films of the year, pt.2

December 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s the second part of the list of my favourite films of 2010, with the best two that I saw. It’s gone midnight here in the UK, so if you celebrate it, I hope you’re having a good one. Anyway, onto the films. As before, there are probably spoilers here, if you care about that.


2. Dogtooth

something's about to go very wrong here

I’ve seen this film discussed a lot elsewhere, and it was number 1 in the (excellent) list over at Tiny Mix Tapes. I went in not knowing much about it, though – it wasn’t a particularly high-profile release – all I really knew was that it was meant to be about some parents who taught their children the wrong meanings of words. But it’s so much more than that – the film is about a family who exist in their house and garden, and only their father can ever leave. The three children are now grown up, but they still act like they’re pre-pubescent; the two girls have no idea what sex is (the parents get in a woman to have sex with the son, setting the events of the film in motion, as apparently his sexual urges are difficult to ignore), and they aren’t allowed to watch anything that hasn’t been taped by the family of themselves. Their world has been reduced to a tiny, enclosed area; they are told that outside their home there is only wasteland. The ocean is reduced to their sofa.

The film that results from this premise is beautifully shot – the scene towards the end where the two sisters dance is one of the most incredible and visually powerful parts of a film that I have ever seen. It’s disturbing, and upsetting, and although it seems to be often read as a kind of allegory or commentary on the world around us, it’s not reductive, and it’s not simplistic. It contains one awful, horrible, moment of blunt violence, and it contains Frank Sinatra songs that are played to the children, who believe it is their grandfather singing. When the father wants to have fish for dinner, he puts fish in the swimming pool. When planes fly overhead, the parents throw toy planes into the garden and pretend that they have fallen out of the sky. And when the older sister discovers something about the world outside – that the world outside exists – she tries her hardest to understand, and it doesn’t seem like she ever quite makes it. I can’t even begin to discuss here the extent of the problems and fragile moments that Dogtooth encompasses. It’s wonderful and horrible, and it doesn’t try to be beautiful all the way through. That’s why it works. Some people have described it as an offbeat comedy. Don’t believe them. There’s nothing comedic at the heart of this film; there’s nothing funny about the older sister’s despair and attempted escape, about the way that she and her siblings have been utterly ruined.

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

stacey pilgrim and her little brother

So, finally, this is my top film. It was probably the most visually exciting and individual of all the films I saw this year, except probably Toy Story 3 (Pixar are still the best at computer-generated animation, and it was stunning). Toronto in the snow looks kind of amazing, and the bright colours and wonderful sets were all perfect. Some reviewers seemed to find the film and its visual concerns irritating, as if they saw the video game tics and features that pop up throughout it as somehow separable from the rest of the story, or unnecessary. But video games are integral; the film works so well because it functions both as a film that tells the kind of story you can imagine a video game telling, and because it functions as a film about the ways in which video games make people think. The story can just be fantastical, and I find it the most enjoyable when I just think of it like this; but it is also about the reference points that an entire younger generation of people use when they think about what’s happening around them.

I saw Scott Pilgrim twice, unlike any other film on this list, and I’d like to see it again (why wasn’t it released on DVD in time for Christmas?!) – it depends so much on the small, intricate details, and it really rewards rewatching, deep engagement. It’s also just so funny, and it often caught me by total surprise. Kieran Culkin as Scott’s roommate Wallace totally steals every scene that he’s in – he has the best lines, and delivers them with a perfect mixture of self-awareness and surrender to the role. Ellen Wong is great, too, as Knives Chau – she goes from being a very young high school pupil, whose relationship with Scott is chaste but still weird, to being angry and powerful. There are so many great characters who only play smaller parts in the film – Anna Kendrick as Scott’s younger sister (although she still calls him little brother, because she is so much more grown up than him) is wonderful, as are Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Alison Pill…

Scott Pilgrim’s funny because it’s not afraid to play around with various genre conventions, because it knows what people think about, what people care about, and shows how that affects them. But it’s a great film because it does not necessarily like its main character. Scott is not shown as particularly wonderful – he’s a dick to his girlfriends (he doesn’t even dump Knives Chau before he starts seeing Ramona, and Wallace has to practically force him into even bothering at all), he’s too caught up in his own projected ideas of what other people are like (he’s obsessed with Ramona before he even knows her, and he’s excited about dating Knives because she goes to high school, not because of who she is), and he doesn’t have a job or do much with his life at all. I believe that the film makes his personal, numbing fecklessness quite clear, and is critical of it. But it’s still fun, and exciting, and it shows in extensive detail exactly how great and weird and terrible all the people around him are and can be, too. It’s a film about being shit and living inside your own head, and about the problems that can cause. But the inside of your head can be great and fun. You just have to realise that it’s not always the best place to live.


So, now that that’s done with, here’s a list of films that I didn’t see this year that I wanted to:

Youth in Revolt, Winter’s Bone, Tiny Furniture, Easy A, Life During Wartime, Made in Dagenham, Tamara Drewe. Never Let Me Go and Black Swan, too, but I don’t think they’ve had a UK release yet, so hopefully I’ll still get to catch them. Do leave a comment if you want to discuss anything I’ve said here, or if you want to disagree with my order/my reasoning. Next, I’m hoping to write something about my favourite songs of the year.


films of the year, pt.1

December 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m going to split this list into two posts, because it’s reaching unwieldy proportions. This first part is about two unlisted films, and then numbers 5-3 on my list of films of the year. I’ll conclude the list tomorrow.

Now that I’ve got my podcast list out of the way, it’s time to turn to one of the more typical topics for these lists – films of the year. I’m going to say straight away that I don’t get to the cinema that often, and I can’t promise a top 10, but I have a top 5 and some comments to make about the other films that I watched this year. Because of the way that films have various different release dates depending on where you are, and depending on whether you can make it to film festivals or not, a handful of these may usually be thought of as films that came out in 2009. I don’t live in London and can’t usually make it to films on limited release, so as far as I am concerned anything that was on wide release in the UK in 2010 can be included here. The order of these films, as in most of my lists, is fairly arbitrary – the ones I’ve actually numbered are all great, I liked them a lot, and they’re worth seeing. Although, I’d make sure you’re prepared for the film at number two. Leave some time after it to have a think and read/watch/do something cheerful and happy before you go to sleep. The films that I’ve written about, and haven’t numbered? Well, we’ll come to that now.

Oh, and these reviews contain spoilers. In case you care about that.



I’m afraid I can’t include this in my actual list – it’s certainly not one of my favourites of the year, and I don’t think it can possibly be one of the best films when considered objectively, either. It’s beautiful, and the way it was filmed, and the ideas behind it, are exciting. I love how they’ve thought out the concept of dream architects, and the different layers of the unconscious (it’s bullshit, but quite fun, elegant bullshit). But I tend not to like thrillers, especially not thrillers that have massive, stupid, gaping plot-holes (see the image that I’ve inserted below – once you’ve read it, you can never go back), and certainly not when their deepest concerns are with money and big business.

oh, plot holes.
The film is not about Cobb’s relationship with his kids, or his dead wife. It’s about him making some money for somebody else, which is, because of some tired film conventions, the key to him getting back to his kids. It’s a film full of characters that have boring, lacklustre convictions and motives, devoid of compassion or any believable reason to lack it. It’s about stupid, overblown plot machinations that the writers haven’t even had the grace to fit to their own internal logic. It’s capitalist to its core, and it’s stupider than it should be because of it.

Also, it’s too long. But the actors are mostly quite good, even though almost all of their parts are humourless and underwritten. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, especially, can do better than this. But he’s committed, which makes a lot of difference. it’s not quite unbearable.

At least it’s well made.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 1

oh, remus.

A lot of people have been talking about how the book really should have just been made into one film, because it doesn’t feel like there’s enough material here to hold it together. I don’t quite agree – I think that there was a lot of good material in this film, and I’m glad it had time to breathe. I loved the camping scenes, I loved them travelling around a darkened, empty vision of sad, rural Britain. I especially loved the scene in which Harry and Hermione dance to Nick Cave’s otherworldly, booming voice; nothing is alright or fixed because of it, but it’s kind of important anyway. But it does feel weirdly uneven; the film also contains a stupid, shambling heist in the Ministry of Magic, an unnerving scene in which lots of different characters polyjuice themselves into looking like Harry and feel disgusted with their borrowed bodies, and a ridiculous opening in which Voldemort and his followers sit around a massive table, and drain the scene of any menace it could have had.

I like the Harry Potter books, and I know these scenes are mostly based on what J.K. Rowling has written. I often like films that veer wildly between totally different tones, too, but somehow these just don’t work. It’s because the film is kind of trying to be a children’s film, still, despite everything. But it also wants to be grown up and smart and sad. J.K. Rowling’s book, I believe, does manage this, but the film just… doesn’t. One of the most terrifying parts of the book, when Bathilda Bagshot is revealed to be a possessed, rotting corpse, just doesn’t work onscreen – the whole sequence is a bit limp. What is scary when being read at 4am, when the reader has space to imagine everything exactly, intimately, is not what is scary in a film. The film is at its best when it shows the characters struggling with what has to be done, when it is not trying to be funny and becoming an atonal exaggeration in the process; the filmmakers are not, it seems, as adept at weaving together vastly different moods as J.K. Rowling. They don’t give the viewers enough imaginative space to allow the scenes to exist alongside one another.

I imagine the next film will be more of the same, but I’ll still go along and cry stupidly when Remus dies. And there’s enough good stuff here – the beautiful animated retelling of the fable of the deathly hallows, the shots of the forest, inside the tent, the radio – that I’m excited about seeing more.


5. A Single Man

So in America this film came out last year, but it only got a wider release here in about February. I actually only saw it last month at the Magdalen Film Society, but I’m glad I finally got around to it – it’s beautiful. It’s such a quiet, non-verbal film – so much of the story is shown in the way Colin Firth moves, the way he arranges his things. I thought Nicholas Hoult was quite a weird casting choice, and it almost didn’t work, but his scenes are with a great mix of uneasiness and just utter, utter sadness and despair, which feels right. I just wish looking at him hadn’t jarred me out of the film quite so much. Julianne Moore is pretty great, but mostly as a foil to Colin’s George, as she is ridiculous and strange and he is… not. Not quite. Not any more.

My favourite parts of the film might be his memories – all tinted, faded, bright colours, all movement, all glimpse and then nothing. And oh my god, the conversation he has on the phone – it makes me want to curl up and wait until I can stop thinking about it. It’s just too painful to bear.

4. Toy Story 3

"we're number 4 in the list! how wonderful!"

I saw this in 3D. What a waste of money that is – I wear glasses already and resent having to perch another, clunkier pair on my stumpy little nose as well, and after a few minutes I couldn’t even tell that it was 3D anyway. However.

This is the first children’s film in ages that really shook me up, really made me forget the kind of conventions that the writers and filmmakers were working within. The scene where they all hold hands in the incinerator tore at me, and I really felt like the characters were in danger. I genuinely thought, for a horrified minute, that it might all go wrong – that they might be destroyed, together. They held hands and just stared at this insurmountable obstacle, the fire before them – and it wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t anything I was prepared for. My problem with a lot of books for younger readers, a lot of films for younger viewers, is that the danger often doesn’t ever seem real. The plots never have convincing points at which everything could fail, and everything could go wrong. But this film got it right. It could have failed them, and they could have been destroyed. But somehow they were saved. It felt miraculous, precarious; it didn’t come across as some kind of big, blustering filmic destiny. And that’s right. That’s how it should always feel.

3. The Social Network

I haven’t seen, as far as I know, anything else that Aaron Sorkin has ever written or been heavily involved in, so I wasn’t particularly aware of his writing style before seeing this. It works really well, and manages to be full of incredible one-liners without seeming too mannered, too much. Jesse Eisenberg says his fast, sharp lines like he’s trying to be dead-eyed, like he’s trying not to care. Except that he does care, about some things, but he’s not sure how or why or what to do about it. He puts in an incredible, awkward, complete performance around the smart phrases that he wrings out, and that’s why the film’s great; because there’s so much beneath the script, and nothing is neglected. It’s easy to sound smart and dickish; it’s harder to get beneath that. Andrew Garfield is wonderful, too, at being cocky and wounded and struggling to deal with what’s happening around him, and his loss of control. I’m not sure about Justin Timberlake, which is a shame since this is a film that so heavily relies on its actors’ performances, but I think he just about pulls it off.

It’s possibly a bit too long for a film that’s really about some guys suing another guy, but it’s never really boring, and it rarely ever feels like it’s even about that. Because it’s about relationships (but not in a naff, stupid, ‘let’s look at the facebook-generation’ way), it’s about young people and capitalism now, and it’s about being smart and curious and not understanding what the people around you care about, and why. Before I saw it, before I was told that I needed to see it, I thought it would be boring. I’m so glad that I was wrong. Inception’s plot requires this big, capitalist MacGuffin for the plot to be able to hang together even tenuously, and its arbitrariness shows. But here the hyper-capitalist reality that the characters exist in is important, as it is both the film’s frame and the root of many (but not all, or even most) of the divisions between them. It’s critical, it’s funny, and it’s important, too.

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