9 December 2007

MY TOP TEN FILMS OF 2007

It's that time of year again, and every magazine, journal and film critic is compiling and publishing their list of the best films. You will have noticed that the lists being published by critics in the States include films like 'No Country for Old Men' and 'Charlie Wilson's War' which have not even appeared on UK screens. January looks set to be one of the busiest release schedules in a long time with many interesting prospects finally being distributed. Though my list would have probably looked a lot different had I the good fortune to see many of the aforementioned films, I just have to overlook the ridiculous fact of a delayed release schedule and get on with my list of the ten best films of the year:

1. ZODIAC (Dir. David Fincher, US)

This is Fincher's masterpiece and a film he can call his own; without a doubt the best film of the year by far and one of the finest mainstream Hollywood films made in the last 10 years; still waiting for the directors cut of the film


2. BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982, US)

The greatest science fiction film of all time and one of the finest Hollywood 'art' films ever finally gets the digital treatment - some of the most memorable and evocative imagery committed to celluoid; a sheer joy from beginning to end from one of Britain's finest film auteurs


3. EKLAVYA: THE ROYAL GUARD (Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, India)

Amitabh Bhachan delivers one of his finest performances in many a years as a weary royal guard who learns the power of forgiveness and parental duty; beautifully shot in Rajasthan and has been selected as India's official Oscar entry - a small gem of a movie


4. THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Dir. Von Donnersmarck, Germany)

Brilliantly performed political thriller that explores the notion of ideological acquiescence in a cold war communist context; beat out Pan's Labryinth to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar


5. INTO THE WILD (Dir. Sean Penn, US)

Sean Penn's unexpected directorial evolution as a noted and worthy film maker who uses the road movie genre to delve into understated emotions of loneliness and self worth - Hal Halbrook's moment in the film is one of the most powerful acting jobs of the year


6. THIS IS ENGLAND (Dir. Shane Meadows, UK)

Shane Meadow's unsentimental and provocative tribute to 1980's skinhead culture and a frighteningly contemporary exploration of racism and its relationship with British working class lives - his work now stands alongside that of Micheal Winterbottom


7. APOCALYPTO (Dir. Mel Gibson, US)

Breathtaking cinema that manages to combine Herzogian principles of Jungle lawlessness with postmodern action adventure elements - this is effectively an extended chase movie but also Mel Gibson's interpretation of Homer's The Odyssey; the final shot is simply amazing


8. BABEL (Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, US)

Many dismissed this as middle class wish fulfillment liberal nonsense but guilt and the appeal for understanding and tolerance between cultures and worlds is something only cinema has the capacity of conveying


9. TELL NO ONE (Dir. Guillaume Canet, France)

By far the best thriller of the year and a film that manages to preserve it's enigmatic plot twists with an outstanding degree of confidence; Hollywood should take heed because the best mainstream thriller's are coming from France - Hitchcock would be proud


10. RATATOUILLE (Dir. Brad Bird, US)

Was never really a fan of digital animation until this magical and charming film came along; for me this is the best animated Hollywood feature film of the last 10 years - a return to form for Pixar and one of the most beautifully designed and visually inventive films of the year


11. BREACH
12. THE GOOD SHEPHERD
13. HALF NELSON
14. JINDABYNE
15. 3:10 TO YUMA
16. NO END IN SIGHT
17. OCEANS 13
18. OM SHANTI OM
19. SUNSHINE
20. AD LIB NIGHT

HITMAN - Could this be the worst film of the year?



I had never really been looking forward to another big screen video game adaptation but I was well aware that Hitman was in production. I watched Hitman at one of the local cinemas and when I turned up I had in mind to watch another film but seeing that I had some time to kill I decided to take a gamble. The choice on offer at this hi tech postmodern multiplex was scandalously poor. Not one world cinema film was being shown nor did I come across anything remotely marginal or interesting, apart from The Assassination of Jesse James but it was the timings for that particular film were frankly crap. It seems diabolical how you can have Spiderman 3 playing in an infinite number of screen and yet here you have what is being regarded as one of the film's of the year playing in one measly pathetic small screen. I had no choice other than to walk away in disgust but I didn't. I don't know why though. Maybe I just needed to watch something. Anyway, Hitman eventually got started after nearly 40 minutes of annoying adverts and trailers, and as it turns out the trailers were better than the film. Unfortunately, I simply cannot be bothered providing a synopsis for what may be the worst film of the year. Whilst watching Hitman I could literally feel cinema coming to an end because how something as superficial and simply DUMB as this could secure financing and worldwide distribution is really beyond my comprehension. Films like Hitman are an example of cinema that is devoid of any real meaning or originality or emotion. It is a cinema of absence. The easy thing to do would be to label the film as disposable trash but it's actually one of the few films I have seen this year that gave me a headache! The visual motif of a barcode across the bald head of the actor Timothy Olyphant is not creative, nor is it stylistically impressive or visually exciting, it's like something designed and thought up by a ten year old school kid whilst doodling in his exercise book. The film seems to self destruct before it gets started with a terribly overdone flashback style montage of some monks carving barcodes into the back of the heads of some ghostly looking children who are being groomed to become some of the world's most dangerous and terrifying hitmen ever seen and who will all grow up to look like the baddie out of Die Hard 4 who was also one of the angry cowboys in the Deadwood TV series. Timothy Olyphant is not an actor, nor is he a star in the making, he is a supporting TV actor who has no range whatsoever. It comes of no surprise that Hitman is doing well commercially and will spawn a number of similarly dreadful straight to DVD sequels. Nothing works in this film, not even the European locations, and it has the distinct feel of a really bad made for TV movie. The worst sin is committed by the actor Dougray Scott (once touted as the next James Bond) who runs around trying to act and appear menacing. This is one to avoid.

27 November 2007

The Sugarland Express - Steven Spielberg's First Feature Film



I had always somehow managed to steer myself away from this film for a long time and even when it appeared on late night TV I still refused to watch it. I think part of the reason probably lay with the fact that Spielberg's reputation as a director had yet to be confirmed, and also I just couldn't stand Goldie Hawn, well, I still can't stand Goldie Hawn even today; she is the simply the most unfunny person working in cinema today and also she cannot act. She isn't even a competent performer. Anyway, having got over my Goldie Hawn phobia I was able to finally watch Spielberg's big screen debut, The Sugarland Express, and I have report that it was actually a pretty good film, considering it was Spielberg's second film. (Duel was his first unofficial film but in America it was considered a made for TV movie whilst in Europe it got a deserved limited release; I still think Duel is one of the his greatest films). It is effectively a road movie but at the same time a chase movie, and feels quite similar in tone to Jaws and Spielberg's other 70's films. One of the drawbacks with the film is the dialogue scenes which are overplayed by the actors, revealing Spielberg's early difficulty with filming scenes of intimacy between characters. The film's strengths lies within it's adherence to a tragic and unconventional Spielberg ending which culminates with the death of one of the central protoganists. Considering this film was made in the 1970s and that Spielberg was working very much within the confines of the road movie genre, the outcome seems quite inevitable, so I am not sure if this surprising in terms of the narrative and characterisation. The story follows an American couple who hijack a police officer and make their way across what seems like most of America to get back their baby son who has been taken into custody by social services. Spielberg's early use of the widescreen potential of the frame is hugely impressive and the chase sequences still seem fresh and bursting with energy. This was also the first time Spielberg would colloborate with Vilmos Zsigmond who does a remarkable job filming the American landscape through sunsets. Spielberg also seems to be criticising the apathetic nature of an American society in which the nuclear family had more or less become a symbol of 1970s apocalypse. What this film proves to me is that Spielberg has always been a genius film maker and more importantly has consistently challenged himself, having successfully mastered the major genres of American cinema. The Sugarland Express underlines the simple truth that Spielberg has extraordinary range for a director who even today is sometimes dismissed as a mainstream hack.

24 November 2007

L'Eclisse (The Eclipse); The ANTONIONI 'Alienation' Trilogy



More Antonioni films are getting the deserved DVD treatment and The Eclipse starring Monica Vitta and Alain Deilon forms the final part of Antonioni's loose 1960s trilogy of films that deal with modern day relationships contrasted against a changing Italian architectural landscape of concrete, glass and steel. Like most Antonioni films, it is very difficult to try and pin down a coherent summary of the storyline. The narrative structure appears extremely disjointed and fragmented, and the film seems more concerned with positioning characters against appropriate architectural backdrops. The Eclipse is a cinema that interrogates relationships and the lonely void that has appeared in the life of the female character played by Monica Vitta is a theme that would come to dominate many of Antonioni's later work. Even today, the film's crisp and bold black and white cinematography is aesthetically superior and symbolically layered. Unfortunately, The Eclipse is a film that did not leave a lasting impression. It seemed quite innate in places and though Antonioni is a much loved world cinema auteur, this film seems somewhat overrated by critics. But the final montage is what really makes this film worthy of standing amongst the masterpieces of 60s world cinema.

23 November 2007

QUIEMADA! (BURN!) Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969 - Post Colonialist Film Making



Sometimes the overwhelming power of a film in the ouvere of a director can be drawback especially when that film comes to stand as a historical testament of the civilian resistance of an entire Nation. Quiemada! was made a few years after Pontecorvo's masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, and recently was restored back to its original cut of 132 minutes. Unfortunately, I have just discovered that the version I watched was neither a restored print nor was it the new version with the longer running time. Nevertheless, the film not only contains one of Brando's greatest performances as William Walker, a ruthless and manipulative British Agent who is working on behalf of the forces of English imperialism and the Colonial Sugar Corporations. With the advent of DVD, it seems as though so many films are being rediscovered and reappraised by film criticism and this obviously has an effect on the careers of certain directors like the Italian film maker Gillo Pontecorvo who's career is regularly reduced to The Battle of Algiers. Quiemada! is a post colonial exploration of exploitation, slavery and marxist ideology. The clearly Marxist vein that runs through the film is a direct contribution of the scriptwriter, Franco Solinas who wrote a number of interesting political Spaghetti Westerns in the 60s and 70s alongside his work on The Battle of Algiers and Costa Gavras's State of Siege. Apparently, this was the film that persuaded Brando to reject a role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and what is more interesting is that this is the film that Brando personally felt contained his best performance. Brando's character is sent by the British to the island of Quiemada where he instigates a revolt amongst the slaves and overturns the Pourtegese grip on power so that he can secure British rule over the island and control the production and distribution of sugar. Walker finds a leader in the black plantation worker, Jose Dolores, who he encourages to rebel against his Pourtegese masters. Inspired by the post colonialist writing of Frantz Fanon, the character of Jose Dolores becomes a revolutionary leader who by the end of the film realises that martyrdom is the only means left of spreading the seeds of dissent and resistance amongst his fellow people. Brando gives a genuinely moving performance and this would also mark the beginning of the second phase in his acting career, giving him a new sense of direction which is also evident in The Godfather and The Last Tango in Paris and even his mumbling incoherence as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The final few minutes of the film are beautifully realised and played out with Brando's egocentric and ruthless character heading back to catch the next ship to England whilst Jose announces to Walker that the notion of civilization that the white man supposedly worships is nothing but a hypocritical perspective of guilt. In light of what is happening in the world today, Jose says to one of the soldiers who is escorting him back to the fort for his execution, 'True freedom is not that which is given but taken willfullly'. Such a statement continues to hold relevance to the situation in Iraq where the notion of freedom is that of forced imposition, and the people of Iraq have started to realise that true freedom cannot be given to a people by another foreign power as this is a false kind of freedom, a freedom which comes with a price.

15 November 2007

INTO THE WILD - Directed by Sean Penn; An Existential Odyssey Through America - The Road Movie Genre



For me the great road movies are those that underline despair and destruction through the death of the central protagonist. The best road movies have always been the ones that end tragically and the leave the audience in a state of emotional reflection. Easy Rider and Vanishing Point are two definitive illustrations of the road movie as a microcosm of social and political disillusionment and ideological vehicle for existential discovery of identity. In the road movie unlike many other traditionally conservative genres, the image of the open road, a contradictory symbol of both uncertainity and independence carries with it the potential for exploring an endless array of themes, issues and situations. Into the Wild is an unusual film because it manifests none of the hallmarks of a typical Hollywood film nor does it really feel like a Sean Penn movie. This is a real progression in the directorial style of Sean Penn and represents a break from his earlier self indulgent and overly melodramatic character study's. A nostalgic yearning for the cinema of the 1970s seems very much in fashion today especially with the recent release of Michael Clayton and the up coming PTA western, and Into The Wild seems very close to Jeremiah Johnson in terms of its muted and somber mood. It is a film that is primarily concerned with nature and the environment, and at times the film veers close to the documentary medium particularly in its impressive use of landscapes and backdrops that appear purely as a celebration of the metaphysical wonder of a world from which we have become detached. Though much of the brilliance of the film rests with what is probably the best cinematography of the year, the film never feels it needs to push itself to become a didactic lesson on the need to drop out of society and become human again. The scope of the film is extraordinary and once the film has come to an exhausting end you do get the sense that you have an undertaken a journey of some real importance. The episodic nature of the non linear narrative structure and the conflict with the landscape reminded me of the simplicity of new wave Iranian cinema in utilising the ordinary and everyday in order to generate an emotional response of such warmth and respect for the characters. The character of Chris meets a number of different people as he makes his way to Alaska, each representing a distinct facet of American society, and each being represented as equally sympathetic as one another. Here, the villain is not Chris, nor is it American society, it is parents. Special mention should be given to the exemplary and haunting soundtrack composed by Eddie Vedder and the wonderful cameo performance by the veteran Hollywood actor, Hal Holbrook, who nearly steals the film from Emile Hirsch. Into the Wild is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2007 and is by far the best film Sean Penn has directed.

5 November 2007

CHAK DE INDIA - Bollywood High Concept Cinema Comes of Age?



Chak De India was released this summer as a Shak Rukh Khan and Yash Raj Vehicle that was met with moderately positive critical acclaim and went on to do good business at the domestic and international box office. Most Shah Rukh Khan film's tend to be an event and he is currently the most powerful and popular movie star in India. Beginning with the commercial success of the terrorist musical 'Dil Se', Shah Rukh Khan's box office pull in the foreign territories namely the UK and the US has been tremendously consistent, helping to accelerate the commercial appeal of Bollywood films across the globe. Shah Rukh Khan's films have remained to draw in wide audiences abroad and this is where his commercial strengths as a movie star lie. Directed by Shimit Amin, the director behind the powerful crime thriller, Ap Tak Chapaan, Chak De India brings together Shak Rukh Khan with the Jerry Bruckheimer of India, Aditya Chopra who continues to grow from strength to strength with Yash Raj Studios having cemented their reputation as the most recognisable Bollywood brand after the singularly expressive Amitabh Bachchan. Yash Raj have built somewhat of a reputation on being able to create high concept films that have a cross generation appeal and at the same time imitating much of the technical expertise developed by Hollywood cinema. Any recent Yash Raj film is a true indicator of the technical credibility of mainstream Bollywood cinema today. Though there films can be overtly sentimental and generic, Yash Raj have helped to push the technical boundaries of contemporary Bollywood cinema. Chak De India is a slick high concept vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan and is one of the first films to play with the celebrity, star and real life image of Shah Rukh Khan to great effect. The film itself is extremely generic and a typical feel good movie that seems to borrow quite heavily from recent Hollywood films like Coach Carter and Rocky. What is much more interesting is how Shah Rukh Khan plays an Indian Muslim Hockey Player who is misrepresented in the media as a traitor to his country because he failed to score the winning goal in the final of a Hockey match between Indian and Pakistan. Kabir Khan is a secular Muslim who loves his country but who has been increasingly isolated within his own community and within the eyes of the Indian nation for advocating a message of tolerance and understanding. It is fascinating to see how much of Kabir Khan's fictional character draws a great deal upon the real life qualities of Shah Rukh Khan, thus blurring the usual division that exists between the star and their real life persona. The absence of other stars and recognisable Bollywood elements means that this is a film that is carried entirely by the star presence of Shah Rukh Khan which he does with great assurance and charisma.

24 October 2007

SIGHT AND SOUND FILM MAGAZINE AND ITS LACK OF INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE - Why overlook Bollywood Cinema?



The following is a letter that I wrote to Sight and Sound in 2005 and which was published as letter of the month. The letter provoked a number of responses, mostly by people disagreeing with what I had to say about Bollywood and in particular my lack of accuracy with facts about Indian Cinema. Unfortunately, the letter that was published was inaccurately published by Sight and Sound and after nearly 6 months of complaints and angry emails, the magazine apologised in print for their editorial mismanagment. Here is the letter in full:

Having been a regular reader and subscriber to Sight & Sound for the last decade, I continue to be frustrated by the lack of critical appreciation for Bollywood mainstream and arthouse cinema. Though Sight & Sound does provide far greater opportunities for exploring alternative and marginalised cinematic forms, resisting Hollywood hegemonic complacency, it still needs to do much more when it comes to reviewing Bollywood cinematic releases. Up to fifteen new Indian films are released each month, sometimes more, depending upon the time of year. It is a general disappointment that Sight & Sound tends to overlook the broad range of films offered by Bollywood and Indian cinema. It is obviously hard not to review the prestige, tent poles films like the recent Aamir Khan release, The Rising : The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, but this does not accurately represent the vast technological and stylistic changes that have occured within Bollywood cinema over the last five years. The work of the prolific producer and director, Ram Gopal Verma, has yet to be acknowledged by Western film critics and his work seems to have been dismissed. Ram Gopal Verma is a true visionary in an industry that continues to be plagued with the disease of rampant Hollywood imitation and generic limitations. Sarkar, his recent underworld mumbai gangster epic has been hugely successful, yet at the heart of a film which is supported by a towering performnce by Amitabh Bachchan, lurks an unusually ambivalent sets of ideological struggles. Swades, Ap Tak Chappan, Yuva, Paheli, Parineeta and Company are just some of the other films which have been exceptionally startling in how they have opposed the conventions of mainstream Bollywood cinema. Admittedly, Bollywood still has a long way to go in how it treats arthouse cinema but it would be productive if Sight & Sound were to address the eurocentric imbalance and western bias that continues to haunt mainstream film culture and criticism.

25 September 2007

SWADES - A Step in the right direction




It was disappointing to read that Swades has been met with such a mixed and at times scathing critical response. It was even more disappointing to see that Swades was totally dismissed by the British newspaper press. The refusal to review mainstream Indian feature films in many of the British newspapers may come from the rejection of Bollywood as a credible film industry, which is a shame considering Indian cinema produces some of the finest films in the world. I had been looking forward to Ashutosh Gowariker’s next film ever since having been enthralled by the magic of Lagaan, a film that succeeded in not only finding an audience abroad but also letting the world know that Indian cinema too was capable of producing films as universal in scope and thematic content as Hollywood and other national cinemas. Lagaan, now considered a classic by many Western critics, was a monumental film because it transcended the limitations of mainstream Indian cinema by going forth into a direction in opposition to the populist cinema of the ‘masala’ film that still haunts and dominates Indian cinema today. Lagaan, primarily a critique on British imperialism, is a film steeped in marxist ideology with the symbol of the village as a potentially liberating force of collective reaction and revolution. There is no doubt that the film was a cry from an industry that though has made increasingly progressive movements in adopting a more sophisticated technical approach to the craft of film making is nevertheless burdened with the problems of challenging and creating new genres and film forms that appeal to the masses. It would be naive and elitist to take the stance that a film like Swades is a vanity project, a glorified art film from a director who is preoccupied with the occupation of preaching to the masses. It was an educating process to watch Swades and as I left the cinema one girl commented upon how it had been a boring experience, and three hours at that. Now it would have been snobbish and wrong of me to correct the girl as the experience and understanding of a film is dependent upon individual interpretation ; we love and hate films for many different reasons, but one of the negative sides to being exposed to Bollywood films like Main Hoon Na and Veer Zaara is that you become conditioned into responding in a certain way. The demands of an audience can ultimately never be fulfilled as it is not the job of the filmmaker and artists alike to pander to audience expectations, though this is what most films do. Personally, I feel Indian audiences are just not ready for a film like Swades. Swades is a magnificent film held together by a series of episodic allegories, vivid social commentary, strong archetypal characters, a poignant love story and a towering central performance by Shah Rukh Khan who manages to show dimensions to his acting that only a director like Ashtoush Gowariker could have been able to extenuate and bring to the foreground. So what is Swades about? Primarily, the film is about India today. Ideologically, Swades adopts a liberal position but with a strong nationalist message. Using the concept of the village as a microcosm for contemporary Indian society, the film explores and discusses the failure of culture and tradition in embracing the ‘new’, the fear and reluctance to embrace technology, the abandonment of responsibilities for materialism and the West and the need for self sustaining independence as exemplified by the audacious sequence in which Mohan leads the village into the act of creating electricity from a stream in the surrounding hills. Unlike Hollywood mainstream films where the emphasis is typically upon the celebration and triumph of the ‘individual’, a condition of Western capitalism, Swades focuses upon the power and integrity of the collective mass, suggesting that in order for a spirit of co-operation to exist there first must be the disintegration of social barriers and ability for self criticism. Though Mohan may not be a revolutionary on a wider political scale, he is someone who craves purpose and direction in a world that continues to call itself a postmodern global village. The technological divide and rate of social and economic progression between India and America is vividly emphasised through the electricity Mohan helps to create in India and the space rocket he helps to construct and launch for NASA in America. It would be simplistic to reduce Mohan’s decision to return to India at the end of the film as idealistic wish fulfilment that is tied to his need for love, but it has more to do with the horror of anonymity that he fears he will succumb to in America. His journey through India and back to the village where his surrogate mother is staying is a journey of existential self discovery. Ultimately it is the immediate feelings of the ‘belonging’ to a community that draws him back, providing him with an identity that is firmly rooted in liberal humanism as reinforced by the subtle metaphor of water as a source of life, rebirth and enrichment. I could go on further about the beauty and intelligence of Swades but I must stop now. Swades is a step in the right direction for Indian cinema but it seems as though it is a step that may have come too soon.