March 6, 2013

Last Year at the Movies

Holy shit, what a year of movies we just had.

Like last year, I decided to hold off on my 'Year in Film' wrap-up post until after the Oscars (the theory being that movie years don't follow the calendar, they run from statuette to statuette), and given the high quality of some of the films I've seen in January and February, I'm more convinced than ever that it's the right move.

The last couple of times I've sat down to write a post like this, I've gone back over what I've seen, picked my five favourite movies and done a paragraph or two on each of them ... this year I came up with a list of fifteen movies I want to talk about, and I did it without even blinking. That's how good a year it's been.

(As is always gonna be the case when you live in Australia, there are some oddities due to the timing of release dates. A Separation won an Oscar last year, but we didn't see it until April; while at the other end of the spectrum, I saw The Hunt, War Witch and Sleepless Night at the Film Festival, and none of them have actually come out yet. To keep it simple for myself, I just stuck to 'Did I see it this year? Yes? Then it bloody well counts.')

So, to business ...

Watching Amour feels kind of like having a spike driven through your heart ... and I swear I mean that in a good way. I have rarely seen/read/heard/experienced in any art form, a more sympathetic, clear-eyed, honest, and fucking heart-breaking depiction of what love truly is. It's so beautiful that it hurts, and so painful that it becomes sublime. This is truly an extraordinary work of art.

The vast, vast majority of films about love are about the first initial passion, the time when you've just met and you can't get enough of each other, and the heat and excitement are still there. There's a quote from one of my favourite novels, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which runs thus: 'Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body [...] That is just being "in love", which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.'

Amour examines the meaning and consequences of true devotion in a way I've never quite seen before. It's a very small, limited film (with very few exceptions we never leave the apartment shared by Anne and Georges, the elderly couple at its core), but that microscopic nature means that every detail is freighted with meaning. When Georges helps Anne off with her coat, when Anne fetches Georges a soft-boiled egg, it's recognisably part of the to and fro of forming a life together. Then, when Anne becomes unwell, suddenly the tiny details of their life become difficult, become less serene and more painful: Georges helping Anne hike up her underwear after she's gone to the toilet, or Anne sending Georges from the bedroom once she's settled because she doesn't want him to feel responsible for her 24/7. And as Anne's body slowly succumbs to illness and her indignities mount up, their devotion to each other doesn't lessen. What starts as Georges cutting up Anne's food because she can't use a knife and fork, becomes learning how to roll her to put on a diaper, becomes ... well, I won't say. Their devotion is tested, yes, and there are moments when it is found wanting, but always their love for each other brings them back into harmony. Even at the outer extreme of pain and suffering, Georges can calm Anne down and stop her crying simply by holding her hand.

Michael Haneke's previous films have often left me a bit cold. They're too cerebral, too clinical. Here that wasn't a problem, and I think it's thanks in large part to the simply astonishing performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. It is difficult to convey just how good they are in these roles. And Haneke, as both writer and director, exhibits a humane and compassionate care for the subjects of his film that he's often disregarded. Amour is still around in cinemas at the moment, and I urge everybody to see it. I shouldn't say this kind of thing ahead of time, but I have no doubt that this will stand as Haneke's masterwork, and will be remembered as one of the key films of this, or any, time.

Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt is an incredible film, but defining its genius is quite hard: it tells a fairly simple story incredibly well. It's not a film with obvious bells and whistles, and it's not a film with a strong directorial style: one of my comments coming out was that one of the masters of 40's or 50's cinema could have made exactly the same film in exactly the same way. Vinterberg takes a kind of classical approach, using great camera positioning, great lighting and great editing to allow his suite of magnificent actors to shine. Sometimes that's all there is to it (ha, I say 'all there is' like that's easy!).

Mads Mikkelsen (who is seriously one of the best actors in the world; if you only know him as Le Chiffre from Casino Royale then do yourself a favour and look him up) is Lucas, a kindergarten teacher in a small town in rural Denmark. He's separated from his wife, and doesn't get to see his teenage son as much as he would like. He knows everybody in town, and they all know him. Among his students are the children of some of his best friends. It's a quiet, comfortable life, one where every day is much like the last, and where Lucas' routines carry him through his moments of sadness or loneliness. Until the daughter of his best friend falsely accuses him of molesting her (there is no doubt the accusation is false, but Vinterberg is clever enough to give the girl clear psychological reasons for her lie) and all fucking hell breaks loose.

The way the fallout is handled, and the way that every character, from the most vicious to the most (seemingly) well-meaning deals with it, make up the bulk of the film. Slowly, as word filters through the town, Lucas becomes a pariah. All his relationships, everything he thought he could rely on, it's all slowly beaten down and destroyed. He tries as hard as he can to remain upright, to keep his chin in the air, but as events spiral down and down this becomes impossible. It's one of those incredible movies in which everything that happens is both A) the only thing that could have happened, but also B) a surprise. When a plot point is both unexpected, but also retrospectively inevitable, I consider that to be screenwriting of the highest order. And The Hunt does it again and again and again. Without giving too much away, the film's ending is absolutely devastating, though not in a way I ever could have predicted.

It's finally coming out in Australia in May, apparently, and I'd urge everyone to see it if they can. It's not exactly a pleasant time at the movies, but it is a brilliant film.

Like the two films above, A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a fairly small-scale, intimate drama. I love movies that simply take strongly-defined characters, put them in a complicated situation, and then sort of sit back and let all the drama come from the way different people react to their shared circumstances. A Separation is a brilliantly structured script, because everything about how it plays out is present from the beginning, yet it manages to be endlessly surprising, and genuinely tense. Like The Hunt, it manages that trick of being unexpected, but also having the way things turn out feel like the only way things could ever possibly have turned out.

Nader (Payman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are still in love with each other, but she's desperate to emigrate to the U.S. to give their daughter a better chance in life, while he's devoted to his ailing father and refuses to contemplate it. When they are denied a divorce and remain stuck in Tehran, Simin moves out. To help look after his father, Nader hires a nurse/cleaning woman who is lower class, and also intensely religious. Slowly, but with horrible inevitability, the characters pull in different directions and the story becomes an ever-tightening downward spiral of confrontations and lies and contradictions. It's remarkable how much drama Farhadi can wring out of a small handful of people acting at cross-purposes ... but given that's the very basis of drama, maybe it's not so remarkable after all.

The other thing worth mentioning about A Separation is the way that, even though it barely ever interacts with a larger Iranian society outside the family's apartment (and never makes mention of Iranian politics at all), it still presents a compelling and critical portrait of present-day Tehran. The whole film is drenched in an atmosphere of tension, double-dealing and religiosity (both genuine and purposefully feigned), and manages to give extraordinary insight into the character of Iran without ever making that the film's focus. All the performances are brilliant, and Farhadi's use of his camera is fantastic as well, slinking around Nader's apartment and always showing us just a little less than we want to see.

Look, I love Point Break. But if you'd told me back then that Kathryn Bigelow would evolve into a filmmaker of such mastery and subtlety that she could make Zero Dark Thirty, I doubt I'd have believed you (I also would have been about ten years old, and you'd be a time-traveler, so whatever...). Here all her skills with genre and action are present, but they're at the service of a story that's deeply ambiguous and (however much the characters try to hide their feelings) that's emotionally fraught.

Telling the long, slow story of the search for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't flinch from detailing the horrors of its time. Scenes of torture, locations that don't officially exist, prisoners who are too valuable to be on any manifest: the moral black holes that America's intelligence services fell through in the years after the World Trade Center attacks are portrayed with a refreshingly dispassionate eye, forcing the audience to examine how complicit we are as we watch these characters work. Aside from the interrogation scenes shared between Jason Clarke and Reda Kateb, which are both extraordinarily well done and painful to watch, there's a brilliant moment, more than halfway through the film, in which a handful of characters (including Jessica Chastain's Maya, the forceful, obsessive protagonist) watch President Obama give a TV interview. In his answers, Obama condemns the use of torture, saying he wants America to regain its moral standing in the world ... and our characters are watching him with looks of utter disgust on their faces. Which is confronting as hell, because you find yourself thinking "I was rooting for you people ... who the fuck are you?"

Bigelow doesn't let her characters off the hook, and she doesn't let us off either. Another example comes in the final raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. The marines involved don't take any chances: standing over a wounded enemy, they shoot them repeatedly to make sure they stay down. Again, it's confronting as hell: however much you understand the logic, people in movies aren't supposed to behave like this, and we'd all like to believe that people in real life don't behave like this either. Though the marines take this act as a given, there's one brief shot of one of the marines letting his emotions play across his face after shooting a man to make sure he's dead. It's the briefest of moments, but it speaks volumes about the horrible compromises America (and its allies) were willing to make.

A lot of people will dislike Zero Dark Thirty because it doesn't mesh with their political views. I think it's pretty telling that both liberals and conservatives have condemned it (for different reasons, obviously): when you're pissing off both sides of politics, you must be doing something right. Right? Personally, I loved following the intricate web of half-facts and suppositions, I loved the way a lot of the more surprising and 'un-movie-ish' elements just had to come direct from real life, and I loved the way it didn't talk down to us. Its critique of the America it's depicting is subtle, but it's certainly there (the very last scene makes that abundantly clear, I'd have thought).

If the plots of those first four movies all follow a relentless, remorseless logic, Holy Motors is the joker in the pack. It's a wild, surreal ride, one in which you need to work hard to discover your own meanings, and make your own connections. A mysterious gentleman, played by the incredible chameleon Denis Lavant, travels across Paris in a limousine, on his way to nine appointments. At each stop, he must become a new character and play out a scene. He begins as a banker, and becomes in turn an elderly female beggar, a motion-captured monster, a diabolical green-suited nutcase, a scuzzy hitman and his victim, a bewildered father to a teenage girl, an accordian maestro, a dying uncle, an old lover, and a father to a family of apes.

Almost all the segments deal in some respect with death and grief (and those that don't are all about parenthood, and responsibility). After my first viewing I found out that Leos Carax, the writer/director, had made the film in response to the death of his long-term partner, who was also the mother of his child. Seeing it a second time armed with that knowledge, the entire film suddenly clicked into place for me. Don't get me wrong, I'd loved it first time around, but now I felt I could grasp, not just what I was projecting onto the movie, but what Carax's intentions may have been. The prologue in particular (which features Carax himself waking up in an exitless room, discovering a hidden door in the wall, and going through it to find himself in a cinema, where he can watch what is about to unfold) suddenly seemed a vital component of the whole, rather than simply a brief introduction. Oh, and I just realised: Lavant's character (when he's in the limo, between assignments) is named M. Oscar ... which is a corruption of LeOS CARax. Shiiiiiiit ...

Ordinarily, I'm a guy who is drawn to narrative. The machinations of a well-constructed plot are usually where I get my cinematic pleasures. Holy Motors flies in the face of that: it operates with dream logic, with symbolism, with imagery loaded with meaning that remains undefined and impossible to describe ... yet it manages to make perfect emotional sense. Walking out I was humbled, and exhilarated, but somehow not confused (and seriously, I should have been confused). I'm not sure exactly how Carax pulled that off, but I know I'll watch Holy Motors many more times trying to figure it out.

Margaret begins with one of the most harrowing scenes I've ever seen: Anna Paquin's Lisa sorta kinda causes a woman to get hit by a bus. As the woman bleeds to death in her arms, and a crowd gathers around them (some trying to be helpful, some trying and failing, some just gawking), the fact the woman's daughter is also named Lisa leads to confusion, angst, and a profound moment of emotional connection.

How Lisa, a pretty ordinary teenage girl, smarter than most but still young and wilful and convinced of her own righteousness, deals with the emotional fallout of that experience constitutes the bulk of the movie. We see her at school, arguing politics and literature in her classrooms and crushing on one of her teachers; we see her at home, chafing against her mother and investing too much hope in her absentee dad; we see her investigating the life of the woman who died, and getting to know her friends; and we see her decide the bus driver should be brought to justice.

This film is a huge, sprawling beast, sending tentacles of subplots out in all sorts of unusual and unexpected directions, but it works because it's still ultimately following Lisa's emotional path. Unable to deal with what happened, she lashes out in every possible direction, sometimes in ways that seemingly have nothing to do with the accident. But it's always, always about her guilt, and about her futile and misguided attempts to come to terms with what she saw, and heard, and said. The very non-logic of her actions is somehow the most realistic thing about the film: Lisa might be the most psychologically real character I've ever seen in a movie. It's an incredible tightrope that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan walks: Lisa's actions make no logical sense, but in a way that makes perfect psychological sense. It's really a great movie, but not one that's easy to watch, or to describe. Instead I'll just say: watch it!

One of my pet theories that I've had for a while is that there's no reason why the only kinds of movies (and books) we ever get in fantasy settings are adventure movies. In literature there's a tradition of what's called 'Magical Realism', which is basically a hoity-toity way of saying 'wacky, fantastical shit happens, but it's still serious, you get me?' Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the best realised examples I've seen of a cinematic equivalent to Magical Realism.

It's set in The Bathtub, a bayou landscape that is both powerfully original and obviously inspired by the swamps of rural Louisiana. A levee wall divides the haves, with their industries and cities and smoke, and the have-nots, content to fish and drink and throw raucous holidays for no damn reason. After a massive storm, The Bathtub sinks beneath the water and the few remaining residents struggle to survive; meanwhile a group of Aurochs have unthawed from the South Pole and are slowly making their way North.

But honestly, all of that is merely background to the real story, which is about the relationship between Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her proud, defiant father Wink (Dwight Henry). Director Benh Zeitlin dares to give us a parental relationship that isn't honey and roses: Wink is an angry alcoholic, he disappears for days at a time, and he teaches Hushpuppy about the world in a way that really only ever swings between being rough and being harsh. They are two fierce characters, and their bond is just as ferocious as they are. They live on the same parcel of land, but in two separate trailers, only coming together for meals. When Wink goes missing, Hushpuppy fends for herself, and it isn't too different from her life when he's around. In one fantastic sequence, she deliberately sets her trailer alight and hides, watching her dad frantically search for her, as if testing how much he cares. Later, after they've been forcibly evacuated to a shelter beyond the levee, Hushpuppy's been forced into a freshly laundered Sunday School dress and had her hair combed: when Wink sees his daughter tamed it's the final straw for him, and he plans an escape.

Beautifully acted (Wallis gives one of those child performances, on a par with Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider; Henry matches her, rippling with anger and frustration, but also able to draw on deep reserves of joy and love), and featuring some stunning imagery, the thing that really sends this film over the top is the score. Some of the music, inspired equally by New Orleans jazz and the finger-pickin' country and western of the swamps, is absolutely stunning.

It takes a brave, brave man to make Django Unchained, and Quentin Tarantino is seriously as brave as they come.

Django is definitely a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, but to my mind it's more successful because it has more of an emotional kick. If I was guessing, I'd suggest it's because, as an American, race relations in the U.S. is a topic perhaps closer to his hear. Either way, after spending the Kill Bills and Death Proof learning a whole bunch of kick-ass genre skills, the way he's now deploying those skills to make art that is both deadly serious and wickedly entertaining makes him one unique motherfucker.

All the cast are superb: Jamie Foxx manages to seem of the time, then comes into his own as a modern man over the course of the film; Christoph Waltz charms our boots off; and Leonardo DiCaprio makes his plantation owner both evil and sinisterly charming. But the standouts are Samuel L. Jackson, having the courage to give a nuanced portrayal of a particular kind of weakness, and Kerry Washington, who manages to give Django something worth fighting for (and the audience something to root for) in very little screen time.

It was a bit wooly around the edges, for sure (we really could have done without the LeQuint Dickey employees, I think), but it's still the bravest, most audacious movie about race in America that I've seen in a long while. That it's funny as fuck is a bonus, and that it manages to be quite moving as well makes it, honestly, one of Tarantino's very best. With his filmography, that's a hell of a compliment.

Occasionally a film is so enigmatic that I find it difficult to write about. The Master defies easy categorisation, or easy anything, really. When Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, giving an incredible, close-mouthed, hunch-backed performance) leaves the army at the end of World War II he's clearly suffering from what we today would know as post-traumatic stress disorder. There are only two things on his mind: women, and turning any god-damn thing he can find into booze and drinking it until he passes out. When he comes into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man intent on starting his own self-help style religion, Dodd takes him on as his ultimate project. Dodd spends the rest of the movie trying to heal Quell, whose issues are so primal that they remain stubbornly un-heal-able.

The intricate, complex dance that these two characters weave between them is something to behold. Paul Thomas Anderson went all the way down the rabbit-hole on this one, never for a second deigning to give his audience an easy, or even comfortable, moment. It's dark, and darkly funny, and oblique, and absolutely beautiful. Some might have wanted it to be more critical of Scientology (Dodd is clearly based on L. Ron Hubbard), but Anderson remains fairly even-handed because, frankly, I don't think that's what he was interested in. It's the way that Quell's primal mind can't be tamed that fascinates him, and the way that the challenge of that is at once so necessary and so hurtful for Dodd and his ambitions.

Look, it's coming out on DVD next week, so maybe I'll have a better understanding of it (and be better able to discuss it) soon. Until then, I'll just say that it's a brilliantly made puzzle, and months after my one and only viewing, it's stayed right at the forefront of my mind.

War Witch was one of those MIFF movies that I was worried would disappear without a trace, and which I'd never have a chance to see again. Happily, it got nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which usually means we'll see it at cinemas sometime soon, or at the very least that it'll get a DVD release.

Though written and directed by a Canadian, it's set in an unspecified African nation that is being torn to pieces by a civil war. When rebels destroy her village and kill her parents, Komona, a girl of about twelve or thirteen, is taken and forced to become a soldier. Soon after, she realises she can speak with the dead (some of the sequences when she does are spooky as hell), and use what they tell her to aid her cause. Eventually the rebel leader starts consulting her like an oracle, but all she wants to do is escape, along with the albino warlock she's fallen in love with.

The supernatural/spiritual elements are presented totally straight: there's never any suggestion that Komona isn't seeing what the film shows her seeing. What's great about it is that despite that, there's still an inner, psychological explanation for why she's been granted her gift, and the denouement works perfectly on both levels. When Komona stops being a pawn and takes action in her own right, it's as both a witch and a lost and frightened girl, and her action heals her in both ways.

The structure of the film feels kind of meandering and plotless, until a revelation with twenty minutes to go makes you understand why it's been presented in that way. The film is about Komona discovering what she has to do to bury the ghosts of her past (and literally bury the ghosts that she's seeing): it's only at that moment of discovery that we in the audience come to know where she's been heading this whole time. I could see people being put off by the slow, oblique way that it plays out, but it worked perfectly on me.

The Cabin in the Woods is kind of a miracle: who knew there could be more to say about the whole 'slasher movie featuring teens in a remote locale' thing? The script is breathtaking in its chutzpah, not just deconstructing the entire genre of American horror movies, but actually tying every American horror movie into one grand tradition and one ultimate story (we also briefly get a glimpse of deconstruction of horror flicks from all over the world, and it's hilarious). If you don't know the film's genius conceit, I'm not sure if I should give it away or not. So, look, I urge you to see this movie if you haven't already, and if you want to go in unspoiled, scroll down right now to the next photograph. Deal?

Okay, so Cabin basically reveals that every horror film we've ever seen has been orchestrated by an underground government department responsible for sacrificing innocent blood to appease endlessly slumbering 'Old Gods'. As we watch, we get two movies: the first is a fairly standard, by the numbers 'zombies attacking kids in a cabin' movie, but it's made fresh because we also see the bored, bickering civil servants who are pulling the strings (played by the perfectly cast Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford). The underground segments are dryly hilarious, and the running commentary they provide on the above-ground horror story is note-perfect.

Where the film truly lifts into all-timer territory is in the last fifteen minutes or so. Once our last couple of teens figure out what's going on and penetrate the underground facility, all hell breaks loose in one of the most fun (and also most batshit fucking insane) sequences I've ever seen. It is seriously extraordinary that a film can be so intensely pleasurable, but also keep giving pointed commentary about how and why we watch horror movies, and the way we react to the characters within them. I'm not particularly a horror aficionado, and since Shaun of the Dead I kinda figured the horror/comedy thing was played out. I was delighted to be wrong.

If for no other reason, Sleepless Night deserves a spot on this list for featuring by far the best hand-to-hand fight scene I've seen in a movie in years (since, maybe, Matt Damon and Marton Csokas in Bourne Supremacy? Can anyone think of a great one that's more recent?). It takes place in an industrial kitchen, and it's fucking brutal. The best thing about it, though, is that the guys actually get hurt. Over the course of the fight they slow down, their breathing comes harder, they get groggy and they weaken dramatically. I highly recommend it for any lover of action cinema: I know it's kind of shallow to say this, but ... it's awesome.

Thankfully, the rest of the film matches that sequence by being a taut, pacy, clever little thriller. Set in one location, a gigantic nightclub, over a well-defined period of time, one night, Sleepless Night uses those (seeming) limitations to its advantage. All the characters have hidden depths and secret agendas, the interpersonal relationships are complicated and ever-evolving, and (until the kitchen, anyway) it's much much more about smarts than about brute force. An American version (which is apparently already on the way) would undoubtedly feature a heap of automatic weaponry, and bullets flying all over the place. Here, there are only a handful of guns in the entire thing, and each individual bullet fired is a huge moment. Makes all the difference.

Polisse was another absolutely cracking French cop movie, and it succeeded by having the audacity to be almost purely a drama, rather than a thriller. To portray just how hectic and brutal it is being a part of the French police's child protection unit, the writer/director Maiwenn doesn't let any one storyline sink in before the next one arrives. There's hardly any children (or parents) who feature in more than one scene: we meet them, get a tiny glimpse into their lives, and then they're gone. This has the effect of making the movie much more about the cops than about their cases, and lets us understand how difficult it is to keep caring, case after case, day after day. When, late in the film, the unit cracks and starts laughing their heads off at a particularly dimwitted teenage rape victim, you can totally understand why.

The episodic nature of the film, coupled with the large ensemble cast, mean that inevitably some segments work better than others. Joeystarr (pictured above, who was also in Sleepless Night) and Marina Fois were the stand-outs, while a couple of the more bland, handsome young white guys had their characters' kind of disappear into the wall. When it was at it's best, though, it was completely riveting. By the end you're exhausted by the never-ending parade of sadness, just as the characters are. It's not an easy film, particularly, but it is a great one.

A new Wes Anderson movie is always an event for me, I friggin' love the guy, and Moonrise Kingdom didn't disappoint. It featured all of his hallmarks: whimsy and quirk, symmetrical compositions, a retro soundtrack, and painstaking and particular design work. But it was the true beating heart underneath it all that made Moonrise special. Despite all his stylistic tics, it's the generous, big-hearted nature of his movies that makes them special in my opinion. They're as gorgeous in their themes and messages as they are in their look, which is saying a lot.

Some people can find Anderson's work too full of affectation to be moved by it, but honestly, I've never had that problem. Even The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited worked beautifully for me (those two, in my completely unscientific poll of friends and family, seem to be the ones that least struck a chord with audiences). Anderson making a film about first love? Perfect.

Jared Gilman and Kara Heyward were fantastic as the kids, being cute as heck without being cutesy, and completely selling their (puppy) love. The rest of the huge cast do fantastic work throughout, with Bruce Willis and Edward Norton the stand-outs. Willis nails his character's world-weariness (but seemed in control of it, unlike most of his recent action movies, when he's just seemed weary), and Norton did well to convey the sadness and loneliness at the heart of his (essentially comic) obsessed scoutmaster.

The backlash against Argo has been building for a while, and now that it's won Best Picture at the Oscars it will certainly come to be reviled in certain quarters. That's just the way shit goes. But fuck 'em: Argo is a really good film, the kind of canny political thriller that Hollywood seemingly forgot how to make sometime around 1978. All the cast (yes, even Affleck) do good work, but I want to give special mention to Scoot McNairy, who's fast becoming my favourite character actor of his generation, and to Bryan Cranston, who is surely now the ultimate 'wear a suit and deliver exposition' guy working. Seriously, he could find a way to turn reading the phonebook into an interesting character.

Those criticising the film for ignoring Iranians aren't giving enough weight to the opening credits, which resonate through the rest of the movie, and to the character of Sahar, the housekeeper. She only had a handful of scenes, to be sure, but the climax of her story was a massive gut-punch, pulling the rug out from under our happy ending.

One of the real joys for me with this film was some of the tiny details, the kind of thing that must have been true because you'd never have thought of it otherwise. Smashing visa plates with a hammer. Orphans being tasked with piecing together shredded documents. The guy at the Iranian embassy not having new visa stamps yet, and crossing out the word 'Kingdom' to write in 'Islamic Republic'. The alcohol service on the plane being stopped when you enter Iranian airspace, a detail that pays off big time in the finale. All those little things helped the whole movie ring true, and if there were occasional sour notes (cop cars on the runway chasing a plane? Really?) they were more than overwhelmed by what the film did well.


Whew! When you throw in the various charms/delights/gut-punches/horrors/freak-outs of: Sound of My Voice, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Intouchables, Monsieur Lazhar, Coriolanus, Anna Karenina, Margin Call, A Royal Affair, Lincoln, Killing Them Softly, The King of Devil's Island, Looper, Safety Not Guaranteed, Compliance, 50/50, Robot and Frank, A Dangerous Method, The Grey and 21 Jump Street (yes, really), you've got yourself a hell of a year at the movies. Any of those could easily have found themselves on the fringes of my top five in a weak year, in 2012 they're sadly reduced to being meat and potatoes. They're all worth a look if you find the time.

To cap it off in even more spectacular style, I had a great MIFF this year too, and as well as the films I discussed in depth above, if the opportunity to see any of Ace Attorney, The Ambassador, Flicker, Carre Blanc, Chicken With Plums or Caesar Must Die comes your way, take it.

If 2012 was missing anything, it was probably a really kick-arse animated film: I rate Wreck-It Ralph the best of this year's crop but it's merely good, not great. After the pretty so-so Brave I'm hoping Pixar can return to form soon. It's harsh to demand Wall*E or The Incredibles every time, but the bar's only that high because they set it there.

Also, while we all know 95% of action blockbusters are unmitigated crap (I was gonna list all the dreadful ones I saw this year, but just looking at the titles started to depress me), a truly great one does come along every so often. If The Avengers hadn't started so sluggishly, or if The Dark Knight Rises hadn't been so oddly, thoughtlessly half-arsed at critical moments, they could have been it. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed watching both of those as part of a packed, enthusiastic opening night audience. At home on DVD, however, the flaws in each become much more noticeable, and I won't be returning to them the way I do Die Hard or Aliens or The Matrix or Inception or Spiderman 2 (fuck you, Sam Raimi rules). Sorry superhero fans, but The Hunger Games was probably the best big-budget action-adventure of the year.

Whew again! Without wanting to be too mean about it, good luck topping that, 2013!

Cheers, JC.

March 2, 2013

The Player of Games (#73)

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

What I said then:

The second book in his Culture sci-fi series, about a 'game' so complicated and vast that it consumes its players entire lives.

What I say now:

I read the first of Banks' set of novels about The Culture (a massive alliance of organic and AI civilisations, so advanced that they've created a post-scarcity world in which anybody can have anything, at any time, and never works a day in their life) a few years ago and liked it quite a lot. So here I am for a second go round, and The Player of Games didn't disappoint.

The thing I most appreciate about Banks' sci-fi writing is the perfect tone: they're page-turners, but they're smart. They contain interesting ideas, but never sacrifice the plot to those ideas. A lot of sci-fi disappears up its own arse trying to explain everything, and a lot of it is just fantasy in space, with science so inexplicable that it's basically magic. Banks manages very nicely to tread the line down the middle, and for that more than anything else, I'm a fan.

In The Player of Games, Gurgeh, one of The Culture's most brilliant (human) minds has devoted his life to games, and game theory. He is a born adept, picking up the rules, strategies and subtleties of any world's games as naturally as breathing. Basically, if Earth joined The Culture, Gurgeh would be the best chess player in history half an hour later. When The Culture discovers a (by their standards) barbaric empire called Azad whose power structure is based on a sprawling, incredibly complicated game (also called Azad), they send Gurgeh in to play. At stake is Azad's future and, as he moves through the tournament that will end with the winner crowned emperor, Gurgeh's life.

Gurgeh's story takes a while to get going: fully a third of the book is taken up with his time on his home orbital (kind of a man-made inverse planet) before he ever even leaves for Azad. In retrospect, it felt like much too long, and his relationships with a couple of drones weren't so interesting that I needed a hundred pages of them. Once we hit Azad, whose society Banks sketches with elegance (and some wonderful oddball flourishes) things start to pick up.

My main criticism from that point on would be that we never come to understand the game of Azad like we do the place. Given how much time Gurgeh spends playing, Banks remains pretty vague about how exactly the game works. I'm not unsympathetic: having made absolutely clear to us that Azad is the most complicated game anyone's ever seen, it would be impossible to actually follow through and invent the most complicated game anyone's ever seen. Still, a little more detail would have been nice. As Gurgeh is learning the game, we discover that some of the pieces are biological life-forms themselves, altering the way they're played based on the player's mood ... which is kind of a cool idea, but which is barely mentioned again.

The closer Gurgeh gets to the pointy end of the great tournament, the more the tension really ratchets up (certain political facets within Azad simply cannot allow a stranger to beat them at their own game), and I read the last hundred pages in a single setting.

Ultimately The Player of Games is a rollicking good read, and it's pitched right at the perfect level of intelligence that I'm looking for in a page-turner. It's never so philosophically minded that it becomes hard work, but it's also never dumbed down enough that I feel guilty about enjoying it. It really was just a blast.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker
books to go: 71