22nd December 2009
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As the wind howls and the snow falls on this night in late December, sleep evades me. This is probably in due course to my re-found addiction to cinema. 2009 has been a year where I have rediscovered the delights of great cinema. When I say ‘great’ cinema though, I am not necessarily talking the cinema of Bergman or Cassavettes, of Kurosawa or Lynch….no, I am talking about ‘great cinema’.
Since the turn of the year nearly 12 months ago, a friend and I sat down to witness what would be a turning point in my life, taking me back 20 years when much time was spent in front of the ‘box’ avidly viewing all the obscure cinematic gems my beloved local nicotine-stained-walled video store could offer me. Jess Franco would often feature, that first viewing of ‘Suspiria’, dodgy Italian soft-core romps (usually cut versions of a D’Amato flick), truncated ‘video-nasties’ (oh the horror), with labels like Elephant, Vampix, VTC, Stablecane et al to whet my appetite. So as we sat and witnessed 'Manos: The Hands of Fate' wondering, with bemused smiles and the extra strength Polish ale influenced dizziness, why exactly this film had been made in such a manner, I had a realisation of what made cinema so great.
Of course we enjoy all sorts of cinema, for differing reasons, at different occasions, on personal level, intellectually, for the pure enjoyment, the thrill. This is what makes the medium of cinema so great. For me, I suppose, I have a desire to discover the strangest, often cinematically inept, creations that have ever been produced…..and why they have been produced the very reason for this motivation….something that has been a little absent for some years.
And so. As the year draws to a close and I mentally compile my years top 20 films of the year, a mention of the films made out of this time frame that have made 2009 so special cannot be denied. Along with the Harold P. Warren production mentioned above, there has been jaw dropping classics like 'The Amazing Mr No Legs' (amazing in the fact that apart from the craziness that ensues before you, Mr No Legs hardly figures in the film at all) assassinating would-be gangsters with a black belt martial art from his own wheelchair. 'Zombi 5: Killing Birds' with a pre-occupied with god-no-what Robert Vaughn ambling about, as this feature tries really hard to have any sort of connection with the infamous Italian horror franchise. Then there is ‘Mad Foxes' which truly has to be seen to be believed. No, this film defies any sort of description. Truly unbelievable, with more jaw dropping bizarre scenes in its 77 minutes running time than the whole of Charlie Kaufmans mental output (surely, only he could come close to remaking this with authenticity). A film with dialogue as diverse as “Hey Stiletto, give her a good screw" (Stiletto the Lothario leader of a biker gang) and sex scenes that I have never ever witnessed. Oh….but I may be mistaken there, as ‘Porno Holocaust' (D'Amato to be blamed once again) fell before my eyeballs. My, oh my. The plot falls around varying degrees of very unattractive hardcore scenes, usually showcasing some of the finest genital warts I have ever witnessed in cinema. Mix in some tame zombie related violence, and sprinkle in some zombie hardcore sex. I have never witnessed a zombie being fellated (apparently the cause of the zombie outbreak in the first place), then said zombie literally fucking its female companion to death. All to a genuinely brilliant funk/jazz soundtrack I might add. Then there was the night we did the Umberto Lenzi double bill. 'Eyeball' and 'Spasmo' back-to-back, influenced by strong herbal delicacies should come with a health warning. My dreams are now regularly influenced by Lenzi's surreal (possibly accidental, but that is the 'greatness' I mentioned before) atmosphere of his giallo that is 'Spasmo’. Wonderful. What else. There has been Troma’s outstanding ‘Poultrygeist:Night of the Chicken Dead’; ‘Drive In-Massacre’; ‘Turkey Shoot’; ‘The Carrier' (“We have red things!!!!”); 'Behind the Door' (aka The Devil Within Her); 'Nightmare City' (Umberto Lenzi again doing the zombie thing…zombies in spandex no less!); Lucio Fulci's 'Conquest’; ‘Troll 2’; ‘House of the Dead' I & II; 'The German chainsaw Massacre’, and the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed hardcore versions of ‘The Exorcist' and 'Re-animator' ('The XXXorcist' & 'Re-penetrator’, respectively). And so it goes. I am completely hooked again to trash cinema. I am overdosing on this shit and indeed cannot wait to see what stones are uncovered for the future.
So to 2009. With intrepidation at trying to compile a list of this years top 10 favourite films (the above desire for cinematic sleaze may be a clue as to what follows), as last year it appears a truly rich year for cinema despite what various critics indicate. More so than last year, hence a top 20. Time frames are hard to adhere to with a years top list so any pedantics regarding release dates then ‘I’ll waver that right, right now' (cheers Anton)…….
- 20. ‘Mum & Dad' (dir. Steven Sheil, UK) - A brilliantly conceived Brit horror, which typifies the resurgence of independent genre cinema here in the UK. Great stuff for the strong of stomach, with some fine performances.
- 19. ‘Le Donk & Scor-Zey-zee' (dir. Shane Meadows, UK) - Arguably the UK's finest director and actor pair up once again, but it is the performance by real-life rapper Scor-Zey-Zee that proves to be truly heartfelt. Meadows is rumoured to be planning to direct a horror film next, tentatively titled ’Beware the Devil’. following on from what he achieved with ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’, this is truly a mouth watering prospect.
- 18. ‘House of the Devil' (dir. Ti West, US) - With 'The Roost' and now this film, West proves himself to be not only a director with a genuine love and respect for the horror genre, but also one of considerable talent. Filmed in an authentic 80s horror style, the film begins in a well known yet sinister tone, then proceeds to suitably not do anything for an hour. In the hands of other directors this would fall flat, but by West only serves to multiply the hit of the final act of horror, as things go South.
- 17. ‘The Children' (dir. Tom Shankland, UK) - Kids rebel against parents scenario, a well worn storyline. But this tale features highly developed characters both old and young to create a creepy, slow burning atmosphere when things turn sour. Another example of excellent UK horror, although miles ahead of cliched ridden attempts like 'Eden Lake' and the truly awful 'Donkey Punch’.
- 16. ‘Hansel & Gretel' (dir. Pil-Sung Yim, S.Korea) - A great slice of Korean horror cake, disguised in the form of a fairytale. This is merely a cover to show off odd characters, bizarre narrative twists, and most impressively beautifully original visuals. Eat it up as soon as you can…….
- 15. ‘Colin' (dir. Marc Price, UK) - An ultra low-budget (reportedly costing £45) horror film that took certain Cannes audiences hearts. Despite constraints and flaws, Price manages that rarest of things in this saturated territory: a sympathetic zombie drama. Moving stuff indeed, none more so than when family relations are dealt with.
- 14. ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil' (dir. Sacha Gervasi, US) - Seeing these two ageing heavy metallers argue, fight, make up, and indeed get paid in soup for their bands live stints, was one of the funniest, touching, and ultimately, inspiring things put on screen all year. Perm is a strange word.
- 13. ‘Moon' (dir. Duncan Jones, UK) - The years best science fiction film turns out to be everything but sci-fi. Watch arguably the finest actor currently at work, as the film unfolds, which will poke and provoke muchos minds. Simply ace!
- 12. ‘Vinyan' (dir. Fabrice De Welz, France) - Having thought 'Calvaire' one of the best horror films this decade, it was hard to wait for De Welz's follow up. By no means similar, 'Vinyan' takes the viewer on a journey into darkness, a descent into hell, better and more effective than most. Beautiful and disturbing to look at, usually at the same time. This has been showered with negative reviews, and criminally over-looked here in the UK. I hope the obviously talented De Welz gets the credit he deserves. Take the trip, although its a bumpy ride……..
- 11. ‘Coraline' (dir. Henry Selick, US) - It may not have balloons in it but 'Coraline' is the finest animated film of the year. Told through the perspective of the 11-year old protagonist, it is the grown ups who are on trial here, in what is really an effective horror film that harks back to the early b&w gothic horror films of the early half of the last century.
- 10. ‘Martyrs' (dir. Pascal Laugier, France) - And speaking of bumpy rides…..no film had more of an impact for me than this. Literally falling out of the cinema having been pummelled for almost 2 hours I did not know what to make of it. But like ‘Irreversible' a few years earlier, this incredible slice of extreme cinema has tremendous power to confront you and ask the right questions. It also happens to be an excellent horror film. So much more than the lazy comparisons with 'Hostel' and 'Saw' imply.
- 9. ‘Food, Inc.' (dir. Robert Kenner, US) - The best documentary for me this year and the most important (I haven't seen 'Age of Stupid' mind), is a real reminder of the ignorance we all share on a daily basis. How can it be that so many people are prepared to eat pre-packaged meat (and not necessarily just meat), with complete forced ignorance of how that product gets into their hands? Ignorant to how the 'live-stock'are treated and farmed under severe unnatural conditions. And ignorant as to the globalisation of huge food companies, and their tactics for cheaper production (which includes contamination, exploitation and a load of other ‘tions’). Enjoy your food this Christmas folks……..
- 8. ‘The Wrestler' (dir. Darren Aronofsky, US) - Aronofsky's latest not only provides the top cinematic surprises of the year, not least with the years best performance from Mickey Rourke, but also gives us that rarest of things in cinema: a 'feel-good' film that pulls the heart strings with the up most respect.
- 7. ‘Antichrist' (dir. Lars Von Trier, Denmark & others) - It was predictably booed at Cannes, derided by critics who confessed to not even seeing it. Von Trier could not care less if he was tied down to a chair in a 'torture-porn' (hate that term) film and force fed Eli Roth scripts. A genuinely beautiful and thought provoking tale of…..well everything we are really. In particular chronicling the painstaking struggle of ever decreasing love and respect for your mutual partner. 'Antichrist' also has one of the best beginnings to a film for some time, powerful stuff indeed. Oh, and the best film to feature a talking fox bar none…………
- 6. ‘White Lightnin’' (dir. Dominic Murphy, UK) - Where did this little gem come from? A brilliant and disturbing tale of the search for redemption. As with 'Antichrist' this film could be defined as a horror film, but just refuses to lie down and be categorised. Not since that first viewing of 'Eraserhead' has a film gate crashed my dreams. Brilliant. Enough indeed said.
- 5. ‘Synecdoche, New York' (dir. Charlie Kaufman, US) - Right then, what the hell has happened to this film? Delayed, under marketed, ignored, misunderstood…..yet this remains one of the finest cinema experiences of the decade. This was my top film of last year, catching it in an old cinema in Santa Barbara, alone. It just blew me away. Twelve months on and hardly a whisper about it. So its back!!!! A film which manages to convey so many emotions, with the ability to make you cry, laugh, cower behind the sofa, and importantly to think. See it, be confused, bewildered, inspired, enlightened.
- 4. ‘Fish Tank' (dir. Andrea Arnold, UK) - With Shane Meadows, Arnold is the best UK director currently working. 'Fish Tank' should blow you away, especially if you are familiar with the locations and characters that inhabit this unique, yet real world. Brilliantly told through the movings of the teenage protagonist, not since 'Kes' has adolescence been portrayed better. Yes, its disturbing, but this director portrays these characters with the most amount of respect. Best UK film by a council estate mile……….
- 3. ‘Tokyo Sonata' (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan) - A director of some of the finest thought-provoking horror films, Kurosawa's latest is a quiet, slow burning drama. It tells the tale of a Tokyo salary-man who upon losing his job, cannot come to terms to inform his family and so keeps up the appearance of going to work each day. Are we our jobs? How much of life do we engage with? Are we honest to ourselves? Questions that are asked throughout and on paper, far away from the conventions of the excellent horror films ‘Cure' and 'Kairo (aka Pulse)’, this still remains truly horrific in the fact that it portrays a worrying picture that is instantly recognisable in most proletarian societies. Kurosawa’s best film yet!
- 2. ‘Where The Wild Things Are' (dir. Spike Jonze, US) - There has been so much talked about this film, mostly with words such as 'vacuous’, ‘slow’, and ‘boring' often used. Now the film is with us, it has proved irresistible, profound and with just the right amount of ambiguity for us grown-ups. A film about a boy and his imagination, directed to perfection that will transport most viewers back to the time when they were small. Go to where the wild things are and simply enjoy.
- 1. ‘Let The Right One In' (dir. Thomas Alfredson, Sweden) - Not only the film of year, but one of the best films of all time. It is truly remarkable. This story of a lonely and bullied boy, who befriends a vampire is one of the most intelligent and touching films you can see. Due to the brilliant direction, questions will remain unanswered, and purely only for the viewer to unravel. With not wanting to give too much away, what initially appears a happy and pleasing tale, may well become something a little more sinister at second glance. Due to be inexplicably remade in the US, as it already contains so much of classic early American cinematic convention (a friend saw the dubbed R1 version not realising the original language was Swedish and loved it). But don't let that fact belittle anything about this film, that will become one of the classics of contemporary cinema.
So the best year of films for me since 1991. Simply brilliant. The sheer wealth of new and original cinema (and lets not forget new spins on old ideas) has been vast. A number of titles have been omitted, either because there are not enough quiet moments to view them all (or I’m spending them watching Franco’s spin on the cannibal film or something), or they dont quite make the grade. But honourable mentions to ‘Julia’, ‘Milk’, ‘Bronson’, ‘Up!’, ‘Hush’, ‘Thirst’, which were all excellent. To the return of the horror genre for Sam Raimi with the fun ‘Drag Me To Hell’. To the return of Coffin Joe in ‘Embodiment of Evil’, showing the youngsters how to do it. To ‘Los Cronocrimenes' which was a good puzzle. To the jaw dropping 'Bad Biology' by Frank 'Basket Case' Hennenlotter, wow. To 'Gonzo’, which was disappointing but vital. To ‘Elite Squad' and 'Katyn’. To ‘Looking For Eric' and 'Maradona’. To the aforementioned ‘Age of Stupid' which needs to be compulsory. To the brilliant independant film that moved me to tears 'A plus D’. And to ‘Inglurious Basterds' which I have not yet experienced.
But of course this is all a personal favourites list. I notice that no less than 6 of the 20 films I loved this year featured a youngster in the lead role. Could I have reached a time in life where the spark of memories of chidhood/adolescent activities is now a greatly comforting thing. That’s one of many capabilities of cinema I suppose.
And of course your top 20, top 10, 5 or best film of the year will be different. There will be a theme, a reason, but it will be different. Again, the ’great’ thing about cinema is we all experience it differently…………just don’t make it that fucking ’Friday The 13th' remake!