FILM SPECIAL: Top 20 Films of 2009

Onto the movies, but why twenty? Well, simply because there were more than ten films which were pretty much equally as good as each other. So while this list is in a sort of an order of greatness, a degree of shuffling up and down could easily take place. But let’s lock it down as this for now, shall we? I’ ve included mini-musings on each of the 20 – they’re not overviews or summations, just thoughts that cropped up when compiling the list together.

For the point of comparison, this should cover every film released in 2009 in the UK that I saw. That way you can see those that didn’t make the cut and a vague opinion on them, and why I might have omitted someone else’s favourite film of the year (because I didn’t actually see it). So, the pick of what was actually a very fine year for cinema.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Makes a good underdog documentary double bill with King of Kong. Hysterically funny and incredibly touching.

In The Loop
Ultimately rather depressing when you think about it. Loads of LOLs and swears though! Malcolm Tucker on a big screen = terrifying.

Drag Me To Hell
Thank you Mr. Raimi! Like the most fun Spook House ride you can think of, and as close to a new Evil Dead as you could hope for.

Sam Rockwell gives the best performances of his career. A simple story elegantly and economically told. Lovely models and miniatures too.

The best vampire film of the year. Also, it’s rare to see a film about blood-suckers that actually makes you feel quite so giddy from all the red stuff as this manages. Park Chan-Wook’s best since Oldboy.

Let The Right One In
The other best vampire film of the year, it’s chilling, it’s creepy, it’s a little bit weepy. Uncomfortable viewing in the best possible way.

The Wrestler
More than just The Meaty Mickey Show, the film itself is remarkably well directed. More nods deserved for all concerned.

District 9
The most amount of body-popping to be found on the silver screen since Electric Boogaloo 2, I was pleasantly surprised just how much of the film was focused on the aliens as much as the humans. Especially the intergalactic tag-team buddy break-in of MNU. Best film based on a video game that doesn’t actually exist.

The Hurt Locker
Like the gripping finale to an action film over and over again and increasingly tense each time. Effectively a two-hour game of Russian Roulette. Sub-plots were a bit ill-fitting though.

Inglourious Basterds
Ludicrous but easily one of the most entertaining and rich pictures of the year that revels in its rollicking rambunctiousness. The best of QT’s post-Jackie Brown trilogy of self-indulgence.

Star Trek
The only big summer block-buster of the year that was any good whatsoever, but it more than made up for everyone else’s shortcomings by being so much fun. Like a big silly sugar-rush fireworks display, it should have been awful but was anything but (a couple of weak cast members and dafty plot notwithstanding).

Where The Wild Things Are
Best kids film of the year not really made for kids and amazing it ever got made, let alone finished. But it’s great that it exists and will grow and grow as time goes on. If Max crying in the ruins of his crushed igloo doesn’t get to you, you have an impenetrable soul.

Bit of a cheat counting them as one film, as each part definitely has a different feel and focus. If I had to pick, I do prefer the first part, if only because a rise is more fun, if not necessarily quite as deep and interesting, as a fall. Vincent Cassel makes it super-watchable (even during the nasty bits).

Fantastic Mr. Fox
The other best kids film of the year not really made for kids. And the stuff I liked the most wasn’t even in the original material (the relationship between Ash and Kristofferson). I hope kids who see it now will revisit it again and again and each time find something new.

Crank: High Voltage
It’s Crank TIMES 2. Or Crank SQUARED. The ante is upped in every aspect, so while it’s not better than the original, it’s the only possible way forward for Chev Chelios. Also, I think the guys get it just as bad as the girls when it comes to excessive nudity and violence to their person.

Slumdog Millionaire
The Little Movie That Could to most people. Another Danny Boyle film to the rest. But Danny Boyle films are always cause for some celebration. So what better way to celebrate than watch Slumdog Millionaire?

Red Cliff
Need to see the full 2 movies rather than the conjoined mish-mash cut-down released at the kinoplex. But hey! It’s a good John Woo movie for a change. Actually, a great one. Big historical war epics can often leave me cold, but this is tonnes of fun, and I’ll watch Tony Leung and/or Takeshi Kaneshiro in pretty much anything.

A Serious Man
Possibly their weirdest work since Barton Fink, and maybe even as upsetting as No Country For Old Men in a strange way. True moments of brilliance throughout though, and excellent performances from relatively unknown actors. Hard to find a more peculiar ‘comedy’.

Not Pixar’s finest. Not by a long shot. And despite the set-up, ultimately disappointingly conventional and obvious. But disappointing from Pixar is usually still pretty great, and when it’s at full tilt, it’s stirring and magical like few others of its ilk.

Gran Torino
Like Up with less balloons. I’d like a Walt Kowalski action figure. Squeeze him and out comes a racist grumble! Comes with shotgun and can of beer, with titular vehicle sold separately.

As for future films I saw last year, if they were to be included The Road and Mother would absolutely rock into the top 10; Capitalism: A Love Story would certainly not. The Room would trump all three as well (it had it’s first cinema screening in the UK this year, so I guess it counts?). Also, The Brothers Bloom would be somewhere towards the top too (if only it’d come out over here – what is the hold up?).

Other films I liked (in rough order of decreasing likeness):
Adventureland, Watchmen, The Box, Antichrist, The Good The Bad The Weird, Synecdoche, New York, Zombieland, Frost/Nixon, (500) Days of Summer, Public Enemies, Punisher: War Zone, The Hangover

These were all a bit “okay, I guess”. Still, they had their moments (with most meh at the bottom):
Bruno, Coraline, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Triangle, Harry Brown, Departures, Gamer, Tokyo!, Three Miles North of Molkom…, JCVD, Religulous, G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra

The rest were all pretty bad, some very much more so than others (especially at the end), but all hard to recommend:
My Name Is Bruce, Franklyn, Resident Evil: Degeneration, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Terminator Salvation, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

And that’s the lot. I know there’s still quite a few to catch up on, but that’s how it looks for MMIX for now. What did I miss?

MUSIC SPECIAL: Top 10 Albums of 2009

Yes, it’s listy-time! It’s all redundant now, as I’m sure everyone’s already picked their favourite albums of 2010 already, or would rather do a little bit of noughties-navel-gazing, but so what? Here’s a selection of my favourites that you were no doubt all listening to way back in 2010-1AD, and if that weren’t the case, here’s your chance to rectify that pronto. So, without further ado…

01: Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Sounding both very much of its time yet beautifully antiquated at the same time, Veckatimest is an album worth getting wrapped up in over and over again, and remains rewarding on each listen.

02: Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
Okay, so technically not a 2009 release on account of it not being actually released (sort of), but if you know where to look, it is great collaboration with many a formidable special guest, particularly from David Lynch who provides vocals on two of the very best tracks.

03: The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
Like an alien distress signal captured by government scientists in the 60s and only just released into the public, it’s a distorted rambling affair but as utterly captivating as ever.

04: Franz Ferdinand – Tonight
Third time out for the Franz boys, and it’s another batch of fun, cool, catchy body-jittering toe-tappers. You groovy cats, you! Easy to take for granted, but really, I don’t think they’ve yet to put a (dancing) foot wrong.

05: Handsomeboy Technique – Terrestrial Tone Cluster
The only new Japanese album I think I listened to this year! Eek! But it’s a formidable follow-up to his excellent debut. Drifts off a little towards the end, but for the most part, exceptionally lovely.

06: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Ticks a lot of boxes with an emphatic YES in ways that are not immediately obvious, but instantly gripping. Kick-ass tuneage.

07: Hank Pine and Lily Fawn – North America
The long-awaited continuation of the titular characters’ quest through the American gothic fairytale (via Canada), it eschews much of the story-telling in favour of consistenly high quality ditties.

08: Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
The critical masterpiece of the year, there is much to savour on this album, and with every listen, it’s easy to sink even deeper into the marvellous sounds contained within.

09: Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
Two distinctive voices + a bunch of great tunes = stirring stuff.

10: Discovery – LP
Blippy and electronic, yet warm and sunny, it’s a joyous affair that sounds like pop from the not too distant future. And the future is now, kids!

Special mention as well for Compilation of the Year which was Dark Was The Night, a magnificent snapshot of contemporary North American folky-indie with a mix of new tracks, covers and traditional standards, and all for a good cause. And because I’m great, I’ve created a Spotify playlist sample of the above (substituting tracks from a few of my also-rans for those unavailable), something I’m thinking of doing more regularly (yay, playlists for all). Hear it yonder.

Any more recommendations or suggestions for ones I’ve missed more than welcome!

FILM SPECIAL: 10 Most Upsetting Films of the Past 10 Years

With the recent release of controversial lady-baiter Antichrist and refusal of release for Japanese torture flick Grotesque (ah, the BBFC doth giveth and doth taketh away), cinematic misery is on the agenda once again. Sometimes we watch films to laugh, sometimes to scream and sometimes to cry. And other times, we like to be put through the ringer. And it is these films to which I pay tribute today – the ones that are genuinely upsetting but also genuinely earn the grief they land in your lap (so no Norbit then). So here are, in my opinion and in order of miserability, the 10 most upsetting films of the past 10 years (plus one that absolutely isn’t)…

10. Out of the Blue (2006)
More often than not, when Hollywood gets hold of a true story, it soon becomes ‘based upon a true story’, then eventually ‘inspired by true events’ and then loses all impact (though Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, which just missed the list, is a fine exception). What makes Out of the Blue’s telling of the Aramoana massacre in New Zealand in 1990 is it’s upfront, matter-of-fact presentation and it’s all the more powerful for that. Though the story that unfolds is tragic, it’s ultimately uplifting in its depiction of the townsfolk trying to survive through a terrifying situation. An understated look at humanity at both it’s darkest and brightest, it’s a fine film indeed.

9. Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Plot-wise, Shane Meadows’ film is ostensibly a revenge slasher flick, but few of those pictures are so down-to-earth, impeccably performed and mature. It’s gritty and grim, but there is a disturbing levity to be found amongst the frankly likeable and daft small-town drug dealers gasmask-clad Richard (Paddy Considine) is out to dispatch. It’s not perfect (the grainy black-and-white flashbacks are a tad student film) and arguably Meadows’ follow-up This Is England is a stronger piece of work, but it still delivers a powerful blow.

8. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
I was in Manchester with a couple of friends and we had a choice of films at the cinema: this or Downfall. Figuring Nixon would be the less depressing option, we opted for him over Hitler. Now, I’ve still yet to see Downfall, but suffice to say, I’m not sure our criterion was strictly accurate. Still, we were rewarded with a superb film, with exceptional performances from Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (also both to be found in 21 Grams, another narrow miss on the upset stakes). Furthermore, the 70s setting gives it that ‘Golden Age of US Cinema’ feel. A must-see film for anyone who’s ever felt there life is insignificant and secretly knows it’ll never get better. God, that’s depressing.

7. All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001)
Shunji Iwai’s study of the fall-out between two schoolfriends told largely in flashback and through internet chatspeak is two-and-a-half hours of depression, suicide, angst, bullying, prostitution, humiliation and generally very bad things. Not exactly the most tantalising way to spend a night at the cinema, but what is one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever seen is also one of the most unshakeable films I’ve ever seen. A lo-fi digital shooting style keeps everything believable, every scene’s charged with a sense of impending dread, and the music of the eponymous (and fictitious) singer lead role Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) obsesses over is so wonderful, you can see why it’s of such importance to the character. It’s as perfect of portrayal of teen loneliness you’re ever likely to see and 100% emo wank free.

6. Funny Games U.S. (2007)
A strange choice for this list perhaps, being as it is virtually a shot-for-shot remake by Michael Haneke of his own 1997 original work (which I haven’t actually seen), but then again it was also a strange choice for my birthday trip to the cinema two years ago. It has been much criticised for it’s pointlessness, senselessness and condescendingness (actual word!), but it’s still an important film and one that I was quite taken by. A family (Tim Roth, Naomi Watts – seemingly a glutton for punishment – and Devon Gearhart) are taken hostage in their holiday home by a disarmingly charming but sadistic duo (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) who break the fourth wall as much as they do toy with their victim’s lives. Unpleasant and uncomfortable but unconventional too.

5. Audition (1999)
The ever-prolific but endlessly interesting Takashi Miike commanded international attention with this slow-burning shocker. Ryo Ishibashi plays a widower who is encouraged by his son to find a new companion. His producer friend sets up a mock casting call as a way to meet potential girlfriends, and he becomes enamoured by a young former ballerina (Eihi Shiina). What starts as a sweet romantic drama takes a turn for the worst as her true nature and deadly past are revealed, building to a horrific climax. A precursor to the ‘torture porn’ trend of recent years through the Saw and Hostel films (as evidenced by Eli Roth giving the Japanese director a cameo in the first Hostel).

4. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002)
The past decade has seen the Koreans become the go-to guys for exhilirating grown-up cinema, and Park Chan-Wook is one of it’s key luminaries. This, the first in his ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, may not be as energetic as Oldboy or artful as Lady Vengeance, but it packs a mean punch in which no-one, be they innocent or criminal, gets off lightly and happy endings are a rare luxury. Its brutality still sends ripples through the Korean film industry (most recently with The Chaser) and marked lead Song Kang-ho (later to feature in the equally excellent Memories of Murder, The Host, and The Good, The Bad, The Weird) as one of the most watchable actors in the world today.

3. Requiem For A Dream (2000)
Not a film for everyone and one I do have a few my misgivings about – it certainly piles on the misery in such an unremitting fashion it veers dangerously close to my choice of absolutely not-upsetting film below. However, if you don’t want to crack a smile all day, watch it over breakfast. It’s probably the best-directed anti-drugs PSA you’re ever likely to see. But mainly it’s a bit like Jam without the laughs. And if you didn’t laugh watching Jam, then steer well away of Requiem For A Dream.

2. Eden Lake (2008)
Okay, so it’s not that easy to justify the middle class heroes vs working class bad’uns angle of what was billed as the first ‘hoodie horror’ (despite there being no hoodies in it – and Ils got their first), but whichever way you cut it, Eden Lake is gruelling stuff. Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender are a couple out for a weekend away by the titular body of water when they encounter a group of teenage delinquents (featuring This Is England‘s Thomas Turgoose). Tensions rise, arguments flare, pranks go too far and soon the kids take increasingly grim measures to make sure they don’t leave alive. It’s a raw, uncompromising example of the best of modern British horror with a simple but chilling final shot that gives you the goosebumps.

1. Irréversible (2002)
The only film I’ve been to see at the cinema which advised no refunds after the film started because of the graphic content contained within, but also one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. A film so brilliantly filmed, acted and constructed it wholly justifies the terrible terrible things that take place within (despite the understandable tales of walk-outs and pass-outs). An unflinching tale told in reverse chunks a la Memento (but taking that idea to its inevitable conclusion by running the credits at the start), real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci are joined by friend Albert Dupontel (see Bernie, see Bernie, see Bernie) on a night out that turns impossibly sour. But being that it’s revealed backwards, we are greeted with the film’s climax: a nightmarish descent into gay S&M club The Rectum, filled with stomach-churning spinning camerawork and low-frequency soundtrack. If that doesn’t unsettle the mind as much as the body, brace yourself for the violent outburst that follows. And then there’s the question of why the lead characters are there in the first place – the film’s deeply disturbing and painfully real centrepiece. At least it’s one of the few films on the list with a happy ending, but when that’s only because we are seeing events prior to the ones we’ve already witnessed, it just makes it all the more upsetting.

And one film that genuinely isn’t upsetting as much as it tries to be…

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

A-ha-ha-ha! Idiot’s masterpiece The Butterfly Effect has become one of those cult films that I found hilarious but a surprising majority find truly deep and profound as if the concept of cause-and-effect had never ocurred to them before Ashton Kutcher went weepy and discovered the ability to change his childhood. Unfortunately, such is the list of horrors his character endures, that it piles on despair after despair, becoming ever more ludicrous. Isolated, they’d be depressing but together, it’s hysterical, and include:

…visiting his dad for the first time in the mental hospital only for pater to attempt to strangle him and then die in front of him; being filmed by the local paedo for a kiddie porn home movie; accidentally blowing up a baby with a hidden firecracker; watching his dog get burnt alive…

and then when he returns home to see his school sweetheart, she flips and kills herself that evening. That’s a bit of a downer, right? So for reasons barely explained (or perhaps I could barely care about), he reads his journals, he travels to the past and tries to undo the mess of his life. But in true ‘be careful what you wish for fashion’, nothing’s perfect, his “what if?” alternate lives get worse and worse, and he ends up with no limbs! Actually, that’s not the ‘ending’ ending but nor is it the alternate ending in which he decides to rid the world of his existence by, no kidding, warping back to when he was a foetus, then strangle himself with his umbilical cord in his mother’s womb!

“Oh my gawd! Like, y’know, when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can cause a hurricane on the other side of the world!”. Yes, but when that concept is better demonstrated in The Simpsonswith Homer’s time-travelling toaster, you know your film’s going to be as deep as a puddle and just as interesting. Not even Ian Malcolm would care about this tosh.