2010: A Personal Best in Films

In Uncategorized on January 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm


1. Dogtooth
Dir. Giorgos Lanthimos
[Boo Productions, Greece]

Dogtooth is a quiet, disturbing film that shines a light on a grossly unconventional household, hidden away from the world. And without giving too much away, in light of last year’s Fritzl case, this film becomes all the more chilling. The bizarre workings of the house unravel steadily with the viewer constantly piecing the narrative together. Director Giorgos Lanthimos’ clinical and static imagery feels like the work of Michael Hannekke, as does the abrupt and lingering finale which will infuriate most but delight a few. The truth is, there’s far too much interesting stuff going on to discuss here. But if you’re feeling adventurous, and can hold down a large serving of stomach-churning cinema, then this could be the best thing you see all year.

2. Catfish
Dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
[Supermarche, U.S.A.]

More than anything, the films of 2010 will be remembered as the year when computer screens and Internet nerds became entertaining and cinematic. First there was David Fincher’s gripping The Social Network, and then came Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s sobering documentary Catfish.

Catfish is the story of a couple of filmmakers who stumble into a compelling story about the unstable and unpredictable world of social networking. In terms of the story, that’s as far as I’m going – It’s hard to say more and not ruin the experience.  But what I will say is this: NPR’s This American Life had ruined documentary filmmaking for me. Every documentary I watched I found myself thinking, “this would have been a great story for TAL”. But the story of Catfish is so slickly edited and visually compelling, with it’s integration of Facebook tags to introduce people and Google Street View to create establishing shots, that there’s no way I’d want Ira Glass and the TAL team to get their precious mits on it. It leaves behind many questions and much to debate, and has reignited the feature documentary genre for me.

3. Animal Kingdom
Dir. David Michod
[Porchlight Films, Australia]

Animal Kingdom is a low-key, ambitious coming-of-age story set in the Melbourne crime underworld  – yes, it really exists – following the story of teenager Joshua as he negotiates a new life with his estranged family, after the passing of his mother.

Plotted with landmines and dark twists, the film creates a great amount of suspense with limited action. The noir-ish undertones, startling soundscapes, confident pacing and moral ambiguity make for a dense and uncompromising debut feature. Add in some great performances – most notably from Bride of Chucky look-a-like Jackie Weaver – and Animal Kingdom is, well, my third favourite film this year.

4. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul
[Anna Sanders Films, Tailand]

There are films that are unintentionally confusing, and there are films that avoid understanding, and then there is Uncle Boonmee. The film weaves in and out of the lives of a family in the northern Thai jungle, moving without warning between present day, past lives and stories from the spiritual world. The film is deeply textured with stark, bare visuals, confusing metaphors and talking monkeys with red eyes. Yes. You heard.

This certainly isn’t for everyone. Try to make sense of it, and you’ll hate it. But go with it, let it wash over you and you’ll experience something completely new in cinema. A deliberately slow, meditative, mesmeric experience, and the most memorable film this year.

5. Another Year
Dir. Mike Leigh
[Film4, U.K.]

Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. Whilst there’s truth in that, I expect Mike Leigh would edit the contents needed for filmmaking to a slice of toast and a warm cup of tea.

Another Year follows the lives of Tom and Gerri, a happy, contented middle-aged couple with an allotment, as they welcome in friends and family to stay in their home. Unlike the blissfully happy couple, those around them are struggling with everything; growing old, broken families, alcoholism, etc.

On paper the story sounds as boring as Danny Boyle making a film about paint drying (working title: 28 Coats Later) But Leigh’s ability to observe and articulate each tiny moment naturally, with no agenda or judgment, is so fine that each frame is jumping with detail and warmth.

It’s funnier than his previous films, and whilst not reaching the emotional highs and lows of Secrets and Lies, it has a warmer, more realistic tone, never spilling over into melodrama.

6. The Ghost Writer
Dir. Roman Polanski
[R.P. Productions, U.S.A.]

An old-fashioned, classic thriller where Polanski plays a clever game of hide-and-seek with the viewer, continuously pulling and prodding us in the wrong direction.

The straightforward and unremarkable plot is elevated by Polanski’s keen sense of style and an eye for the absurd. It doesn’t have the bite of some of his earlier works, but it reeks of the directional confidence that comes with making over 15 films. Polanski crafts a spiraling world of tension and paranoia that steadily builds into a comically futile release. And he doesn’t touch any kids in-between.

7. Toy Story 3
Dir. Lee Unkrich
[Pixar Animation Studios, U.S.A.]

You know the score. You’ve already seen it. And you probably cried. It’s a perfect trilogy.

Now that’s journalism.

8. Four Lions
Dir. Christopher Morris
[Film4, U.K.]

Never one to hide from controversy, Christopher Morris’ debut feature expertly tackles a subject that most would consider too dangerous to talk about. He does this by sidestepping any attempt to actually examine the roots of religious fundamentalism, and instead concentrates on eking out every drop of stupidity out of a bunch of very silly men.

The film stirs all kinds of strange and perverse emotions in you. I mean, there was a point where I was siding with terrorists – I’m not saying I wanted them to blow anyone up or anything, but I did want them to be all right. And they’re terrorists. I wanted terrorists to be all right.

But ignoring the politics and taboos, Four Lions is simply a very funny comedy with a common conceit: each character is dumber than the other. My favourite comedy of 2010.

9. Samson and Delilah
Dir. Warwick Thornton
[CAAMA Productions, Australia]

Music journalist Matt LeMay once said that in music we’ve been pummeled over the head with I Love Yous and You Are So Beautifuls so much that the most direct way of expressing images of love has lost all impact. No other director in 2010 understands this more than Warwick Thornton.

Thornton achieves the unthinkable:  a heartbreaking love story between two central characters who have less dialogue than a Chaplin film.  Much like Wong Kar Wai’s stunning In the Mood for Love, the director finds a distinctly new way of telling a love story. One where people connect for reasons independent of attraction, power and money. They connect only for survival.


Feature: White saviour; black fool: The Blind Side

In Features on May 7, 2010 at 6:51 pm

The Blind Side

Dir. John Lee Hanock

[Alcon Entertainment, USA]

Last week a friend of mine asked me if I’d heard of The Human Centipede, a film about a deranged scientist who surgically joins three victims together, mouth to anus, so that he can form a – you guessed it – human centipede. My friend felt totally offended by the film, and saw no reason for its existence; he was amazed it hadn’t been banned.

I went home, watched the trailer, felt disturbed and nauseous, and then watched the trailer again. The image of a human centipede was as gruesome as he had described it. But, even so, I took no offense to it.

Here’s why I mentioned it: Whilst The Human Centipede, a gruesome mix of horror and torture-porn, has no effect on my conscience, The Blind Side, an Oscar nominated tale of human triumph, I find the most offensive piece of cinema of the decade.

For those that haven’t seen the blindside – lucky you – or for those that had their anti-racism glare on, not detecting the aged ideology in place: let’s go over the story.

SYNOPSIS (skip if you’ve seen the film)
The Blindside retells a familiar story: Young black teen has no fixed home and nowhere to go. The education system has failed him; his family has left him. The one thing he’s got going for him, and this is no joke, is that he cuts a giant figure. Spotting his extraordinary size, and realising his potential on an American Football field, a coach from a well-to-do Christian school lobbies for his enrolment. The school board is sceptical. He doesn’t have the level of education needed to gain admission, but the coach lays out one final plea: “We’re Christian. We either take that seriously or we don’t.” And seriously they take it.

Now that someone has found him a school to go to all he needs is a home to live in – in steps Leigh Tuohy (Sandra Bullock), a swashbuckling, no-nonsense Southern mother who opens up her home and her life to Michael (or rather, Big Mike – as they call him in the film)

There’s nothing inherently racist about that. right? After all, it’s a true story; how can it be racist if it’s a true story? Here’s how: whilst it is based on the true story of Michael Oher, and whilst I’m sure there was no premeditated agenda to do so, the film employs an outdated set of ideals and a white-centric ideology that both patronises and disempowers its lead character.

The film presents Michael Oher as a black beast in need of taming, a pastiche character, constructed with bits and pieces of other gentle, dumb giants from both literature and film; part Lennie, of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and part John Coffey of The Green Mile. Now, there’s nothing wrong that; rehashing popular characters is the staple diet of Hollywood. But there’s an extraordinary oversight here: unlike the other two, as far as I can tell, Michael Oher has no mental problems; he’s completely sound of mind. Despite this, Michael stumbles around awkwardly as if he’s never made contact with humans and has no idea how to.

The film takes every opportunity to embarrass Michael and reinforce the untamed beast model. Take the scene where Michael meets S.J for the first time: Michael approaches a group of kids playing on the swings. He attempts to befriend them but only succeeds in scaring them away. In pops S.J with some sound advice: “smile at them. It lets them know you’re their friend.” As Mark Blankenship of the Huffington Post points out:

“He’s so “backwards,” the only white people he can communicate with are small children. And even they know better than he does. One little boy even has to teach the IBT how to smile at girls so they won’t be afraid of him.”

After Michael experiences further humiliations in school, I was waiting for the turning point in the film where everyone discovers Michael’s raw and natural talent for American Football – you know, the kind of talent needed to make it professional. But no; it never comes. Instead, one of the teachers – who, by the way, almost exclusively refer to him as ‘Big Mike – makes a startling discovery when going over his otherwise appalling grades: he tested at the 98th percentile for ‘protective instincts’.  Yep. 98th percentile – he’s an animal who possess only the most rudimentary of evolutionary traits.

From this moment on the caring, loving white-folk realise that the black beast can be tamed into a lovable friend. Like a dog, Oher is ushered into civilisation – occasionally stumbling along the way, but mainly doing as the good white-folk tell him. We presume he’s happy about all this. We don’t know for sure because he’s practically voiceless, a main character who becomes superfluous in the emotional arc. Rather we’re treated to patronising moments of self-fulfilment from Leigh: “I’m not changing him. He’s changing me”, she boasts to her friends.

The film goes further in its pursuit of the black beast archetype by attributing Michael’s football success not down to him, but rather down to Leigh’s ability to manipulate his 98th percentile for ‘protective instincts’: Michael’s first football practice is going terribly. He’s floundering at every turn, not understanding the plays and not communicating with his team mates. The coach is ready to throw in the towel when in steps Leigh again. She grabs Michael by the scruff of the neck – literally – and uses knowledge of his high level of protective instincts to manipulate his understanding of how to play the game. She tells him that, like her, the players on his team are his family; he must protect them as he protects his family. Suddenly, after this gentle coercion, Michael’s ape-shaped brain has a light switch moment, and he starts knocking down the opponents like bowling pins. If the film had narrated Michael’s inner monologue at this point, it would have read, “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”

Just as the film starts to celebrate Michael’s destructive football skills, attributed to his his lower-rung primal evolutionary instincts, it hits him with a bizarre and somewhat innocuous sucker-punch in form of a balloon. Yep. A balloon.

In this bizarre sequence Michael, having finally got to grips with the sport, is playing well and doing what’s asked of him. In the middle of the play Michael spots a balloon floating into the sky, and is so awestruck by the sight that he forgets he’s in the middle of a game, forcing his team’s play to break down. “Balloons. They’re balloons!”, the coach shouts at him.

There’s no good reason for the balloons. I’m assuming, with reasonable certainty, that the balloon scene never happened. It’s not exactly a monumental event that warranted recording and re-telling. So, let’s then assume it’s fabricated. But for what purpose?

Their being in the scene is unrelated to the narrative, it has no pre-existing relationship to the story, and it has no obvious comic intention. Its motivation, then, is to highlight the stupidity of Michael, and, despite him having no physical or mental aberrations, reduce his status to that of a prehistoric ape. That’s what the whole film right there: a succession of sloppy and lazily thought out scenes that do nothing for Michael’s character. As long as it fits their narrative of the black gentle giant, nothing else matters.

In an interview with real Michael Oher, conducted by Bob Costas, Oher explains his childhood love of American Football and how the game has always been emotional for him. He’s eloquent and vibrant; full of life. Where was this emotion in the film? The first time Michael was shoved onto the football field he looked at the football as if it were an alien infant. The problem isn’t that they failed to represent the real Michael Oher accurately, but rather that they made no effort to. They aimed only to fill the archetypal and outdated figure of the gentle black giant. Further evidence of this can be seen in the film’s closing credits, where we’re shown pictures of the real people behind the characters. In every instance, except Michael’s, they’ve cast a much prettier person to play the role. The real Michael Oher doesn’t cut anywhere near the giant figure portrayed in the film. He’s of a much smaller height and comparatively slender frame. But the real Michael Oher has no place in the film. He didn’t represent the hideously outdated Hollywood stereotype on which this film was built.  So he was ousted.

Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar, was often criticised for taking roles that that stereotyped African-Americans. Critics took particular aim at her Oscar winning portrayal of a maid in Gone with the Wind. Hattie responded brilliantly: “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”And she had a point. Fast forward 70 years and still Hollywood is dishing out the same tired-ass aged roles, perpetuating the same tired-ass ideology. Even with true stories.

Words: Nelesh Dhand
Edited: Ian Pennington

Film Review: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

In Reviews on February 22, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Dir. Lee Daniels

[Lee Daniels Entertainment, USA]

Since its Sundance premiere, Precious: Based on the novel Push by Saphire has snowballed into a critic’s favourite and now boasts many Bafta and Oscar nominations. There’s a unanimous incredulity amongst Precious’ production team who, despite their faith in the merits of the story, never saw it reaching the audience and critical claim it now has. The reason for this, I guess, is the movie-going public doesn’t normally get stories like this. Gabourey Sidibe, the films lead actress, doesn’t look like other lead actresses. Her character, Precious, is part of an American under-class that doesn’t usually get their story told, and when they do it’s usually packaged as a self-important, all virtuous rags-to-riches experience. The omnipotent Oprah Winfrey clearly felt the same way and wanted the story to reach as many people as possible. With her on board as executive producer, the film had the deep pockets and ubiquitous voice that it needed to reach a wider audience.

Precious is 16 years old. She’s morbidly obese, severely uneducated and the daughter of abusive parents. Oh, and she has two kids. Oh (again), they’re by her father who raped her repeatedly. She’s fat. The kids at school abuse her. Everyone abuses her. It’s safe to say that she’s been through more in her few years of life than most go through in a lifetime. The film picks up Precious’ story as she is sent to an alternative school, one that will provide a more stable learning environment. Through education Precious gets sight of a way out of her tragedy, but life just keeps on pulling her back into the shit.

The story is relentlessly brutal, and doesn’t offer quick resolutions to her difficulties. Precious often seeks refuge from the harsh realities of life by delving into her imagination. In these highly stylised sequences, Precious transforms into a famous, often petite white woman with long straight hair – her antithesis. These sequences serve a number of important purposes. It gives us, the viewer, time to breathe, regain our composure and wipe away our tears before being thrown back into Precious’ hellish world. Escapist dream sequences usually frustrate me; a cop-out tool for directors who are scared to stare tragedy in the eye. However, with Precious’ feverishly bleak subject matter, it was absolutely necessary for there to be room to breathe.

With such a character driven narrative Precious demanded stellar acting performances throughout. Director, Lee Daniels, admitted the hardest part of realising this film was finding someone to play Precious. It’s certainly not an easy roll to fill, but Gabourey Sidibe nails the part with a wonderful performance. The stand-out performance undoubtedly belongs to Mo’Nique though, for her terrifyingly real portrayal of Precious’ mother. She tears through her scenes brutally, delivering her saliva filled lines with a venom and ferociousness not often seen on screen. Those unfamiliar with her TV past would be surprised to know up until now she has only ever played inconsequential comedy roles. I’m sure that after this performance that will change.

Even more surprising than the inclusion of comedian Mo’Nique was the casting of Mariah Carey. Sullied by fame and notoriety, despite impressive and natural acting skills, Carey’s presence as citizen advisor is slightly distracting. A procession of whispers broke out on her first appearance, distracting an audience that up until then had been rendered silent by the force of the film.

Any film containing so many innately tragic elements – rape, HIV, incest, etc – has numerous pitfalls to overcome, with over sentimentality and melodrama being most common. The makers of Precious certainly understood this and whilst they don’t underplay Precious’ tragedy, they don’t give us the hard sell either. With a rich sense of film language, Daniels crafts together a very direct, compelling and tearful portrayal of life and somehow manages to package it together to appeal to a wide audience.

Words: Nelesh Dhand