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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top 10 - an eclectic selection from a not-so-frequent film reviewer

It's been another hectic year where duties at the Australian Film Institute have sucked up most of my time and required me to watch a LOT of Australian features, documentaries, shorts and television dramas. I'm not complaining. Love it! But it makes my top ten a little skewed. Nevertheless, I managed to catch some festivals, some screeners, and even the odd regular film screening (radical!). Here's what I selected for my yearly wrap-up of films for The Big Issue magazine (edn. 396). Apart from the standout, they're in no particular order. They were selected from films that were on general release in Australia during 2011.

Standout Film: Melancholia

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia may well be the most perfect film ever made about the end of the world. The extended opening sequence, a masterpiece in itself, places the solemn strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde alongside extreme slow motion images that are gravely beautiful and strange: a huge green golf course overlooking the ocean; a sad and beautiful bride, floating dreamlike in a pond; a black horse sinking into the earth; and two planets, seen from space, on a collision course for disaster.

In a change of tone, the film reverts to the realistic and blackly comedic tone we expect from von Trier, as the newly married bride (Kirsten Dunst) and groom (Alexander Skarsgaard) giggle and kiss in the back of a ridiculously long stretch limo, which the driver is failing to maneuver around a bend. The seemingly happy couple is destined for a hideous wedding reception – complete with obnoxious guests and squabbling relatives (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling play the bride’s monstrously bitter parents). But the main problem is the bride. She’s suffering from a malaise that makes the term ‘depression’ seem like a picnic. Meanwhile, the bride’s sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is worrying about the rogue planet that’s moving closer and closer to Earth.

A grand and exhilarating work, Melancholia never abandons the human elements. The closing scenes are bound to have you in tears, reaching for the hand of a loved one.

Brad Pitt is the enigmatic patriarch in Tree of Life.
Tree of Life
Another hugely ambitious film about the grand state of things (including more magnificent images from space), Terrence Malick’s masterpiece tackles life, the universe, faith, grace and innocence. Tree of Life frustrated those who need a straight, clear narrative thread, but for lovers of beauty and mystery, this was one of the year’s must-see films.

Red Dog
The Australian blockbuster of the year, Red Dog was a nostalgic but knowing tale of a dog that united a West Australian mining community in the 1970s. Funny, heartwarming and accessible for all ages, this was true family filmmaking. Let’s have more of it.

Mad Bastards
Another film set in spectacular north western Australia, Mad Bastards was an uplifting musical journey about an estranged father and son, with a catchy toe-tapping score from the Pigram Brothers. Set in the heart of a contemporary Indigenous community the film was hopeful without ever shying away from reality.

Hordes of laugh-hungry women warmed to this story of a single thirty-something chick struggling to cope with her best friend’s wedding plans. Like Sex and the City’s wrinkly but more likeable cousin, Bridesmaids had heart and soul – and some genuinely fat people in it.

Part fairytale, part assassin thriller, Hanna was blood-pumpingly exciting chase tale. Saoirse Ronan shone as the flaxen-haired teen killer taught to survive by her father (Eric Bana), and hunted relentlessly by a red-haired Secret Service witch (Cate Blanchett). A jolly good action ride, all powered by a stunning Chemical Brothers soundtrack.

Saoirse Ronan in Hanna.

Bill Cunningham New York
An audience favourite around the world, this zesty documentary created an unlikely spiritual hero - the octogenarian bike-riding fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, whose passion and pursuit of beauty has an inspired and pure quality about it.

Jane Eyre
Mia Wasikowska was the perfect Jane Eyre in this adaptation of the beloved Bronte book. Serious and interestingly plain, her face lit up with genuine love and beauty when she encountered her glowering and mysterious Rochester (Michael Fassbender). This gets my vote for Best Sexual Chemistry on Screen this year. 

Passionate moments in Jane Eyre.

Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard
Certainly one of the year’s best music documentaries, this portrait of singer/songwriter Rowland S. Howard depicted not only a talented, self-aware and articulate individual, but a fascinating era in Melbourne’s early punk scene, with great interviews from the likes of Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and Wim Wenders.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
An excellent adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling book, this film succeeded in conveying the puzzles and ambiguities at the heart of the novel: Are killers born or made? And what part does a mother have in making them so? A strange kind of maternal love story with Tilda Swinton as the mother of the ‘monster’.

So there they are. 

Below are some others not mentioned in the magazine wrap.

Honorable mentions to Source Code, Winter's Bone, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Blue Valentine, Julia Leigh's erotic fairytale, Sleeping Beauty, Ivan Sen's heartbreaking but humourous Indigenous tale, Toomelah, the very under-seen Australian thriller set at sea, Caught Inside; and The Trip with a memorable turn from Steve Coogan, but too many funny voices and impressions for my liking.

Highlights from festival films, one-off screenings and DVDs: Xavier Dolan's I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats; Amiel Courtin-Wilson's extraordinary HailJohn Curran's much maligned Stone; the already awarded Irananian drama A Separation; the beautiful documentary about Sydney dancer Tanja Liedke, Life in Movement; and the surprising and frank French drama set in a police child protection unit, Polisse. I was thrilled too, to see on the big screen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast - though the final scenes made me giggle at the now-dated special effects and costumes.

Heartbeats - from the precociously talented and beautiful Xavier Dolan

Greatest disappointments and bores: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Wim Wenders Pina (I know, controversial!). Also, went to sleep in Kung Fu Panda 2, The Hunter (should I admit that? Might get me fired) and The Cup

Here's to another year of films. Happy New Year!  

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Year in Films: 2011

We all know that the whole point of these "Year's best and worst" lists is to get you all annoyed that your fave films didn't make the list while I get even more angry that I wasted so much of my life watching rubbish. So in an attempt to defuse the hate, let's loosely group the year's best and worst into vague categories rather than singling out individuals for the love… or the hate. So to kick off this (content-free) list (united by my vague emotional feelings towards various films rather than rigorous argument) with the love, 2011 was a good year for...

1): Westerns: True Grit / Meek’s Cutoff. Very different films – the former a traditional western, the latter a sedate look at a wagon train that’s hopelessly lost - but both used the landscape of the America west to unsettling effect.

2): Social degeneracy: Kaboom / Limitless. One’s about sex, the other’s about drugs, and they both say their respective vices are good and fun. Hurrah!

3): Dancing: Black Swan / Footloose. One involves dancing to feel good. The other… doesn’t.

4): Superheroes: Captain America / X Men: First Class / Fast & Furious 5 / Rise of the Planet of the Apes / 13 Assassins. Yes, Caesar the ape in Rise counts. So does Vin Diesel. And the samurai in the overlooked but amazingly action-packed 13 Assassins.

5): Comedy: Bridesmaids / The Trip. Yes, Bridesmaids was a massive hit (and rightly so), but for mine the Steve Coogan vs Rob Brydon battle of the Michael Caine impersonations was the funniest thing this year.

6): Spirituality: Higher Ground / Tree of Life / 127 Hours. Hey, if sawing your own arm off doesn’t put you in touch with a higher power, what will?

7): People dying: Fright Night / Source Code / Senna. The first was a great re-working of a horror classic; the second was a video game that reset every time our hero failed to defuse the bomb; the third was a brilliant documentary about a race car driver that… well, you can guess how that story ends.

8): Robots: Drive / Real Steel / Hanna. Okay, only the boxing robots in Real Steel were actual robots. But the leads in the other two were so blank (and so efficient at killing), it’s hard to credit them with humanity.

9): Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris. Hey, it’s nice to see Woody get one right after his hit and miss run of late.

10): Best film of the year: Take Shelter. Because this story of a man either losing his mind or having visions of the end of the world is one of the most haunting and terrifying things I’ve seen in a long, long time.

But just in case you were thinking 2011 was the dawn of some kind of new golden age of cinema, rest assured the stench of utter rubbish continued to billow out of cinemas at a steady rate. Especially cinemas screening the following, for which it was a very bad year…

1): Comedies about f**k buddies: No Strings Attached / Friends With Benefits. Because there’s no possible way to guess how all this is ever going to work out.

2): Comedies about anything else: Horrible Bosses / What’s Your Number: Yes, they contained the occasional laugh. With so much good comedy around, they didn’t have enough.

3): Young people: I Am Number 4 / Wasted on the Young / Abducted. Kids: either they’re on the run from aliens, on the run from spies, or on the run from their own despair at being super-rich yet socially isolated.

4): Sequels: Johnny English Reborn / Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Oh good, it’s another chance to get it right… that these films totally threw away.

5): Remakes: Arthur / The Thing / The Mechanic. What better way to salute the classics of the past than by turning them into slightly more polished turds?

6): Musicals: Sucker Punch / A Heartbeat Away. While Sucker Punch was a musical without the music; A Heartbeat Away was… just terrible. Another low point for Australian film

7): The olden days: Red Riding Hood / Burke & Hare. It seems that in the past, people were even worse actors than they are today. Nice outfits though.

8): Jim Carrey: Mr Popper’s Penguins. And the schmaltzy kids’ movie genre claims another once-great comedian. By the look in his eyes, he knows it too.

9): Cowboys & Aliens: Cowboys & Aliens. Two great tastes that taste like aimless, dull crap together.

10): Worst film of the year: Anonymous. Yes, there were others - many others - that were more painful or misguided or stupid. But this sloppy, meandering, pointless take on “what if Shakespeare was, uh, someone else” was the most boring film for 2011. And I’ll forgive a film anything but being boring.

Anthony Morris (this appeared in Forte #523)

Thursday, 21 July 2011

To Infinity and Beyond: The end of the end of Harry Potter

No-one would begrudge an eight-movie series the right to slap on a coda or two after finally wrapping up the story proper. The Lord of the Rings series had roughly half-a-dozen "endings" one after the other before the credits finally ran. But the final scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 2 is a different kettle of fish from the conclusions to LotR or, say, The Matrix trilogy.

In case you haven't seen it yet, or read the books, or figured it out for yourself, after Voldemort is killed and his forces defeated... actually, ever wondered why villains are constantly killing off their underlings? It's because if they don't, the good guys will have to do the job (if Hitler had killed off his henchmen for failing him, we wouldn't have needed the Nuremberg Trials) and no-one wants to see Harry Potter shoveling bodies into a mass grave. So anyway, Voldemort is dead, the day is saved, and then suddenly it's 19 years later and we get to see the all-grown-up-and-married-off heroes somewhat glumly escorting their own offspring on their way to Hogwarts. Life goes on, the cycle continues, parents are boring, and so on.

The dodgy make-up and uncertain temporal location aside (are they 19 years in the future? was the whole series set 19 years in the past? will they ever get mobile phones?), this ending seems a bit... off. Sagas that have a firm ending either have a short coda that basically says "it's all over - or is it?" (The Matrix model) or trail off trying to tie up each and every loose end (The Lord of the Rings).

This one does neither, and while "happily ever after" pretty much sums it up, why be so specific as to everyone's future? Surely just having the characters hold hands and stare off into the dawn of a new day would get the job done just as well, especially considering many Potter fans would have widely diverging ideas of what an "happily ever after" ending would be. Some people might want to image Harry settling down, others might want him to continue battling evil, still more might want to think of him as a pathetic drunk living in the past; why nail his future down so firmly?

This ending (and yes, it is greatly reduced from the book, which details their careers as well as their relationships) seems largely designed to shut down any speculation by readers /viewers as to What Happens Next. The story itself is over, but the characters aren't free: their futures have to be firmly mapped out by the rights-holders to keep them under control. After seven novels and eight films, Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling aren't letting them go that easily.

It may not stick, of course. Literature and film is full of "endings" that didn't quite take - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead in the face of popular demand, while being staked at the end of Dracula hasn't stopped the vampire from returning over and over again. But they were created in the days before corporations realised copyright over successful characters was the gift that keeps on giving.

Even as the internet provides a massive boost to unauthorized fanfic and slash fiction (so very, very much of it set in the Potterverse), the official version refuses to let a second of its' characters' lives go uncharted. Rather than letting Potter live on wild and free in the minds of fans, the series lurches forward after it's clearly all said and done, staggering onwards into a totally unnecessary and uninspired future simply to make sure no-one else comes along with a better idea.

Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Cane Toads: The Conquest

Well over a year since Avatar made it a must for blockbusters, 3D remains a controversial process. Often jacking up the ticket price for little visual reward, it’s constantly on the verge of reverting to the gimmick it was back in the 1950s. So what better way to champion the process and remind people of its full potential than to use it to film a whole bunch of cane toads on the march?

In this long awaited follow-up to his 1988 documentary Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, director Mark Lewis returns to give the much-reviled pest another chance to defend itself. Starting off with a brief history of how cane toads were introduced to Australia for no sensible reason – they were meant to eat a bug that attacked the tops of sugarcane and cane toads aren’t known for their climbing abilities – Lewis quickly gets to the real focus of his film: the effect cane toads have had on the people of northern Australia.

The environmental impact of cane toads is a serious matter. A travelling sideshow made up of dioramas using stuffed cane toads that are, amongst other things, playing AFL football, is not. And it’s a line this skilfully made and often very funny documentary walks with ease, even when telling the story of a man actually killed by a cane toad (not directly – he was electrocuted trying to spear one). Pets lick cane toads to get high, which is funny; a dog ate a toad and nearly died, which is somewhat less funny. But even there it’s the characters of the owners – the hen-pecked husband and the wife who loved her bossy dog – that add just that little bit extra to the story.

The 3D is never a cheap trick here. Instead, it’s used to bring viewers into the film – and the ground-level world of the slow-moving yet relentless cane toad. Lewis takes an episodic approach to the cane toad’s impact, using everything from maps and historical re-creations to talking heads and pets-eye views, but the film never feels disjointed thanks to Lewis’ clear point-of-view – one that’s more on the cane toads side than you might expect. We brought them here, he argues, so we need to figure out a way to deal with them. And if that involves wacking them with a golf club or running them over with a lawn mower, go for it!

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in The Big Issue #383)

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats & I Killed My Mother

Is there anything as annoying to a teenage boy as the sound of his mother eating? Or the sight of her messily scoffing a cream bun, with a gob of jam at the corner of her lipsticked mouth? This is the immediately recognisable scenario at the start of Xavier Dolan’s feature debut, I Killed My Mother. Dolan was a 17-year-old former child actor, living in the Montreal suburbs, and struggling to make the leap into adult roles. So he wrote and directed one for himself, appearing as the spoilt gay teenager, Hubert, fighting against his exasperated, and admittedly very annoying mother (played by Anne Dorval). The film received three awards and a standing ovation at Cannes in 2009.

Last year, the prodigiously talented and, it’s got to be said, quite stunningly handsome, 21-year-old Dolan followed up his debut with another wonderful film, Heartbeats – which won the $60,000 Sydney Film Prize (2010). Heartbeats proves again that the young French-Canadian actor/filmmaker has a gift for rendering familiar emotions with panache and humour – this time it’s unrequited love and jealousy as two friends fight for the affections of a third. Dolan is shamelessly ‘arty’ yet always accessible and never pretentious. A simple narrative wends its way through colour, music, straight-to-camera monologues and gorgeous clothes (Dolan also takes on the costume design and editing himself). I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother will screen together at Melbourne’s ACMI 7 – 28 April. Heartbeats will screen at Sydney’s Dendy Newtown from 31 March. Both films will release on DVD in August.

Note: This column originally appeared in The Big Issue, #377.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Girl Can't Help It: Sucker Punch

The only chicken nugget in the puddle of cinematic gravy that is Sucker Punch is that it’s kinda sorta aware of what it’s doing. Of course, knowing that you’re making a film built entirely around putting woman in sexy outfits then having them act out adolescent boys' panel van art fantasies doesn’t exactly make it right, but viewed in a certain light it is sort of a step forward. After all, when the first Tomb Raider movie was made to be just as vacuous and pointlessly “sexy” as Sucker Punch, Hollywood claimed that it was merely “post-content” and therefore the future of cinema. Considering it’s now the future and we have Sucker Punch, perhaps they were right.

So, to get it out of the way: the story makes no sense. Well, it makes sense in a “Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is put in an insane asylum by her lecherous father after she accidentally kills her little sister (uh, what?), then tries to escape only to spend most of the movie re-imagining her escape attempts as a lurid fantasy where her captivity is represented by a strip club / brothel and her longing for freedom is symbolised by over-the-top fantasy action sequences.” Which makes it sound a lot more interesting than it actually is - that is to say, it makes it sound interesting.

For starters, who thinks like this? Well, writer director Zac Snyder (300, Watchmen) for one. So why not simply make a film where he’s the star dreaming up all this wacky stuff while being bored during Hollywood business meetings? The fantasy sequences are so out there and over the top they tell us nothing at all about the character of Baby Doll, let alone why we should give a crap about anything that happens to her – apart from the fact she’s kind of hot if you like pouty lips and vacant expressions.

But that’s the point; if Baby Doll had a character – if we knew anything at all about what kind of person she was apart from she doesn't like being lobotomies and thinking sexy dancing is a good way to get men's attention – then the fantasy sequences couldn’t just be enjoyed as spectacle. We’d be reading them looking for insights into why she was thinking about, say, a B-25 bomber fighting a dragon and a bunch of orcs, and that’d get in the way of thinking “Coooool”. Which is all the response this film is looking for from a viewer.

[if you’re unsure of why this film is sexist when it clearly shows a bunch of “empowered" women kicking ass while all the men are fat sweaty creeps, that’s why: without any characterisation to back it up, everyone in this film is just an image to be gazed at. And when the images of women are so PG-13 / Maxim Magazine “sexy”, this becomes nothing more than a wank fantasy, a caricature of female empowerment without the danger to the male viewer of any actual females being empowered. Basically, their bodies are all these women have to offer us: if Snyder didn’t want to be sexist, he should have spent some time lingering longingly over their minds]

Not that there was ever going to be much room for character development here, what with the sexy dancing and pop culture references crowding everything else out. Knowing that the whole “I’m escaping in my mind” plot is lifted from Brazil (along with the giant samurai who bleeds light) or that the two main villains are basically Boris and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle doesn't add anything more to the film than does Scott Glenn’s inane “advice” as the fantasy all-girl kill-team’s supremo (though if he reminds you of Bill from Kill Bill, consider that another reference spotted). The references are here because they're cool, not because they say anything about anybody inside the film; they're merely another way this film works entirely as surface, finely crafted fantasy art that means less than a half-decent Iron Maiden album cover (my pick: Powerslave).

Without character though, every argument this film could try to make about being empowering falls in a heap. Yes, there aren’t a lot of obvious T&A shots in the film, but considering what it’s actually about that feels more like a cop-out than anything else: these women are in sexy outfits because they’ve been objectified by the male gaze, yet the male gaze doesn’t want to stare at their backsides? The metaphor for Baby Doll's sexy dance numbers and their impact on men is bizarre action sequences? Sorry, but when I see something supposedly jaw-droppingly sexy I don't think of gunning down a bunch of robots on a speeding train and I doubt many men do - and arguing that it's Baby Doll's metaphor for what she's doing might work if Baby Doll had any character to construct metaphor with. The film builds to a sexy dance, then cuts to an action scene: well, it certainly works as a symbol of how Hollywood works these days.

Occasionally there are glimpses of a more interesting film here. Baby Doll’s fantasies seem to almost slightly trace America’s involvement in global conflict – steampunk trench warfare for World War I, fantasy creatures versus a World War 2 bomber, a Vietnam-era helicopter versus killer robots on a futuristic train – but it’s so muddled there’s nothing else to be drawn from that. Setting it in the 50s seems to have been done solely for the opportunity to highlight the casual nature of devastating brain surgery performed back then, but as Baby Doll's fantasies are so unrooted in time (guns from her future! Don't they look cool?) the film's “real world” time period, like so much else here, is merely surface dressing to attempt to justify whatever the hell it is Snyder wants to throw up on screen at any given moment. The 1950s had cool cars and a Gothic atmosphere, so the 50s it is, even if it means Baby Doll's fantasy life is packed with elements that make no sense except that they're, you guessed it, "cool".

Once you get past the cool elements - which is remarkably easy to do, because they mean nothing (unless you actually believe that, say, cutting open a baby dragon's throat to obtain crystals to cause fire is an insightful metaphor for trying to steal someone's pocket lighter while they're hypnotised by a strip-tease, in which case I have a bridge you might like to purchase) and exist solely to make you think they're cool - all that’s left is a film that for the most part does what it sets out to do, but constantly tries to sneak in apologies for it. As is often the case, this would work better if it was more sleazy and unpleasant – and yet, even with the rumours of deleted scenes and heavy edits, it sounds like all we lost there (a sex scene between Browning and Jon Hamm) was more of the same. Giving strippers guns empowers them, huh? Not unless they get to shoot the audience gawping at them it doesn't.

It’s a gutless, arse-covering approach that means this ends up being a good time for no-one: relentlessly sexist but prudishly unwilling to have any fun with it, cravenly apologetic about the clumsy sleaze it desperately wants to revel in. The tag-line is "You Will Be Unprepared", but that's an abject lie: anyone who's seen an action movie in the last decade is fully prepared for yet another incoherent film packed with ball-busting hot chicks who dress to impress and shoot to kill without ever hitting a target that matters once the lights come up. At least they got the name right: it might make no sense as far as the film goes ("sucker punch" means "surprise blow"; nothing in this story comes as any kind of surprise, even to the characters themselves), but with Sucker right there in the title you can't say you weren't warned.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Missing the Point Entirely: Never Let Me Go

The obvious thing to say about the science in the science-fiction film Never Let Me Go is this: it’s a metaphor. In fact, it is so obviously a metaphor that to try to engage with the science any further is a clear waste of time. And yet, and yet....

Yes, the (slight) science-fiction angle is used to sharpen the tale of young people for whom death comes too soon, who cling to relationships not out of love but of fear of being alone, who try to make things right in their lives only to discover that it’s too late, they’ve run out of time and the future they though they could reach thanks to the goodness in their hearts – well, society has in mind an entirely different use for their hearts. But that doesn’t mean the science doesn’t have to make some kind of sense.

The story itself is about Cathy (Carey Mulligan once she grows up) attending a strange and closed-off English boarding school in (a parallel world version of) the 1970s. Turns out it’s closed-off for a reason; advances in science reaching back as far as 1952 (so presumably it was a spin-off from Nazi science, and we all know how that operated) means that the average life-span of a human being in now over 100 years. But to live that long, they need regular “donations” – organs taken from clones, who rarely survive past the third or fourth ‘donation”. Cathy and her friends are clones, and an early death is all they have to look forward to.

Most of the film is taken up with their relationships (Cathy falls for a boy who is snatched away by her best friend; it’s not until the pair are broken by their donations while Cathy is a temporarily exempt ‘carer’ that she gets a second chance) and with exploring the unsettling but believable passivity with which they accept their fate.

Again, taken purely as a metaphor to heighten the poignancy of their plight (they don’t have long to live before they’re killed by a society that sees them as less than human), the science does its job. But this isn’t a fantasy film: it goes out of its way to create a realistic version of the rural England of the 70s and 80s, without a hovercar or lazer gun in sight.

So with that in mind, how does this life-saving medical breakthrough work? The clones aren’t clones of the people they’re donating to – the film makes clear that they’re “modelled” on the dregs of society, who’re hardly the ones at the head of the queue for life-saving medical procedures. So it’s not some kind of organ donation scheme as we know it - and how would trading individual organs prolong life in every single possible case, especially when they’re organs the donors seem to be able to do without?

More importantly, where are all the other clones? Even if each donor gives up four organs, and one new organ is all one regular person needs, you still need millions upon millions of donors. The school Cathy attends is identified as being special, the equivalent of a free-range farm, but still: you’d expect to see an awful lot of giant concrete towers in the background of the shots to store all the “battery” clones.

Okay, perhaps the organs are taken out and turned into a magic life-giving paste so you don’t really need that many clones. But if they don’t need that many clones, that’d make them kinda rare. Wouldn’t you keep them under lock and key? And the donors are able to wander around the countryside, doing pretty much what they want (though we are told later generations are kept like battery hens) – after such an investment, wouldn’t those responsible want to safeguard their investment? What if they get sick?

All of this is clearly not what the film wants you to pay attention to. But it’s a little like a magic trick: once you know how it’s done, you can’t go back to only seeing what you're supposed to. Knowing that the world in the background of this (generally effective) story doesn’t really work means the story itself loses a lot of its power. The locations become cheap sets, the emotions merely scripted words, and the heart-wrenching drama of people trapped in lives that end too soon… well, they were never really alive in the first place, were they?

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Stop Using Sex As a Weapon: Hall Pass

The concept behind Hall Pass is simple: a couple of guys are given a break from their marriages by their wives so they can cat around. Much like the other recent Hollywood relationship comedy No Strings Attached, it dangles the promise of fun outside the oh-so-narrow confines of a traditional relationship, only to yank it away: of course the guys are going to learn that being single is in fact a horrible nightmare and they’re going to rush back into the arms of their smug wives. Why are we watching this film again?

Just because we know how a journey’s going to end doesn’t men the trip's not worth taking though, but here what seems like it should be a wild and hilarious romp (well, hilarious by mainstream Hollywood sex comedy standards) largely turns out to be a dull, painful, trudging grind. Much of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of directors the Farrelly brothers, whose one classic film (There’s Something About Mary) is still getting them work despite their repeated inability to imbue their subsequent films with anything approaching that film’s charm, nuance, or comedy. Their films are, on a basic level, crude - they're filled with ugly characters and blunt situations, and they really need a nuance-free comedic set-up if they're going to work at all.

Mary worked because it had such a set-up: Mary was the girl of every man’s dreams, and so a whole bunch of weirdos and freaks fought over her. Hall Pass, on the other hand, is about that point in a marriage where things get stale and the good old days loom large. Who are we supposed to cheer for here: the guys who want to leave their wives and sleep around? The wives who let them, then get tempted themselves? How do we want this story to play out anyway? Their marriages have to be pretty flat for the guys to want to have a break, even for a short while – are we really going to cheer when they rush back in?

The film attempts to dodge this bullet the traditional way: one couple is the “real” couple, while the other is the “comedy” couple. As always, the comedy couple feels more real because they’re allowed to be pissed off and unhappy; the real couple is basically so happy it’s a bit of a puzzle why they’re getting into all this anyway.

This doesn’t really hide the fact that the guys are pretty much sleazebags, mind you; all they do up until they get the hall pass is perv on other women and make sexist comments. In a simpler film, this’d be a simple case of “be careful what you wish for”. These unlikable guys would be set free, discover being single is a nightmare, and at the end of the week run back to their wives swearing never to stray again.

[sadly, this is the state of play in Hollywood rom-coms. A film that seriously suggested that a bad marriage was one you should leave, or that some relationships aren’t worth saving, would be more than a little controversial. Even The Dilemma, which did feature a break-up, made sure to also present a successful relationship – two, if you count the bromance.]

Instead, this feels an obligation to have it both ways: the guys are actually offered hassle-free sex after less than a week on the market. You’d have to think with that kind of strike rate the temptation to stray next time the marriage is going through a dry spell would actually increase. Seriously, these guys have been on the market less than a week – more than half that time being taken up with over-eating, getting stoned, having penises waved in their faces at the gym and so on – and they still score? So this film is saying being single is good now? Well, sort of: plenty of bad things happen to them too, so the moral is… um… if you don’t want to have anything interesting happening in your life, stay married?

Of course, the real problem here is that this film is trying to be all things to all viewers. This concept would work as a film for men: two guys escape their battleaxe wives for a week, then return home having let off some steam. It’d work for women: two wives let their oafish partners off the leash, then laugh as they come crawling back. What it can’t do, no matter how hard the Farrelly’s try, is work for both audiences. The story’s being pulled in two directions; like listening to a guy trying to tell a joke he can’t get straight, eventually you stop caring.

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Dead End: Death Sentence (DVD)

Vigilante movies are as formulaic as movies get. That’s what gives them their power: they’re more like rituals than narratives. The audience is dragged through a series of emotional checkpoints and the film succeeds or fails not through innovation, but on how well it delivers what we’ve come to see.

The rules were laid down by 1974’s Death Wish: an average citizen has a family member or members bashed, mugged or killed by criminals. They swear half-thought-out revenge and start killing, tentatively at first then with increasing skill. The police – who were useless when it came time to prosecute the original criminals – soon get on the case, and the criminals start to fight back too.

Most of the variations on this formula, especially in recent years, have been minor ones. In The Brave One, the vigilante is female (Jodie Foster); in Harry Brown the vigilante is an old age pensioner (Michael Caine); in Paparazzi, the vigilante is a movie star hunting down life-threatening celebrity photographers (it’s actually better than it sounds).

So with the rules so firmly in place, why does Australian director James Wan (the original Saw) make Death Sentence – which in every other respect ticks the boxes as efficiently as any of the previous films - spend well over half its running time dwelling on what is the most obvious and least interesting part of the story: the hero’s decision to fight back? The entire point of the vigilante movie is to give the audience the satisfaction that comes from seeing scum get theirs: seeing the hero stand around for over an hour going “gee, I don’t know…” is missing the point by a wide margin.

Things start off in the traditional fashion, with roughly ten (seemingly endless) minutes of Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) having fun with his loving, perfect family before he and his eldest son first encounter the gang of street scum; suffice to say, things don’t go well for the son.

When the resulting case goes to court, Hume’s faced with the grim facts of the justice system in vigilante movies: the man who killed his son (senselessly – despite looking like a robbery, it was in fact a gang initiation, bringing the vital element of senselessness into his death) is going to get off easy even if Hume’s testimony puts him away. What does Hume do? He says the killer didn’t do it so he’ll be put back on the streets where Hume can take care of him himself.

While this makes almost zero real-world sense (Hume is a pencil-pusher who within the space of five minutes decides to tackle a member of a violent gang on his own?), it’s perfectly logical within the vigilante movie genre – how else are we going to see some scum cleaned up off the streets?

Hume tracks down his son’s killer to his apartment block, confronts him, and after a clumsy scuffle where the killer pulls a knife, accidentally kills him. In a traditional vigilante film –Harry Brown, The Brave One, Paparazzi, all the way back to Death Wish – our hero gets the hang of killing quickly, and the film moves onto questions of who they’re going to kill and will the police catch up with them.

In Death Sentence though, Hume now becomes the hunted, as the gang decide to take revenge on their friend’s killer. They track Hume down, confront him, shoot wildly at him while he flees into a parking garage where he (again, accidentally) manages to kill a couple more of them. Throughout he’s on the back foot. He’s unleashed something he can’t control, is constantly looking for a way to make it all stop, and, as the police repeatedly and unhelpfully tell him, what comes next is his own fault.

In a better or more original film highlighting Hume’s fear as his scheme backfires might work. But in every other respect – thin characterisation of the family, generic street scum lacking all redeeming features, a laughably offhand view of the courts, action movie-style violence - Death Sentence is nothing more (or less) than a traditional vigilante movie. While Hume’s fear in the face of the gang’s retaliation is “realistic”, vigilante films work on an emotional level rather than a realistic one, as shown by his snap decision to deal with his son’s killer himself. Dragging out this stage of the story doesn’t feel like a natural outcome of the plot, or a post-modern attempt to tweak the genre; it’s just dull.

What comes next is (finally) what we came here to see: the gang break into his home and shoot everyone at point-blank range. Still, as seen in the earlier confrontation, they really are The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: Hume lives, as does his younger son (in a coma), leaving his wife the only one dead. Hume, finally realising what has to be done (and what kind of film he’s in), breaks out of hospital, buys a sackful of guns (ironically enough, from the crime gang’s Kingpin-style overlord [and father of its leader], played by John Goodman), and tracks down the bad guys to their lair in a disused mental hospital (of course).

It’s the traditional guns-a-blazin’ ending to a vigilante story, in the same way that the opening ‘happy family” scenes made for a traditional opening. So why waste so much time wavering on the question of “does violence solve anything” when we all know that here it not only solves everything, but is the sole reason for watching the film?

At first it seemed like the answer might lie in the source material. According to the credits, Death Sentence is based on “a novel by Brian Garfield” (it’s important to be specific, for reasons that will become clear). Garfield wrote Death Sentence back in the 70s as a sequel to his novel Death Wish, which the film was based on. Garfield has said publicly that the film – which had been a huge commercial hit, had a massive cultural impact in the US and went on to spawn four sequels – had glorified the idea of vigilante justice against his original intentions. He had intended Death Wish to be a cautionary tale: when everyone believes in “an eye for an eye”, eventually everyone ends up blind.

Cast in that light – and knowing that in a parallel world Hume was Kersey – the wavering that makes up two thirds of this film almost makes sense: a man who’s put his violent past behind him is forced to wonder whether the cycle of violence can ever really be broken. If Charles Bronson was able to reprise his most famous role, this could have been his version of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s reflection on his western roles. After all, both revolve around a former killer dragged out of retirement to confront and re-assess his / the actor’s past.

[That said, Unforgiven has the advantage of an interesting setting, well thought-out supporting characters and a considered stance on violence; even if Bronson had somehow starred in Death Sentence as a direct reflection on his most iconic role, this film still has a one-dimensional supporting cast, generic settings, and pretty much nothing to say about violence past “shotguns are cool”.]

If this wider context had been available to Death Sentence, its drawn-out middle section would have had at least some point as far as raising questions about the usefulness of vigilante justice (before answering them the same way all vigilante films do: in a hail of gunfire cheered on by the audience). But in the film Hume has no violent past to reflect on, no history as a killer to add depth and context to his actions and concerns.

[And then, after I’d already written most of this review, I actually found a copy of Garfield’s Death Sentence novel in a secondhand store. If the movie’s based on a Garfield novel, it sure ain’t this one: the lead has no family and does not get in an eye-for-an-eye tussle with a street gang, but does have to deal with a rival vigilante, political grandstanding, social ramifications and… basically Death Wish 3 is a more faithful adaptation of Death Sentence than Wan’s film. They've taken the name and made up their own story to fit.]

So there's not even the lingering trace of a deeper meaning left over from the source material. This just simply takes forever to get to the point. Even if it seriously intended to say that vigilante violence was bad, Wan clearly loves violence (and in the unrated edition, gore) so much he can’t help himself. There’s no serious attempt here to tackle the idea that killing is bad rather than bad-ass: when all the violence is thrillingly shot with loads of bodies flying and blood spraying, the bland stretches where Hume refuses to man up and kill do nothing more than make him an annoying pain refusing to give us what we’ve come to see.

The result is notable solely as a failed experiment. There may very well be ways to tweak the vigilante formula to make it more crowd-pleasing or efficient; even Death Wish didn’t get it right first time (Kersey never kills the scum who killed his wife and raped his daughter; in pretty much every vigilante film since, the hero is solely out for personal revenge - though in my mind that makes them less interesting by far).

There may even be ways to make a vigilante film that seriously questions the nature of violence (presumably the “vigilante” would then have to be revealed for who he really is: a serial killer). But as a genre piece and as a piece of art, Death Sentence is nothing more than a dead end.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Us vs. Them: Another Year

Mike Leigh’s latest film is full of warmth and humanity – so long as you’re on the right side of the line. There’s no serious arguing that the line isn’t there in this modern-day London of haves and have-nots: on one side are our nominal leads, content 60-somethings Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and his bubbly partner Katie (Karina Fernandez), and contented mother Tanya (Michele Austin).

What puts them ahead of the pack isn’t so much their wealth – though they all seem to be doing ok – but their emotional well-being. They’re all happy with their lot, leading lives full of love and companionship. Meanwhile, sharing the same physical space but off in a world of hurt, are the have-nots: Mary (Lesley Manville), the somewhat scattered co-worker of Gerri and Tanya, and Ken (Peter Wright), Tom’s childhood friend. They’re crushingly sad, constantly alone, and more often than not hitting the booze a little too hard.

Set over the course of a year, the film basically charts Tom & Gerri’s social life as Mary outstays her welcome, Ken drops in for a visit, Joe finds a partner and eventually Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) appears on the scene after the sudden death of his wife. There’s no massive dramas here or large-scale character shifts, which makes its subtle distinctions all the more devastating: some people just live lives of warmth and happiness, and some don’t.

But why? What causes this sharp divide? A clue lies in the two characters that undergo serious change in their situation across the length of the film: Joe finds a girlfriend and Ronnie loses a wife (though we don’t actually see him while his wife was alive). It could be argued that these changes make no difference to their well-being: Joe seems pretty happy when we first meet him as a single man, and while we have no idea what Ronnie was like when his wife was alive, his non-existent relationship with his angry – and presumably single - son Carl (Martin Savage) suggests he wasn’t an ideal father.

If that’s the case though and having a partner makes no difference to Joes well-being, why does he find someone at all? Well, he’s clearly been looking for a girlfriend (not every single person is), and there’s no suggestion that she makes his life worse – according to Gerri & Tom, his having a partner is a distinct improvement over his being single. As for Ronnie, he’s not exactly jumping for joy over the death of his wife: suddenly becoming single is clearly not a step forward for him.

Joe’s finding a partner does fulfil another plot function: it separates him from Mary. When he’s single, she’s constantly making moves on him – moves he rebuffs, if gently. When his partner arrives on the scene, Mary sulks, and her hostility poisons her relationship with Tom & Gerri too.

You could also argue that Ken’s character’s role in the plot is also Mary-centric: he’s single, he hits on her, and she knocks him back. As the film develops the focus is increasingly on her: if everyone else is there simply to illustrate aspects of her character, then the only real divide here is between her and everyone else.

Unfortunately for that argument, while Mary is increasingly the film’s focus, there are enough scenes around Tom & Gerri (and without Mary) to make clear that this is a film about a group of people. And as a group, there are clear haves and have-nots. After all, if Ken is there simply to show that Mary rejects companionship, why make him so pathetic? Is a fellow lonely drunk the best she can expect? If so, that only re-enforces the divide: Gerri gets the warm-hearted Tom, Mary gets a drunk a brisk walk away from a heart attack.

As for Joe, his move into coupledom certainly distances him from Mary, but that also only re-enforces the divide: he escapes Mary and her sad drunken world not by getting a better job or an exciting new hobby, but by finding a partner. It’s made plain and clear - all the single people in this film are sad, all the people with partners are happy. Dark pasts and failed relationships might be hinted at to explain Mary and Ken's current state, but they're only hints: as far as what we're shown on the screen goes, they're single, therefore they're unhappy. And being single is their own fault. After all, Joe found a girl, and look how well that worked out.

That said, this is largely a film about older people: could it be that it’s their attitude to aging that’s depressing them? After all, Ken and Mary are still out and about trying to keep up with the kids; Tom & Gerri have settled down into a comfy later life, pottering around down the allotment and so on. Maybe accepting your age is the key to happiness here?

Trouble there is, both Ken and Mary are single, and trying to find a partner is a young person’s game. The film might archly suggest that they’re a bit past it as far as hanging around pubs goes, but how else are they supposed to find someone? They’re merely the last ones left at the life-long session of relationship musical chairs, going through the same motions to try and find someone long after everyone else has paired up and gone home.

All this wouldn’t be so bad if the film itself didn’t clearly take sides. Mary and Ken are seen as mildly annoying impositions on (and by) Tom & Gerri (in contrast, they love Joes’ new partner), while Mary and Ken seek out Tom & Gerri for friendship. It’s a world where single people hit the bottle and annoy their partnered friends, who tolerate their presence at best – usually while rolling their eyes the second they’re gone as they snuggle up together in a big cosy bed. Mary, on the other hand, gets a shit car.

Clearly, the clock is ticking: if you’re single and you don’t find someone, you’ll be left on the shelf. The consequences of which are spelt out plain for all to see across Another Year’s two hours: single people are ditzy, often drunk, pathetic and painfully needy, worthy of little more than subtle contempt and dismay from their paired-off “friends”.

If this wasn’t harsh enough, Another Year opens with Tanya (who’s a doctor) trying to help a clearly closed-off and clinically depressed woman (Imelda Staunton). She’s never seen again after the opening scene, but her pinched-off answers to Tanya’s questions suggest a world where people lock themselves into personal prisons and refuse all help to escape. You’re sad because you’re single, and being single is all your fault.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 20 January 2011

In The Company of Chumps: The Dilemma

Over the last few years Vince Vaughn’s charted a course slightly askew from, well, pretty much everyone else in the romantic comedy business. Everyone else almost always focuses in on the beginning of relationships; he makes films that are a little more interested in what happens after the fun stops. Not that anyone’s going to confuse The Break-Up or Couples Retreat with Carnal Knowledge in a hurry, but compared to yet another tortureporn effort where some poor chump settles down with / has his nuts cut off by Katherine Heigl, at least he actually seems to be attracted to projects that spend at least a couple of seconds thinking about exactly what “happily ever after” actually entails.

So knowing that Vaughn tends to like making rom-coms that make you at least momentarily question the nature of romance (and more often the nature of comedy, considering their often more miss than hit approach to gags), the opening scene of The Dilemma brings with it zero surprises, Basically, the cast - Vince, Kevin James (clearly taking on the Jon Favreau [Vaughn's long-time cohort and co-star in Swingers, Made and more recently Couples Retreat] role), Winona Ryder as James' wife and Jennifer Connelly as Vaughn's girlfriend – sit around talking about honesty and its importance in a relationship. If you're even slightly familiar with the works of playwrights like Neil LaBute (and why hasn’t Vaughn teamed up with LaBute yet? Someone start that Facebook page), you'll recognise the gambit: everyone stakes out their views on honesty, and then circumstances contrive to make them either give up their principles and become hollow shells or stick by them and ruin their lives.

Problem here is, we then get ten minutes or so of crap "bromance" hijinks as it's established that Vaughn and James live in each others pockets (they have their own company together trying to make electric cars sound like muscle cars - but more on that later) and that Vaughn is a rapid-fire blabbermouth who thinks the best way to sell his rumbling engines to auto executives is by calling regular electric cars "gay". The "gay" line's an odd one, because we don't know how to respond: is it supposed to be funny (it's not, unless you're one Melbourne critic who all but pissed his already stained pants at it), or is it supposed to be as awkward for the characters on screen as it is in the cinema?

Either way would work for the film - Vaughn is playing a bit of a dickhead who lets his mouth run away with him so there's the drama covered, and the wacky work pitch is a comedy bit that often gets laughs - but because this film is staggering all over the place like a dog who's spent the day sucking up spilt beer we don't know. Last time I checked, being confused doesn't usually mean you're having a good time.

Anyway, the movie stumbles on with no real idea of what its trying to do - the guys' company is struggling and that's meant to be serious, but Queen Latifa is playing an inappropriately explicit auto executive saying stuff like "I want to have sex with your words" which is presumably funny but who can really tell - and then finally things click into gear when Vaughn, while planning out his marriage proposal in some giant greenhouse full of exotic plants, sees Ryder making out with some other guy. Serious moment, right? Not once Vaughn has finished crawling through poison plants to spy on them! Hah! Wait, no hah.

You can almost see what they're trying for here, and in a sillier film it would probably work. But this is a film that doesn't trust you enough to figure out that there's anything at stake here. In a regular comedy, film-makers just assume the audience knows that discovering that your best friend's wife is cheating on him is serious and sad, and then move onto being funny. But after this scene - which, like I said, almost works because he's actually seeing something serious while doing something stupid - the film just keeps on going on and on about how this is a really serious and sad situation before cracking a couple of lame jokes. It's like the film is a crap stand-up comedian prefacing every single one of his one-liners with "sorry your wife's a cheating skank": it kinda kills the mood.

Then it gets even stranger. "Serious grown-up issues" and "laugh-out-loud comedy" rarely go hand-in hand, but when Vaughn corners Ryder and confronts her about what he saw this goes out of its way to be grown-up about the whole thing. Turns out that James has been cold and distant to her no matter how hard she tries - so distant, in fact, that not only has he stopped shagging her, he's off down the Asian massage parlour every Thursday for a hand shandy. And this grim, tragic look inside a dying marriage is funny how?

Ryder does get to put this scene on her showreel though, as she suddenly turns into Satan's Daughter by turning on the fake waterworks to show how she'll lie her way out of it if Vaughn tells James about what happened. So she's the bad guy, right? We can cheer when she gets her eventual comeuppance - and more importantly, laugh as she ends up going through the wringer? Nope: she goes back to being a heart-wrenching figure of pity (or just someone who looks sad and seems trapped) in every single other scene she's in. So no laughs there.

And there's not a whole lot of laughs (let alone laffs) to be found when Vaughn follows James to the massage parlour and discovers that yes, his best mate has gone there to be wanked off by a massage parlour boss who basically comes out into the front of the place and says "we're going to give you an excellent hand-job tonight!". Geez, hope there are no law enforcement agents in a three block radius to overhear that.

Usually hand-job material is comedy gold, but don't forget: he's getting one while he's still married and his heart-broken wife knows about it. Urgh. Even those sitcoms where married couples just insult each other non-stop never went that far. So Vaughn is confiding in his girlfriend about all this shit, right? After all, in like the second scene of the film Ryder says to him something like "We really like her and she's not even one of my friends!" so you know there's no girl bond between Ryder and Connelly. Of course he's not: he lies to her like a maniac for no reason so she can start thinking he's gambling again. Hilarious!

Then we get a bunch of scenes where James acts like a dick - surprisingly well too, and to be fair the acting in this film is pretty sharp from top to bottom - just to make sure we know his crumbling relationship is his fault as well. Then Vaughn actually prays for guidance - again, begging God for help without a trace of irony is not exactly comedy gold - then suddenly he's pulling some stalker shit outside the house of the guy Ryder's f**king and guess what? He's a tattooed-idiot called Zip, so there goes the sympathy for her the film was trying so hard to create a few scenes back.

At this stage you might be thinking "is this even supposed to be a comedy?". Problem with writing this off as just a clumsy drama is that Zip (Channing Tatum) is actually on-purpose funny, which means he seems to have come from a completely different movie (one that mostly involves beating the crap out of Vaughn). One half-baked comedy intervention for Vaughn's gambling later and the secret's out, Ryder tearfully vanishes from the film forever and the true point is revealed: can James and Vaughn's friendship survive? Hang on, what?

This might have been a dilemma - geddit? - if James' cheating wife had been an evil skank. But hasn't half this film been telling us that their marriage was hurtling down shit creek sans paddle for both of them? If James is so massive a tool that he'd get pissed off at his friend for telling him his wife was sleeping around at the same time as he's got a regular booking down at the Five Fingers of Hope Saloon, why the f**k should we want Vaughn to stay friends with him?

The result is that there's just no drama there at all: the film was so desperate to avoid making Ryder the villain that there's no dramatic tension at all in whether the friendship survives. James has been an obvious shitbird, Vaughn hasn't been a whole lot better and they deserve each other so just end the damn film already. Only not with a bizarre scene where James knocks a hockey puck through a tiny target to win a prize and a giant hug from Vaughn because a guy firing a projectile through a tiny opening seems a little bit much like a sex thing.

One massive question remains (okay, two, the first being how the hell did two slobs like Vaughn and James land amazingly hot dames like Connelly and Ryder when they're clearly not even that interested in them): considering this is a movie that makes such a massive deal about the question of honesty - and, surprising no-one, comes down hard on the line that honesty is the policy to take out - why does it also make such a big deal about James and Vaughn's day job considering said day job is entirely based around making a car engine sound like something it's not. It's a, you know, deception? A big fat, bass-heavy rumbling lie?

That's right: in a film about being honest, their job is basically about lying to people. Is it a metaphor? A hint that while the characters conclude one thing about the importance of honestly, the film is saying something else? With something as all-over-the-shop as The Dilemma, who the f**k knows?

Anthony Morris

Friday, 7 January 2011

Best of the Year: 2010

Standout Film

Toy Story 3

It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed since the first installment of Toy Story, the stunning Pixar animated film that delighted both adults and children. Sequels are notorious for being calculated rip-offs, but the beauty of Toy Story 3 is that this ‘threequel’ treats the now familiar characters with integrity, while advancing their story-lines in ways that entertain, surprise – and let’s be honest – scare the living daylights out of – the audience.

No other film this year has had me sobbing so uncontrollably. There’s a scene where the toys hold hands as they cling to a conveyor belt that’s hurtling towards an incinerator. Surely this is one of recent cinema’s most poignant depictions of the consolations of friendship as we confront our inevitable mortality. Reading too much into it? No. The Toy Story films have always been brave enough to tackle dark themes of abandonment – after all, the toys get left behind as their owners grow into adulthood. It’s tragic. Luckily, there are lots of laughs, inventive set-pieces (like the meeting between Ken and Barbie) and thrilling action sequences to leaven the bitter-sweet loaf. One of the most successful films at the 2010 box office, this proves it’s possible to please crowds with style, and dare I say it, profundity.

Other film highlights:

The Ghost Writer: Roman Polanksi’s beautifully paced and elegantly directed thriller about a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) hired to write the memoirs of an ex Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) accused of war crimes, this is melancholy and sly.

Fish Tank: Powerful performances and a bleak urban beauty infuse a tough tale set in a British housing estate. Directed by Andrea Arnold (Red Road) Fish Tank portrays an angry and isolated 15-year-old girl (Katie Jarvis) who falls for her mum’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).

A Single Man: The directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, this sublimely beautiful and moving film stars Colin Firth as a 1950s college professor the mourning the death of his lover (Matthew Goode). Set over the course of a day, it’s a lush meditation on life, love and lust.

The White Ribbon: Michael Haneke’s black and white masterpiece comments obliquely on the rise of Nazism with its tale of mysterious violent crimes occurring in a farming village at the onset of World War I.

Leap Year: Australian director Michael Rowe won the 2010 Cannes Camera d’Or for this confronting and sexually explicit Mexican film about a solitary young woman dealing with grief and loneliness.

I Am Love: Tilda Swinton is the respectable matriarch of a rich Milan family, until she falls desperately in love with her son’s best friend. A sumptuous and sensuous melodrama that pits passion against bourgeois convention.

The Kids are All Right
: Julianne Moore and Annette Bening shine as a bickering lesbian couple whose family is rocked when their teenage children decide to meet their biological dad (Mark Ruffalo). Funny and affecting, it’s a comedy for anyone in a long-term relationship.

South Solitary
: An Australian film that divided critics, South Solitary comes from the highly original writer/director Shirley Barrett (Love Serenade). The film features Miranda Otto in an adorable performance as a not-so-young woman who’s run out of options in 1920s society and finds herself living with her uncle (Barry Otto) in a remote lighthouse. Marton Csokas and Essie Davis also feature in a strange, halting and salty romance that’s very funny in its own quiet way.

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Real or hoax? It doesn’t really matter in this hilarious documentary about notorious graffiti artist ‘Banksy’ and the man who obsessively follows him with a video camera. A smart guerrilla expose of the pretentions and paradoxes of the art world.

Looking forward to 2011

Another documentary causing speculation about its authenticity is Catfish (27 Jan), a story of three friends who document a budding Facebook romance only to find that the woman involved may not be who she says she is. From the personal to the political, a documentary that’s set to terrify us all is Countdown to Zero (26 Jan) tracing the history of the atomic bomb and the current dangers we face in the case of accident, terrorism or failed diplomacy.

Fans of French auteur Claire Denis (Beau Travail) will be keen to catch her latest film White Material (limited release from Jan), which stars Isabelle Huppert as a plantation owner trying to keep her family together in a warring African country. Also in January, the Coen Bros’ latest offering, True Grit will hit screens on the 20th. Set in the Old West it stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon as two lawmen tracking down a murderer.

Other big name directors bringing out new titles include Mike Leigh, with comic drama Another Year (26 Jan); Clint Eastwood, with supernatural thriller Hereafter (Feb 10); Danny Boyle, with the true story of rock-climbing survival starring James Franco, 127 Hours (10 Feb); and Peter Weir’s much awaited escape drama The Way Back (24 Feb), a story based on fact about soldiers who break out of a Siberian gulag in 1940 and walk 4000 miles to freedom.

Here's to a new year at the cinema - and lots of resolutions to blog more often!

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(A version of this post originally appeared in edition #370 of The Big Issue magazine.)