violence. The Blu-ray director's cut is out now and is absolutely the one to own.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)
Yet another hangover from the previous year that I'd heard all about by the time I got to see, and still I wasn't prepared for what I encountered. New York artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel deserves a shed-load of credit, not just for visually interpreting a book that few would see as having filmic potential, but for retaining its subjectivity and for shooting it in its original French rather than adapting it for Hollywood. For those who do not know it tells the true story of successful Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who after a stroke found himself suffering from locked-in syndrome, a condition which paralyzes the body but leaves the mind active. Boldly and brilliantly directed and featuring a marvellous central performance by man-of-the-moment Mathieu Amalric, it also manages to throw some emotional sucker punches without ever stooping to sentimentality.
Syndromes and a Century
A film that has alienated as many as it enthralled, and I really can see why. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's study of two hospitals – one rural, one urban – both featuring effectively the same characters, may make an obvious point about the pace of life and its effect on out humanity, but for me it does so in consistently hypnotic fashion. Others will tell you it's the most boring film of the year, and fair enough, but I loved it.
I'm Not There
Todd Haynes' marvellous exploration of six aspects of Bob Dylan's life, career and personality (although Dylan's name is never used once in the film) is one of those films that had me wide-eyed with wonder by its end, but convinced that the audience we'd screened it for would not share my enthusiasm. And yet of all the films we showed this year, this is the one that generated the most enthusiastic and long-lasting feedback – people were talking about it for weeks. Some fine (and in some cases deceptively subtle) performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw and young Marcus Carl Franklin, but it's Cate Blanchett who steals the film in an uncannily accurate impersonation of the man himself. Brave, adventurous and wonderfully assembled, it's the sort of film that keeps your faith in American cinema flying.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile)
It's been an impressive two years for Romanian cinema, with Christi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest and Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin', but for me it Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days that made the biggest impact of all, an emotionally stunning, brilliantly acted drama that follows two girls, almost in real time, through the process of an illegal abortion in the last days of Romanian Communism. It's precisely the sort of film that Hollywood and even American independent cinema just would not make at the moment, but one they could learn so much from.
Tough to make a case for In Bruges, the first feature from successful playwright Martin McDonagh, as while perhaps not a great movie per se, I don't think I had more fun in a cinema all year than with this hilarious, wonderfully scripted and performed tale of two Irish hit men holed up in the historical Belgian city of Bruges after bungling a job back home. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson shine as the disgruntled killers, Ralph Fiennes turns swearing in a comedy art form as their humourless boss, and Jordan Prentice is a delight as dwarf actor Jimmy. And despite one character's constant complaints about the location ("Fucking Bruges" could almost have been the title), there's not a person I know who's seen the film that doesn't want to go there now.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Possibly the year's longest title adorns this long-awaited second film from Chopper director Andrew Dominik is a slow moving but haunting and melancholic look at the Jesse James legend, adapted from Ron Hansen's novel and featuring at its centre a performance that firmly establishes Brad Pitt as an actor of some note rather than the master showman he was in danger of being labelled. Beautifully shot by Coen Brothers regular Roger Deakins and atmospherically scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who also worked together on that other recent Australian directed western of note, The Proposition.
No Country for Old Men
It was a tough call whether the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson stole the prize for indie filmmakers who scored mainstream success without compromising their style this year. There Will Be Blood is one hell of a film and really deserves to be on this list as well, and had I got that needed second viewing in by now it may well have been (the Blu-ray disc is sitting right by the machine). But three viewings into the Coen Brothers' surprise Oscar-winner (no-one was more surprised than them, apparently) and I just have to throw my weight behind No Country for Old Men, a work of stunning precision that had me (and most of our sizeable audience, I might add) utterly glued from the opening scene. Superb performances from a world-weary Tommy Lee Jones and an increasingly out-of-his-depth Josh Brolin, but it's Spanish actor Javier Bardem who steals the film as smiling but ruthless killer Anton Chigurh.
You, The Living (Du levande)
Roy Andersson's extraordinary follow-up to the similarly styled Songs From the Second Floor (Sånger från andra våningen, 2000) completely inverts the modern trend for headache-inducing, machine-gun editing by shooting almost every scene in a single, often static wide shot, in the process changing how we look at composition and action within the frame. It's also touching, political, structurally complex and very funny – just thinking about it now puts a smile on my face.
This 2-disc delight from Masters of Cinema is one of those titles I wasn't even aware of by a director whose work I really should have known but had never seen. And it's a revelation, an enthralling and adventurous film that boasts themes and technique that were years ahead of their time. A fine set of extra features on the second disc include a making-of documentary that's almost as striking as the main feature, screen test footage, a couple of fascinating featurettes and a typically excellent MoC booklet.
Mad Detective / Sun taam (Blu-ray)
Three of the key British independent labels launched their first Blu-ray discs this year, and of these only Artificial Eye's high-def re-release of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi – which lacked the definition and punch you tend to associate with Blu-ray – disappointed. Mad Detective, a deliciously offbeat crime story from Hong Kong directors Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai, was the highly anticipated first HD release from Masters of Cinema and a good choice, with the transfer generally looking and sounding terrific, the higher level of detail offered by Blu-ray strikingly evident when compared to the simultaneously released and still high quality DVD. Tokyo Sonata is promised for next year, but hopefully a couple of older titles too?
Salo: 120 Days of Sodom / Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Blu-ray)
The BFI's first Blu-ray release was both surprising and daring, given the controversial nature of Pasolini's final film, and when I say controversial I mean it big time – there's stuff in this film that even today will leave an audience horrified and disgusted, and so difficult is it a film to objectively comment on that two months after I received this disc I'm only just getting to grips with the review. But whatever your views of the film, the presentation is exemplary, a pristine high definition transfer from the original negative of both the original Italian and original English language versions, plus a DVD packed with material on Pasolini. A full review will follow soon. Honest.
The Dark Knight (Blu-ray)
I may not have swooned over Christopher Nolan's Batman movie as readily as others – I still don't buy Michael Caine as the cockney Albert and find myself laughing out loud at Christian Bale's growly-voiced Batman (you'll find an amusing piss-take of this here) – but this was a handsomely mounted film that tells its story well, and Heath Ledger's psychotic Joker is clearly destined to go down in history as one of the greatest of all movie villains, as well as one of the most gleefully enjoyable to watch. The Blu-ray version of the film courted controversy from purists by incorporating the IMAX sequences into the film rather than including them as an extra feature, as they are on the DVD, resulting in an intermittent switch of aspect ratios between 2.35:1 and 1.85:1. Although initially irritated at the thought of this, I quickly got used to it and even began to look forward to the changeover, as the IMAX sequences are, at the moment in time, the most gob-smackingly pristine images I have yet seen on my high-def system, and have a cinematic sharpness and depth that really does leave even the best DVD looking a little wanting. If you're impressed by that sort of thing, of course. Ahem.
Masters of Cinema again, and not for the first time they manage to beat Criterion at their own game with the inclusion of a commentary by celebrated genre director and fan of the film Guillermo del Toro. A visual and thematic masterpiece by Carl Theodor Dreyer, it was playing games with a genre that was in its infancy, and is one of the reasons the recent spate of conventional Hollywood vampire flicks look so anaemic. The print's not in perfect shape, but is still a big improvement on previous video versions, and the extras as as well chosen as ever.
Stuart Cooper's marvelous and intimate wartime drama following a young recruit's training for the D-Day landings finally got a UK DVD release from Metrodome and looked lovely. That the package fell short of the earlier Criterion disc by a few hairs mattered not – this was still a welcome release for a too-little seen film, and the extra features are different enough to those on the Criterion disc to make both of them worthy purchases for fans.
Cloverfield (US Blu-Ray)
A rethink of Godzilla for the camcorder age that shows the story from the viewpoint of ordinary citizens rather than those trying to battle the monster, and one whose waggly hand-held camcorder style is perfectly suited to the TV screen. Contains the best use of CGI I've seen all year, the city-wide destruction so much more believable (and alarming) when glimpsed in passing rather than dwelt upon and showcased in the normal Hollywood manner. It's worth going to the US Blu-ray over the UK one for the better selection of extra features. I should also give a plug here for the 2-disc DVD of Rec, a superb little Spanish camcorder horror film at the opposite end of the budget scale, and one that manages to reinvigorate the zombie movie so effectively that Hollywood nicked the idea this year and bungled it as Quarantine.
I have to admit that this is a choice driven in part by nostalgia, a crucial film from my youth with one of the best source music soundtracks I can think of, all restored and released by the BFI on a disc that also includes a couple of very nice extra features. The first feature from ex-critic and later experimentalist Chris Petit and Svankmajer and Quay Brothers producer Keith Griffiths, this is the British road movies at its most creative, and features some gorgeous monochrome cinematography from Martin Schäfer.
Mizoguchi Kenji double-bills
These started appearing on the Masters of Cinema label in 2007 but carried on through to mid-2008. The transfers varied in quality (Ugetsu monogatari was frustratingly inferior to the Criterion release), but collectively they are cinematic gold, and the double-disc approach ensured that for every famous title you got to see one you'd never caught before. There's not a film in this set that won't delight fans of Japanese cinema on some level, and all are accompanied by an introduction by Tony Rayns and a classy booklet with essays and information of the films. The sets are: Chikamatsu monogatari and Uwasa no onna, Sanshō Dayū and Gion bayashi, Ugetsu monogatari and Oyū-sama, and Akasen Chitai and Yōkihi.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
It's been another year of excellent, must-have releases from Criterion, including works from Costa-Gavras, John Cassavetes, Jean-Pierre Melville, Ozu Yasujiro, Michael Powell, Guy Maddin, Milcho Manchevski, Claude Sautet and Anthony Mann. But time and money have resulted in me only buying one (although Sam Fuller's White Dog is already on order, and the only reason I don't already have Chunking Express is the knowledge that the Blu-ray edition will look even better, but I'll need a region A player before I can go down that route), and that's Paul Schrader's utterly magnificent 1985 portrait of Japanese writer, photographer and would-be military leader Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The film alone would be enough to qualify this one for entry, but being a Criterion release it features a glorious restored transfer, a director's commentary and a slew of other worthy features. Wonderful.