Tuesday, December 31, 2002

FAVE FIVE FOR 2002 AND THEN SOME

The five films I found most interesting in 2002:

SPIRITED AWAY (Japan)
My most rewarding experience at a film for the year. Perhaps the best film of the year. Certainly made by the best filmmaker of the last ten or so years and certainly one of the very best full fantasy films ever, regardless whether animated or otherwise. Every frame is a visual gem and every inch and second is original and authentic storytelling. The word "magical" in critical terms has become cliche. This is a great pity as it perfectly describes SPIRITED AWAY. It is one of the richest films I've encountered both in vision and in theme. Moving and intelligent, its symbols and meanings make it an important film and a true classic.

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (New Zealand)
No doubt this will be the film I'll see most often in the cinemas. And, along with SPIRITED AWAY, one of the few I will buy on DVD and watch again and again as I grow old. There's not much point to saying something about it either positive or negative. The best critics have said it and have said it better (I particularly like the Chicago Film Critics Circle). I'll just repeat what I said about FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS. This isn't just a better film that we should have ever expected. It's better than we deserve.

ADAPTATION (USA)
BEING JOHN MALCOVICH was certainly cute-clever and entertaining for it. but this film by same writer, same director is actually clever for a clever purpose. It's original, imaginative storytelling where the crime of indulgence is analyzed and, within this film, justified. If there's a criticism to be made about this rather funny movie then it's that at some point in the final act it becomes too clever for its own good. But that's a small thing considering the quality of writing and performances, especially Meryl Streep in her multi-layered role.

DONNIE DARKO (USA)
Not perfect by any means, but intensely interesting for its explored themes and its play on 80s culture. Funny and dark, cynical and uplifting, shows that just trying to do something different goes a long way to justifying the existence of a film. I heard someone compare it to BACK TO THE FUTURE, but it's more a deliberate contrast to that. Where as the BTTF is a baby boomer's fantasy DONNIE DARKO is a Gen-X "lets get real" flick and one of the very few of that kind that actually is real.

DEVIL'S BACKBONE (Mexico/Spain)
This does a lot of what you'd expect a ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War would do but it still is a good tale told with subtlety and non-subtlety in the right places, poignancy and scare-jumps in the right places and the tragic inevitables being both tragic and inevitable, all without predictability or empty meaning. More than anything this film is in the details. It's in the atmosphere. It's in the image. But it's not just what's said and done, but in what is felt. For that THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is a superior ghost story.

Special mentions:

BIG SHOT'S FUNERAL (China) - A clever satire on western culture merging with Chinese traditionalism. Insane characters in a sane world, or perhaps entirely the other way round. Good fun but with serious meaning behind it. Life is mad, but you gotta laugh.

KAIRO aka PULSE (Japan) - An apocalyptic ghost story which is hard to prepare yourself for. Wall to wall creepfest, yet a moving film about the human condition. Rare to see a film so riveting and provoking from first second to last.

AVALON (Japan) - Possibly the best SF film since BLADE RUNNER. The great vision and fine intellect are inseparable. A cold, hard film that still results in deep pathos. It's like Kubrick doing cyberpunk. And like PULSE, despite the lack of a Hollywood budget, packs a whollop like any big budget epic. Would easily have been in the top five, but it's technically a 2001 film which I saw on import DVD. THis film may well get a larger dubbed release in 2003.

BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (France) - A very stylish, very well made period monster movie with chopsocky action. Very entertaining if a touch too long. Risks being over complicated (some of this has been cut from certain versions), but the richness of it all is enthralling. Could have been tighter, but its indulgences were enjoyable enough to keep the film in the memory.

BATTLE ROYALE (Japan) - Yes, it may well be the most violent film I've seen, but the violence goes to telling a story that feels like it needed telling. Good filmmaking makes work a film that very easily could have failed. The director is a veteren in his '60s and this suggests few other filmamkers could have pulled the blackest of satires that seems to being going for the jugular but actually goes straight for the heart.

LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE EXTENDED VERSION (New Zealand) - Had to mention this. It is like watching a fresh film. It's hard to fault the theatrical version, so to actually see a superior film was more than a delight. It's a film deeper in meaning and character. And the action is pushed up a notch which the boy in me found a hoot.

METROPOLIS (Japan) - Never have I seen so much intricate animation. There's too much for the eye and the mind to take in on a first viewing and it does suffer on small screens. Still, it works on any screen as a thoughtful and touching tale of the future. Its retrospective style only enhances the poetic themes and dazzling spectacle.

And I shouldn't ignore:

SPIDERMAN (USA) - This is worth mentioning simply because, like X-MEN, it could so easily have been much less than it actually was. A light film but with just the right heat within the characters to make it more than the sum of its parts. It was also a nice example of how restraint is a good narrative tool.

SIGNS (USA) - Have to admire a film that feels so rich with meaning even though it may well have none. I liked it, except for the very end (I mean the final shot), but did it work as a whole film? I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out what it intended to be.

There are still a few films of 2002 I want to see that may well have ended up on these lists if I had seen them already. Two such films are MOTHMAN PROPHESIES and SHAOLIN SOCCER. And I'm still curious about the seemingly silly REIGN OF FIRE. Just before writing this I did watch RESIDENT EVIL which I describe as a film by a director trying to do Fulci's THE BEYOND, Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD and Anderson's MORTAL KOMBAT (oh, Anderson was the director). I didn't find MINORITY REPORT particularly interesting at all. And for those outside of Australia, SOLARIS will be a 2003 film. And I was tempted to say something about intriguing and mesmerizing THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, but it did get released in 2001 even though I saw it in 2002 (only because I waited two weeks before going to see it. I was too busy seeing FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING over and over).

Of note; some of the films I've listed are technically from 2001, but 2002 is when they got released in Australia or, such as BATTLE ROYALE, became available on imported DVD.

Now I may have missed something that you feel I should've mentioned and I may well have mentioned something you feel sure I shouldn't have. I'd be very interested to know what that was and why. Hope you let your thoughts be known on the discussion.

Oh well, that was the year. Let's see what 2003 will have in store. I do hope it's interesting.

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Oh, and go check out Chris Lawson's Frankenstein Journal as he recently posted what SF & Fantasy novel's he'd like to see as movies. Interesting. Feel free to comment on them or any other books you like to see done as film on my discussion page. Personally, I'd love to see RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. I'll keep Chris informed of any contributions.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

BOND FOR ANOTHER DAY

Roger Ebert has said that Bond films exist outside of normal film standards of criticism. That you can only gauge the quality of a Bond film by comparing it to other Bond films. He has a point. And from that point of view I found DIE ANOTHER DAY an entertaining Bond movie. It's also one of the more interesting ones because of the creative and political angles it has chosen to take.

It should be noted that it is the twentieth Bond movie and it is the fortieth anniversary of DR NO. So it's not surprising that this Bond has a sense of the retrospective about it. For instance, Halle Berry is introduced the same way DR NO's Ursula Andress was with a comparable swimsuit, and Bond visits Q's store room which contains past props like the crocodile from OCTOPUSSY, the knife in the shoe from FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, the rocket pack from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. Q as played by John Cleese makes a point that when it comes to spy gadgets that it is time to move on to the new technologies. This does setup an entertaining use of the normally dull VR.

But the retrospective runs deeper than that. Sure, Bond films are formulaic and to be a successful Bond film you sort of have to be. DIE ANOTHER DAY has taken the course of getting intelligent writers who have a produced a script where almost everything in the film is a deliberate reference to classic Bond scenes and themes. The story itself is a conscious conglomeration of past Bond plot elements. Where the writing is good is that this never fails to be an independent Bond movie. Well, as independent as a decent Bond film can be. It is successful as a ambitious and intricate Bond film and being a film about Bond films, similar to how the excellent John Sayles flick GHOST DOG is a hitman movie about hitman movies. Very interesting that Bond would do that within its own franchise and doing so without ever resorting to parody. Definitely a sign of confidence and impressive in some small way that they so well pull it off. I think the director Lee Tamahori must get a lot of the credit. He is a director too good to be used on something like a Bond flick and I'm now realising that was the point of him being hired. There's little doubt that a director of power and subtlety has allowed Brosnan him to create a more interesting Bond.

The main thing Tamahori has done, with the writers and producers (who have successfully refreshed Bond when they took over with GOLDENEYE) is put Bond in the context of the new millenium. Firstly, the full acknowledgment that these are fantasies that make use of contemporary politics (and this film is very aware of current world affairs). The whole point is that the world changes but Bond does not. That as much as Bond must deal with the world, the world must deal with Bond. I guess that's always been the case, but this Bond film makes it overt. This Bond film is the first one to be aware that there are University units on Bond movies. It is the first Bond film that seems to deliberately provide text for them. And it does so without ever stopping or failing to be a quintessential Bond movie. I could and perhaps should provide examples but I hate giving away anything about a film that's even half decent.

So, I'll stop there and just say that for yet another empty headed, spy/action Bond movie there's a Master's thesis or three to come out of this most one.

In other words, for a Bond movie, this is a good one. In fact, one of the best.

Friday, December 06, 2002

BOWLED OVER

Yes, I know this isn't fantasy or science fiction or surrealist or speculative narrative but...

I just came back from seeing Michael Moore's documentary BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. As I'm seeing Miyazaki's SPIRITED AWAY tomorrow, that leaves me with just today to comfortably say that BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE is the best film I have seen so far this year.

I laughed often (once is an achievement), I was brought to tears twice, I shouted out a handfull of expletives, and in none of this was I alone. I applauded three times during the film, especially with most of the audience come closing credits.

There was a point in the film where I wanted to hate America and soon after a moment I felt so terribly sorry for it. I was totally immersed in the importance of this film. Very funny. Very serious. Very enlightening.

No more to be said except I encourage you to experience the film and all it contains for yourself. I really think this is a film to be supported.

But if you really want to know more before buying a ticket then you can go here or go direct to Michael Moore's own site here.