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It was a very good year...?
A film and DVD review of 2009 by L.K. Weston
 
"I think, people have expected less of movies
and have been willing to settle for less."
Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, June 23, 1980

 

Well, here we are, my inaugural Review of the Year! Writing it marks something of a little life milestone for me, not only does it draw to a close my first – though not quite complete – year writing for DVD Outsider, but it crosses something off my 'life list' so to speak. Since I was a teeny little cinemagoer – OK, so, under the age of twelve, since the idea of reviewing films as a trade didn't come to me until after this point – I always wanted to write one of these 'Year in Review' things, and I've played pretend at it a few times before, thinking of myself as a kind of junior – very junior – British version of the late, great Pauline Kael and the wonderful Roger Ebert. Ebert, and to a greater degree, Kael inspired me to become a film writer, simply because there are few women in this game. Before you leap on me and say "what about..." I know they're exceptions to the rule, and the blogsphere/internet era means this landscape is changing, but still like to think that without women like Pauline Kael, getting stuck in and doing all the groundwork, people like me wouldn't get a look in.

A big thank you to our illustrious leader – I mean, editor – for taking a shot on a known kid.

Though I don't profess to be anywhere near as good as either of these critics, but I do hope that I've managed to share with you my thoughts and ideas over the year with the same level of passion, detail and at least a modicum of intelligence! Over these past few months, my cinematic horizons have been broadened leading me to question my own tastes and the state of contemporary cinema – both global and domestic – as a result.

It's been a rollercoaster of a year, where I've been overjoyed, enthralled and enraged in equal measure (mostly that's now to our dear friend Michael Bay, but since I feel I'm not alone in this feeling, I won't rant here) sometimes all of those things at once – no, I didn't think it could happen either. In case you're wondering, that lofty accolade goes to Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight. I managed to avoid this hideous juggernaut of a franchise for a whole year – I'm quite proud that fact, it only narrowly beats the fact that I've only seen five minutes total of the entirety of the other biggest franchise of recent years, High School Musical. Do I get a medal?

More about those glittery vampires later...

To end on a high note, I'll leave you with my personal highlight of the year: Watching Kate 'the great' Winslet finally win that elusive Oscar! Having watched almost everything Winslet's been in since I was thirteen (yes, she came to my attention because of that film about the big boat that sinks), I can honestly say that seeing her win both The Golden Globe, Oscar and BAFTA for The Reader (as well as further nods for her turn as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road) was almost like winning the damn thing myself, since because, for once, I never actually thought she'd win, and the names of the actresses who nabbed that little golden man ahead of her are still fresh in my mind. Just because you have a burning desire to know exactly who beat her to the punch since 1995 – and this is all without the aide of Google, may I add – it was Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) Helen Mirren (The Queen).

Feel free to put me down as your phone a friend...

I'll be taking a leaf from Slarek's book here, and I've restrict myself to ten films and ten discs (good and bad) with some extras in each category for the also rans; further special mentions for things that made me want to poke out my own eyes to end the pain and a speculative look into my cinematic crystal ball. In addition, I've given myself some allowance for things I've seen for the first time this year, regardless of release date and exhibition format – yes, I'm one of those people that buys imported DVDs and watches shorts on iTunes, because I like or am interested by things that never seem to make it to our shores.

My picks are and are presented here for your consideration – see what I did there? – in no particular order, by no means exhaustive, and come to you after considerable pruning.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

films

The Reader
When I heard that Kate Winslet had taken over the lead role of former Auschwitz prison guard, Hanna Schmitz from Nicole Kidman, to say I was dubious was an understatement, but I was proved wrong, and how. Stephen Daldry's touch here is deft, considering the weight of the material – it's hard to believe this is the same man that directed Billy Elliot. At its heart, The Reader a study of guilt and responsibility, and though it's not the easiest of films to watch, it is rewarding. With strong performances from Winslet, David Kross and Ralph Fiennes, and a beautiful, haunting score from Nico Muhly, it's not one you'll forget easily either. (Camus film review)


Bright Star
I'm a long-time admirer of Jane Campion's work, and I've always hoped she would regain the kind of recognition she did in the 1990s for The Piano, but after the critical mauling she got for the much-maligned and entirely misunderstood (in my opinion) In the Cut, I doubted that would happen, until I saw Bright Star. I hate to use the term 'return to form,' but it's true, this film feels like a homecoming. It's a beautiful, haunting and immensely powerful film, that just needs to be seen, because words can't really do it justice. As ever, Campion proves hard to describe and hard to label. If Campion, and her lead actors Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish are empty-handed by the end of awards season, I'll be incredibly surprised.

Broken Embraces
The work of Pedro Almodóvar will always have a special little spot in my heart, since he's one of the last filmmakers I ever studied as a film student. I love his expressiveness, the vivid, painterly way he constructs the world his characters inhabit, and the meta-reference lover in me gets double enjoyment from trying to spot everything he's snuck in there for me to find – yes, it's kind of like a treasure hunt. Fans of his earlier work, especially Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, will particularly enjoy the sometimes eerie similarities between the two films. Just when I think Almodóvar can't get any better, he does. This is Almodóvar's love letter to noir, and it's entirely deserving of it's Palm d'Or nomination (his third to date). Penélope Cruz's turn here as Lena is even better than her scene stealing one as fiery artist María Elena in Vicky Christina Barcelona.

April Showers
You should, some say, write what you know. In the case of writer-director Andrew Robinson's debut feature, it'd be a pretty dark tale. A survivor of the Columbine tragedy April Showers is based on his experiences during and after those fateful hours. This is film unlike anything I've ever seen. The events of April 20th 1999 have not only caused much media debate but they've also generated there own fair share of school shooting films – I'd go so far as to say they're almost a sub-genre – which vary wildly in quality and tone, ranging from the rather melodramatic Homeroom to the quiet intensity of Elephant. April Showers sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and is an incredibly moving, thought-provoking piece of cinema, with a particularly talented young cast. Robinson handles the material with great skill and sensitivity, both he and the film are fully deserving of the accolades they've received thus far on the festival circuit. 

However, this is not the easiest of films to watch, and nor is it the easiest to sell, but it should be seen by everyone, especially those of high school age. Ironically, Robinson has had to bat his own battle to fight with the notoriously hard to please MPAA, who saw fit to give the film an R rating, and red banded its trailer, therefore reducing its effectiveness as an educative tool and limiting access to the very people who should be seeing the film – younger adolescents. As ever, the decision proves just how clued in they are in regard to the value and importance of films like this, versus their likelihood to cause harm through copycat incidents – for me, the former outweighs the latter, since there's nothing cool about murder.

After gaining a limited theatrical run stateside, it's currently only available through Amazon (both in physical DVD /Blu-ray and video-on-demand rental formats) and US iTunes, but international distribution is in the works. For more details and to view the first ten minutes, visit the film's website at http://www.aprilshowersmovie.com.

The Unloved
This is Samantha Morton's directorial debut. If that sentence alone doesn't have you intrigued, then read on. Even though this made its premiere on television, I'm still including it because I feel it's deserving of a much wider release, regardless of the modest protestations of Morton that it was something she needed to make, and has no further plans to direct in the future. The story itself is based loosely on Morton's own experiences growing up in care in Nottingham, told entirely from the point of view of eleven-year-old Lucy (a remarkable Molly Windsor). On the basis of this film, I'd say that's a great loss for film culture. The Unloved is a beautiful yet harrowing artistic statement, but it is also a reminder that cinema has the capacity to carry a message. Stylistically, it straddles the line between Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsey, borrowing the social realist grounding of former and the dream-like pacing and aesthetic of the latter. If you're a fan of both, then you're in for a treat. The Unloved is, like Scum, and Cathy, Come Home before it, a watershed in social problem cinema that should be required viewing.

The Hurt Locker
Given that I'm not the greatest fan of war films, this might seem strange entrant, but I greatly admire Kathryn Bigelow, and I'm immensely pleased that she's now back in the spotlight. This fictionalised retelling of the experiences of journalist Mark Boal during his time with a group of bomb squad soldiers in the Iraq war (circa 2004). As ever, in the hands of Bigelow, this isn't your average wall film, and is quite different to anything else. Much like Jarhead before it, this is a war film without glamour and glory. The Hurt Locker is intense and unflinchingly honest film and while it isn't perfect, is one of the best depictions of Iraq onscreen, built upon solid performances with Bigelow's trademark talent for getting under the skin of characters to show what really makes them tick. I've always admired her knack for playing with stereotypes and genre conventions to create something entirely original, having been wowed by Strange Days, and intrigued by Blue Steel I'd always hoped that Bigelow would make something like this. Get a look in before the inevitable Oscar buzz means you're jumping on an overcrowded bandwagon.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Terry Gilliam, where do I begin? This is the kind of film I used to dream about happening. I'm drawn to the weird and wonderful by default and it doesn't get much weirder than this – OK, so it's not quite David Lynch territory, but it's also not completely the opposite end of the spectrum either. Of course the main attraction for most people is to see whether or not Gilliam and Friends can pull off making the film a cohesive unit in light of Heath Ledger's death during production. Were this film made by or starring anyone else, it would have fallen apart immediately. It's the kind of film you want to see more than once, and it's one of the rare few that can stand up to it. I think my enjoyment – though enjoyment seems the wrong word given how it came about, through a particularly cruel twist of fate, rather than purposeful design – stemmed from seeing just how it all fitted together throughout the many changing faces of the good doctor. As for the late Mr Ledger, he leaves behind another inspiring performance, which just taints my experience of Parnassus a little bit, since I can't help but think of what else he could have achieved. (Camus film review)

Sunshine Cleaning
This is a very different kind of Christine Jeffs film to Sylvia, and was my initial reason for wanting to watch it. This was an incredibly tough call, and I came very close to including Julie and Julia, since there's precious little to separate it and Sunshine Cleaning in terms of Amy Adams' performances (and somehow not including Meryl Streep in a review list seems like breaking commandment of film writing, but maybe that's just the Barry Norman effect), she's incredibly good – in entirely different ways – in both. The thing that swung it is the Emily Blunt's turn as her rebellious sister Norah the perfect foil to Adams' repressed, yet hardworking single mother Rose. Alan Arkin yet again nearly steals the whole thing as the girls wheeler-dealer father Joe, in a role that almost feels like a continuation of his exploits in Little Miss Sunshine, so much so that it's easy to imagine him and grandfather of the Hoover clan, Edwin, being friends. The film is quirky – without being annoying – and with some genuinely funny and touching moments, my only wish is that it could have been a little bit longer, since it ended rather prematurely for my liking.

An Education
Starring 'it girl of the moment' – who can actually act, thank goodness – Carey Mulligan, with an impressive ensemble cast, including Emma Thompson and Peter Skaarsgard, this is a wonderfully British film, the type of which is all too rarely made these days, which is amusing given it's directed by Dane Lorne Scherfig famed for her Dogme 95 film, Italian for Beginners / Italiensk for begyndere, but as émigré directors Ophuls and Renoir proved, you don't have to be a part of the culture you're making a film about. More often than not, the result on screen is better because of it, and this also rings true for the work of Schefig and An Education.

Every time I looked at Mulligan, I couldn't help but think of Julie Christie, and the 'swinging London era,' since it's spot on in terms of evoking the period, with wonderful soundtrack choices to boot. Outside of London, Jenny and David's jaunt to Paris is achingly glamorous, befitting of David's debonair charms. An Education is already attracting a lot of admiration, and I can only already see some iconic silverware piling up for Miss Mulligan and company. Wonderful stuff.

Synecdoche, New York
I wish I was Charlie Kaufman, no, really I do. In addition to wanting to camp out in the brains of Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, a bit of time on holiday at chez Kaufman would definitely be on my places go to list, just to have a poke about and see if it works differently to my own – because it surely has to. I've always been intrigued by his writing, my anticipation for his directorial debut was high, and for once, I came away feeling elated rather than disappointed. Sure, Kaufman is an acquired taste, and I know he's a bit too off-the-wall for some, but that's what I like about his work. Taste aside, you can't accuse Synecdoche, New York of being lifeless, boring or lacking in creativity. Just like his previous scripts, this is a densely layered and incredibly rewarding film for those that enjoy something a little less mainstream, and although a Spike Jonze take on this would have been an interesting prospect, but I'm glad Kaufman took up the challenge, because it wouldn't work half as well as it does outside of his control, and no one could know his material better. 

Close, but not close enough:

Up
I'm convinced that Pixar have some sort of magnificent machine constructed to look inside our heads and find exactly what makes us laugh and what makes us cry, since there's no other way to explain how they've managed to sustain their considerable run of success for so long – they seem to have found the elusive golden formula which immediately translates into box-office success. Whenever I hear of a new Pixar project, I always secretly wonder if it will be the one to break that run, but it never is, simply because the quality of their output from one film to the next is not only consistent, it somehow manages to better itself – and not just from the perspective of technological advancement and the refinement of artistic technique. If you had choose one film to represent Pixar's output, to show to visitors from outer space, then Up would it, since it carries the all the studio's much-loved hallmarks from the past decade, and is undoubtedly their most humorous and heart-warming tale to date. Even the most hardened of cynics will be misty-eyed. (Camus film review)

Hunger
It saddens me to put this just out of my list, but I really wanted to shed some light on some less well known films, meaning that Steve McQueen's quite frankly brilliant debut film chronicling the final days of IRA leader Bobby Sands, gets edged out of my top ten (after finally seeing it thanks to the wonders of my television's on demand service). Michael Fassbender is utterly compelling here as Sands, and I have a feeling he'll be getting a lot more attention after this film gets even more recognition when it's released on DVD. On a related note, Fassbender is has completely stolen my 'beyond the call of duty' award for the change in his appearance throughout the film, which was previously held by Christian Bale for The Machinist – narrowly beating Tom Hardy in Bronson to the punch. This is no walk in the park, and at times it's almost too disturbing, but that's what makes it so interesting. I for one can't wait to see how McQueen's next feature, Fela, a biopic of Nigerian activist Fela Kuti turns out on screen.

(500) Days of Summer
This is a very cool film with an even cooler soundtrack that's right up there with Juno and Garden State for nailing entirely the mood of the film and it's protagonists to melody, everything feels like it's there for a reason, rather than just slapped on top to make noise. The analyst in me can't help but I can't help but think there's some connection between that and director Marc Webb's previous work in music videos, but that might be a happy coincidence. Personally speaking, I think it's the 2009 equivalent of the Deply/Hawke indie romance extraordinaire, Before Sunrise/Before Sunset and it's not too much of a stretch to see it becoming as big a cult hit in the future, due largely to the presence of Zooey Deschanel – role model for hipsters and kooky girls everywhere, writer included – and the easy, believable chemistry between her and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (which I wasn't banking on back when I read the cast list). This is a refreshing look at love and romance which doesn't go overboard on the sentimentality, with some good laughs along the way.

Revolutionary Road
In light of my previous mentions of DiCaprio and Winslet elsewhere in this article, you'd probably be forgiven rolling your eyes and/or wondering why I wasn't even more biased in my appreciation by placing it higher up the list, in short, it's because I can't. Firstly, this is because I think the first and longer draft of Justin Haythe's script to be a better, more rounded reflection of Yates' novel, and thus a better film. All the elements I'd read and was waiting to see where either cut entirely or hidden in a montage. That said, I'm aware that the DVD and Blu-ray carry extra scenes, so this might be rectified to a degree. Secondly, the whole setup of it practically screams Oscar – almost to the point it feels constructed for the purpose, because you're distracted by the things you think you should be feeling.

I really wanted to love it, being a fan of just about everyone involved. Don't get me wrong, I think this is Mendes' best since American Beauty, and to see Winslet and DiCaprio on screen again after over a decade gap is wonderful to watch, kind of the modern equivalent of Burton and Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in more ways than one. However, precisely because of these similarities it's draining to watch, because the Wheelers are so trapped and miserable it's like watching the American Dream shatter before your eyes very slowly indeed. Revolutionary Road has all the right ingredients, but there's still a something missing for me, and I'm yet to figure out what is. Perhaps that imperfection is fitting.

Oh the Horror:

The Informers
How can one film go so wrong? The work of Bret Easton Ellis hasn't had the best time in its journey from page to screen – with the obvious exception of American Psycho, and less obvious one of The Rules of Attraction – but it seems like his 1994 collection of short stories set in LA during the 1980s got a particularly raw deal thanks to a checkered production history and some particularly ruthless editing that director Gregor Jordan remains unhappy with – whoever made the woeful decision to cut out the supernatural/vampiric elements is surely regretting it now, given the current thirst for bloodsuckers. It's one of those films that has all the ingredients to be a success, but it doesn't quite reach its full potential, despite the pedigree of the Easton Ellis' novel, the director, and the strength of its diverse cast. One positive thing I can say is that it most definitely can't be faulted in terms of production design and soundtrack, both incredibly good, which is also this film's downfall. Instead of critiquing or even exploring the land of excess within which the characters live, it's just a rather shallow, beautiful but ultimately empty experience – so maybe it's much more like 1980s LA than I first thought.

The most lamentable thing of all is this film marks the final performance of the once hotly-tipped Brad Renfro. His death from a drug overdose preceded that of the late Heath Ledger's by a mere seven days and was ultimately overshadowed by it, much like his part in the film, which gets lost within its ensemble nature. I can't help thinking it's a rather sad reflection of how fast celebrity culture can change; how stars that once burned so brightly can be so quickly extinguished.

The Box
When I saw the trailer for this film, I seriously thought someone was having a laugh, that any second, Ricky Gervais would pop out and reveal it as a rather elaborate sketch. Ricky didn't arrive then or later when I watched the film out of pure curiosity, wondering if Richard Kelly could work his Donnie Darko magic all over again and it was just a victim of a badly cut trailer. It wasn't. Having survived it – and it is survival – I still can't believe that this was greenlit, money was spent, people were employed and creative talent was wasted in making this overblown, hackneyed, silliness. It's desperately trying to be high-minded by tapping into people's attachment to coincidence and love for patterns and numerology – see The Number 23 and Knowing for more of the same. Since when has a really extreme version of Deal or No Deal been deemed a decent enough plot for a hundred minute plus film? Given that Kelly started off his career with so much promise, it's quite sad to see it hitting lows like this already. From what I can gather, it's rather polarising audiences. I can safely say I don't want to open this box up again any time soon, but knowing my luck, it'll probably get recycled in the form of a ridiculously popular let artistically barren franchise.

The Last House on the Left
I have a particular penchant for 1970s horror, which makes post-millennial horror a very bad, very sad place to be for me, since all they keep doing is picking up my favourite things and playing about with them, stripping out their shock, their gore and their originality and adding precious little to them in return during the remake treatment – all while insisting the take is new and fresh, taking it to another level/new extremes/the lowest of lows (delete as applicable). I long for the day when I can actually say they've done the original film justice, but it's not going to happen with this one, it's no exception to the first is best rule and is the palest of pale imitations. What makes it even worse is not only did Wes Craven let this happen, he also gets a producer's credit on it for good measure – perhaps it's just to keep him happy? I'm not entirely sure. I suggest that for the sake of your own sanity, go and buy the original on DVD. The Metrodome 3-Disc Ultimate Edition is well worth the purchase price.

Fame
A bit of my heart died during this film, I'm sure of it. I love anything to do with Arts or dance schools – maybe it's a hangover from vaudeville, I'm not sure – and thoroughly enjoyed the original Alan Parker film and the TV series. I went along to this hoping it would still have some of that spark. Having seen much of its young cast in other things, I had high expectations. Needless to say they were dashed pretty quickly. This isn't Fame, it's fame lite, entirely marred by the need to ape the squeaky-clean Disney aesthetic that made High School Musical and it's never-ending spawn of imitations so monstrously successful. However, in the interests of fairness, I'd like to point out that the final theatrical version bares little relation to the original script, which stuck more closely to the Alan Parker film. If the internet rumour mill is to be believed, the best of this incarnation of Fame sits amongst other scraps in a cutting bin.

DVDs

The Magick Lantern Cycle
Far and away one of the strangest and yet most rewarding bodies of work I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. A definite must have for fans of experimental cinema and the best advert for the real value of DVD/Blu-ray as a way to preserve and allow greater access to films which live outside of mainstream boundaries. The two-disc set is a handsome, wonderfully restored package from the BFI which is worth the purchase price for the restorations alone. (DVD review)

Lola Montès
To my mind, this is Max Ophuls' greatest film and this release is the best way to see it. Second Sight have done a fantastic job, and it's finally getting the treatment and the audience it deserves (backed up by an incoming Criterion collection pressing in February of 2010). This should be required viewing for all lovers of cinema, not just those who admire Ophuls' considerable achievements. Lola just seems to get better with age. I can't recommend it enough. Ophuls fans should also check out Second Sight's other Ophuls titles, released as part of The Max Ophuls Collection (Madame De..., Le Plaisir, The Reckless Moment and Letter from an Unknown Woman) since they're just as good. (DVD review)

Orlando
The theatrical release of this film marks the point at which my love for period drama and women director's converged. Arguably Potter's most famous film (with the exception of this year's Rage, which only narrowly missed my films list) Release at a time when sisters were most definitely doing it for themselves and shaking up the boy's club that is film directing. The film itself holds up well and is just as enticing and pleasurable as when I saw it back in the 1990s. This is a lovely package from Artificial Eye, backed up with a more than decent clutch of extras. If you somehow managed to miss it the first time round, than pick up a copy, you won't be disappointed.

Blood/O'Sangue
Given the extremely high-standard of Second Run releases that I've had the immense good fortune to review over these last few months – if I had my way, both Daisies and Diary for My Children would make this list too – feels wrong to single out just one, but since it currently stands alone as the only Pedro Costa release available in region two, Blood had to come out on top. It's a beautiful, haunting and beguiling film which is a wonderful introduction to his work. The cherry on the cake is undoubtedly the equally beautiful transfer along with some thoughtful reflections from the late João Bénard da Costa. Don't pass up the opportunity to have this for yourself. (DVD review)

Magnificent Obsession 2-Disc Special Edition
I love Douglas Sirk. I love the grandeur, the opulence and the grandiosity, because compared to the rest of my filmic tastes, watching a Sirk film is like going into an expensive dream, a dream where you're painfully aware of your every emotion - in the best of ways. If you were to try and pin down what defines a Sirk film, Magnificent Obsession epitomises it in every way. It's strength as a piece of cinema – a masterclass, no doubt – is underlined by just how many people it's influenced, most notably in Todd Haynes' breathtaking Far From Heaven. This is one of my all-time favourite Criterion DVD, and the print looks positively edible, finally befitting of his keen eye for detail. If you buy it for nothing else, then do so for the Eckhart Schmidt documentary and the fascinating commentary by film historian Thomas Doherty.

For All Mankind
As a history nut, a space freak and an avid collector of special edition anything film wise, this one ticked all the boxes from the start and that's before I've even mentioned the film itself, or the magnificent imagery therein. It's worth buying for commemorative value alone, thanks to it's timely release in the 40th anniversary of the moon landing but you'll find there's much more to discover once you open the case. (DVD review)

This Happy Breed
Another sneaky 2008 nod here, but I had to celebrate the fact my favourite Lean film finally got long-overdue special edition treatment from Network. Though it shows it's age at times, it's a wonderful reflection of Britishness and British life in a time that's quite different to the one I live in, which is probably one of the many reasons why I like it. I've always adored its theatrical leanings and meticulous production design details which are just highlighted by the digitally restored print in this release. Superbly acted by Stanley Holloway, Kay Walsh a young John Mills, this is a real joy to watch, and particularly nice set of extras mean in should be any self-respecting British cinema lover's collection. (Camus DVD review)

Paranoid Park & Mala Noche/Bad Night.
When I first saw this I thought it was a bit of an odd choice to put together it a set, given that it the filmic equivalent of owning bookends, with a great deal of knowledge concerning the 'gap' in the middle – unless you're me and already own all those 'inbetween' films, so you can put them altogether in one neat little line. Of the two, I still find Mala Noche the most interesting, and it's the one I've played the most, and that was initially because I'd only seen it previously on a VHS tape, and it's been unavailable in the UK until this release from Palisades Tartan. This double is a treat for die-hard fans and those with an interest in the slice-of-life kind of teen film rather than the sugary-sweet kind.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
My favourite Murnau film and one of many double-ups in my collection. I came to it after seeing A Place in the Sun and was completely blown away by its beauty and subtlety, but most of all by the incredible skill Murnau possesses. Until that point in time, I was unshakable in my belief that Nosferatu was the best he made, but it took all of ten minutes in for that to change. If you haven't taken the plunge yet for whatever, I consider this Eureka release to be the best, manly because of the superior Czech print, which really shows off the film to its best and if you're really passionate about it – as I am – it's probably worth buying again, regardless of the duplicated extras.
(Slarek Blu-ray review)

Fanny and Alexander/ Fanny och Alexander
This is Bergman at his most accessible and enjoyable. Usually I find provincial stories like the one of this brother and sister duo incredibly twee and annoying, but such is Bergman's way that it had me sucked in from the start. Having viewed it after Persona and The Seventh Seal it came of something as a shock that he could make something so warm and endearing. It's worth noting that this Pallisades Tartan is the three-hour theatrical cut, and not the five hour version available from Artificial Eye and Criterion. However, this release looks and sounds wonderful thanks to the digital restoration work on both the film itself and the soundtrack, which are were sourced from the original negatives.

Close, but not close enough:

The Last Days of Disco
Given my love for Criterion releases, you might think my inclusion of it outside the 'winners' list as it were, is an odd one. The first time I watched this film I was utterly confused by it – I think that's mainly because Whit Stillman's humour is an acquired taste, and doesn't transfer easily at odd hours of the morning – thank you scheduler! But, I'm glad I persevered, because it stands alone as an honest look at the dying days of a cultural revolution that cuts through the sentiment and the clichés of popularised media-fed depictions of the decade. I watched this soon after 54 and much prefer The Last Days of Disco, and not just because it's cooler to say so. In addition to the added cachet of a director-approved transfer, I particularly enjoyed the neat little package of extras. The best of these, for me at least is the commentary with Stillman, and leads Chloë Sevigny and Chris Eigeman.

Flashbacks of a Fool
OK, so technically, this shouldn't be here, but I'm using my 'I saw it this year' card again for this, but it's one of the most intriguing and affecting films I've seen. Part coming-of-age tale, part critique of stardom, this was a rather wonderful surprise. The central performances by Daniel Craig and his younger counterpart Harry Eden are particularly strong, and in the case of Eden, remarkably assured. Extra bonus points have to be given for a fantastic soundtrack, and though there's only deleted scenes and outtakes on the DVD, the film itself more than makes up for it.

Little Ashes
The biopic wins again! This film is an interesting one, which premiered on DVD (and on-demand TV services) first, in the manner of Better Things. In short, it explores the relationships between poet Federico García Lorca, painter Salvador Dali and soon-to-be surrealist cinema visionary Luis Buñuel (it's primary focus is Lorca and Dali, but there's some brief references to his work, including the infamous Un Chien Andalou) throughout their university days in Madrid (and elsewhere) during the 1920s. Though it's by no means a perfect film, it is a visually stunning one – there's a scene between Lorca and Dali at a moonlit lake which is just breathtaking. Elsewhere the performances from the three male leads are all impressive, but the award for film stealer has to go to Javier Beltran as Lorca. The biggest surprise comes in the shape of Robert Pattinson, shaking off his vampire glitter to bring Dali to life. Anyone doubting if he's just a pretty face will be questioning themselves after this. Unfortunately, the DVD is pretty slim extras wise, but the audition footage is in certainly interesting and well worth a look.

Dakota Skye
This is the little film that could, if given a chance. By a neat twist of fate, I was lucky enough to interview its producer Shaun O'Banion while this DVD package was being made. It has a clever little semi-supernatural hook that reels you in, but that's much more to it than that. The film's heroine, Dakota Skye can see right through lies. For fans of quirky little indies in the mould of Juno and Garden State this is real treat, and Dakota herself has all the makings of a modern teenage cinema heroine, just like the much-loved Ms MacGuff thanks to an impressive central performance by Eileen Boylan. As of now, it's only currently available in the US, but it's well-worth ordering if you're in possession of a multi-region player. I think it's more than deserving of a wider release, but like so many before it, I doubt that it'll come to fruition.

Oh the Horror:

Purple Violets
I feel a bit mean putting this here, given the lofty company its keeping. I wanted to like it, I really, really did, but the ghost of Woody Allen's Manhattan (the film and the city) looms far too large, which makes it difficult to consider on it's own merit. However, ff you can manage to divorce yourself, it does have some interesting characters and moments where it shows potential, but they're quite few and far between. The film marks the directorial debut of actor Ed Burns, and is the first film ever to premiere exclusively on iTunes, which certainly raises interesting questions about the future of theatrical exhibition and the ways in which we access films.

Twilight
I greatly admire Catherine Hardwicke, and immensely enjoyed her debut feature Thirteen, because it cut across all the frothy, empty-headed teen films around at the time at time and stood apart from it's contemporaries in the same way Larry Clark's Kids had a decade earlier. So then, imagine my surprise to find that she's the directorial force behind the pop culture juggernaut that is Twilight, about as far away from Thirteen and it's follow-up, Lords of Dogtown, as you can get. The bad here outweighs the good. Through Hardwicke's eyes, the Oregon scenery looks beautiful, and really does add texture and depth to an otherwise rather flat film, let down by melodramatic dialogue, clunky pacing and an ever-changing tone (though this may be a reflection of the quality of Stephanie Meyer's writing than Hardwicke's film). What I can't fault – and it grieves me to say so – are the performances of the two young leads, Good thing Stewart and Pattinson can hold their own, because their screen presence is just about the only memorable thing besides the picturesque locations. (Lord Summerisle film review)

Factory Girl
As you'll have gathered, I'm rather a fan of biopics, but I also love 1960s culture and films about art and/or artists, so to get something that combines all of the above pretty much ensures I'll a) watch it and b) buy it. Factory Girl is the Sid and Nancy for Edie Sedgewick and Andy Warhol, only not quite as good. Since Factory Girl got such a tiny release here, I was forced to blind buy – something I hate doing, a layover from the days when single DVDs cost almost twenty quid – and it was not a wise choice, even in light of the considerable extras (which are actually more interesting than the film). It suffers terribly from incredibly choppy editing and a mediocre script (the director's cut fixes the former of these two problems).

While Sienna Miller most definitely looks the part and is much better in the role than she's been credited for elsewhere, I found myself playing 'spot the star,' which is exactly what I do when I watch a Richard Curtis film. As a result, I get distracted because I'm too busy looking at everything. In this context, it's arguably ironic, since it's a film about fame, but I always despise when film becomes more about it's cast than the film itself and the story its trying to tell, which should always come first, no matter how famous a tale you're telling.

The Bell Jar
This might just be bias creeping in here, because I love Sylvia Plath's writing – I even put aside my dislike of Gwyneth Paltrow to watch Sylvia. I sought out the 1970 version of her only novel in anticipation for the forthcoming adaptation with Julia Stiles in the starring role. Foolishly, I even ignored the reviews that were practically screaming at me that this was terrible, since I'm rather a fan of the old film maudit, I like the idea that I can watch something that other people dislike and find a glimmer of something positive in it. Alas, this didn't happen with The Bell Jar. Aside from the fact it's entirely miscast the production on the DVD is terrible, with the nastiest looking print I've ever seen in my life. I hate to see films treated so badly, even when they're as poor as this.

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Michael Bay is the bane of my existence. He creates the kind of films I hate – yes, hate, and that's not a word I use lightly. They're devoid of substance, they're loud, they're flashy, they're chauvinistic, with budgets could run a small country on, and their marketing campaigns are so pervasive you'll end up knowing every single thing about it just by being near a television, like osmosis. I've learned to endure the presence of these kinds of excessive, high-concept glory-hogging films, but Mr. Bay has taken the cake this time. I'm not decrying anyone the chance to watch something entertaining that you can munch away on popcorn to – I'm not that elitist – and, if nothing else, you be entertained, because it's constructed that way, as meticulously as the changeling machines themselves; so painstakingly rendered in CGI (the only thing that the film actually deserves to be praised for). What I can't take however, is publicity material that paints this man as the second coming, when there's no real talent in creating such homogenous, soulless rubbish. Popular doesn't always equal good.
(Camus film review / Adam Wilson DVD review)

a peek into my crystal ball

Here are some possible dream (and nightmare) films due for release in 2010.

The Too Good to be true:

The Lovely Bones
Since reading this book a few years ago I've always wondered how it would work onscreen, or indeed if it could. With a troubled production history and some changes before Peter Jackson took a seat in the director's chair, I think that if the trailer's anything to go by, this will be the Jackson of old. By that I mean, it's the Peter Jackson that made my jaw drop and reaffirm my belief in 1990s cinema as a teenager, when I saw Heavenly Creatures for the first time, rather than one behind The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and King Kong, since mastery and technique aside, I've never felt the same about his work since. I'm hoping The Lovely Bones can restore my faith.

Alice in Wonderland
Tim Burton does Lewis Caroll and makes it look cool. Ever since he made The Nightmare before Christmas, Burton's work has been a favourite of mine, and I even enjoyed his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I'd always read Willy Wonka to be a bit unhinged – it's part of his charm – and Johnny Depp certainly played him that way, so I eagerly await his take on The Mad Hatter. Given Burton's propensity for the weird, the witty and the wonderful I genuinely can't wait to see how this turns out.

That Cheshire Cat is going to be in my subconscious for weeks, I'm sure of it.

A Single Man
I'll admit that when I saw Tom Ford – of Gucci fame – was directing a film and it was based on a Christopher Isherwood novel, I laughed. It's kind of like me running round thinking I can direct an Irish Murdoch novel – ridiculous and impossible. Until I saw the trailer and started to read the reviews, I thought that Mr. Ford had ideas well above his station. That said, I do admire his photograph work, and it's the aesthetic of A Simple Man, that really has me intrigued, thanks to the added kudos of having Dan Bishop as production designer (acclaimed for his work on AMC series Mad Men). Once you add in fact that the film sees has Colin Firth cast against type – so for once, he's being someone other than Colin Firth – and Julianne Moore is amongst the cast, it looks less like a rich man's folly (Ford financed the entire film himself) and more like a substantial piece of cinema.

Shutter Island
OK, so I have a soft spot for Martin Scorsese. The New Hollywood is my favourite period of film history, and I like the fact that he's still so immersed in his craft after all this time, and can still crank out well-made, good-looking films, and in this climate, that's something of a rarity. While some may lament the fact that his partnership with Leonardo DiCaprio has ostensibly replaced that of his earlier one with Robert DeNiro, you can't argue with their track record. The Aviator is one of Scorsese and DiCaprio's best, so it bodes well for this collaboration. That said, in light of the fact that the release has been pushed back due concerns over marketing (and finance thereof), if it doesn't get that all-important exposure, then it could end up costing Paramount dearly.

When I finished this list, I found myself amused at their similarities, and the fact they're all based on novels – so much for me lamenting the demise of the original screenplay! It seems I'm susceptible to their charms after all, and am more than willing to devour these book-to-film adaptations like everyone else. However, when the basis is so good (and if buzz is to be believed) there's little that can go wrong here.

The Surest Signs of the Apocalypse:

Nightmare on Elm Street
I almost cried when I read this was happening and the only think that's stopping me from hating it entirely, wanting to run amok and burn all the dailies, is the fact that they've cast Jackie Earle Haley as Freddie. The intensity of his performance in Little Children alone scared the hell out of me, and that's before we get to his character. It could work, just.

Piranha 3-D
3D is going through a bit of a resurgence at the moment, and while I think it can have some genuinely interesting uses, I don't like this trend for tacking 3D onto things for gimmicky purposes to get people in the door. Mind you, half the fun of horror films is the fact you get to see pretty young things despatched in a grizzly manner, only this time, it's in 3D! The fact that Richard Dreyfus has inked his name on a contract for this makes me very sad indeed.

Tron Legacy
My first major problem is, I like Tron, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it as it stands. My second major problem is, I don't see the point of remaking stuff, just because you can make it look better. Part of the charm of film culture is the speed at which technology moves, which means things that you once thought looked the absolute business when you were a kid look absolutely terrible now you're an adult, but that's why you continue to love it. Unless they can actually bring something new and interesting to the table, as JJ Abrams so proved wonderfully with Star Trek, I don't hold out much hope for it. My third problem is, there's already talk of doing a prequel to this called Tron: Evolution (why is that the go-to film title all of a sudden?). Yes, those chickens might have hatched in presale, but it's a tad presumptuous, no? All this prequels business winds me up, because they rarely add anything to the story – perhaps the only exceptions to this are Red Dragon, Hannibal Rising, and if you want to be incredibly pedantic, Manhunter – and just scream cash cow.

The Karate Kid
This is just a lament on behalf of my inner child, so I apologise for it's petulance and bias in advance. I hate that this remake exists. No one will be better in the title roles than Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio, even if they are Jackie Chan (sigh) and Jaden Smith (even bigger sigh). I don't want to see it become all hip and glossy, with a remixed soundtrack. I want it to stay like it is. Please stop ruining my childhood and please take a look at the massive piles of original scripts on your desks – trees have died for the purpose!

OK, I know, this list was far too easy to compile, even easier to rant about, and I've somehow managed to omit completely any upcoming megabucks summer blockbuster from that shameful group, but the Hollywood Machine is getting far too close to chewing up and spitting out the things I love in glossy, CGI-infested pale imitations of their former selves. If they dare to do a shot-for-shot remake of Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz or Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the manner of Gus Van Sant's take on Psycho (Gus, I'll never, ever forgive you), I shall weep, bitter, bitter tears.