Saturday, January 1, 2011

BITCHFEST '10, or: Farewell Pulp Friction Australia (Part 2 of 2)

2010 has been an interesting year for me, personally. I became a full-time student for the first time, studying filmmaking at RMIT, and made my third short film... the first that really felt like me. I also struggled epically with finances, which meant that I saw a few less films than usual. However, my friend Lee Zachariah and I started a monthly movie podcast, called HELL IS FOR HYPHENATES, and I was kindly enlisted by Thomas Caldwell to appear on 3RRR FM's FILM BUFF'S FORECAST on a couple of occasions, all of which means I officially hung my shingle as a film reviewer for the first time. So now I'm getting media passes to see films, which gave my tally a welcome year-end jolt.

Looking back at my yearly viewing tally, I watched exactly 200 films -- 87 films at cinemas (38 of them at MIFF) and 113 films on DVD (89 of them for the first time) -- beginning with the very English DVD double of 1948's LONDON BELONGS TO ME and 1963's SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and ending with Darren Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN. But... once you round them down to films first released to general, non-festival screenings in cinemas or DVD in Australia in 2010, that tally shrinks to a positively anaemic 63! So, when you read these charts, please keep in mind I'm not drawing from some endless well of 200+ new movies, nor am I some schmo regurgitating the two films a month he saw this year. I'm somewhere very much in between, but I like to think I've seen a fair cross-section of films for my judgement to be somewhat valid.

So, enough with the waffling: here are my highlights of the films of 2010:

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UNDERRATED OF 2010 PART 2...

THE GREATEST EXPERIENCES I HAD IN A CINEMA IN 2010
Being a film buff/fan/nut, I'm still intensely connected to the cinema experience. As much as I hate people who have long and animated conversations during a film, let their phone ring out before answering it and having conversations in the theatre or just generally act like boneheads watching a DVD at home, I still enjoy seeing a film on the big screen with a bunch of like-minded people, and suspect I always will. For all the arguments toward home cinema and staying out of your local, there were two occasions this year that emerge powerfully in my mind as a spirited defence of the communal cinematic experience...

2. THE ROOM
Thanks so much to Carlton's Cinema Nova for instituting their excellent Cult Cravings screenings (Friday and Saturday night late shows) and for kicking it off with Tommy Wiseau's utterly bizarre, hack-handed work of bizarro genius, THE ROOM. The film alone would be hilarious enough, with its pornography-level acting, hilarious propensity to bring up seemingly pertinent plot points only to never mention them again, replacing a character entirely with someone else halfway through the film, endless shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, unfortunate framing, horrendously casual misogyny... I could go on. And I haven't yet mentioned Wiseau himself -- the writer/producer/director/star of this glorious clusterfuck -- a singularly odd man who sports an '80s hair metal hairstyle, a face resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger after years with Mickey Rourke's plastic surgeon and the physique of an aging bodybuilder, all topped off with the most indeterminable Eastern-European-via-Los-Angeles accent and what seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how human beings behave. But what makes THE ROOM truly magnificent is seeing it in a packed theatre, particularly with people who have done this before. A genuine cult film with an enthusiastic following, there are rules for watching the film (get to the flick early to study up on the mini-guide provided by the cinema)... Phrases one needs to shout at the screen at certain moments. Plastic spoons to throw at the screen whenever a picture of a spoon appears in the film (this happens more than any reasonable person would think). Moments in the film where it's okay to run up to the screen and pretend the characters are talking to you. It's a rocking, riotous, hilarious good time, and one that provides some inkling as to what those great midnight movie screenings of the 1970s must have felt like. Nova are still screening it, so if you haven't been yet, GO. It's amazing.

1. THE MOVIE ORGY
A Frankenstein's monster of a film assembled by director Joe Dante (the GREMLINS movies, THE 'BURBS) from odd scenes and off-cuts from obscure films and television shows from the 1960s and 70s, Dante personally toured it around college campuses from 1968 to the mid-70s, continually adding footage whenever he saw fit, to the point where it eventually ended up running for seven-and-a-half hours! It remained unseen for decades, until Dante transferred it to video -- at a positively svelte 270 minutes! -- for a screening at LA's New Beverly theatre in 2008. It is this version that the Melbourne International Film Festival, who devoted a sidebar to Dante's work and brought the great man out here, very kindly screened at the halfway point of their festival this year. While many cinematic experiences bill themselves as being "one of a kind" or "once in a lifetime" experiences, very few actually are. I mean, they'll end up on DVD someday or revived again in other theatres... but there's only ONE COPY of THE MOVIE ORGY, and it goes where Joe Dante goes. And, as this was the 64-year-old Dante's first Australian visit, chances are, he won't likely make it out here again. So this IS a bona fide, once in a lifetime screening. Starting at the (ill-advised?) time of 11:30pm, it was a pleasure to witness Dante introduce the film himself, pretty much apologising for it the whole time, what with its shoddy look and massive running time, saying it was an experience designed to be walked out on and returned to. His intro was funny and affectionate, and it was a pleasure to have him there. For such a singular experience, it was slightly disappointing to see only about 50 or 60 determined souls in attendance, but it made the club a little more exclusive and special. I guess the thought of stumbling out of a city cinema at 4:15 on a winter's morning was a little too daunting for most film festival fans to consider. I sat in the back row with a couple of friends, all of us with only an inkling of a clue of what we were about to see. Within minutes, we were bewitched. Imagine flipping channels through the weirdest, funniest, most anachronistic film & TV cable television library ever assembled, yet it all fell in a way that made for startling sociopolitical commentary and perfect comic timing. THE MOVIE ORGY is hilarious, angry, satirical, fun, political, silly, caustic and utterly engrossing. As some people faded away to the clutches of sleep, my friends and I remained completely awake throughout the duration. How could you not? Between highlights from the deranged 50s delinquent drama SPEED CRAZY (whose lead is always losing his shit because people are "crowding" him) or sci-fi bomb THE GIANT CLAW (where a giant papier mache turkey monster headbutts model buildings until they explode) or the kid's morning show ANDY'S GANG (where a seemingly brain-damaged host treats us to a horrifying dirge of "Jesus Loves You" accompanied by a mini-piano played by a doped-up cat and dead-looking rat -- both real!) or jaw-droppingly racist clips from films and TV or some amazing TV musical performances from The Beatles or The Animals or... there really is too much awesomeness to mention. And sharing it with a small and bleary group of like-minded individuals made it all the more special. I laughed my arse off and was generally stunned at how brilliantly it both evokes nostalgia for a lost age and skewers the ugly face of the American persona. THE MOVIE ORGY was my absolute favourite film experience of 2010 -- possibly ever -- but the most disappointing thing is, no matter how effusively I recommend it, you'll never see it. And to Joe Dante: no apologies were necessary. As a comic sociopolitical collage, it's a fucking masterpiece.

THE MOST UNDERRATED FILMS OF 2010
I always enjoy directing people to the hidden, underseen cinematic gems -- or even just plain old good movies -- that get washed aside by the blockbuster culture that pervades our cinemas and home entertainment stores these days. And there were plenty of films this year that deserve the attention.

Miguel Arteta's YOUTH IN REVOLT proves before PILGRIM that there IS life for Michael Cera after George Michael Bluth, and every scene where he plays his character's delinquent alter-ego is hilarious. It's got a killer supporting cast, an involving script and some laugh-out-loud funny, almost surrealistic gags (not to mention some ace claymation, too).

WORLD'S GREATEST DAD gives Robin Williams his best role since his "Year of the Psycho" in 2002 (where he shone in ONE HOUR PHOTO, DEATH TO SMOOCHY and INSOMNIA). He's a single dad forced to put up with an odious son who treats him with the worst kind of contempt, until an event changes his life dramatically, and how he deals with it is nothing short of inspired. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, it's also a pretty keen satire on the modern-day phenomenon of the "human interest story" and how we're all too quick to canonise heroes.

CITY ISLAND was a goregous little New York indie comedy, the kind they don't really make anymore, starring Andy Garcia, in a return to form as a security guard who secretly takes acting classes, and Julianna Margulies, as his suspicious wife, who thinks he's off having an affair. In fact, everyone in this family has a secret of their own, and watching these facades unravel is hilarious fun and often genuinely affecting, thanks to a wonderful cast and Raymond De Felitta's warm yet sharp script and direction.

Australian writer/directors Sean Byrne and Richard Gray made strong debuts at different ends of the genre scale with THE LOVED ONES and SUMMER CODA, respectively. THE LOVED ONES is a deliriously entertaining slasher/torture horror, featuring Xavier Samuel (TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE) as a troubled, self-abusing young man who turns down an invitation to the school prom from misfit Lola (the amazing Robin McLeavy), who then, with the help of her equally deranged father, kidnaps him and proceeds to hold her own bloody prom night... and things just get weirder from there. Imagine that Molly Ringwald and Harry Dean Stanton from PRETTY IN PINK were utterly psychopathic and raised alongside WOLF CREEK's Mick Taylor, and you get the idea. SUMMER CODA, on the other hand, is as lovely and sun-kissed as a film can be. Heidi (a luminous, star-making performance from Rachael Taylor) and Michael (Alex Dimitriades) meet outside of Mildura, where Michael runs an orange grove and Heidi has returned from the US for a family funeral. They're both suffering emotional bruises but they quickly form a bond, and their tentative courtship is both sweetly and smartly unfolded. Michael's orange picking crew form something of a colourful Greek Chorus to the proceedings and, as played by Angus Sampson, Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Daniel Frederiksen and Pacharo Mzembe -- are wonderful. And Greg De Marigny's cinematography on the Red is flat-out luscious. As languid and laid-back as LOVED ONES is frenzied and punchy, these Aussie efforts may be polar opposites but equally worth catching.

RED HILL is another Australian genre flick that's a must-see, a modern Australian western -- and make no mistake, this is as much a Western as anything directed by John Ford -- set in rural Victoria, concerning a young city cop (Ryan Kwanten) who's transferred with his wife to a country precinct with less excitement... which turns out to be dead wrong. Writer/director/editor Patrick Hughes honours every trope of the genre and makes a stunning debut, a vision every bit as strong and assured as the much more celebrated ANIMAL KINGDOM.

I'm as surprised as anyone that TRON: LEGACY is the first movie I've ever seen that I felt really understands the 3D format. For once, all the buzz about the film's world being "immersive" were true. What it may lack in terms of plot and character development, it more than makes up for as a definitive audiovisual big-screen experience, particularly when seen its natural habitat in IMAX 3D. It ticks off the hero's journey tropes of the modern blockbuster, and tips its visual hat to its many references, but also builds a world that is visually enrapturing, beautiful and incredibly tactile. Garrett Hedlund is not nearly as uncharismatic as you've heard, and does a pretty nice job, Olivia Wilde is incredibly lovely and likeable and Jeff Bridges revisits Kevin Flynn with a warmth and affability that's instant. While it does touch on some intriguing ideas regarding our relationship to technology, it's the sound, light and music (thanks to Daft Punk) show that will really blow your hair back, much, much more than other movies that allegedly did the same (coughAVATARcough). But please, please see it in (true, not mini) IMAX 3D.

(Before I move on: My picks for the two most underrated films of 2010 are actually in my top 10 for the year. I'll let you know when I'll get to 'em... which brings us to...)

MY TOP 10 FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2010

2010 gave us quite a few good films and an equal share of bad films, but very few were utterly great or outright terrible. Which, lucky for me, made making a top 10 best incredibly simple. A handful of films stood far above the rest, a couple of which crashed the party very late in the year. Now... I know you may be wondering where certain films are. If that film you expected to be on the list isn't here, it's probably because a) I thought it was really good, but it didn't hit me all that hard (eg. THE KING'S SPEECH, ANIMAL KINGDOM), b) in fewer cases, I haven't seen it (eg. BURIED, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT), or c) I haven't seen it AND it didn't screen publicly in 2010 (eg. 127 HOURS). All the films in my top 10 hit me squarely in the head, heart and -- most importanly for me -- gut.

The envelope, please...

10. LEBANON
Very few films succeed at once as an action, thriller and anti-war film, but LEBANON scores high on all levels. Much has been made of its claustrophobia-inducing location (the film is set entirely inside an Israeli tank during the 1982 Lebanon war), but the terrified, inexperienced tank crew, their immovable commanding officer and the various challenges that are thrown their way, and their narrow but terrifying view of the world outside all turn the screws to make LEBANON a masterclass in cinematic tension. Writer/director Samuel Maoz based the film upon his own experience as a tank soldier in the Lebanon War, which is undoubtedly the reason why it feels so fraught, so inescapably real. The crew are all in their early twenties, and none seem all that ready for the realities of armed warfare. They're scared kids who have been conscripted into their national army and sent out to confront a very dangerous unknown. What's more, when we meet them, they've yet to fire a shot in combat. The thing that grips you at once is, despite how powerful it looks from the outside, how utterly vulnerable their tank is. The thing is leaking, steaming and falling to bits: a perfect metaphor for its increasingly unstable occupants. Their communications are shot, their CO tells them only what he feels they need to know, and even then, he seems to be leaving information out. The crew's only view into the outside world is through the scope of their cannon and, while the images are powerful, this is the one and only element that occasionally pulls you out and reminds us we're watching a film. The scope images are always so perfectly pertinent (a child's face, a man's despair) and composed, when the reality would surely be more chaotic. But it's a minor complaint, as they're a small part of the film's duration and the collective experience of the film is worth so much more. "War is hell" may be a tired sentiment, but as we keep on sending our fellow humans to the slaughter, someone needs to continue expressing it. And, when it's expressed as powerfully and thrillingly as this, all the better.

9. INCEPTION
BRRRAAAAAAHHHHHHHHMMMM! BRRRAAAAAAHHHHHHHHMMMM! If any sound defined cinema in 2010, it was the giant horn refrain of INCEPTION's score. Christopher Nolan's epic psychic heist picture is a puzzle within a riddle, a riddle within an enigma. It's one of those films that rewards a rewatch; it can be engaged with purely upon the level of its complex plotline and psychological struggle of its lead character, or pored through time and again for hidden and deeper meaning. It's a film about ideas, creativity, intellectual property, letting go and vanquishing emotional demons, and so much more. (There's a theory going around that it's about filmmaking!) It's a breathtakingly shot and composed film, that truly embraces an epic visual style. It's BIG and, with its impeccable wardrobe, expansive production design, percussive musical score, stunning visual effects and big-time cast, it has no qualms with letting you know. But it's big and clever, which is a duo rarely seen together in Hollywood films today. The main distraction of this film is the undeniable shit-tonnage of exposition, which fills about 70% of the film's length. Although it is beautifully delivered by its starry cast and often most helpful to orient us in its multi-layered world, there were moments where I felt a particular point could have been displayed visually, rather than spelled out to us (particularly in regard to DiCaprio's relationship to his wife). But, like LEBANON's cannon-scope artifice, this is a small complaint, as the film itself works so strongly on so many levels and creates a world so compelling that it's hard to be bored -- and what heist flick ISN'T filled with exposition, anyway? (Personally, I liked that Nolan introduced rules to stop the dream worlds from spiralling out of control -- this is RIFIFI OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, not DREAMSCAPE -- and the fact the dream levels were relatively grounded only adds to the viewer's compelling doubt over what in the film is and isn't a dream.) I also have to mention that the cast are excellent, and single out Tom Hardy in a rare dapper, urbane role as the charming Eames and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who, as well as being generally terrific, distinguishes himself in the coolest fight scene to emerge from a Hollywood blockbuster since THE MATRIX. Nolan loves to puzzle his audience and deliver big-time thrills and, in this regard, INCEPTION seems to be the perfect synthesis of his work to date.

8. HUMPDAY
The year's second-most underrated film for me actually first screened in Melbourne in 2009, when it travelled the festival circuit and won rave reviews. It says something about the current film climate when rave reviews -- for such commercial qualities as being "hilarious" and "likeable" -- can't even get a film released to the arthouse circuit. Unbelievably, HUMPDAY was dumped direct-to-DVD. It's one of the smartest, funniest and emotionally astute comedies not only of the last year, but the last decade. It's also the film that near-singlehandedly saves the American independent "Mumblecore" movement from oblivion, as it was made by, and stars, many of the movement's key practitioners and falls under the umbrella, despite not being filled with passive-aggressive characters you want to strangle. No, the lead characters in this intriguing spin on the popular "bromance" sub-genre of comedy are likeable and flawed in wonderfully human -- and funny -- ways. Ben (popular "mumblecore" comedy filmmaker Mark Duplass) is married to Anna (Alycia Delmore) and, while reasonably happy, is feeling his youth pass him by... Never more acutely than when his old college roomate, wannabe hipster Andrew (Joshua Leonard of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) returns to drop in, stay over and take Ben out on a big night or two. On one of their drinking sessions, they hear about Humpfest, a DIY porno festival and decide (as one does) that it would be an ace idea -- an artistic statement, if you will -- if they did one together. The rest of the film deals with the consequences of this decision, leading up to the event. Writer/director Lynn Shelton could've played the premise for cheap & easy puerile laughs, but really sidesteps this in favour of finding the awkward human comedy within the two men's inherent sadness, no matter how pathetic they often seem. It's as sharp, mocking and sweet a depiction of modern male masculinity I've seen, and it really is massively funny. Get thee to a DVD store and seek this out, you won't be disappointed. It's a smart indie film even your family or beer-'n-pizza friends might enjoy!

7. MACHETE
Robert Rodriguez always promised to adapt his fake trailer contribution to GRINDHOUSE into a feature, but what I didn't expect is that he would extend and flesh it out so successfully. As punchy, fun, explosive, violent and nostalgic as anything he's done, and yet more personally revealing than anything in his oeuvre, Rodriguez and his longtime editorial collaborator-turned-debut director Ethan Maniquis have delivered a shotgun blast of a flick that is equally the year's most vibrant action film, most pitch-perfect film geek homage and most underrated picture. With its sledgehammer social commentary, gleefully racist villains and globs of casual sex and violence, it perfectly updates the archetypes and tropes of 1970s black action "blaxploitation" cinema to a pertinent 2010s context facing Mexicans, the southern US states and the issue of immigration. It sends a message loaded with gunpowder, C4 and outrageous characters, as the best action genre cinema does. It also gives Danny Trejo his first lead role, and this weatherbeaten, tattooed, highly affable cult hero does his damndest to honour it. Whether scowling at villains, spitting out one-liners or swinging on a henchman's intestines, he commands every frame he's in. (He also, more awkwardly, beds both female leads!) He anchors the nuttiest, most eclectic cast of the year, who are all having a great time swallowing the scenery, including Robert De Niro in his best role in over a decade (is it because he's finally made the transition to B-actor and thus fits in perfectly?) and Steven Seagal in the kind of role he should have been playing from day one: a villain. I won't lie: it's a kick to see 64-year-old Trejo go mano-a-mano with 59-year-old Seagal in the final battle. For an action flick with cojones of steel and its heart in the right place, you won't find a better time at the cinema than MACHETE.

6. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
I always had faith in the "Facebook movie". As much as it was mocked and dismissed before release, my heart held true. Not because I was particularly interested in the genesis of the social networking behemoth, but because of two names: Fincher and Sorkin. Sorkin and Fincher. I mean, the pessimistic, genius, visual stylist director behind SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC and the idealistic, genius, maestro of dialogue screenwriter of THE WEST WING, STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP and THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT teaming up?? These guys could be doing SEX IN THE CITY 3 and I'd be there on opening day. But they far surpassed even my lofty expectations with their work here. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a story of modern-day monarchs, of aspirants to the throne, engaged in betrayal over an empire. Through the prism of Sorkin's preternatural grasp upon the medium of film dialogue, it is quite literally the kind of story Shakespeare would have written were he born last century and alive and working today. But it's Fincher's dark view of human nature, which shines through with every foreboding, beautifully composed shot, with every note of Trent Reznor's delicious score, that perfectly compliments the caustic lines these characters fire at one another, and adds an extra dose of acid to Sorkin's entitled little Harvard boys. It's been a while since I've seen a talkfest so thrillingly staged and blackly performed, and the actors are just right and then some: from Jesse Eisenberg playing Zuckerberg like a wounded animal, unable to trust or even truly understand how the rest of us humans act, to Andrew Garfield's sweet but naive Eduardo Saverin, whose lack of boardroom street smarts sees him pushed aside, to Justin Timberlake's rendering of Sean Parker as a wonderfully sleazy 21st century snake oil salesman, to -- my personal favourite -- the towering Armie Hammer as the charismatic, righteously scorned Winklevoss twins. In a world where words are bullets, contracts are time bombs, information is power and a geek is God, the emotional shrapnel flies thick and fast, and ultimately wounds us all in some way or another. While I don't believe THE SOCIAL NETWORK defines a generation entire, I feel it does define a very modern, very Generation-Y phenomenon: the technocrat, whose social awkwardness and apparent technical omniscience brings with it an entitlement to instant fortune. Of this particular type of person, one could not possibly find a more expressive or fitting avatar than Mark Zuckerberg. THE SOCIAL NETWORK is as perceptive and important a look at a modern powerbroker as CITIZEN KANE was in the 1940s. KANE may have satirised and criticised William Randolph Hearst but, most crucially, it attempted to understand him, and I firmly believe that THE SOCIAL NETWORK does this for a new kind of powerbroker, a variety of animal we're still grasping to truly understand.

5. BLACK SWAN
[Okay, before I begin: I saw this film at a public, ticketed, advance screening on New Years Eve, which played at many theatres around Melbourne -- and possibly Australia-wide -- so, even though it isn't officially released until January 20, 2011, it has screened publicly at a non-media, non-festival capacity. So I'm counting it. HA!]

Darren Aronofsky is undeniably a filmmaker of prodigious talent, but not one whose films I immediately flock to. PI's circumstances impressed me more than the film itself, I thought REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was excellent but apparently not as heart-wrenchingly moving as everyone else, and was severely underwhelmed by the visually stunning but surprisingly flat THE FOUNTAIN. The first Aronofsky film I genuinely loved was THE WRESTLER, but much of that was tied up in the heart-blood-guts-soul performance he elicited from Mickey Rourke. There's genius present in all four films, but BLACK SWAN is the one where the promise finally comes to fruition, and stamps Aronofsky as one of the boldest, most individual, most thrilling filmmakers working today. It's a bewitching blend of the Archers, Polanski, Fosse and Cronenberg, but somehow uniquely Aronofsky, and makes for a strangely fitting companion piece to THE WRESTLER. It's both as sensitive a character study and scary a horror picture as any this year. (In fact, I haven't seen a 2010 horror film playing anywhere near its league.) And Aronofsky proves his talent for pushing great actors to another level (as he did with Ellen Burstyn in REQUIEM, and Rourke) is no fluke. Natalie Portman is pure dynamite as Nina, a perfectionist ballet dancer whose repression is blocking her from getting the best out of her dancing: she's the embodiment of SWAN LAKE's White Swan, but can't get her handle on the Black Swan. Which is where two very provocative figures come in: driven, manipulative company director Thomas LeRoy (the excellent Vincent Cassel) and rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis, who is perfect playing on the dark side of Portman). From there, the alternately artful and lurid screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J McLaughlin takes us into delectably unexpected directions. It's a concoction of behind-the-scenes melodrama, psychological horror and tribute to artistry that smashes us with its audacity and thrills us with its visceral power. It's the kind of hard-hitting genre picture with deeper, personal resonance that distinguished the American cinema of the 1970s, and is most welcome (but all too rare) today.

4. SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD
Edgar Wright is the kind of uber-geek-filmmaker I can get on board with in a big, bad way. His output of the last decade and change -- the TV sitcom SPACED, feature films SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ -- are fast, funny, endlessly energetic products of pure love. Wright is known as a friendly, gregarious character whose love of film, television and music is effusive and infectious, and one gets that from his films. He's a true auteur in the fact that not only is he a writer/director/producer, but his DNA seems to be present upon every frame of his celluloid output. This aesthetic of cinematic joy is present and most accounted for in SCOTT PILGRIM, which (if I may adopt the film's syntax for a moment) levels Wright's directorial game up to a new platform. His work has always been visually rich, filled with in-jokes, quick cuts and expressive angles, but PILGRIM is exploding with invention. It's breathlessly edited, inventively shot and many of the action scenes are downright exhilarating, but it never becomes overly self-conscious or feels like showboating, as every transition is completely and utterly logical. As footloose and free as it feels, it's actually as formalist as anything from Hitchcock or Ford. Wright is doing exciting things with cinematic language here, things that I'm sure will be abused by less talented or knowledgeable practitioners in future. Aside from this, it's also a breathlessly exciting, hilariously clever action-comedy adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, and brilliantly cast. Michael Cera is subtly developing a star persona, and the character of Scott Pilgrim provides enough opportunities for him to build upon this without completely deserting it. Pilgrim is NOT George-Michael Bluth, nor is he the bumbling, sexually awkward teen of SUPERBAD and YEAR ONE. There's a confidence and nonchalance to Cera in this that we've rarely seen, not to mention the fight scenes, in which Cera does a surprising amount of physical work. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a gorgeously laconic leading lady, Ellen Wong leaps off the screen as Scott's "high school girlfriend" Knives Chau, Kieran Culkin is wonderfully sardonic as Pilgrim's roommate and the Seven Evil Exes are all perfectly horrid. The plot may be an amusing metaphor for rising above your own emotional baggage and anxiety over your partner's past, but I believe that SCOTT PILGRIM has something deeper going on: it's this film, not THE SOCIAL NETWORK, that provides the strongest definition of Generation Y to date. A generation weaned on video games, conditioned to believe they're all the hero of their own story by childhoods dominated by film and TV narratives, bombarded by pop culture images, sounds and influences, effortlessly referential yet rarely reverential, the characters and world of SCOTT PILGRIM are as definitive a look at the post-X generation as anything yet seen. This kind of insight, teamed with its audiovisual audacity and blissfully fun narrative, makes for a deceptively powerful pop cultural blast indeed.

3. FOUR LIONS
I'm just going to state this up front: FOUR LIONS is, for me, hands down, the funniest film of the year. Perhaps, the funniest film of the last five years. I can't remember going to see a film comedy and laughing so much I barely paused for breath. After 15 years in British TV, Chris Morris makes a startling feature directorial debut, nailing every single target he aims at, making a mockery of the macabre yet, incredibly, finding the very human side of Islamic extremist terrorism. Some have said he didn't go far enough, that Morris and his co-writers (Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain and Simon Blackwell) pitched it too broad, but I respectfully disagree. From DUCK SOUP taking on Fascism to THE GREAT DICTATOR taking on Hitler, FOUR LIONS continues a strong tradition of using broad yet clever slapstick humour to take on a fearsome, almost unmentionable ideological enemy. In all these cases, the very act of making the film is defiant, subversive and politically charged. But the film itself is also deceptively deft. Sure, our lead characters are ridiculously bumbling, but what is more human than our failings? (Morris' research also led him to discover that most terrorist plots fail due to pure stupid human error. It's the media that want us to believe they're all masterminds. I wonder why that is?) It also paints a comical yet more truthful demographic of your average terrorist: it's not the most devout London Islamics who want to wage a Jihad -- they're out playing football in the park on a weekend -- our would-be terrorists are all fairly working-class and relatively liberal. While the four jihadists are clearly angry at western "imperialist" society, they're very much a part of it, from the Nerf guns Omar (Riz Ahmed) plays with with his son, to explaining their fateful mission to him via THE LION KING. Morris has said that the film was born out of serious research he was doing on Islamic extremist suicide bombers -- not for a film, just to personally understand the phenomenon -- where he kept running into increasingly bizarre anecdotes sourced from MI5/FBI evidence recordings, where budding terrorists would mock other cell members for being too hardline, or ask each other questions like, "Who's cooler: Osama Bin Laden or Johnny Depp?" It's these qualities that bring a hilarious humanity to those we've been conditioned to believe are pure ungodly evil -- a force that we must subjugate our entire way of life to defeat -- when, really, they're just criminally misguided human beings who are manifesting this anger to combat a greater psychological malady: whether that be racial prejudice, socioeconomic marginalisation or lack of tolerance for their religion and customs. FOUR LIONS, in and of itself, isn't overly concerned with finding these answers, but after we've all had a laugh, perhaps -- perhaps -- it can prove a catalyst to ask questions, and may eventually lead to some inkling of an understanding.

2. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
This film really snuck up on me. Going in, I had no idea about street art, not really. I knew it had something to do with graffiti and stencils and repeated pictures and motifs. To quote Jack Woltz in THE GODFATHER, let me be even more frank: I had no idea who Banksy was. But I'd heard it was a great documentary, some were even calling it a "prankumentary", so I had to see what this was all about. We're treated to the story of Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles man who obsessively records every waking moment of his life and everyone he meets. His cousin, a well-known street artist, comes to visit and asks Thierry to film him and his friends in the act. We soon meet his friends, who include Shepard Fairey (he of the "OBEY" faces once plastered around Melbourne and the Barack Obama "HOPE" piece), who Thierry becomes increasingly interested in, and this friendship eventually leads him to the most famed of street artists, the notoriously secretive Banksy. From here, things get really wacky. (No, I'm not telling you any more.) Now, once the film was over, I felt thoroughly entertained and thought it was a fun, satirical little flick that may or may not be complete fact or occasional fiction. It's only in the hours after leaving the film did its thematic tentacles begin weaving its way through my mind: It's a complete potted history of street art. It's a rare chance to see Banksy at work. It's a damning critique on the art world's commercial appropriation of street art, and artists' willingness to sell out. It's Banksy turning on those who have criticised him for selling out. It's a critique on how the dominant art form of the 21st century has become advertising, and that hype is the greatest trick of all. Upon further examination, EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is revealed to be -- and I say this, honestly, without a shred of hyperbole -- a living, breathing work of absolute genius. There's definitely some documentation of fact here, whether it's 100% fact is the question (Banksy claims it is... but he would, wouldn't he?), but this doesn't concern me so much as the myriad interesting points it makes. I came out of the film much more informed about the evolution (and possible devolution) of street art, thinking about the nature of art in a world dominated by marketing... AND thoroughly entertained. Banksy's film is to documentary what Charlie Kaufman's screenplays are to feature films: it will make you think, question reality, explore your own point of view and laugh like hell. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is a depth-charge explosive of a cinematic masterwork, and a documentary to push the form into the 21st century.

1. BLUE VALENTINE
This film hurts my heart. Whether I'm connected to it on some fundamental, cellular level as a child of divorce, or whether I just brought my life thus far of relationships good and bad, thriving and dead, to it, I'm not sure. The triumph of Derek Cianfrance's film -- his second narrative feature, after 1998's little-known BROTHER TIED, as well as a career of documentary filmmaking -- is to seem so achingly intimate, so effortlessly real, that anyone who's been in a relationship will be powerfully affected by some aspect of the story. Everything in this stunning portrait of a dying marriage is geared toward creating a tangible reality, with what seems to be a stunning grasp on human psychology, echoed by Andrij Parekh's stunning, often hand-held cinematography that powerfully evokes family photos (present-day scenes on the RED digital camera, scenes from the past on Super 16mm film), by the mostly subtle musical score from indie band Grizzly Bear and, most of all, by the heartbreakingly human performances of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. As professionally crafted as everything in BLUE VALENTINE is, it rarely feels like a film; it's so intensely relatable, half the time it's like you're watching your friends fall apart, and the other half of the time, you feel you're watching yourself. The couple's happier moments are appropriately lovely, affectionate, funny... but never too much so. Again, nothing feels exaggerated, or sentimental, or poured on, or wilfully depressing; Cianfrance's direction (and he and his co-writers' screenplay) gets everything so right. It's an engrossing, ultimately devastating look at the ways we fall out of love with each other, that refuses to pass judgement or lay blame. Both characters elicit your sympathies, and who you'll relate to more is purely predicated upon your own personal life experiences. It's this kind of emotional truth, unflinching observation and non-judgmental outlook that makes you want to hug the filmmakers for treating the subject matter with such respect, and ultimately reminds us that, sadly, this is how our universal dream of love with another turns out, more often than not. BLUE VALENTINE will cut you in half.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS:

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is the punchiest, most viscerally satisfying thriller I saw this year, and introduces the world to a (much needed) international female star in the making in Noomi Rapace. Much more cinematic than the second film in the series.

TOY STORY 3 was yet another example of Pixar's enviable gift for perfect storytelling, provided a fond farewell for our favourite characters and boasted the best scene in any movie in 2010 (the furnace scene, of course)... and if it hadn't leaned so hard upon drawn-out sentimentality in the last 15 minutes, it would have made my Top 5.

THE ROAD's massively effective, inescapably bleak picture of a post-apocalyptic world seems to have been forgotten by many Australian critics at this time of year, considering it released here in February. Viggo Mortensen seems to get better each time he's challenged, and it's an uneasy testament to the effectiveness of this film when you wish death on the lead characters, because you love them and want to spare them another second in this horrible place.

FANTASTIC MR FOX was the first time I'd really enjoyed anything from Wes Anderson since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The mannered retro aesthetic and giant daddy issues were once again present, but the stop-motion animation was so charmingly designed and winningly voiced, and the film's spirit so genuinely sweet and unironic, that I'd recommend Anderson take up the form full-time... if I didn't think he'd fall into the same patterns of repetition there.

WINTER'S BONE was a tight, tough, chilling story of a criminal clan that, for me, was a spiritual companion to ANIMAL KINGDOM in many ways, and bested it in most. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in a breakout lead performance, but it's John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, as her fearsome yet caring uncle and a terrifying Ozark matriarch, that really continue to stick in my head.

And that's my take on film in 2010. Hope you didn't find it too punishing! Feel free to comment and agree/disagree/praise me wildly.

Have a fabulous 2011, as this blog waves goodbye for the final time.

Farewell,
TSIK

Thursday, December 30, 2010

BITCHFEST '10, or: Farewell Pulp Friction Australia (Part 1 of 2)

Welcome back!

Firstly: Yes, it's been a while. As I announced last year, I've been in the slow process of putting this blog to sleep. And, as I've since discovered the wonders (read: user-friendliness) of Wordpress, and the fact it took me nearly an hour to put all these pics in here, I'm now officially ending PULP FRICTION for other, greener, equally infrequent pastures. This old blogspot has served me well over the last 3 & a bit years, and it's been a fun place to write and (let's be honest, mostly) rant. So, charge your glasses as we bid farewell to PULP FRICTION AUSTRALIA and toast to the future, whatever that may be.

Secondly: Is that another year gone already? Yikes. Seems like yesterday I was torn between A SERIOUS MAN and AWAY WE GO for the top spot (the Coens won), wondering if I could see Guy Ritchie's SHERLOCK HOLMES in time and if it would be good enough to make the list (it wouldn't have) and being bollocked for putting together a "Most Overrated" list (I won't be doing one this year). And now it's 2011. But, for now, let me take you back... back in time... to a place without rules, without laws... a place where a king ruled the land and evil rules the streets... let me take you back... to 2010!

2010 kicked off a new decade in--

(Wait a minute. Just have to get something out of the way first... I KNOW everybody will dispute this, so I'm just taking it off the damn table by qualifying it thus: I categorise movie decades by the first two digits. So the "eighties" = 1980-89, "nineties" = 1990-99, "noughties"/"zeroes"/"naughts"/"oughties" = 2000-09 and so on. I don't care if you disagree, this blog is my world and, for the time you're reading it, you're living in it. If it means that much to you, hit the big "X" button and write your own blog. End of debate-slaying rant. Cue smiley face.) :)

2010 kicked off a new decade in film, and like most "0" years -- generally because of the length and necessities of the film development and production process -- very much reflected the general mindset of the previous decade's output and philosophy.

Hollywood continued to look for "tentpole" franchises, but precious few fulfilled their wishes: PRINCE OF PERSIA, THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE, KNIGHT AND DAY, THE A-TEAM, GET HIM TO THE GREEK, MARMADUKE and LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE AND THE LONGEST TITLE EVER all delivered varying degrees of disappointing box office returns. What's more, they were all forced to sit back and be taunted by the old guard of mega-tentpoles showing them a clean pair of heels: TOY STORY 3, IRON MAN 2, TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 and SHREK FOREVER AFTER all blew up big (in the positive sense) at the box office. Of these, only TOY STORY pushed its series' storytelling to new levels, but that's because it's, y'know, Pixar.

It's fair to say that Pixar are as close to an auteur filmmaker as a studio/production house can be, which segues wonderfully into my next defining point of 2010 in film: the best Hollywood films of the year were the result of studios trusting exciting, intelligent auteur filmmakers to do what they're good at. Christopher Nolan and INCEPTION. Team Fincher/Sorkin and THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Edgar Wright and SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD (box office be damned!). And, from what I hear, Darren Aronofsky and BLACK SWAN, Danny Boyle and 127 HOURS, and so on.

And on animation, for the first time, it seemed that Dreamworks Animation finally began to make up some ground on its leaping Luxo arch-enemy with well-reviewed megahits HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and MEGAMIND. And Universal anted up pretty strongly with DESPICABLE ME. And while we're here, the superhero genre that ruled the 2000s (starting with X-MEN in, yes, 2000) began to morph into the post-superhero genre, with the aforementioned ME and MIND as well as KICK-ASS. Some would say -- with IRON MAN 2 ideologically jumping the shark and the GREEN LANTERN trailer blowing very few skirts up -- that this particular sub-genre has run its course, but I strongly disagree. Many great stories have been told in the last 75 years of comic book history, most of which still haven't been adapted (the entire Vertigo suite, for a start), alongside those which could be served better or deserve a do-over (Superman, Daredevil, Electra, Fantastic Four, Hellblazer, Jonah Hex, Swamp Thing). The Superhero concept is modern mythmaking and, like angels and demons and faeries and giants and gods and monsters before them, have endless metaphorical storytelling potential.

But what about outside Hollywood? I'm afraid my international exposure has been sadly low this year, so I'm not entirely sure what trends are winging their way around the world. The French seem to have moved from torture horror to zombies... or, even more horrifying, beginning to reconcile themselves with their dark wartime past. In fact, of all genres, horror looks to be the one closest to going through a renaissance period globally: from A SERBIAN FILM to THE HORDE to WE ARE WHAT WE ARE to AMER and so on, the horror picture with major subtext is the breakthrough picture du jour, it seems. Hell, we even had DAYBREAKERS and THE LOVED ONES. Which brings me to...

After many years of seeing our films follow yearly trends of similar content (of what I've always liked to call the "sad suburban bastard" variety... or, the "Ana Kokkinos Rule"), 2010 saw Australia put together what has to have been its most diverse slate of pictures since the early 1980s. We had horror (the aforementioned DAYBREAKERS and LOVED ONES), big-budget action franchise (TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN), romantic comedies (I LOVE YOU TOO and, er, MATCHING JACK), revenge action (THE HORSEMAN, finally out in the world), crime drama (ANIMAL KINGDOM), a musical (BRAN NUE DAE), romantic comedy-drama (SUMMER CODA), wartime drama (BENEATH HILL 60) and even a Western (RED HILL)! This all pleases me no end, as the one thing -- the onlything -- I have ever asked for from Australian cinema, is diversity. There are more genres than crime, drama and stupid comedy out there, and now, we're finally starting to see them. More than 2009, I think 2010 honest-to-goodness heralds a new era in Australian cinema, and to be on the ground floor of this is incredibly thrilling.

I'm sure there are other film-related issues this year I could go on about, but I'd really rather just leap into the countdown. Oh, what's that? You would, too? Well, then -- what the hell are we standing around here for??

THE GOOD, BAD AND UNDERRATED OF 2010: PART 1...

(Okay, so it's not so much going to be "good" and "bad" as "favourite" and "most disappointing", but still. Wanted to keep a Leone thing happening, realised how specious that is, backed away from it. Welcome to my mind. And every day of my life. All right, I'll shut up and count 'em off.)

Also: What the hell is my system gonna be here? Films released theatrically in Australia/the US/UK/Siberia in 2010? Films first shown and released theatrically/on DVD/to airlines in Australia in 2010? I've decided, in order to give MIFF films their due as I've done in previous years, this list shall take into account EVERY 2010 (OR 2009 HOLDOVER) FILM FIRST RELEASED TO CINEMAS/DVD (no matter how limited) IN AUSTRALIA IN 2010. THAT I'VE SEEN. OF COURSE. WHY AM I YELLING?

...THE TOP 10 MOST DISAPPOINTING FILMS OF 2010
(The reasons I refrain from saying "Bad" are, a) I tend to purposely sidestep the genuinely bad films out there -- I haven't seen obvious dreck like GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, PRINCE OF PERSIA, THE LAST AIRBENDER, et al, b) I've only seen 63 qualifying films this year, which seems a mite on the small side for me, so this list is hardly definitive, c) "Good" and "Bad" are completely subjective and not actually quantifiable - as the reviews floating around for TRON: LEGACY right now will tell you. So, I'd just like to put it on front street that my opinions are my own, it's fine for all to agree/disagree, these are not the views of the management, etc etc. and d) these films aren't strictly bad -- they all have something going for them -- but just the ones that fell most short of their potential.)

(Okay, numbers 1 through 4 are bad.)


10. PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE
PRECIOUS is not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but definitely one which could have been great. It features revelatory, Oscar-caliber performances by the unknown Gabourey Sidibe (sadly, how many roles are going to be available for this girl after this? Something tells me she's not going to have the massive career she deserves) and Mo'nique (yes: she was once in PHAT BEACH), and able support from Paula Patton and (yes) Mariah Carey. Its screenplay suffers slightly from being a composite of true-life stories rather than one person's story, as it pours on the pain and unfortunate events to an extreme degree. (Lemony Snicket's got nothing on Precious.) But for the most part, it still works, as these everyday atrocities have and still happen to countless underprivileged African-American youth, and strike at the core of America's neglect of it's own. Where PRECIOUS really falls short of greatness falls squarely at the feet of Lee Daniels' clunky, clumsy directing. It's filled with unwarranted, heavy-handed and frankly embarrassing slo-mo sequences. Precious' dreams of music video escape are awkwardly inserted and look a little ramshackle. It's no surprise that the film rises out of overly sentimental, (and I'm loathe to say this) "poverty-porn" muck in the final half-hour when Daniels merely trains his camera on his actors and gets the hell out of the way. This final act -- when Precious and her case manager (Carey) confront Precious' mother -- brings the power the entire film promised, and saves it from movie-of-the-week tragedy.

9. GET HIM TO THE GREEK
Since when are comedies meant to bum you out? No, we're not talking some piece of hilarious yet heartbreaking Billy Wilder-style mastery here. GET HIM TO THE GREEK is a broad, slapsticky stoner comedy involving a junior record company executive charged with delivering a drug-addled rock star to his big comeback gig. With the godfathering of producer Judd Apatow and the director and co-writer of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (which I've not seen), it should have been a knockabout blast, right? Instead, we have fights between broken family members, a man whose longtime love wants to control his life, a star who realises he's lost touch with why he loves music in the first place and drug issues. Which would all be perfectly wonderful subtext... if the jokes were funny. But they're not. All but the broadest gags fall embarrassingly flat, leaving the tragic lives of these exasperated men as the only aspect that rises to the top. None of this is the fault of the leads, Russell Brand and Jonah Hill, who are actually pretty good. The fault has to be levelled at Stoller's screenplay and touch with his own material, which is filled with the kind of disconnected, non sequitur jokes that so many modern comedies are enamoured with and do nothing to advance character or plot. The jokes aren't rooted in tragedy and heart, but rather happen in a scattershot fashion as the emotional turmoil exists parallel. If Stoller and company could have taken some notes from Wilder, they might have had something that didn't feel like a complete misfire.

8. THE KILLER INSIDE ME
Like most of the other films on this list, this seems, at face value, to be a movie made for me. A modern noir, based on a dime store novel from a master of the form, with a starry (if odd) casthelmed by the estimable Michael Winterbottom, whose control of the medium is surpassed only by his multi-genre dexterity. Unfortunately, Winterbottom's golden touch fails him here, as this makes for one of his most wildly uneven films. The killer of the title, played the fine but somewhat overrated Casey Affleck, isn't quite as scary as he should be, a couple of violent scenes have a major impact but the rest fall flat... in fact, the film tries to be many things and only half-achieves all of them. It's half-creepy, half-funny, half-suspenseful, half-subversive, half-insane. Too much of it feels like a conventional serial killer/noir, Affleck's presence doesn't grab us by the throat as it should and, by the time the always welcome Bill Pullman shows up in a baffling role, the film has driven right off the cliff into a river the next town over. It's not a bad film, but rather a tonally muddled mess that doesn't go hard enough for long enough.

7. COP OUT
I'm a big fan of Kevin Smith, both as a writer/director and raconteur, so I was pretty excited to see him challenge himself as a filmmaker by directing in a new genre he grew up watching, not based on his own script, with a star he loved. On paper, teaming wiseass Jersey boys Kevin Smith and Bruce Willis with 30 ROCK's Tracy Morgan, in an '80s-style NYC buddy cop picture seems like a capital idea. But it just doesn't work. Allegedly Smith and Willis' working relationship was not one of mutual admiration, the film went through title changes and budget crunches and who knows what else, so there were obviously extenuating circumstances. However, despite what you've read around the internet, it's not so much inept as just incredibly flat. The action scenes are limply directed and much of the banter doesn't work, not least as Willis appears to be sleepwalking through the film on the sniff of his paycheck. I've always loved Willis, but his palpable disinterest in his on-screen roles these days is disturbing and, consequently, he drains most of the energy from the film. Morgan seems to be aware of this, so he turns everything up to 12 in an effort to inject some life into the picture, but just comes off as desperate. COP OUT's saving grace is Seann William Scott, who is flat-out hilarious whenever he's on screen; even the leads seem to be having fun when he's around. (Well, Tracy does, anyway.) Whether Smith's hands were tied, or he wasn't ready for this kind of film, or his lack of personal authorship diminished his connection to the material, I'm not sure, but there is a vital spark of energy and inspiration missing here that all his affection for '80 cop comedy flicks can't cover for. Not an unmitigated disaster as reported, but just a shame.

6. KICK-ASS
A pre-ordained "cult classic" granted the title only by being the most surface kind of controversial/subversive, I actually found KICK-ASS to be a wholly uninspiring film, which decided it would rather bombard us with flashy CGI fight scenes than plumb the genuinely disturbing psychological depths of its story. (Don't give me the "it had to appeal to a wide audience" argument: it was rated R in the USA and MA15+ in Australia. It was targeted at adults. Or, rather, should have been.) People seem to have missed the potential here: KICK-ASS could have been TAXI DRIVER with superheroes. Instead, it comes off like WATCHMEN on a sugar high after watching THE MATRIX too many times. Nicolas Cage is hilarious, but he's playing to the wacky tone of the film. Imagine if he had played it straight-faced? Imagine if they'd treated Hit Girl like the tragic, properly damaged character she is, instead of throwing all that out halfway through because, man, it's oh-so-damn-coolto see a 12 year old girl call dudes "cunts" and float through the air on wires, firing CG bullets. That's the main tonal problem with KICK-ASS: it's constantly trying to have its cake and eat it too. On one hand, look how wrong it is to rob your daughter of a childhood by making her a killing machine... but on the other hand, look how cool it is to see her killing all those people! One or the other, guys, you can't do both. Otherwise, your film feels like a mess and obliterates all emotional connection with the characters. (Speaking of which, who the hell is Kick-Ass again? Oh, that guy. Yawn. Isn't he meant to be our protagonist? Why do we care about him again?) And tone down the CG, guys, seriously. There's a genuinely brilliant deconstruction of superheroes in KICK-ASS... it just didn't end up on the screen.

5. MONSTERS
This one hurts. I really wish this film were not ranked here, because first-time feature Gareth Edwards and his crew did a brilliant job getting this film up for half a mil US$. The technical skill and dexterity on display for such a low budget is awe-inspiring, and his aim to make a small story against a huge genre backdrop is to be admired. I've no doubt at all that Edwards is a director to watch, and I can't wait to see what he does next, on one condition: NEXT TIME, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE -- FOR THE LOVE OF GOD -- HIRE A SCREENWRITER. If you're going to make an absorbing character study, and have it all be about the actors and script, then you need to make the characters fresh, believable and interesting, and build some serious tension with your situation. MONSTERS does neither, presenting the two most cliched, uninteresting characters (their introductions are dull, and it goes from there) in a setting that promises lots of juicy sociopolitical allegory, but instead delivers a hackneyed, boring love story that is about as predictable as anything ever put on screen. It wants to be DISTRICT 9 meets THE AFRICAN QUEEN, but lacks the tension of the former and the humour and emotion of the latter. Even the few action scenes are dull -- including the old chestnut where the creature takes out the cars in front and behind yours, but inexplicably not yours, despite the fact you're just sitting there waiting to be eaten -- and there's virtually zero suspense. Leading man Scoot McNairy does his best with the material, and is given one terrific scene on the phone toward the end of the film which, if I'd been at all invested in the character, would have really moved me. The film's script is so disappointingly dull that, if you're like me, you'll be mentally creating more interesting alternative turns the script could take. As much as I admire Edwards' ambition and technical prowess, he's not a writer and perhaps hiring one (and a better leading lady) next time around will see him fulfill his massive potential.

4. [REC]2 (screened at ACMI)
I want to preface this by saying, I'm reasonably confident that there are fewer ecstatic [REC] fans than I. I found the film truly terrifying, executed with genius and played with surprising realism and went so far as to place it in the top 10 of my 25 favourite films of the 2000s on this very blog. However, as I'm generally against sequels as a rule, I was a little skeptical going into [REC]2 but thought, if anyone can find something else in this story and pluck gold from gauche, it was Balaguero and Plaza. So it saddens me to admit that my fearful skepticism was rewarded. Firstly, yet strangely least damaging, they explain the virus -- but the reason Patient Zero was in the attic is actually a pretty clever idea. Secondly, [REC]2 is everything the first wasn't: silly, gimmicky(whether there's a camera light or not, the infected continually charge straight at the camera like zombified reality TV stars), riddled with gigantic plot holes, shot with vomit-inducing hand-held camera (the first film kept this aspect surprisingly still and palatable) and filled with dickhead characters who just yell at each other for 90 minutes. The final plot twist just hammers home the silliness and makes us wonder why they all bothered. Whatever cautious enthusiasm I had for upcoming [REC]s GENESIS and APOCALYPSE has now evaporated.

3. THE SILENT HOUSE (screened at ACMI)
The enhanced capabilities that digital filmmaking now affords filmmakers are exciting and unprecedented but, like all technological enhancements, must be used with consideration and caution. Oh, and of course, there's the little matter that script is ALWAYS your number one priority. Sadly, this plucky Uruguayan attempt to shoot an entire horror movie in one shot is sloppy with the first matter and plain damned ignorant of the second. For a while, the film does build up some dread: girl and her father move into an old two-storey with a discomfiting amount of nooks and crannies, it's ever-darkening, shadowy figures appear where they shouldn't... but there's too much for-the-camera artifice that takes us right out of the film. Rather than just enter a room and shine her lantern on what's necessary for us to see, the girl slowly, painstakingly shines her lantern on every inch of the room, every bookshelf, every lampshade, every picture. It's incredibly ridiculous, like leading a blind person into a room and getting them to run their hand across every single item in it without exception. Then, there's an elongated sequence where the girl's lantern flames out, and we're plunged into darkness, hearing only noises and voices... not a bad idea in and of itself, but it does plunge that "one shot" claim into serious doubt. But the worst idea is saved for the end, when the film's ultimate plot twist kicks in and takes a turn for the utterly ridiculous. It will make some roar with laughter and others with rage, but will please no-one. THE SILENT HOUSE is a great idea for a film, but never thematically or aesthetically transcends or builds on that idea.

2. HARRY BROWN
That poster image for this film suggests GET CARTER 2, or DEATH WISH VI, right? Frankly, either of these would have been preferable to what this film delivers, which is a painfully hamfisted, horribly uneasy alliance of vengeance exploitation picture and social commentary. I will get one thing out of the way early: Caine is terrific. He's sad, sensitive, tortured, commanding, angry, and then some. But debut writer/director Daniel Barber's film can't rise to his level. Like KICK-ASS, HARRY BROWN is a violent actioner that too often tries to have its cake and eat it too. It's gritty, yet heinously manipulative from minute one, when drugged teens shoot a mother walking her kids in the park in the head for no reason. It spends much of its first act building an unbearably claustrophobic, bitterly cold and grimy world where these characters live, only to then bring it all undone with the most ridiculous, post-Tarantino crime movie cliche of a tattooed drug dealing rapist seen in movies for many years. Thing is, if the whole film had been on the level of this character, it would have been a blast. Instead, we're constantly reminded of how poor old pensioners live in abject waking terror of very real "out of control" teens who beat anybody who shows a shred of defiance. It paints council housing estates as living hells populated by horrendously evil thugs who will riot and tear shit up at the drop of a gyro cheque. As the film goes on, it moves from tabloid social critique to grimy exploitation picture, to a portrait of a sad old man at odds with the world around him to a cliched, offensive caricature of everybody and everything involved. HARRY BROWN may entertain those who believe everyone under 18 should be shot on sight or drafted into national service, but for the rest of us, it's tonally messy, sloppily derivative, laughably manipulative and even socially irresponsible filmmaking.

1. ENTER THE VOID
Gaspar Noe is a provocateur. We know this, and (most of us) accept this. And I'll have you know, I have no issue with provocation, as long as it's coming from an interesting, intelligent place. Now, I'd never seen a Noe film before this, but I had seen the trailer; a punchy, colourful, sexy, violent neon collision of drug-fuelled imagery pulsating with a rocking techno score. Needless to say, I was pumped. Even though the running time was a hefty 152 minutes, I figured Noe was going to deliver a subversive, assaultive, counter-culture classic on a CLOCKWORK ORANGE level. And, after the incredible opening credits sequence (a font-nerd's dream backed by the same "rocking techno score" I mentioned earlier) I figured he just may deliver. I'd never seen an opening credits sequence elicit applause -- outside a cast/crew screening -- before. Then we fade up to, quite literally, our protagonist's point of view: complete with soon-to-be-dreadfully-grating blinking effect. And things slowly (and I do mean S-L-O-W-L-Y) go downhill from there. Because, beyond its essential structure of taking us on a walk through the Tibetan Book of the Dead, ENTER THE VOID delivers exactly what its title promises: we spend 152 excruciating minutes entering a void. A void of ideas, time, taste and meaning. Yes, some of it is stylish. Surprisingly little is hallucinatory. All that neon and trippy imagery and pumping music of the trailer comprises about 10% of the film. The rest of the time, we're sleepily floating over Tokyo, through the eyes of a boring, dead (no, that's not a twist, his death is the film's inciting incident) junkie loser who desperately wants to fuck his sister. Who is played with copious nudity and zero prowess by Paz De La Huerta, drawling all her lines like the film's being projected at half speed. In fact, maybe that was the issue, as the film seemed to run for twice as long as its already wildly excessive running time. Then, there's the final half-hour of the film, which seems to be set in some kind of heavenly fleapit festival of fucking and culminates with the most laughably elaborate "money shot" you will ever see. Obsessed with high-school-level Freudian themes, sex, drugs and bodily functions, ENTER THE VOID winds up as the longest, dreariest, most elaborate display of vacuous juvenility I have seen in many a year.* Overhyped, overheated and undercooked. IRREVERSIBLE better be better than this.

*With the possible exception of TRASH HUMPERS, which was the flat-out worst film I saw in 2010, but am excluding from this list as it did not receive a non-festival release in Australia this year. But rest assured, it's an equally juvenile and vacuous shitpile, despite a potential to be darkly hilarious and creepily apocalyptic. The film proved so uninteresting that I used my convenient back-row seat to count the walkouts. There were 62. Sixty. Two. Walk. Outs. Each of them thoroughly earned. (No, I stayed 'til the bitter end. Now, Korine: I want my fucking T-shirt.)

Ahem. Now we're done with the bile, let's get to the smile!

Coming up next: MY 5 MOST UNDERRATED AND 10 FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2010!!!