Saturday, 17 February 2007

obligatory 2006 comments


I was kick-started on my end-of-year retrospecive by seeing that "Sight and Sound" critics voted "Cache/Hidden" top dog of 2006, and for all my reservations about Haneke's intents, he makes great psychological horrors. "Cache" and "Borat" were probably the biggest shockers of the year, in different ways and for different reasons, obviously, and they showed what their respective genres really could do. Did "Cache" doth protest too much? Was "Borat" a case of the Emporer's New Clothes? Intellectual, moral and discursive challenges abounded from these two, and their reputations will stick for a long, long time, I'm sure. How "Borat" will appear come ten, twenty years time will be fascinating to see, if it is remembered at all. "Cache's" immediate long-term prestige is probably a foregone conclusion.

Inevitably there were so many films on the list that I didn't see, although I guess many were are always going to be festival entries. But I did get to a couple of festivals to see a couple of coming-of-age flicks, and they were both highlights.
In fact, rather than Top Ten, I am going to do this instead:


- Seeing "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" at the London Film Festival and chatting with the director Aureaus Solito in the lobby afterwards.
- Watching "Slither" and at the end, seeing a group of under-15s huddling around to talk loudly and proudly at how grossed out they had been.
- Hearing and feeling an entire audience jump out of their seats during "Cache".
- Ditto audience's mounting horror and disbelief during the "Borat" wrestling tour-de-force.
- Taking a Russian and Polish friends to some old-style cinema to see "Superman Returns": I had forgotten what it was like to go to a non-multiplex picture house. The screen was surrounded by a black frame sprinkled with little lights meant to look like stars. Wow! The sound seemed to come from some elaborate loud-hailer device. There was even an unwieldly 'interval' in the middle which freaked out the students no end (it just confused them). The place was frayed rather than grubby, and one of a dying breed. It was kinda neat.

- PLEASED that "The Squid and the Whale" got a large critical and commercial response. A real triumph of a good product attracting the attention due to quality. A prime example that American character drama can be slick, accessable, intelligent and true, even with the most soap operatic of premises. A film that felt too short. Funny too. A real little gem.

- MOST SMART AND INTRIGUING HOLLYWOOD FEATURE which I saw was "Good Night, And Good Luck". Critic Demetrious Matheou wrote: "Confirms Clooney as the heir to Warren Beatty: a matinee idol with brains, brimming with liberal commitment." And I agree with every syllable. It felt adult and worthwhile, and packed with elegant performances. "Thank You For Smoking" gets and honorable mention.

- FAVOURITE CROWDPLEASER: "Drommen/We Shall Overcome" - so you know how these things go and that the good guys win (The English title variation states as much) but sometimes predictable narrative can still be rendered with smarts and nuance. So the good guys win, but the struggle here certainly takes its toll.

- ANIMATED HIGHLIGHTS of the year were
(1) "A Scanner Darkly", which I suspect will be a sleeper cult hit who will gather status as the years drift on. For good and bad, it captured the essence of Philip K Dick brilliantly, including (and this is where the 'bad' comes in) the anti-climatic come-down ending. Those are the Dick endings that haunt you, but they are also the endings that only seem to really hit you the second time you watch a film. The animation was something else and captured all the otherworldly drugginess that is usually shown in lame "trip" sequences. It was as much about loss of identity and reliable reality as Lynch ever was, and just as scary for that.
(2) And yes, I am going to put up "Monster House" as a highlight. Despite a gratuitous ending, any Joe Dante fan should lap this up. It was just so great to find a kid's animation that wasn't trying to be so hip and knowing and post-modern. No, this was a great minor horror with some real nastiness, a neat script and real charm. It touched my soft spot for American Suburban Horrors. Funny too.

"X-Men3: The Last Stand": Of course it is customary now to lament that Bryan Singer jumped the X-ship for a grand homage to Superman, and it is a shame never to know what he would have delivered. What we do have is Brett Ratner directing and a sense that someone said, "Well, if Singer's not here, let's just round the whole thing up for no good reason." But although X-Men has always been full of doom-mongering, and although taking note of mutant mortality ups the stakes, mutants get thrown into the mix and bumped off seemingly at random and without much reflection. Angel has a fantastic introduction as a kid, a scene that taps into the heart of the struggle with being "different", and leads to nothing but Angel spreading his wings. Similarly, the bald kid who can nullify mutations - and doesn't everyone in sci-fi living in a room-cum-laboratory wear white?? - gets to ... do nothing. There is enough plot for two or three X-mens here. The bald kid and the mutant "cure"; a hint of Sentinals; Dark Phoenix; the Morlock uprising; Angel's coming-out... there just seems too much. It's all handled with great gusto and action sequences, and it's a fun superhero flick, but perhaps we had expected something a little more nuanced because of its predecessors. Less sense of build-up and more bangs. It also edges towards the more cosmic end of X-Men stories with Dark Phoenix, but just rounds things up with a little stage-tragedy. For my money, Kelsey Grammer was a surprising, inspired and wonderful piece of casting (who would have thought he'd play a blue furball?) and, inevitably, gave an effortless depth to his character and stole every scene without having particularly much to go on. Too much, too quickly dealt with.

"Silent Hill": Christophe Gans gives great visuals here, and despite awesome atmosphere and a good little conclusions, fails like so many horrors at the last hurdle. That is, I don't believe a spooker needs acres of narrative if the visuals generate nightmare logic and ambiance (hence my tolerance for "The Grudge" franchise, for example), and inevitably "Silent Hill" soon becomes tedious as soon as it rounds up with backstory, explanations and blood-splattered finale. Or maybe it is just the backstory here is tired and familiar and comes at the expense of all else. "The Descent", for example, showed that location, execution and subtext could elevate the thinnest of narratives into something special. All "Silent Hill" made me think was, hmm, bet I will enjoy playing that (I haven't yet).

"The Hills Have Eyes": Sabotaged by gratuitous backstory. All of sudden, once the mutant starts droolingly accusing humanity of heinous immorality, you realise the film is hollow. I didn't buy that preachiness for one minute; don't believe Alexandre Aja cares about those matters one jot, not even in any schlocky B-movie sense. Despite some serious gore and violence, some great visuals of car-park craters and Atomic Testing towns, and another great rendering of the horrible mid-set piece seige, Aja can't quite knock up that closing intelligence that would really knock his horrors into crossover appeal. For all its shabbiness, this doesn't supercede the Wes Craven original.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning": - where they put in all the bits that people only thought they would see in Hooper's original. Backstory sabotage again. It scores for being more like "Wolf Creek" than "Friday the 13th", but you still walk away knowing it wasn't much.

"DEMENTED" - your average French mood piece about a disintegrating rural family, but I am a sucker for this kind of thing. Bolstered by a couple of brilliant moments, good acting and a startling anti-performance by the lead kid.

My GUILTY PLEASURES, as ever, were b-horrors. You know, the brief chills from "The Grudge 2", "Silent Hill"... Er. No excuses really.

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