Film history is so massive, that even if you devote a lot of time to journeying through it, it is hard to even scratch the surface. For me, like most other people, many films and directors slip under the radar. Inspired by not too long ago seeing my first Kurosawa film Derzu Uzala (1974), I thought it was time to check out a few films directed by legends who had completely passed me by. Here are my first encounters with three greats of cinema, which turn out to be more interesting that I had perhaps expected, but definitely not for the reasons I was expecting.
Of the three great names of American silent cinema that still reign today, only one traded in drama– D.W. Griffith. Griffith is probably best known for the infamous Civil War, Klu Klux Klan promoting, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Throughout the silent era his productions also pushed the boundaries of scope, in relation to length of films, cost and scale of sets. Broken Blossoms (1919) represents something of a departure from that, being essentially a small-scale tale. And this is the film I chose to be my first exposure to Griffith. As a fan of silent film, and having heard so much about the greatness of his work, to say I was super excited to see this would be an understatement. Similarly, to say that I was grossly underwhelmed would also be an understatement.
The film starts promisingly, with a prologue of sorts set in China. These scenes look excellent and authentic, they made me wonder for a while if they were actually shot on location. They are also promising in that they portray an un-judgemental portrayal of China, the Chinese and Buddhism. Of course, it is impossible to judge the racial standards of a film made 90 years ago using today’s standards. Even so, from this early beginning, unfortunately the caricaturing of the Asian characters is disappointing. The most prominent of them is Yellow Man (you never get told his name, although it is on his shopfront) played by Richard Barthelmess. Richard Barthelmess is not a very Chinese sounding name. Which is apt, because he is not Chinese. Having an American play the main Chinese character in the film is a massive let down. Not just because it is offensive these days, but because it does away with virtually all the authenticity that Griffith has built up in the opening scenes. Barthelmess’ Yellow Man sets out for England in an attempt to spread the peaceful message of Buddhism to that country, because they are essentially violent fiends who need it. But the next time we meet Yellow Man, he has apparently failed in that mission, with his “youthful dreams [having] come to wreck against the sordid realities of life”, and he now works as a disillusioned, opium smoking shopkeeper.
After introducing Yellow Man and his back-story, the film shifts focus to introduce the audience to young Lucy, played by Lillian Gish; and her father, the prize-fighter Battling Burrows played by Donald Crisp. These two provide the best performances in the film. Crisp is perfectly leering and expressive as the violent father, whilst Gish is truly fantastic in a difficult role. She is essentially a victim, and making it even more difficult, she is one of an indeterminable age. The father-daughter relationship is established, with Burrows being physically abusive toward his daughter. The scenes of him attacking Lucy are the film’s most affecting, clearly showing off Griffith’s ability. But the issue in this early part of the film is that not much happens. It meanders on and on. It is not until the film is half over that Yellow Man and Lucy finally meet, which is when the narrative finally actually kicks into gear (but even here not a whole lot happens) with Lucy taking refuge in the Yellow Man’s shop. This lopsided narrative is a fatal flaw of the film for me. It took so long for anything to really occur story wise that by the time it did, I didn’t care. And as mentioned, all the interesting authenticity Griffith builds up disappears. Even once Yellow Man has come to London, Griffith seems to be showing a genuine interest in Asian culture, with opium, musical instruments and dress adding detail. But after about 15 minutes this is all done away with, and all we are left with are generic London locales. For a moment it appears that Griffith is going to establish an interesting, Stephen Crane Maggie: A Girl of the Streets vibe, but this fades into blandness before too long.
I do not want to harp on about the racial aspects of the film. Firstly because I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion of whether or not I should take umbrage with it because of the context the film was made in; and secondly because my opinion of the film transcends this issue. Having said that the film is shrouded in racist terminology and stereotypes. According to the film Yellow Man is sensitive (read wussy) like all Chinese and is often called Chink. At the height of the endearment in their relationship, Lucy affectionately refers to him as “Chinky” You could counter these arguments about racism by pointing to the positive portrayal of Yellow Man, who there is no doubt is the closest thing to a hero that exists in the film. But there is also no doubting that he is still shown to be racially inferior and only looks good in contrast to the piece of scum that Burrows is. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is to the depiction of race in the film. I think that Griffiths’ is attempting to get across an anti-racist message, the character of Battling Burrows does encompass the sheer illogicality of a racist standpoint. Overall though, for me, these themes were just presented unfortunately and not rammed home enough.
One of the reasons that Griffith is considered such a towering figure of film history is because of his technical proficiency. Much of this is on display in Broken Blossoms, and it is used to differing levels of success. Iris shots are utilised repeatedly, restricting what the audience is able to see. But rather than enhance the atmosphere of the film, the effect is unfortunately just disconcerting. Better employed are a couple of innovative close-ups late in the film which work excellently, building a sense of tension and fear. The editing and shot composition is at times intriguing, but more often than not unremarkable. It is disappointing that scenes where Griffiths’ skills gel are all too rare, such as the exciting boxing bout. Just like his technical skills, the performances that the director elicits are likewise up and down. As Yellow Man, Barthelmess is unimpressive not managing to convey anything other than a blank canvas and inspiring no interest in a character that should be ultra intriguing. Donald Crisp definitely takes the honours in the male acting stakes with his bullying Battling Burrows. But it is the iconic Lillian Gish who delivers the best performance. It is her brilliant performance that imbues the early abuse scenes with their terrifying quality. Given the quality of this performance, it is a shame that the film is so poorly done narratively that it is hard to even muster a sense of caring what happens to Gish’s Lucy. The best example of this is the film’s ending which should be utterly crushing, but is wholly unmoving. It is these two latter performances which provide probably the only highlight of the film for me.
I was so bored watching this, and became increasingly disillusioned whilst doing so. There is just nothing of interest here. No drama, no thematic depth to cling onto and no enjoyment. Griffith was a true cinema pioneer who achieved a great many ‘firsts’ throughout his career. Well, with this film he has just earned himself another one. The first film to earn one of these:
Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New
If you want to check out the film to see if you agree with my summation, here it is:
Of the three films I was watching for this piece, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) was the one I was expecting to enjoy the least. How wrong I was.
The film starts wonderfully with Claudette Colbert’s newly married daughter jumping off a yacht to escape her disapproving father. The problem, as it always is, is that she has married the wrong man. This escape pitches Colbert’s Ellie into a bus trip from Miami to New York, where her path crosses with Clark Gable’s Peter Warne. She is the woman on the run, racing back to her forbidden husband, he’s the out of work reporter wanting the exclusive (Ellie is a forever in the news socialite). The long haul bus trip provides the film’s central narrative thrust, and many of its best moments. Having toiled on the odd long haul bus ride (although nothing nearly as long as this one), I had empathy for the plight of these poor passengers. Capra cleverly displays the joys and more commonly the pains of these kinds of trips with the passengers ranging from kind, to loud, to annoyingly flirtatious. The one major advantage of this trip over my usual Murrays service from Canberra to Sydney is that at one point a live band busts out leading the masses in a sing-along whilst a hipflask is passed around for good measure. Yes! – that’s the kind of bus I wanna ride on.
The film is not about wowing you with the beauty of meticulously constructed scenes. The meticulous construction is instead devoted to the dialogue and jokes which derive from the central relationship. That said when Capra wants to wow you, he definitely can. This is evidenced by a number of the night time scenes including a stunning shot of a river, with the moonlight shimmering off the water. And there is no doubt in general that Capra is a technically proficient director. He nicely edits the film together, keeping it ticking along snappily. Wipe fades, the kind of which would come to populate T.V. sitcoms, are here employed nicely, making one scene flow seamlessly into the next. There is much discussion, predominately through dialogue, of the economic class divide which is the core theme explored in the film. At one point Gable’s Peter retorts that “I have never met a rich man who could piggyback.” For a lot of the film there is derision on his part towards Ellie, as he thinks she is nothing but a spoilt little rich girl. The acts and determinants of both snobbery and reverse-snobbery are also examined.
The two leads deliver fantastic performances (even more notable given the shoot was apparently an unhappy one). Lillian Gish lookalike Claudette Colbert knocks it out of the park with her wonderful presence, more than matching her more esteemed male colleague. Clark Gable struggles early, mainly because his character is extremely strange tonally. He quite viciously snaps at Ellie with next to know provocation which gets him off on the wrong foot with the audience. But when Gable’s character settles, his acting ability really shines through and he aces both the dramatic and comedic aspects of his character with aplomb in a brilliant performance. The third excellent performance comes from Walter Connolly as Ellie’s Wall St bigwig father who is a crack-up. He delivers both a wonderful performance and encompasses a wonderful character, two very different things. The film benefits from a wonderful script bearing perfectly judged and written dialogue. The dialogue is funny and snappy, imbuing the film with the ‘screwball’ dynamic that Capra was so identifiable with. Every comedy writer should be made to sit and listen to the banter between the leads before writing a feature film script. The film features some pretty overt, forward sexuality in both dialogue and action. The two leads, one a single man, the other a married woman, share a bedroom on a number of overnight stays. The room is divided by the ‘Walls of Jericho’ a tactically hung sheet, but we all know what happened to those walls in the end. I seem to always be mentioning how forward old films are. Maybe movies were just more forward than I expect them to be. Narratively the film builds to an eventual, inevitable emotional confliction. Despite this though, even though you know it is coming, it manages not to feel stale. There is genuine tension as to just how the film will end and character’s true colours (both good ones and bad ones) are laid bare during the final sequences.
Dialogue wise, this is as good as films get. Many scenes rise to iconic status merely through the verbal banter going back and forth between the two leads. Notably these include an in-depth discussion of the art of dunking doughnuts, and another about the art of hitchhiking. This film was just the light, funny tonic I needed after the let down that was my first meeting with D.W. Griffiths. It’s a classic which you should hunt down.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Jumping further forward in time, and slightly to the east brought me to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Unfortunately it also brought me back to the sheer, unmitigated boredom of Broken Blossoms, this time with pretension as an added bonus. I know I’m meant to like this Soviet art-film; Tarkovsky is a favourite of hardcore film buffs worldwide. But all this film brought about in me was the desire to sleep.
The film goes for almost 3 hours. Even the DVD menu on the copy I watched was bloody slow, taking forever for me to be able to select anything. Right from the start, you can see why it takes so long, with the credits announced at a snail’s pace. There is no dialogue for the first 10 agonising, but beautiful, minutes (I know this because it took me this long to realise I was watching it dubbed and needed to change the settings to subtitled). And this first 10 minutes is symptomatic of the 150 or so that follow it. This is essentially an art film.
I would like to think that I am able to appreciate the merit and ‘art’ in all kinds of film, from Judd Apatow comedy to Marvel comic book flick, to Terrence Malick art house film. But for me, this just dragged. Nothing happened, and just as importantly, it was just not that impressive to look at. In relation to genre/narrative you could say that this is a very strange odd couple (actually threesome) road trip. The film concerns ‘The Zone’, a mysterious place where people who enter generally do not return from. The film’s protagonist is a Stalker, one of the few able to enter this place, and navigate his way out. He is accompanied by an ideologically confused, inspirationless, alcoholic writer and a professor looking to make his name based on what he can learn inside The Zone.
The film is meditative, but seemingly on meaningless or ordinary things, the painstaking preparations for entering the zone for example. Upon entering the zone both sound and cinematography are used to demarcate the zone from what lies outside. The cinematography shifts into colour Wings of Desire (1987) style and the soundtrack becomes filled with industrial buzzes and whistles. The Zone is a place that rumours swirl around, that there is a place in there where wishes come true being one example. Out of the overall blandness I was able to discern a cautionary environmental tale about man’s ability to destroy the zone and some sort of spiritual dimension to the Stalker because he was a Stalker… or something. I may have been asleep when I thought that. Because, even though as far as film reviewing points go it is about as unsubtle and nuanced as it gets, this movie bored the shit out of me. By about an hour in I couldn’t care less about what was happening onscreen and what may possibly happen to the characters populating it. All I could think about was the seemingly interminable amount of time I still had to trudge through. And I did trudge through it, despite the urgings of my girlfriend to just give up on one of my frequent, whining snack breaks. I kept thinking that surely it was going to get better, more engaging. Nope.
I assume this film is a metaphor for life… probably. At least I assume that was what was with the endless philosophical mumbo-jumbo. I didn’t see any metaphor. All I saw was a film that was unable to hold my attention or interest like no other on this 1001 list with my mind wandering endlessly outside the world of the film. I will grant that the last shot is fucking cool though. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Verdict: Schooner of Tooheys New
So another year of film has passed us by, bringing with it a lot of highpoints, and more than a few lacklustre efforts as well. Like probably everyone, except professional critics, I was not able to see as many films as I would have liked this year. That said, I saw a lot and a lot more than last year managing to squeeze in about 65 films released in 2011 either at the cinema or on DVD. Was it a good year or a bad year in movies? That’s a hard question to answer. It seems with every year that passes many critics, especially online, will rush to pan that year’s output. Yeah there was some rubbish released, but some of the films were amazing, transcendent pieces of art and/or wonderful popcorn experiences. I could have easily done a top 20 and wholeheartedly recommended you rush out and see every single one of them. I have to say that cutting it down to a top 5 was particularly brutal this year. I thought it was tough last year, but this was something else. Part of the reason this list is a little later than I had hoped is because there were a few more films that I desperately wanted to give recognition to. But I stuck to my guns and the top 5 you will get. I will say that any of the films that released an honourable mention, but just missed the top 5 are still massive recommendations from me.
Before I begin, a note on terminology. I use the terms ‘favourite’ and ‘least-favourite’ for very good reasons. These thoughts are just my personal reflections, that may (and almost certainly will) differ from yours. I really want to hear your thoughts on my selections this year, especially if you disagree. Just don’t tell me my list is wrong. There are no right and wrong with a list such as this.
Here we go with my favourite and least favourite 2011 releases (to be eligible films had to be released theatrically in Australia in 2011, festival screenings do not count):
Bottom 5: Every year, when discussing the yearly output the issue of originality is discussed. This is reflected in both these lists. The not very coveted Scott Pilgrim award was actually sealed by that film’s shocking unoriginality, and also making the list are a threequel, a seven and a halfthful (I think) and a body swap comedy (what is this, 1983?). Having said that, lack of originality was not the only determinant for my ire. One film on this list I actually thought very original, and a bunch of the films that just missed out also tried to do something a little different. They just failed for me. (Dis)honourable mentions for 2011 go to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Limitless, Attack the Block, The Lincoln Lawyer and Bridesmaids.
5. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon – Where do you even start with Bay and his Transformers films? This is better than the second, but that’s a legitimate top 5 contender on my list of least favourite films in history. Actually a good place to start, and one that sums up Bay’s philosophy is to mention that when he needed to replace Megan Fox, one of the shittiest actresses in the world, Bay chose a model instead of an actress. Not one of the thousands of talented young actresses itching for a break. But someone who stupid glossy magazines tell us is pretty. The franchise should ensure the visually spectacular at least. Bay cannot even manage that though, and you can’t even tell what is happening onscreen during the fights. No story to speak of and hijacking of historical footage that borders on the offensive, all contribute to the ‘experience’. Interminably long, borderline unwatchable, the only reason this isn’t higher up the list is because it is just not memorable enough.
4. The Change-Up – I don’t want to sounds like a snob, cause I like a good lowbrow comedy as much as the next guy. But this film was a puerile piece of garbage. Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds should know so much better. For starters it utilises the ‘body swap’ plot device, one that has been done absolutely to death and is very rarely at all enjoyable. And this definitely is not. What’s worse than seeing a close-up of a baby’s arse farting and a man getting a torrent of shit in his mouth, is the film’s depiction of women. Olivia Wilde and Leslie Mann are two sassy, really excellent actresses, the latter an excellent comedic performer. Why either would agree to be in a film that treats them in such a demeaning manner is beyond me. Their characters are treated horribly by the men in the film, either as sex objects, whiny mothers or both. Actually I don’t know what anyone was thinking on this one. Don’t think anyone really was thinking, which is the issue. Crass & unfunny.
3. Hanna – This was the blandest film of the year. An incredibly original idea that should have lent itself to a high octane, action packed fairytale just felt so tired. It’s hard to know where it went wrong with a solid director at the helm and a cracking cast. Eric Bana has moulded his daughter Saoirse Ronan into a weapon of a superspy since birth. So far so awesome. Great scenery from the snow covered to parched deserts. So far so awesome. But then, nothing. Just nothing. A film that should exhilarate, peters out. A story that should have been rollicking, just confused when it actually bothered to go anywhere. The whole thing feels so false, with none of the characters showing any emotion. None of them seem to even care what happens or whether they live or die. And if the characters onscreen don’t feel it, then you can bet the audience won’t. Possibly most infuriatingly of all, it continues a recent trend in holding twists back to the detriment of plot. As a result, by the time they are delivered, no one really cares. A good globetrotting adventure/action flick always (well almost) goes down smooth. But if that’s what you’re looking for, keep on walking all the way to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin which was the standout in the genre this year.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2– I mentioned to someone that I was considering putting this film in my bottom 5, they told me I shouldn’t because I’m “not a Harry Potter person”. And they are right, I’m not. I read the first book and had seen a couple of the films (can’t remember which). My dislike of the film does not stem from that though. I could easily enough understand the film because it is made quite clear, and also cause I got a 5 minute run down from a mate in the pub beforehand. The issue is that this is a film that cost hundreds upon hundreds of million dollars, and this dross is all they came up with. Going into it, I thought I was really in for a treat, some great big budget spectacle. But whilst the budget is there, the spectacle is sorely lacking. How can fights where the participants can use magic be so bland? Actually everything about this could be described as bland or at the very least decidedly average – the acting, the set design, the sense of wonder that should have been there but definitely wasn’t.
The Second Ever Scott Pilgrim vs the World Award for Least Favourite Film of the Year:
The Hangover Part II – 2011 was a dire year for comedy, especially from the mainstream. Number 4 on this list which I have already chatted about; Bridesmaids which for me was the most overrated film of the year and the miserable Bad Teacher just to name a few. Actually for a while I was considering giving this award to ‘Every comedy in released in 2011’. However The Guard came along and it was one of my absolute favourites of the year and other films such as Horrible Bosses also helped the genre avert that fate. But the reason I selected The Hangover II as my least favourite of the year is, because in addition to being utter unfunny rubbish, it also encompasses much of what is wrong with the mainstream Hollywood system. Namely its sheer, unadulterated, overwhelming lack of originality. This movie uses basically the exact same script as the first film. Almost literally. It is just transplanted from Las Vegas to Bangkok. The plot points were just ticked off: Bucks celebrations before a wedding? Tick. Wake up to a strange animal? Tick. Mike Tyson cameo? Tick. Tick, Tick, Tick. Everyone’s going through the motions. Zack Galifinakis, whose character in the first one was downright annoying, takes up huge swathes of screen time. Not even the every-engaging Bradley Cooper (bad year for him with this & Limitless) can rise above the mire. I am often a defender of mainstream film. The disrespect this film shows to its audience though, by cheaply cashing in on a surprise success with minimal effort, is shameful.
Top 5: Last year I spoke a lot about how many of my favourite films had the best scripts. Strangely, I don’t think any of this year’s films have one of the standout scripts of the year. If anything the unifying technical achievement is soundtracks. I think #5 and #2 had the best use of sound & music all year, with #4 not too far behind. More than that though, I think these films all share a certain boldness. They all challenge the viewer in some way, they all expand the viewer’s view of the world (or universe) and most importantly of all they are all really enjoyable. Go watch them all. Also go and watch my big, big honourable mentions for 2011: The Adventures of Tintin, Barney’s Version, The Reef, The Beaver, The Guard, Contagion, Midnight in Paris, Super 8, Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Howl and The Tempest.
5. Sucker Punch – I am going to guess that this will be the most controversial conclusion in this top 5 (although many will not agree with my #1 either). I thought this film divided opinion, but looking around over the last week I think I was wrong, and basically everyone hated it except for me. And I seem to love it for a lot of the same reasons people hate it. I love the fact that this plays out as an exhilarating, hyperkinetic combination of feature film, video game and music video. What story there is, is basically an 80s adventure video game quest for objects interspersed with ‘boss fights’; whilst the music loudly reinforces what is happening onscreen. I love the fact that Snyder has just gone totally over the top and ballistic with CGI. Something that I would despise in many films. But he is not using it here to mask deficiencies or replace traditional filmmaking, rather he is using it to create an entirely new experience. This is a most incredible, unashamedly style over substance watch. A quick note – some have attacked the film for being misogynist or titillating. This is not the place to deal with that point of view in detail, but I will say that I am bemused by that interpretation (neither do I think it is a feminist film, it is an action film with women as the protagonists).
4. 127 Hours – I’m not a big fan of Danny Boyle. I loathed Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and have never been completely wowed by his other films that I have seen. But what he has done here is nothing short of genius, crafting a film that will engross the mainstream and also wow film nerds such as myself. He achieves this through his innovative use of snappy editing and music, an approach that could have been tacky but instead allows a window into a man’s mental state. You have to remember this is a 93 minute film about a man stuck under a rock, and also a story where everyone knows the ending and the two earlier dramatic highpoints. The way that Boyle builds the tension to these moments is great, continual close-ups of an arm you know will soon be gone, and drawing the moments out before shocking you with the punchline. It is also great to see a real life ‘hero’ who is not whitewashed and perfectly likeable. He is a real smug, arrogant dude and it is this arrogance that ultimately leads to his ordeal. From the very first brilliant shot of a teeming crowd of people, to contrast with what follows, this excellent film is perhaps the year’s sheerest expression of creativity.
3. Pina – This is a film I would not have suspected would be on here at the start of the year. I was intrigued to see it, even excited – Wim Wenders working in 3D of course. But what I was confronted with was a downright assault on the senses, a film that like Sucker Punch, was like nothing I had ever seen (but in very different ways). This is essentially an ode by Wenders to his old friend, dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. Much of the film is Braun’s work being performed by the dancers she worked with. I’m no fan of dancing, but these performances were like nothing I had ever seen. Each sequence was in a different, stunning locale, which was incorporated into the work fantastically. Dirt, chairs, a boulder, pools of water on the ground, were all utilised by these amazing performers to enhance the wonderful movement of their bodies. These performances are interspersed with the dancers recounting their memories of their teacher and guide. This is achieved by a voiceover over the top of a close-up of the person’s face not saying anything. This is a daring approach by Wenders and it somehow makes what is being said have more depth. What Wenders’ has crafted here is, for me, the first truly essential experience of this 3D age. Not one where 3D just makes it look slightly cooler, but one where the medium is integral to the spectacle.
2. Drive – This starts with lurid, fluoro pink opening credits and features a protagonist who rocks a denim jacket and a toothpick in his mouth. So yeah, in part it’s a wonderful 80s genre throwback. As the story progresses it evolves into a crime film, far better than any you have seen this year with gangsters, shady dealings, getaway cars and a couple of bursts of ultra-violence. In yet another way, the film is meditative with Gosling’s unnamed protagonist moving through this world barely uttering a word. When he needs to make a point, he lets his actions do it. Yet despite this he builds up relationships, almost by osmosis with a young single mother (Carey Mulligan in one of the performances of the year), her son, her husband who is released from prison and the underworld figures who populate his everyday life. What I’m trying to get at is that this is a film of untold depth. It works on many levels and engages on all of them at the same time seamlessly. It is all delivered in a style that is intriguing, elliptical and original. The soundtrack is the best this year, and one of the best I can remember, with the music perfectly lifting the film up a notch whenever the director feels it needs to. This is the kind of audacious filmmaking that Hollywood should be looking to nurture and develop.
The Second Ever Kick-Ass Award for Favourite Film of the Year:
The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick is a visual poet, and this may well be his finest hour. For me, it is my favourite of his films. It is a challenging work, I cannot remember a mainstream release that was so ambitious. But aside from all that it is also bloody enjoyable. It was my most anticipated film of the year, and it managed to both confound and exceed those expectations monumentally. The film transports you to not one but many places, daring to attempt to encompass the relationship between the personal and the universal that we all have to come to terms with. Sometimes joyful, sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes searing with passion is both this film and the life it reflects. The film has its detractors, and I can understand why. If I didn’t like the film I would label it pretentious. But I love it so it is ambitious. One of Malick’s great gifts is that he makes incredibly deep films, but they don’t seem to be straining to beat you over the head with just how deep they are. It sounds dramatic, but this film seeped deep into my very being and has stayed there. It is also great to see a filmmaker like Malick using special effects to pad out his vision, and he does so in a long sequence that essentially tells the story of the universe. Never have you seen dinosaurs onscreen like this. I could go on and write many thousands of words lauding this film and exploring its thematic depth, wondrous performances and the philosophy that underscores it. But instead I will simply close with this: not only is this my film of the year, it is one of my favourites ever and I genuinely believe that this is a film that will still be discussed, examined and enjoyed for decades to come.
Obviously I love my girlfriend for many reasons, some even totally unrelated to film. The reason in particular I am writing this piece is because of a simple gesture on behalf of her towards me which I found sweet and touching. When out shopping the other day she saw a DVD that she thought I would be interested in and bought it for me. It was a film that she had not heard of, but she grabbed it for me to watch. Someone buying a DVD may not sound that amazing, but it is nice to know that someone is thinking of you, and for her to buy me something for no real reason at all made me feel good.
But enough of all that, let’s talk about a movie. The film that my girlfriend bought for me was Closely Watched Trains (1967 – It appears there is conjecture over the title’s translation. This is how it is in the 1001 book, my DVD version supplants the word ‘observed’ for ‘watched’). The film is set in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia toward the end of WWII. Milos is a young man starting his first day at work at a train station. He is excited by this bureaucratic position, him putting his hat on is shot in a borderline lustful slow-mo shot. Throughout almost all of the film, his hat remains on at all times, as a physical symbol of his attachment to his job, a certain inescapability to his responsibilities. However Milos hopes to carry on the family tradition. Not one of hard work and success in the work place. Rather, Milos is the latest in a long line of slackers, who take pride in their ability to do very little work, collect an early pension and get through life with a minimum of effort. This is Milos’ aim in life. His other aim is to lose his virginity and much of the film is concerned with this sexual journey. The film is also a train movie. What is it about trains and film? Running the gamut from Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), to Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010) in both vintage and tone, train films have been an ever-present in cinema history. Perhaps there is a sense of the train being an iconic invention for a certain age, just as cinema is and trains also facilitated such dynamism in human movement, dynamism perhaps being a hallmark that film also possesses.
The film drew me in early on, the black and white photography is fresh, crisp and unembellished. It is really quite a joyous, funny film, especially early on in the piece, with humorous double entendres about “shaft bars’ etcetera abounding. I was not expecting a comedy. The cinematography overall seems very modern, encompassing techniques such as the editing together of still photographs to mesmerising effect. There is also a distinctly self-aware voiceover that accompanies the early parts of the film. Closely Observed Trains is a sharp yet subtle satire. It satirises institutions such as the transport system and the mindless minutiae of bureaucracy is also gently mocked. After my recent viewing of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), it appears that this exploration and satirical view of bureaucracy is another core concern of films throughout the ages, or it’s just that my professional life makes me more attuned to these pot-shots than others. In addition to bureaucracy, the other target of much of the film’s satire is the occupying Germans. The Germans, whilst partially menacing, are also hilariously deluded about their ‘masterful’ tactical withdrawals as they lose the war.
The atmosphere of the film is concocted by the ever-presence of two things – trains and sexually provocative women. In regard to the former, the film joins the tradition of train films already mentioned. They are also a constant reminder of the work that the men must still occasionally attend to and they also bear mysterious gifts each time they arrive at the station. A train arriving at the station could come bearing a hot work colleague, or equally as likely a carriage load of swaggering, sneering German soldiers. A train arriving in the station brings a sense of duty and wariness. On a technical level, the director Jiri Menzel also utilises trains as a linkage between shots. He often cuts from one shot, to a train, to another shot illustrating a change in the geographic or temporal location.
Sexually provocative women are another constant, and Milos revels in lusting after them and their alluring physical charms. He is egged on by a horny colleague who attempts to make Milos something of a sexual protégé in his own image. Despite this Milos, with his natural shyness, is somewhat more innocent in his sexual yearning than the older man who considers himself quit the stud. Vaclav Neckar who plays Milos, has the perfect physical presence to convey this innocent, youthful yearning. In some ways his look and mannerisms are a little reminiscent of Jacques Tati but with more of a forlorn, almost timid edge. There is depth here, as to why exactly Milos so wants to lose his virginity. Is it because he desires a deeper connection with the women who surround him? Or for the sheer reason of physical pleasure? Or is it just because that is what society has told him he should be endlessly attempting to do, in much the same way as contemporary society tells young men the same thing? Whilst a lot of this film is concerned with a quest of sexual enlightenment, American Pie (1999) it is not. The film is concerned with becoming a man, and exploring how intrinsic sex is to manhood. For some reason Milos’ sexual adventures are always interrupted, becoming sexual misadventures. One particular scene brilliantly articulates the awkwardness and hurt as well as the intimidation factor of youthful sexual encounters. The words “premature ejaculation” are repeated endlessly throughout the second half of the film, almost as a taunt to Milos and what he is striving desperately for. In a strange way I think that the film explores the theme of sex in a similar manner to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Both consider the far too great importance placed upon sex both by individuals and society. Here, MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT, it leads to Milos attempting suicide in a heartbreaking and surprising scene. I was not expecting this plot twist at all, and it is beautifully rendered. It makes the film a whole lot more human, but this shift in narrative direction also causes the film to move away from the light touch that it had been so successfully trading in up until this point.
As the film shifts tonally, for me it also became increasingly incomprehensible. Whilst a lot of it is universal, I did get a sense that due to the film being made in both a different culture and era, that much of it was going over my head. Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Not every film should be sanitised in order to be better understood by the Western audience such as that I represent. But it did make the second half a little less enjoyable for me. The film though, does build to a crushing, tragic ending which was a closing reminder of the power of the film and the connection to the characters that the first, lighter half had engendered.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
- Drive (2011), Nicolas Winding Refn – A complex, complex film with untold depth. As good a crime film as you will see. A man becomes involved in a spiralling mob world. Gosling as the almost mute protagonist and Mulligan are all kinds of excellent. The soundtrack of the year and one of the very best films of the year.
- Hard Luck (1921), Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton – This was Keaton’s favourite of his own 2 reelers. The questionable subject matter – attempted suicide – is imbued with great slapstick by this most incredible of physical comedians. He had the most incredible eye for writing a gag. It is frustrating that so much, including the apparently brilliant conclusion, is lost from this film. But what remains is still hilarious, and you can check it out here (actually this includes the ‘lost’ ending, whereas my DVD doesn’t. Not sure if this version is complete):
- Senna (2010), Asif Kapadia – This is an intriguing film which makes incredible use of stock footage. It examines Senna’s almost spiritual connection to F1 racing and suggests deeper complexities in the man, which unfortunately are not explored as deeply as they could be. It’s not particularly balanced, but who cares. It is innovative documentary filmmaking, and Senna’s death is masterfully handled.
- Factory Farmed (2008), Gareth Edwards – I was a huge fan of Monsters, it was my number 3 film of last year. This is a film Edwards made in just 48 hours and is of exceptional quality. The sound and aesthetic are not dissimilar to his first feature and the brooding and apocalyptic atmosphere builds great tension.
- Hop (2011), Tim Hill – Films that blend animation and live-action tend to be pretty lacklustre. This one starts wonderfully, and the all-animated sequences on Easter Island are inspired. The live-action sequences jar initially, and struggle to rise to any heights. But there are some nice commentaries on families and the treatment of animals. Enough jokes hit the mark and a brilliant evil chicken sufficiently combat some incredibly daft diversions & ensure this one gets a tick.
- Alias Season 2 (2002), J.J. Abrams – The silliness overwhelms a few episodes, especially the relationship between the protagonist’s Russian agent Mum & CIA agent dad. But just like the first season, the quality cast and rollicking mix of James Bond & Indiana Jones make this fun, watchable fluff. Finishes the season with a Kill Billesque (and standard) extended fight scene and a bloody fantastic twist.
- POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011), Morgan Spurlock – Spurlock gets a bad wrap because, like Michael Moore, by inserting himself into his films he affronts doco traditionalists. His charisma ensures this systematic look into product placement is enjoyable. This is enlightening and slick, helped no end by some fantastically honest interviewees. Who knew a film about advertising could be fun?
- The Way Back (2010), Peter Weir – Successfully conveys the inexplicable terror of conditions in the gulags. Great scenery provide the backdrop for this spiritual as well as physical ordeal. Whilst distinctive characters within the group could have been created better, good performances from the likes of Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan mean this is an uplifting, worthwhile watch.
- Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions (2005), Jalmari Helander – I much preferred this second short in the series. The central conceit works this time, the whole thing is a fictional training video. Really clever, a great aesthetic matching the form and a nice anti-smoking message to boot. A cracker.
- Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), Jalmari Helander – This succeeds wonderfully well in broadening out what was established in the shorts. A great, taut little storyline drives a film that is as much about family as anything else. A truly original, stylishly shot film that has some fantastically creepy moments. A father/son tale like no other.
- Everything Must Go (2011), Dan Rush – A man is fired from his job and comes home to find his wife has changed the locks and all his belongings are on his front lawn. So he lives there. The great script effortlessly establishes the three characters, ably supported by three quality performances. This is actually a heart-wrenching, powerful examination of an alcoholic and it pulls no punches. Perhaps too honest a Will Ferrell film for cinematic release (at least here in Aus).
- We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Lynne Ramsay – A harrowing watch. An oblique first half, perhaps necessary due to the book’s structure, makes the film elusive & difficult to pin down. It becomes searing in the second half though. Be warned, not an easy film, but an unmissable one.
- Matilda (1996), Danny DeVito – About as sweet and successful as a family film can be. Classily illustrates the equal but opposite powers of good teachers and shit ones. Nice performances all round, and DeVito’s passionate direction doesn’t hurt either.
- Ides of March (2011), George Clooney – Talkfest gives way to sorta politico revenge thriller. Not a whole lot of action, but some fantastic performances despite Clooney being a peripheral figure. Especially from Tomei, Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood and especially Phillip Seymour Hoffman who delivers one of his best performances (which is saying a lot).
Not Worth Watching:
- Attack the Block (2011), Joe Cornish – This has featured on quite a few yearly top 10s, but won’t be on mine. Doesn’t really work as a horror film, a comedy or a sci-fi flick. Partly the issue I think is that a lot of the humour is lost in translation. For me, this low-budget indie darling was loud and more than a little annoying.
- Hanna (2011), Joe Wright – This starts well with some fantastic snow covered (and desert) scenery. But with its strange accents and strange father daughter relationship this is reminiscent of Alias, but not as successful. There is no authenticity and there are huge plot holes. Bland and unexhilarating, where the idea should ensure the opposite.
- Rare Exports Inc. (2003), Jalmari Helander – The first of two shorts, this is an incredibly professional production which manages to create instant mythology. And whilst it is sort of the point, this just feels too much like an ad. Too slick, I kept sort of expecting the punch line to make clear that this was a legitimate ad for beer or something.
- Moneyball (2011), Bennet Miller – It’s strange, I enjoyed this for most of it, but then afterward couldn’t think of anything positive to say. People will go on about how Sorkin wrote the script, but for me this was just so flat, with no pop to the dialogue. I would never have believed that Phillip Seymour Hoffman could deliver a performance this listless. Jonah Hill is fantastic in what could be a career-changing role. But the film is unable to convey the scope of a baseball season, and the end drags badly & unnecessarily.
If you only have time to watch one Drive
Avoid at all costs Hanna