Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another fucking list? - The best of 2009

Remember 1999? What an amazing year for film. The Matrix, Blair Witch, South Park, The Straight Story, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, etc, etc. Maybe there's something about years that end with "9", because this was an incredible year for film as well. I seldom recall being severely disappointed with many films and generally left films with a big smile on my mug. From the great films listed below to the excellent ones like Antichrist, Life is Hot in Cracktown, Frankenstein Girl vs Vampire Girl, Observe and Report, Up, Bronson, etc to the good ones like Big Fan, Orphan, Moon, etc, there were so many enjoyable films that I feel spoiled. Here's my top ten films from this exceptional year:

10. Enter the Void

A theatrical experience that I doubt will ever be duplicated (and I'm certain it's detractors consider that a good thing). Gaspar Noe proves again and again that he is the most innovative director working today by taking film to areas no one thought possible. With Enter the Void he attempts to capture the out of body experience of a junkie who is killed during a deal gone wrong. Noe uses the camera much like one would anticipate, as a voyeur looking down upon the world he's left behind, but he doesn't stop there. This film is far from a story told from a ghost's POV, Noe never does the expected. I can't wait to see this in the theater again.

9. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

A hoot and a holler. It's great to see Cage back to making an art out of overacting. This film serves as a great companion piece for Abel Ferrara's original masterpiece, playing with the same themes of redemption, morality, the soul and final judgement, but in a much different way than it would be expected. What originally seemed like the stupidest decision ever made by a film studio; the pairing of Cage and Herzog to remake the seemingly unremakable Bad Lieutenant, turned out beautifully and I'm grateful someone was either brilliant or dumb enough to make this happen. Now let's see if we can make a franchise out of this seemingly unfranchisable property. C'mon, it would have to be better than most franchises out there. Highly watchable.

8. The House of the Devil

I've been a big fan of Ti West since seeing his Trigger Man. It was like a combination of The Most Dangerous Game and Gerry and I was at the edge of my seat through most of the final hour. Then I checked out his debut film, The Roost, and once again I was pleasantly surprised at this methodically paced creature feature. While every horror filmmaker is out there trying to wow the audience for fear that they might be bored for even 3 seconds, West goes at a leisurely but controlled pace and heightens everything that is great about the horror genre. The characters are better, the tension is better and the shocks are better.

House of the Devil is his best and most accessible film yet. It concerns a college girl who takes on a babysitting job that requires much more than she expected. The film is a directing tour de force as West completely manipulates the audience into experiencing the night of terror along with the protagonist. He's like the Michael Heneke of the horror genre (without the moralizing everyone is so appalled by of course) as he gets more and more comfortable with the medium. House of the Devil may be an instant horror classic, but I'm anxiously awaiting what he will do in the future. Who would have thought the most exciting new horror director working today shows restraint instead of trying to constantly entertain with shocks, wows and whatnot?

7. Crank: High Voltage

As I've written before on Cool Stuff for the Uncool, I do have some problems with the overwhelming use of racist terms this film revels in, but I can't help but completely love everything else about it. The insanity of this film only matches the heights Takashi Miike achieved with the beginning and end of Dead or Alive. And unlike most films that try and be frenetic throughout their whole running time, Crank: High Voltage never becomes meandering or simply exhausting. Hopefully, much like the original, this gets a renewed life on DVD after completely bombing in the theater so we can see the further adventures of that lovable scumbag Chev Chelios.

6. A Serious Man

The Coens go back to their more cerebral filmmaking a la Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There, and succeed yet again. The Story of Job and Schrodinger's Cat are two of the inspirations for this dark tale of a good man being put to the test as his world crumbles. He's a mathematician, so he looks for answers in this unfair world, and if he isn't careful he just might find them. I loved that A Serious Man is taken from a Jewish perspective, something I rarely, if ever, see in mainstream films. Another masterpiece from the Coens, and the scene with Columbia records might be my favourite scene they've ever written.

5. Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Your heart would have to be made of shit, piss, snot and puke for you not to be touched by this one. One of my favourite documentaries of all time, Anvil: The Story of Anvil tells the story of Lipps and Robb Reiner (one in many Spinal Tap connections), friends from childhood who have never given up on the dream of being in a heavy metal band. After any sane man would have called it a day, both of them keep looking on the bright side and always keep in mind that it could be much worse. The film also manages to be funny without mocking them, which with some of their antics would seem the easy thing to do. After I saw the film I felt the urge to look for my Strength of Steel cassette (though I'm sure it's long gone) and maybe buy a couple of their new albums. Even if I don't like them, I couldn't be helping out two nicer guys.

4. Symbol

My favourite film I saw at TIFF this year. Hitoshi Matsumoto's masterpiece of comedy, surrealism and deep personal vision proves that Big Man Japan wasn't just a fluke. He's definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, I suspect he'll have a lot more great films to offer us in his hopefully long career.

3. Inglourious Basterds

My favourite war film and not only a return to form for Tarantino (it's not like he went too off course, though I wasn't a big fan of Kill Bill Vol 2 and Death Proof) but also an indication that he's maturing as a filmmaker (which is exceptional, since he was shockingly talented to begin with). Much like his other work, Inglourious Basterds does invoke other films (which is good. I think people who get their panties in a bunch at Tarantino for paying homage to other films are more interested in proving how smart they are rather than actual criticism) but his plot driven story and dialogue is some of his best work. This is simply a great film that will be remembered as one of Tarantino's best.

2. Watchmen

One of the few examples where the movie improves upon the amazing source material. Time will be very kind to this movie and much like The Thing and Blade Runner, film fans of the future will wonder what the hell was everyone's problem with this masterpiece.

1. Drag Me to Hell

Only Raimi could make a movie where a child, a pet and an important character die horribly and the audience leaves the theater with a big smile on their face. They could have called this Evil Dead 4 and I would have been cool with that (the Evil Dead franchise being my favourite films). Also, this makes a great companion piece to the Coen's A Serious Man in that they're both very tragic/comedic morality tales. A pure joy to see Raimi's triumphant return to the horror genre.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2000s: The Rest of the Best

11. Brokeback Mountain

I avoided this one for years because it just seemed like such a gimmick movie. Also, it had that dude from A Knight's Tale and that Donnie Darko kid who "supposedly" give amazing performances. Finally I broke down, after all the hype and lame jokes were over, and rented it. My wife was just going to watch the beginning to see how crappy it was, her being a huge fan of the Annie Proulx story, and I was going to try my best to give it a fair shake. Next thing we knew 2 hours had passed and both of us were astonished. Ang Lee has told one of the greatest love stories using something that hasn't been seen in a long time; good, old-fashioned storytelling. Beautiful cinematography, amazing performances (I was truly shocked), a fascinating and touching script and masterful direction make this one of the films that breaks my heart that I couldn't fit it into my top ten of the decade. A great character drama and a definite masterpiece.

12. In Bruges

The story of a gangster fighting for his very soul with the help of a Jesus figure from the New Testament (Brendan Gleeson) against the vengeful Old Testament God (Ray Finnes). A truly brilliant film whose religious symbolism is fascinating and powerful (Colin Farrell's sinner entering hell over the River Styx, Pennies from Heaven, the son of God's sacrifice, Mary and her unborn baby with no father at the Inn, Farrell not being satisfied by booze or drugs, the list goes on and on) but can keep the folks who aren't interested in such things entertained with a great story of friendship, guilt, honour and revenge. Purgatory has never been so entertaining.

13. Memento

I was lucky enough to see Following, Chris Nolan's first film, at the Toronto Film Festival when it came out to much acclaim. And then Nolan just seemed to disappear. Where could he be?

It turned out he was preparing to kick the world's ass with this masterful film of a man out to avenge his wife's death, told in reverse. An amazing piece of work that I can't imagine anyone disliking.

14. Survive Style 5+

You had to have known another wacky Japanese film would show up on my list somewhere. Survive Style 5+ unfortunately may never see the light of day in North America due to music copyright problems, but I would recommend to seek this one out however you can find it. Truly a delight for the eyes, never have I seen such amazing art direction. Plus, the interwoven stories are imaginative and well told. Also, it took a song I hated, Cake's version of I Will Survive, and used it so perfectly that I love it now. Don't you love it when movies do that? A delight.

15. Drag Me to Hell

The most fun I've had in the theater in a long, long time. Raimi shows that you can go back to what made you famous and still bring something new to the table. Not so easy to do when you think about fans' disappointments with Lucas, Romero and many other directors who've tried to recapture their pasts. There are setpieces in this that are easily the best work he's ever done. And on such a miniscule budget. There's a reason I think he's the greatest director of all time (wait until he's dead for 20 to 50 years. See how much of today's cinema he will have been said to influence. Mark my words).

16. Kung Fu Hustle

Mr. Awesome returns with this fantastic tale of a cad, who wants to be a cad.... who'd do anything to be a cad.... but is actually a good person (well maybe Mr. Awesome makes him out to be an amazing person, but I love the idea of a good man trying to be bad). Never in a million years would an American film take the dramatic twists and turns this film takes, and once again Mr. Awesome makes incredible use of CGI that even the most whiny of fanboys couldn't bitch about.

17. The Descent

I rented this on a PAL DVD well before it got it's North American debut (making me awesome). All I knew was that it was done by the guy who did Dog Soldiers. My good lady wife and I sat down to watch it and were immediately intrigued by the characters and the story. We were on the edge of our seats as they went down into the caves. Was someone going to snap? We're they going to be trapped? You could cut the tension with a knife. Then something happened that blew my fucking mind. If you're one of the 3 people out there who haven't seen it I would never spoil it, but see it fast before someone else does.

18. Watchmen

Ignore the naysayers, this is an instant classic. I like that they took out a lot with the psychiatrist (maybe when I was a kid I would believe that Rorschach's story was enough to drive him insane. Not today though, there are stories on Law and Order that are far more distressing) and the ending of the movie is just plain superior. I love the graphic novel, but what Snyder does with the film is nothing short of incredible. Brilliant.

19. Inglourious Basterds

I don't like war movies. I can count the war movies I love on one hand. Catch 22. Full Metal Jacket. Paths of Glory. I'm sure there's a couple more there. My main problem is that I just don't find war that entertaining or interesting. I guess I'll never be that guy who's library consists of WWII Books. But Tarantino made what could possibly be my favourite war film of all time, because it focuses on characters and plot rather than battles and action scenes. Wars are incredibly interesting backdrops for story driven films to take place in. Think of the civil war scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Once the characters are within the army base, Leone uses it to show the audience the true natures of each character. Angel Eyes revels in it and The Man with No Name and Tuto are horrified by it. Tarantino also uses the war to help mold his characters, from the woman seeking justice to an opportunist played by Christopher Waltz, who easily should become a star from his role. For all those doubting Tartantino's future as a leading filmmaker, this film should easily alleviate any doubts.

20. The Host

I love monster movies. And I love intelligent films about families. Therefore I love The Host. Simple mathematics. See it and love it too.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Favourite Film of the Decade #1 - Battle Royale

Here it is. Number one with a bullet. And a knife. And a grenade. And a pot lid. Say it aloud with a strong Japanese accent, "Battle Royale!".

As I mentioned in a previous entry (Exiled I believe) by the beginning of the 2000s I had become increasingly bored with American films. So much so that I rarely watched them. I was way more interested in reading (comics and horror novels, nothing too highfalutin) than seeing anything that was coming out. But I started dipping my toe more and more into Asian cinema, though there wasn't a lot that was available. And speaking of "not available", I eventually saw the movie that would change my viewing habits forever, Battle Royale.

Already a fan of Takeshi Kitano, I rented BR from the wonderful Suspect Video here in Toronto, and was completely floored by it's dark sense of humour, action, melodrama, violence, style and intelligence. I'm pretty certain I watched it again either the same day or the next one with my good buddy Timbo. Then I needed to show it to someone else. And so on and so forth.

Though it is still only available as an import in North America (there was talks of remaking it, yet no one wanted to release the original) most people know the plot. A group of students wake up on an island and are forced to kill each other until there is only one survivor/winner. What the director, Kinji Fukasaku, does with the material is outstanding. It would be easy to get lost in the plot along with the many characters he needs to juggle, but Fukasaku never missteps and manages to get every reaction from the audience he intends to. One minute you may be shocked and the next you may be saddened, then shocked again. It all happens so fast, yet rarely does it seem that way. And despite all the violence and nastiness, I did find the film's final statement strong and touching enough to completely vindicate anything that anyone may have found offensive. I might be in the minority, but I really didn't find the film that offensive at all, the symbolism of what we force upon our children in this increasingly competitive world is made quite clear from the get go and none of the violence seems like empty shock cinema (though I have nothing against empty violence either).

I gotta admit, when that copycat Quentin Tarantino revealed that his favourite film since 1992 was Battle Royale I felt like I was in good company, but everyone was going to think, "Hey, that's Quentin Tarantino's favourite. You're like Tarantino Guitarbrother. You have no mind of your own shitheel. I knew there was a reason I hate you." But then I remembered, with a squeal of delight, that I had posted my "favourite films of the decade so far", on the Mondo Movie message board well over a year ago, and what is sitting at number one? Battle Royale sucka! Obviously, it was Tarantino who read my posting and changed his list, and not the other way around. He should've covered his tracks better.

Needless to say, if you haven't seen this masterpiece, Git 'er Done! God, it's hard not to quote Larry the Cable Guy when discussing excellence in cinema.

And there you have it, my top ten of the 2000s. I'm going to post shorter blurbs for 11-20 in one posting later (though you notice how much shorter my write-ups for the films got as it got closer to number one? I'm a lazy, lazy man) and then shortly after make a list of my favourite films of 2009.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Favourite Film of the Decade #2 - Happiness of the Katakuris

Almost there.

Very few films on my list, or that I have ever viewed for that matter, have been life changers. Heck, most of us non-censorship advocates maintain that it is impossible for a movie to change one's life. I guess I'm lucky that the film that changed my life wasn't August Underground (well, it kinda did. It made me reluctant to watch films with the words "August" and "Underground" in them), but the incredible Happiness of the Katakuris.

Without going into it too much, there was a time in my life that, I guess it could be said, I was mostly unhappy. I wasn't doing it on purpose, it's just how things worked out. I got enjoyment from films, comics, novels, etc, but not much from humanity. I had friends that I dug hanging around with, and I did love my family, but there was no real joy there. Only problem though is, I was content to be unhappy, I didn't even really recognize it as a big problem. In fact, wasn't seeking happiness kind of selfish anyway?

But then, one of my favourite filmmakers came swooping down with the hugely entertaining, joyful and endearing movie called Happiness of the Katakuris. I cannot tell a lie, what struck me upon first viewing was the creativity Takashi Miike had when telling this story, blending comedy, musical numbers, stop motion, zombies and pitch black humour into what was essentially, a very optimistic/tragic tale of a father striving for happiness despite whatever horrific thing life throws at him.

The film is a remake of the excellent Korean film The Quiet Family, and it involves Mr. Katakuri purchasing a guest house on a mountain where he hopes a major highway will be going by sometime in the future. He relocates his family: Mrs. Katakuri, Grandpa, Son, Daughter and Granddaughter, in hopes that they will live happily and comfortably ever after. The only problem is that their guests, as few as there are, keep dying, and when is that highway going to be coming through? What follows is an imaginative and hilarious film about the family's struggles to bury all unhappiness (or corpses) and try and maintain their ideal of what a good life is. Eventually it all comes to a head in a climax that's as bizarre as it is wonderful.

Miike, who's mostly known in North America for shocking the audience, does not hold back at all during the film (However, I disagree with a lot of critics who claim that Miike is just a shockmeister. He never just thoughtlessly throws horrific or crazy moments in his film, they really do make the film what it is; a Takashi Miike film). I found every scene wonderful, whether it be the wacky musical numbers or an outtake Miike kept in the film of the actor playing the son cracking up during a take. Also, I have a love of films that involve something I consider extremely important in life; family. Miike has handled family stories very well in other movies (I also find Visitor Q very touching) but I really love how he tells this story. It actually seems Japan is the country with the best movies about family, from early Ozu right on to Tokyo Sonata.

When I rewatched the film I was really struck by the father's struggles to make his and his family's lives happy. It seemed like such a noble struggle even when the odds were stacked against him. It made me think of my own life, and the many ways I sabotaged my own happiness. I, like a lot of people, was content with the hand that I assumed was dealt to me, and lived day to day that way. Shortly thereafter I became determined to be happy. One definite way was to find love, which I went in search of. To cut to the chase, it worked out well and my life has changed for the better. Thanks Miike.

I'm not guaranteeing that Happiness of the Katakuris will change your life, but I'd be surprised if anyone absolutely hated it. They'd really have to be a miserable bastard to hate this ode to joy.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Favourite Film of the Decade #3 - Frailty

Well, we're up to #3 on my list and I know you must be thinking, "Hey cockfucker! I thought you were the dude who just loooooveed horror films. Looks like you're a lying piece of human garbage. Fucking fuckface! I don't see one horror film on your stupid, horribly written, godawful list. Seriously, fuck you Guitarbrother, fuck you."

In my defense, I do love the horror films, and I'm not like many of my brethren who have turned on my beloved genre (I don't automatically hate remakes, Eli Roth isn't a hack and I'm not going to wait 20 years to consider the films coming out today to be good once I get nostalgic), but there have just been so many good films coming out this decade that weren't horror. Even though this is the only horror flick on the list, I think my next 2 definitely appeal to the horror fan (much like Jodorowsky, Lynch and others appeal to them as well) though you wouldn't find them located in the horror section. Without question though, the 2000's were definitely the decade for horror after the meager offerings we had in the nineties after folks were sick of the slasher filled eighties. In early 2000 saying you were a horror fan to any serious film fan was the equivalent of saying you only watched films with anal fisting in them.

The one horror film I thought towered above the others released this decade was Bill Paxton's directorial debut (not including the wonderful Fish Heads video) Frailty. I saw this movie at least 4 times when it came out in theaters, being completely hypnotized by the style, story and performances. Anyone who hadn't seen it I made certain that I drilled it into their heads that Frailty was a must see and it was one of the most exciting and thoughtful horror films to come out in a long while. Most agreed (when they weren't so friggin' caught up in whether they knew "the twist" or not. When did movies become about guessing the ending?) but sadly not many other people went to see it. Too bad, with the exception of The Greatest Game Ever Played, Paxton seems to have given up on directing, even though I think Frailty ranks along with Night of the Hunter as the greatest films ever directed by actors. And unlike many other actors who've tried their hands at directing, Paxton showed a confidence with the style and pacing of the movie, along with getting great performances (2 of the fantastic performances were from children no less). Frailty is so much more than just an acting piece.

Frailty is steeped in insanity from the beginning. Paxton plays a father who believes God has told him that it is his and his sons' duty to kill demons disguised as regular human beings. So along with his trusty blessed axe, he goes about doing God's work. The black comedy in some of these scenes; Paxton finding the axe, the angel's (Uriel?) appearance to him at work, are hilarious in a way seen in very, very few films. You laugh at the pure lunacy of the situations, while still remaining on edge at what is happening. There's axe murders, child abuse and children being forced to murder, but Paxton handles the material in such a masterful way that it's never offensive.

We've seen Paxton play crazy before; The Dark Backward, The Vagrant, Weird Science, Near Dark, etc, but he's never played it in such a subtle way, making it much more menacing. The sincerity he shows in his madness is some of his best work as an actor. And the boys playing his sons, Adam and Fenton are great. Adam, who follows his father blindly, has some of the funniest moments and is easy to like in his naivety. And Fenton, who is the character the audience identifies with, is easy to sympathize with as he tries to bring sanity back to his family.

I don' want to give too much away, but upon second viewing, once you know "the twist" the film plays a lot different. It's much more of a tragedy rather than just a straight up horror film. Though Paxton himself might disagree. I really liked an interview I read with him back in the horror hating 2001s when the interviewer said that Frailty was more of a psychological thriller rather than a horror film. Paxton stopped him and said that it definitely "is" a horror film and he couldn't be more proud about that. He continued to say that horror is a great genre and he's proud his film is now amongst so many other great horror films. What a wicked dude.

Oddly enough, I just bought Frailty for my father this Xmas, it being one of his favourite films of all time as well. The film has a lot to say and I think it should appeal to just about anyone who is looking for a quality horror film. Let's just hope Paxton decides to direct again one day, if this is what he can do his first time out I can only imagine what amazing work we can expect from him in the future.