Retrospective Films Of The Year 2008
‘Safe‘ – Lets start back in the 1990′s. After reading ‘Down & Dirty Pictures‘ earlier in the year I took another look at some of the movies covered in the book, ‘Safe‘ was one of my favourite as like many of the films of that era it clearly references previous works (the films of Sirk, Cukor, Arzner to name just a few) and rather than simply ape those influences (paging Dr. Tarantino?) a director with the skill of Todd Haynes takes those influences as a starting point to build upon his ideas and obsessions both visually and thematically. It really is one of those movies that is so resonant another ten, fifteen years later as Julianne Moore’s demure housewife becomes increasingly allergic to modern life, perhaps an unconscious reaction to her smothering suburban life? As well as being an unpredictable tale with some unexpected shifts I really loved the ambivalence of this film, nothing is ever overtly explained as the cause of Carol’s escalating illness. Julianne Moore once again delivers an outstanding performance and I suspect I unconsciously sympathised with her as someone who suffered some debilitating allergies in my youth. It’s only just occurred to me that ‘Safe’ is actually a perfect companion piece to my next choice below, so now I’ve become an instinctive film scheduler. Cool….
‘Red Desert‘ - Antonioni’s rarely screened first colour film from 1963 got its first release on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2008. I find myself more attracted to the Italian maestros work the more of it I see, this was a film I was so mystified and challenged by I left it for 24 hours after first watching it to give it another spin with the insightful BFI commentary. Antonioni’s frequent muse Monica Vitti stars as Giuliana, a mentally unstable women who wanders through a mysteriously ominous post industrial European cityscape. She conducts an affair with her husbands businessman colleague (bizarrely played by Richard Harris), or at least we think she does as any formal notion of subjective truth or narrative cohesion begin to dissolve as the film elapses. This uncertainty projected through the menacing city-spaces are essentially Antonioni’s visual and thematic metaphor of the destabilizing symptoms of modernity and technological progress, the locations very much indicating the alienation of our souls in this brave new world. As well as the gorgeous photography by Carlo Di Palma (who went on to shoot most of Woody Allen’s films) Antonioni discards traditional film grammar on the editing front – jumps in space and time that would normally be augmented by traditional wipes or dissolves between scenes are matched with a normal edit which is very disorientating and confusing, a conscious decision to mirror Giulianas fragile sanity. The use of colour, particularly in the costumes is incredible and went on to be one of Antonioni’s trademark directorial strengths. It’s one of those films that is very much the cliche of a European art film – pretentious, impenetrable, difficult and abnormal - but sometimes one of those films really connects with me. So I guess that makes me pretentious, difficult, etc…etc….
Another adrenaline fueled exercise in incendiary carnage and mayhem ‘Café Lumière‘ is a film made by Chinese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien to commemorate the 100th anniversary of sensei Yasujiro Ozu’s birth. It’s a narrative piece not a documentary, a humble film brimming with a quiet humanity that serves as both a fascinating glimpse into peoples real lives and a reverential nod to Ozu’s cinematic achievements. Placid Yôko is a young student studying at Tokyo university who is seeing Seiji, another student who enjoys travelling the capitals metro system and recording the vehicles ambient noise emissions for his university art pieces. She falls pregnant and her parents visit her. Err, well, that’s it. Again, I just loved this as an antidote to the usual predictable nonsense, I suspect I fired this up after seeing some atrocity like ‘Next‘ or ‘Shoot ‘Em Up‘ and the simple change of pace and tone enchanted me. It is refreshing to absorb scenes where our heroine calls a friend and the film takes the requisite 15 or so seconds to get through to her friends voice-mail, pacing being essential to project the realism that the director is clearly striving for. Conversations are filled with pauses and hesitation. Music use is extremely sparse, there are no close-ups but plenty of trademark Ozu low level two character mid-shots which mesh beautifully with the realistic dialogue. It all intertwines to develop a pace and aura that is not unlike 100 minutes of visual Zen meditation and I loved it. Then again given that it was shot in Tokyo in 2003 it was a simple pleasure to look at the those streets and fondly recall my holiday from a few years back. A perfect little rainy Sunday afternoon film.
‘Dead Man‘ Without a doubt the best existential 1990′s black and white independent American western I’ve seen all year. Based on the scribblings of William Blake, the film charts the journey of, well, William Blake (Johnny Depp) to a rough frontier town on the promise of a new accounting job. Due to a series of misunderstandings Blake is forced to go on the run after mistakenly killing a man (that clip has the film finale at the end of the montage so beware), falling in with a mysterious Indian called ‘Nowhere’ as his journey moves from the real and ‘civilised’ into the wilderness and spiritual. One of the most fun things about this is to spot the cameos amongst an incredible cast – Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henrikson, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Crispin Glover and finally the very last screen appearance of the legendary Robert Mitchum. Not a bad cast then. There’s also Robby Mullers evocative photography (has there been a better a independent DoP?) and Neil Young’s score which all conspire to make one of those films that takes you on a unique journey and is quite unlike any other Western I’ve seen.
“Candy‘ – One of the most ‘out there’ cult films I’ve seen this year is this 1960′s slice of madness with a production budget I imagine that was matched with a similarly sized pharmaceutical budget. To educate you squares daddy-o here is a synopsis of the plot of Terry Southern’s original satirical novel on which the film was based, although this looks like a skin flick it’s more in the vein of The Monkees ‘Head‘ than anything else. The cast and what roles they play is just, well, its just insane. We’re talking about Ringo Star as a Mexican gardener, Walter Matthau, as a US general John Huston as, well John Huston, James Coburn as some pioneering surgeon, Richard Burton as a Learyesque sex starved intellectual- and just to cap it off here is Brando in perhaps his strangest screen performance. And that’s saying something. Like ‘Head‘ it’s obviously some freewheeling vaguely satirical paean to the decade of love and drugs and rock ‘n roll and as such it is somewhat laughably dated, to me though that was part of its unique charm. Here is the final sequence which isn’t really a spoiler as the film itself makes no sense, I just loved this scene as it has Steven Soderberghs fingerprints all over it when you consider his effortlessly cool David Holmes scored montages in the ‘Ocean’s’ films. Again, something different. Probably best to have your copy wrapped in a paper bag before you leave the video shop though just in case you bump into your mum.
‘Escape From New York‘ – Thought I was losing my touch didn’t you? Way back in the midst of time, a tiny Mint shelled out the then princely sum of £5.99 for his first ever sell-through VHS, a certain SF dystopian film concerning the exploits of a special forces agent turned bank robber who is sent in to rescue the President from New York which has ludicrously been changed into an enormous prison. Flash forward to the DVD revolution and a slightly larger Mint ensures that one of the first purchases of this exciting new format will be ‘Escape From New York’ as something of a quiet homage to the first step on his long road of film geekdom. Finally, we zap forward to 2008 and with the new Blu-Ray format finally declared the winner of the new format wars, Minty makes the momentous decision to initiate the Blu-Ray strand of his film empire. It’s a little tradition I’ve developed and long may it continue.
I fucking love this movie. Honestly, seeing it on Blu-Ray was a quiet revelation as I hadn’t checked out Snake Plissken’s adventures in a while, the inferno of greens and reds in New York surrogate St. Louis (where the film was mostly shot) was a treat to luxuriate in, all the original lens flares are intact and having watched the film many, many times in my youth it’s still a treat to see this in its proper aspect ratio, not the butchered pan and scan presentations that plagued my youth. It’s comic book stuff of course in the best possible way, ‘I heard you was dead‘ is my shorthand for evaluating credentials when meeting any other nerdtastic film-bore. The soundtrack remains one of my all time favourites, heck I’ll even defend (yeah I’m on shaky ground but whatever) the sequel which is fun if you approach in the manner in which I’m certain it was intended. It spawned a legion of imitators, some bad and some good, (joking, but that classic was a celluloid babysitter that I insisted my parents rent for me many years ago, I had to throw up a link), at the very least you can detect Carpenters love of Westerns and in particular the work of Howard Hawks (disparate character from both sides of the law coming together to defeat an independent evil or threat) which also populates Carpenters initial run of cult movie mastery. Great documentary here on Carpenter which I recently unearthed, the remake rumors seem to have expired 18 months ago around but quite honestly I couldn’t give a fuck if it ever happens as like the other Carpenter remakes it will be inferior and anything that props up his bank account as he moves toward retirement is welcome in my book. Gotta love the chronology….
Honorable mention goes to ‘Wristcutters‘ for its unique premise and lo-fi Jim Jarmusch-lite sensibility, ‘Starcrash‘ for eighties nostalgia terrible movie fun (how did they get away with this?!?!) and ‘Danger Diabolik‘, a Mario Bava film from 1968 which is just unique in its almost transcendental badness. Next up, my top five or so films to see in 2009.