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The fearless Lina Romay, rest well
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If you trawl through the mire of sequels, remakes, and lazy reimagining’s that took up most of 2011’s cinematic output, there was a lot of brilliant and diverse offerings to be had. For the UK alone, a prolific output, full of richness, was better than anything these shores has offered in recent memory (and I am not referring to those US funded British films manufactured for the Oscar market). This fact alone puts pay to David Cameron’s recent idiotic call to aspire to be more Hollywood-like. Still……. “great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds” as Uncle Albert once said.
Purely opinion based the following are some of my best personal moments that cinema offered in 2011. Clearly many films were not viewed (just not enough hours in the day) and do not appear (I’d imagine The Artist would feature if seen), with some films maybe released pre-2011 outside of the UK or yet to be released. But hey, leave that for others to worry about.
Never slipping into parody or taking itself too seriously, this ace run around the Norwegian countryside was one of the year’s most fun cinematic experiences. Using CGI to great effect and some hilariously knowing humour it was the surprise genre hit if 2011.
19. Upside Down: the Story of Creation
A timely reminder that whilst self-indulgence and a distinct lack of inspiration was the order of the day in the 80s, a few strived for more. A true reflection of the punk ethic that puts other pretenders to shame, this documentary offers some excellent rare footage of bands aiming for something more through music.
An outstanding exercise in horror that utilises long takes to ratchet up the tension. The home invasion narrative has been used many times but this is as affecting as the sub-genre gets, shredding the nerves and twisting the viewer’s moral compass right up to its cynical finale.
Based on his own short film (which arguably is a lot more successful than this full length feature), Paddy Considine shows his directorial talent. It’s a tough look at British kitchen sink culture, but ultimately has the emotional back up to provide meaning and hope to the characters on display here.
This cruel, disturbing slice of Korean exploitation mixes in some serious observational drama that covers friendship; family ties; gender power; and sexuality. It’s very refusal to play to conventions, and that the audience demands a degree of sympathy for its characters that never comes only heightens the nihilistic atmosphere.
This documentary of a man striving to find identity and redemption of his own past proves one of the year’s most emotional documentary films. Never is the approach exploitative, with our own questions proving to be the back bone of the subject matter.
14. The Last Circus
The best, most exciting opening credits of the year and although by no means De La Iglasia’s finest hour, this again proves there are not many directors working today with as much skill and enthusiasm for cinema. It may frequently fall apart but at times this is breathtakingly unique.
Excellent Japanese offering that is full of ideas and invention. Its moral stance also refreshing, never afraid to ask the questions that others would not dare confront.
12. The Innkeepers
A film where rarely anything happens, but Ti West is quickly becoming a master of manipulation as the viewer is put through a series of events that forces interaction. Because of this the reviews were mixed, but this is everything the much misunderstood horror genre is all about.
11. Red, White, and Blue
Relocating to the US after the Living & the Dead, Simon Rumley proves that he is one of the UK’s leading directors with this tightly crafted tale. Great performances give the characters on display here a genuine emotional depth, as they continually try to bring meaning to their lives. Often challenging, it’s gritty for sure, but there is a lot going on here. Not so much the American Dream, as the American Nightmare.
10. Animal Kingdom
This tense Australian drama captures your breath and doesn’t let go until the end. Utilising excellent naturalistic performances and an edgy minimalist soundtrack, it’s an experience many will find uncomfortable but one not to be missed.
9. 13 Assassins
It’s been a long time coming but this director finally gets the recognition he deserves. It’s easy to point out that Miike has been prolifically directing cinema of this quality for many years now, but this polished and (almost) restrained period piece is some of the best work that the Japanese maverick has ever produced. Best ‘climatic’ fight sequence?…….without a shadow of doubt.
Audiences were divided, as is always the case whenever a Von Trier release comes along. Yet most who witnessed his end-of-the-world would not deny hurting their jaw as it hit the floor. It could well be the director’s most cruel joke he has yet played on his audience, but there can be little disagreement that this is a pure cinematic spectacle.
As cool and calculated as anything Refn has yet done, he continues to craft his directorial talent by once again exploring the inner psyche of humanity. It’s character study and romantic development of its lead characters (Gosling and Mulligan both brilliant) would undoubtedly fall apart in the usual strandard contemporary Hollywood tradition but it’s a testament to the director that this remains one of the year’s most hypnotising cinema experiences.
Araki’s subversive critic baiting, again cleverly disguised as a standard teen comedy drama, is hugely entertaining. The director’s usual staples are all in check here (cool soundtrack; sexual anxiety; etc) and comes across as b-movie science fiction, selfishly and knowingly fucking the hell out of the cast of 90210, whilst taking a vacation near to Twin Peaks. Kinda. And if anyone other than you-know-who should film the planet’s demise this year, then thank our lucky stars it was Gregg Araki.
This Portuguese gem will hopefully get a wider release, as its Coen-esque approach is a wonder to behold. Full of quirky sequences with some of the strangest moments of surrealism you will see for a long time, this odyssey is well worth the trip that ultimately proves highly observed about how we go about our daily lives.
4. Kill List
Ben Wheatley’s second feature is a shot in the arm for the British film industry. The less you know about this film the better, but if anything it is a highly affecting journey into the heart of darkness. The whole thing may well be a metaphor for the many international events and atrocities that have been committed over the past few decades, but taken on its own merit it is a polished, claustrophobic horror film with the ability to stun and confuse the viewer that leaves many questions open to interpretation - something quite rare in genre cinema these days. Outstanding.
3. Cold Fish
Sion Sono’s latest, (very) loosely based on actual events, confirms the director as being one of the most inventive currently working in cinema today. This bleak tale of repressed, inhibited tropical fish store owner Mr. Shamoto, who when coerced into business partnership by fellow tropical fish vendor Mr. Murata, eventually leads him to violence and serial murder. It may be the blackest of black comedies you will see all year, but it is also the most furiously original and thought provoking. This years Visitor Q, if you will.
Nothing in 2011 is able to stand in the same room as this film. A completely unique approach to cinema both visually and in its own sound design. Using non-professional actors, this tale of a family constantly at breaking point, influenced by the arrival of the mothers’ new boyfriend, is often highly challenging. Yet the biggest achievement is how easily identifiable and sympathetic the characters are, particularly Lucas Pittaway’s ‘Jamie’. Not for the easily offended for sure (many walk outs have been reported), it can no doubt be filed next to Kargl’s ‘Angst’ and Villaronga’s ‘Tras El Cristal’ in the comfort stakes.
1. Guilty of Romance
Sono’s second release of 2011 is the most perplexing and intelligent pieces of cinema all year. A heady mix of the crime drama and pinku film, it is a confrontational exploration that continues the directors’ exhibition of human morals and shortcomings. Dazzling, erotic, surreal, and darkly amusing, where next for this phenomenally talented and original director………goodness knows what he could make of the often touted portrayal of a Norwegian death metal band.
Other notable films of the year included the polished, yet familiar Julia’s Eyes; bizarre Brit-doc Knuckle; unlikely romance in Monsters; The Violent Kind, which gave a refreshing take on horror that felt akin to those unique and unpredictable 80s films (Night of the Comet; et al); the ace Red Hill; tension galore in The Reef which will frighten anyone with a fear of open water and/or sharks; Lucky McKee’s brilliant and controversial The Woman; La Pacte which almost brought the best of Fulci into the modern age; the excellent triptych Little Deaths (Simon Rumley’s short the highlight, although Sean Hogan’s entry must be seen to be believed!); A Lonely Place to Die; and the slightly overrated We Need to Talk About Kevin, which by anyone else’s standards would make a top 20 list but Lynne Ramsey is definitely capable of more.
Hangover II and I hate to say it, The Ward, John Carpenter’s latest probably the least enjoyable films of the year.
But a special fuck off goes to Darren Aronofsky, who exposed himself as the shallow, cinematic tourist that many suspect. His Black Swan is perhaps the year’s most unintentionally hilarious offering, which unashamedly rips Satoshi Kon’s astounding Perfect Blue. No matter how much visual flair Aronofsky throws his dollars at, it is apparent that he is punching above his weight with his frequent psuedo-intellectual narrative faux pas.
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“A arte não é só talento, mas principalmente coragem” - Glauber Rocha
[Art is not only talent, but mainly courage]
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The films of Sion Sono frequently demand the viewer’s attention if the most is to be got from each experience.
With this tale of murder in a derelict building of a Tokyo red light district and the flashback events leading up to it concerning unsatisfied Izumi, token wife to her novelist husband, who embarks on a journey of sexual discovery, both liberating and dangerous, most will be put off by the many darkly challenging subtexts at play.
Granted his depictions of human frailty and, ultimately, our failings continues to be highly confrontational, yet Sono remains one of more interesting directors working in cinema today.
Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, Ramsey’s third feature tells the story of a mother’s disturbed perspective of events leading up to and following her son’s massacre of fellow students and teachers in a US high school.
Tilda Swinton, who has proven adept at this sort of thing over her career, portrays the mother, Eva, with conviction, as we witness her gradual agony of not being able to communicate with her difficult adolescent son, Kevin. John C. Reilly provides competent support as the father seemingly out of touch with his son’s (and wife’s) situation. With the eventual teenage Kevin played by Ezra Miller with all the angst and apathy you’d come to expect from such a drama.
However, the mixture of infrequent dark humour; stark kitchen sink realism; and an almost dream-like detachment (so brilliantly employed in Ramsey’s Morvern Callar) seems somewhat at odds with itself and its powerful subject matter, with its subtle, starker moments ultimately coming across a little heavy handed in its message and meaning.
The film undoubtedly asks questions and will be one of the more acclaimed films come the end of year polls – just possibly a little extra is expected from this more than capable director.
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Helen: There is nothing in common among women except menstruation.
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This triptych offering from three of Britain’s independent scene is a mixed bag, as these projects often tend to be. However, dealing primarily with issues of sex and horror, all three shorts do at least strive to bring something new to the table, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Promising director Sean Hogan’s opening act, ‘House & Home’, is a simple, direct tale of a awkward middle class couple with Christian leanings, who only enjoy getting their sexual kicks from debasing the poor and destitute. Upon trapping their latest victim they then encounter something not bargained for. It’s fairly pedestrian, but the denouement does at least challenge class structures and opposes so-called clean living Christian values.
The second section by acclaimed director of recent British independent takes on the zombie genre offers a bizarre tongue-in-cheek story of a Doctor concocting an old Nazi experiment through the harvesting the semen of mutated humans (a humorously large surgically attached penis to innocent victims) creating a powerful, telepathic drug. It’s a little stomach turning, for obvious reasons, but again at least tries to add depth by showing characters involved through the production line (the mutated monsters - the drug guinea pigs - the traders of organs for the Doctors monster - and the cold-hearted Doctor himself) mirrors corrupt trading systems, from pharmaceutical companies to street drug dealing.
What lets the first two parts down is the often poor delivery by its performers, never allowing us any emotional connection. Certainly not the case with Rumley’s brilliant final piece, whose previous features (particularly The Living & the Dead and the recent Red, White & Blue) have impressed and agitated the viewer by portraying human characteristic to it full potential. The final act tells of a couple who live a BDSM lifestyle, albeit with a bias of abuse towards the male. When things go to far the relationship switches and roles are reversed, bringing an ironic meaning to it’s segment title ‘Bitch’. Expertly shot, with an exceptional sound design (as always with the director), it also offers us a high degree of emotional depth, particularly in its final scene that conveys a sense of human frailty when it comes to sex that the overall project fails to deliver.
Not an entirely unsuccessful anthology then, but certainly not without its merits. If anything though, it proves the continued ability of Simon Rumley as one of the most capable British directors working in genre cinema today.
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(aka. Return of the Evil Dead, dir. Amando de Ossorio, 1973)
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This stark and disturbingly violent Korean melodrama plays out with all the conventions of an exploitation picture, particularly in the first half to that controversial 70s staple I Spit On Your Grave.
The film opens in a somber realistic tone, reminiscent of the work of fellow Korean Kim-Ki Duk of which director Chul-So was once assistant director to, following Hae-Won as she experiences a succession of bad luck experiences including an alleyway beating of a prostitute with which she testifies and eventually holds back the truth. She decides to leave Seoul for a vacation and visit her childhood friend, Bok-Nam, who now lives on a nearby island with her daughter. Once on the island the film then changes focus and we discover the life of Bok-Nam, subject to abuse both sexual and physical at the hands of the brothers that also live on the island - one of which a cheating, misogynistic husband, as well as emotional abuse by the elderly women, who support the males (except for one old man who amusingly seems content to be out of the clique) actions, ignoring the pleas of Bok-Nam, who is somewhat doctrinated to accept her life.
When a particular violent physical encounter between Bok-Nam and her husband leads to a tragic death, Bok-Nam’s mental state breaks and it is her that hands out a violent retribution.
Coming over as a hybrid of genre takes, Bedevilled puts the viewer in an uncomfortable position. Beautifully shot and with outstanding performances from all involved, this is set against moments of very disturbing scenes of domestic abuse put upon Bok-Nam, going further to also involve the young daughter with suggestions of potential molestation. Undeniably cruel and depressing.
If the first half plays to a sort of type, the second half has its foothold in the conventional horror film, even so much as to mimic the slasher sub-genre. It’s here that the film seems to fall over and belie what has gone before as realistic violence is replaced by gore, with a finale that would almost suit the many predictable US horrors of the past 25 years, as Hae-won is thrown back into the mix, again portrayed as the main character of the story.
Now despite the films shortcomings there are justifications for such a nihilistic and depressing approach, clearly the reason for Hae-wons presence - a telling scene occurs when she dismisses Bok-nam of her daughters possible molestation and refuses to help her return to Seoul with her. It is also Hae-won who denies seeing the aforementioned death that is the crux of the film midway through, although we later find that she had but chose to stay quiet as she did at the films beginning.
Is the director telling us that we live in a society where morality is non-existent; that we have lost a sense of empathy; that we are happy to conform and be controlled. Or that we have become individuals, with the sense of community now clearly corrupted and diminished - the old man’s natural, quiet death, is one of the films more touching, if darkly humorous, moments, but more poignantly echoing the sometimes futility of peoples lives.
No doubt there are many questions asked throughout, with the director making no apologies for any sort of redeeming conclusion. Even Hae-won at the end testifying against the men who beat the prostitute at the beginning appears trite and tacked, but this is another example of the honesty that the film shows and its damned refusal to paint an optimistic portrait.
Highly uncomfortable viewing.
This classy and competent offering is what we have come to expect from recent Spanish horror/thriller fare. Yet this tale of Julia, who is gradually losing her sight, and investigating the death of her already blind sister falls somewhat flat mid-way though.
One suspects that without the Del Toro endorsement, this would have slipped under the radar like arguably superior, more effective efforts as Eskalofrío (aka. Shiver, 2008) or the co-Spanish-Argentine Aparecidos (aka The Appeared, 2007) of recent similar vein.
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Since The Blair Witch Project catapulted the ‘found-footage’ genre into the mainstream, countless numbers of independent efforts are thrown out each year to much varying standard – TrollHunter falls somewhere on middle ground in terms of its success, but is by no means lacking in entertainment value.
We follow a trio of indistinguishable Norwegian students aiming to uncover the truth about a series of disappearances in the mountains and forests of their homeland. Their exploration lands them on the trail of the titular huntsman, leading them to uncover more than they bargained for.
Despite a slow opening, compensated for by shots of stunning landscapes (almost invoking Herzog), the film develops once the hunter and his subjects are introduced. That the creatures are exposed in their entirety early on is of benefit to the film (an irritation that suffered the similar themed Cloverfield, for instance), giving a welcome down-to-earth feel to proceedings.
It drags at times and is highly predictable. Yet with subtle humour (hints of the hunter’s personal life; or the trolls themselves, all slow and dim-witted) and quirky mythology (trolls able to ‘smell the blood of Christians’), this is one of the more fun experiences to be had at the cinema this year.
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Great stylised and punchy short film that pays its dues to contemporary Japanese cinema, particularly that of Tsukamoto Shinya and the punk aesthetic of Ishii Sogo.
Not much in the way of narrative save that of a photographer being stalked by a swordsman amongst urban decay. But narrative is clearly secondary here, all the music video styles clearly checked off.
With great editing, manic camera work, and definitive cool, give this director some money and let him go off and make a full feature that would have potential to inject some vital energy into the cinema of today.
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I may be hunted down by the journo-New Order for this one, but Gregg Araki’s latest fucking rocks. Often derided for his satirical 80’s-teen-like output, he does have a following none the less. A following that see beyond the vacuous teen representations that dominate American cinema.
Kaboom is another slice off The Doom Generation / Nowhere block that must surprise those ‘serious’ film critics that praised his seemingly more mature previous feature, Mysterious Skin - Smiley Face that followed came and went under the radar presumably for being too ‘out-there’.
The film follows Smith (another reference to his beloved band), a bi-sexual late teen dislocated from society (in fact society barely exists here) and continuously horny, and the friends and associates he interacts with. What follows will bring demonic powers; cult factions; cinematic in-jokes aplenty (from Un Chien Andalou to the lead duo’s amusing resemblance to Mulder & Scully); new found sexual encounters and awakenings; and the hippest dialogue since……well, never. For anyone familiar with the directors work will no doubt appreciate the b-movie sci-fi / horror hybrid that so suits his characters endearing shallowness, but as ever there is touches of depth and meaning to what plays out - even if this is blatantly secondary to having a blast. And yet again another ace Araki soundtrack (a Ulrich Schnaus & Robin Guthrie collaboration for starters!) to keep the whole thing ice-cool.
If you get to the final 20 minutes and think all is a bit too shallow then you probably are not in the audience to begin with, probably having some foreseeing vision of how the world might end, you see……and if anyone should film such a climax to this planet we inhabit, then let it be Gregg Araki!
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If maybe not as immediately gripping as its predecessor (Tell No One), Canet’s latest is a realistically played out meditation on human relationships, possessing that ability to take the viewer through a wide range of emotions.
A group of long term friends meet for a summer vacation, recounting their lives which gradually expose certain untruths in the subtlest of ways.
A huge box office hit in its homeland and one of the years more absorbing drama’s in the manner that Gallic cinema so often produces.
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