Categories
DVD & Blu-ray

UK DVD Releases: Monday 8th June 2009

UK DVD Picks 08-06-09

DVD PICKS

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Warner):¬†A high profile big budget adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s short story, which stars¬†Brad Pitt as the title character, a man who is born as an old man and ages backwards throughout his life. Directed¬†by¬†David Fincher, from a script written by¬†Eric Roth and¬†Robin Swicord, it also stars¬†Cate Blanchett,¬†Taraji P. Henson,¬†Julia Ormond,¬†Tilda Swinton and¬†Jason Flemyng. Told in flashback, it is an epic tale of one man‚Äôs life during the 20th century, from in 1918 to 2005.

On first viewing I admired it more as a technical exercise and was puzzled as to why a director like Fincher was attracted to this material. Why did they alter the original story so much? What were the contemporary references all about? And wasn’t it a bit too similar to Forrest Gump? (also scripted by Roth). However, on second viewing I found it to be a much richer experience Рit is essentially a fable about love and loss and gains its power from the central concept of living life in reverse.

Far from being a gimmick, it actually becomes a profound way of dramatising the ageing process. Forget the Oscar fuelled hype and snarkycritical hate surrounding this film and approach it with an open mind. The makeup, visual effects, cinematography, score and performances make it an unusual and affecting big budget rarity.

Disappointingly Warner Bros (the UK distributor) have put all the extras on the Blu-ray version and the regular DVD is a barebones single disc with only audio commentaries.

If you have a multi-region player I would strongly recommend getting the US Criterion edition on import, although I imagine there will be a 2 disc DVD at some point in the future.

The extras on the DVD and Blu-ray versions break down like this.

Single-Disc DVD – Includes the film presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen with English and Italian DD5.1 Surround and English Audio Description; The only extra is commentary by director David Fincher.

2-Disc Blu-ray – Extras include:

  • Commentary by director David Fincher
  • The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button
    • Pre-Production (RT 32:20; New Featurette)
    • Production Part I (RT 24:14; New Featurette)
    • Production Part II (RT 31:36; New Featurette)
    • VFX- Benjamin (RT 16:52; New Featurette)
    • VFX- The Chelsea (RT 8:50; New Featurette)
    • VFX- Youthenizationo (RT 6:21; New Featurette)
    • VFX- Performance Capture (RT 7:57; New Featurette)
    • VFX- The Simulated World (RT 12:50; New Featurette)
    • Sound Design (RT 16:29; New Featurette)
    • Desplats Interumentarium (RT 14:52; New Featurette; Interviews by Alexandre Desplat and the scoring of Benjamin Button)
    • Costume Design (RT 7:33; New Featurette)
    • Tech Scouts (RT 12:53; New Featurette)
    • Birth (RT 4:00; New Featurette)
  • Easter Egg (RT 2:00)
  • Digital Copy

[ad]

Milk (Momentum): Sean Penn is often regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation and his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this biopic was one of his very best. Milk was a gay rights activist who in the 1970s became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The film opens with opens with archive footage of police raiding gay bars during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the announcement in November, 1978 that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been assassinated.

What follows is an inspiring and moving tale of political courage and hope with many fine performances across the board from Emile Hirsch, James Franco and Josh Brolin.

Directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black, it skilfully juxtaposed the drama of Milk’s political battles against the inner conflicts of his private life. It was also a nice change to see Penn play a warm and inspirational protagonist, a dimension to the film which gave it an extra lift.

Watching the film unfold just a couple of weeks after the election of Barack Obama it was hard not to see the parallels: both were political outsiders who thrived on changing the status quo through a combination of hope and grass roots activism.

Sadly, Milk’s legacy was not enough to prevent the passing of Prop 8 Рa California ballot proposition that changed the laws of the state to ban same sex marriage. But this film will almost certainly become a lasting testament to his political and moral courage.

The extras on the DVD and Blu-ray include:

  • Deleted Scenes (3m 44s)
  • Remembering Harvey (13m 21s)
  • Hollywood Comes to San Francisco (14m 32s)
  • Marching for Equality (7m 58s)
  • UK & International Trailers

On DVD the film is presented in anamorphic widescreen with English DD5.1 Surround audio and optional English subtitles.

[ad]

ALSO OUT

Dasepo Naughty Girls (Third Window Films)
Elephant Diaries – Series 2 (2 Entertain)
Green Green Grass – Series 3 (2 Entertain)
Kick the Moon (Third Window Films)
Marriage Italian Style (Mr. Bongo Films)
My Bloody Valentine 3D (Lionsgate)
Odette (Optimum)
Rescue Me – Season 3 (Sony)
Stargate Atlantis – Season 5 Volume 3 (Fox)
The Incredible Human Journey (2 Entertain)
The Shield – Season 7 (Sony)
Top Gear: The Challenges 3 (2 Entertain)
Valkyrie (Fox)
Whale Wars – Series 1 (Demand DVD)

> Browse more DVD Releases at Amazon UK and Play
> Check the latest DVD prices at DVD Price Check
> Take a look at the current UK cinema releases (W/C Friday 5th June)

Categories
Cinema

UK Cinema Releases: Friday 23rd January 2009

UK Cinema Releases 23-01-09

NATIONAL RELEASES

Frost/Nixon (Universal):¬†A historical drama based on the play by Peter Morgan, writer of The Queen and The Last King of Scotland, which dramatises the 1977 televised Frost/Nixon interviews. Directed by Ron Howard, it stars¬†Michael Sheen¬†as¬†David Frost¬†and Frank Langella¬†as¬†Richard Nixon. I was lucky enough to catch the stage version in London in November 2006 and Howard has done a fine job in not imposing too much style to what was already a strong drama. He was also wise enough to retain Sheen and Langella in the lead roles as they are both bring a chemistry and technique that would have been hard to reignite with new actors. Although major studios have tended to shy away from making ‘prestige’ films like this, they deserve credit in green-lighting material such as this. Although there are a couple of missteps – notably a fictional scene towards the end – it is a deeply satisfying and accomplished film of an outstanding play. A high profile publicity campaign and Oscar nominations will give it a boost at the UK box office even if snagging the top spot might be a stretch. ¬†[Cert 15 / Nationwide]

Valkyrie (20th Century Fox): Set in Nazi Germany during World War II this drama/thriller depicts the July 20th, 1944 plot by German army officers to kill Adolf Hitler. Directed by Bryan Singer and written by Christopher McQuarrie, it stars Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the key figures in the conspiracy. It also features Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson in supporting roles. Although the early buzz on this film had been negative due to controversy over Cruise’s casting and other production difficulties, it is a well made and absorbing thriller. Although in the age of a film like Downfall, the English accents occasionally detract from the sense of realism Singer has crafted a believable world even if there is too much of a reliance on British actors. However, Fox will be encouraged by its better-than-expected US gross and a high profile publicity campaign which saw a premiere and Cruise appearing on the first Jonathan Ross Show since the presenter got suspended.¬†[Cert /¬†12A¬†Odeon Leicester Square & Nationwide]

Milk (Momentum): A biopic¬†of the late American politician Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California in the late 70s. Directed by¬†Gus Van Sant¬†from a script by¬†Dustin Lance Black, it stars¬†Sean Penn¬†as Milk and features¬†Emile Hirsch,¬†James Franco¬†and¬†Josh Brolin¬†in key supporting roles. Penn dominates proceedings with one of the best performances of his career but there is also sterling work from the rest of the cast, especially Brolin as Milk’s eventual assassin, Dan White. It is an interesting story with a suprising number of modern echoes, with Milk’s hope and grass-roots campaigning feeling like Obama’s recent victory and the depiction of¬†Proposition 6¬†feeling eerily like Prop 8. If you see the film this week and also observed¬†the 44th US President get sworn in, note that the politician that¬†announces Milk’s death at the beginning of the film (in archive footage) is¬†Dianne Feinstein¬†– the same woman who was master of ceremonies at the¬†presidential inauguration.¬†[Cert¬†15 /¬†Barbican, Cineworld Kings Rd., Curzon Soho, Odeon Camden & Nationwide]

Underworld 3: Rise Of The Lycans (Entertainment): A prequel to the vampire films¬†Underworld¬†and¬†Underworld: Evolution, which covers the origins of some characters.¬†¬†It follows a young Lycan named¬†Lucian¬†(Michael Sheen) who emerges as a powerful leader who rallies the werewolves to rise up against¬†Viktor¬†(Bill Nighy), the cruel vampire king who has enslaved them. Lucian is joined by his secret lover, Viktor’s daughter¬†Sonja¬†(Rhona Mitra), in his struggle for Lycan freedom. Note that Sheen and Nighy are both in rival films out this week. Entertainment will be hoping that their vast army of posters across the UK will help the film crack the top three in a busy week.¬†[Cert¬†18 /¬†Empire Leicester Square & Nationwide]

[ad]

IN SELECTED RELEASE

Rachel Getting Married (Sony): A drama about a¬†young woman named Kym (Anne Hathaway) who returns home from rehab for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Tensions within the family lead to a bittersweet conclusion. It was¬†written by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of director¬†Sidney Lumet¬†and¬†directed by¬†Jonathan Demme¬†in a naturalistic, documentary style. A film with some considerable merits (the camera work and music) and flaws (some flimsy, annoying characters) it is also notable for featuring a scene with a dishwasher that ranks amongst the most bizarre in recent cinematic history.¬†[Cert¬†15 / London & Key Cities]

Faintheart (Vertigo Films): This film about a geeky viking enthusiast (Eddie Marsan) is notable for being a collaboration between Myspace, Vertigo films and Film4. The resulting experiment, MyMovieMashUp, sought to harness the power and talents of the online community by involving them in the film-making process. Alas, the film is the usual British ho-hum loser-comes-good comedy, which makes you wonder why they bothered with the online stuff in the first place. Expect a limited run at cinemas followed by a swift DVD release. [Cert 12A / Key Cities]

Better Things (Soda Pictures): A drama about a group of young people growing up together in a small, rural community in the Cotswolds, directed by Duane Hopkins. [Cert 15 / ICA Cinema, Renoir & Key Cities]

> UK Cinema Releases for January 2009
> Get the latest showtimes for your local cinema via Google Movies
> Check out our latest DVD picks (W/C Monday 19th January)

Categories
News

Josh Brolin speaks his mind at the NYFCA

Josh BrolinJosh Brolin¬†isn’t a man to mince his words.

At the New York Film Critics Awards dinner last night Brolin was remarkably candid about his American Gangster co-star Russell Crowe.

After winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in Milk and being introducedby co-star Sean Penn Brolin said:

Quite an actor, Sean Penn. And not an a-hole like Russell Crowe.

He then apparently repeated Crowe’s name just in case anyone missed it:

Like Russell Crowe.

He also had some choice words for New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley, who pissed him off with this negative review from 2000 when Brolin was in a production of Sam Shepard’s play ‘True West’, saying:

I hate that motherf***er.¬†And I don’t think he’s a good writer.

According to Fox News he was sort of joking:

He’s a great guy. It’s all good. He has his thing.

This hot on the heels of the release of his arrest back in July whilst filming W in Louisiana.

His performance as the 43rd president was one of the most underrated of the year and his turn in Milk as Dan White is simply terrific.

Milk opens in the Uk on Friday 23rd January

> Josh Brolin at the IMDb
> Official UK site for Milk

Categories
Cinema

UK Cinema Releases: January 2009

UK Cinema Releases January 2009

FRIDAY 1st JANUARY 2009

  • The Spirit (12A) Lionsgate UK / Vue West End & Nationwide

FRIDAY 2nd JANUARY 2009

  • Che: Part One (15) Optimum Releasing / Odeons Camden, Covent Gdn, Curzon Soho & Nationwide¬†(Previews 1 Jan)
  • Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (18) Park Circus / BFI Southbank & Key¬†Cities
  • The Reader (15) Entertainment / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants 2 (12A) Warner Bros / Nationwide

FRIDAY 9th JANUARY 2009

  • Bride Wars (12A) 20th Century Fox / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • Defiance (15) Momentum Pictures / Odeons Swiss Cottage, West End, Whiteleys, Vue¬†Islington & Nationwide
  • Hannah Takes The Stairs (TBC) / ICA Films / ICA Cinema & Key Cities
  • Role Models (15) / Universal / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • Sex Drive (15) E1 Films / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • Slumdog Millionaire (15) Pathe / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • Stuck (15) High Fliers Films / Apollo Cinema Piccadilly Circus, Showcase Bristol &¬†Showcase Manchester

FRIDAY 16th JANUARY 2009

  • A Christmas Tale (15) New Wave Films / Apollo Picc Circus, Cine Lumiere, Odeon Covent Gdn,¬†Renoir & Key Cities
  • Beverly Hills Chihuahua (U) Walt Disney / Odeon Mezzanine & Nationwide
  • Boogie (TBC) Dogwoof Pictures / Renoir & Key Cities
  • Chandni Chowk To China (TBC) Warner Bros / Cineworld Shaftesbury Ave & Nationwide
  • Clubbed (18) Route One Rel. / Apollo Picc. Circus, Empire Leicester Square & Key Cities
  • Hansel & Gretel (TBC) Terracotta Distribution / ICA Cinema & Key Cities
  • My Bloody Valentine 3-D (18) Lionsgate UK / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • Notorious (U) bfi Distribution / BFI Southbank & Key Cities
  • Seven Pounds (12A) Sony Pictures / Empire Leicester Square & Nationwide
  • The Wrestler (15) Optimum Releasing / Nationwide

FRIDAY 23rd JANUARY 2009

  • Better Things (15) Soda Pictures / ICA Cinema, Renoir & Key Cities
  • Faintheart (TBC) Vertigo Films / Key Cities
  • Frost/Nixon (15) Universal / Vue West End & Nationwide
  • JCVD (TBC) Revolver Entertainment / Prince Charles Cinema
  • Milk (15) Momentum Pictures / Barbican, C’World Kings Rd., Curzon Soho, Odeon Camden &¬†Nationwide
  • Paris 36 (TBC) Pathe / Cine Lumiere only
  • Rachel Getting Married (15) Sony Pictures / London & Key Cities
  • Red Cliff (TBC) Entertainment
  • Underworld 3: Rise Of The Lycans (TBC) Entertainment
  • Valkyrie (12A) 20th Century Fox / Odeon Leicester Square & Nationwide

FRIDAY 30th JANUARY 2009

  • Barry Lyndon (PG) BFI / BFI Southbank
  • The Broken (15) The Works / London & Key Cities
  • New In Town (12A) / Entertainment
  • Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist (12A) Sony Pictures / London & Nationwide
  • Revolutionary Road (15) Paramount / Odeon Leicester Square & Nationwide
  • Tokyo Sonata (12A) Eureka Entertainment / ICA Cinema & Key Cities

[ad]

Keep a look out every Friday for a breakdown of the weekly releases with more detail on each film.

If you have any questions about this month’s cinema releases or any upcoming titles then just email me or leave a comment below.

> Get local showtimes via Google Movies (just enter your local postcode)
> Find out about films showing near you at MyFilms

Categories
Cinema Essential Films Lists

The Best Films of 2008

Best films of 2008 mosaic

As in previous years this list of the best films of the year is presented in alphabetical order. (2007 titles which got a UK release during 2008 can be found in last year’s updated list).

THE BEST FILMS OF 2008

che-1Che (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

This long gestating biopic of Che Guevara from director Steven Soderbergh got a mixed reaction after it premiered at Cannes in May.

Some were put off by the four hour running time and the whole question of whether or not it was actually two films. It would probably be most accurate to describe it as two films merged together as one: The Argentine deals with the Cuban revolution in 1959 whilst Guerrilla explores his final years in Bolivia.

In the UK they will be released as Che: Part One and Che: Part Two, with some special double-bill screenings at certain cinemas. However you see it though, be sure to experience it on a big screen, as this an audacious and thrilling piece of cinema.

In the first part we see¬†the Cuban Revolution inter-cut with Guevara’s 1964 trip to the United Nation and refreshingly¬†Soderbergh eschews the narrative cliches of many historical biopics. Instead of ponderous meditations on his motives or background we are¬†plunged into the raw action of the revolutionary’s life.

Some viewers may find this off putting but as the film progresses the production design, costume, acting and cinematography get ever more hypnotic, drawing us into this world.

Soderbergh has always been a gifted technical filmmaker interested in pushing the boundaries of mainstream cinema and here he has crafted one of his most interesting and accomplished films with the help of a revolutionary digital camera (appropriately called the RED One) that has allowed him to make an epic using guerrilla film-making techniques.

The spiritual core of the film is an outstanding performance from Benicio del Toro, who captures the physical and vocal mannerisms of Che so well that he manages to make you forget about the face that spawned so many t-shirts and posters.

[Che Part One is released in the UK on January 1st and Part Two on February 20th]

 

Frost Nixon UK posterFrost/Nixon (Dir. Ron Howard)

When I first saw Peter Morgan’s stage play about David Frost’s famous interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977, I remember wondering what a film adaptation might look like.¬†

Although the hiring of Ron Howard to direct might have raised some eyebrows, to his credit he not only kept the two lead actors from the production (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) but also managed preserve the essential drama at the heart of the story and keep as faithful to it as possible.

For those of you unfamiliar with the background, Peter Morgan (who has become an expert in dramatising modern history scripting¬†The Queen¬†and¬†The Last King of Scotland) created a play which explored the tensions behind Frost pursuing and then conducting Nixon’s first TV interviews since resigning in disgrace over the Watergate scandal.

What makes it so absorbing is the clash of two very different characters who for different reasons had a lot at stake: Frost was desperate to re-establish himself in America, whilst Nixon was keen to rebuild his shattered political reputation.

Technically, both lead performances are superb and after two years on stage together the chemistry between Sheen and Langella is magnetic.

The supporting cast is very solid with Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell all making fine contributions in key roles.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how it manages to be both a fascinating slice of history garnished with some fine period design yet also finds a way of commenting on the current concerns about US politics.

It also poses a fascinating question: will President Bush ever come out with the same anguished mea culpa that Nixon delivered in these interviews?

[Frost/Nixon is released in the UK on January 25th]

 

Gomorrah UKGomorrah (Dir. Matteo Garrone)

One of the darkest and most disturbing films of the year was this searing examination of crime in modern Italy. It didn’t just upend many of the traditional tropes of the Mafia in pop culture – it exploded them.

The narrrative was based on true life stories from¬†Roberto Saviano‘s bestselling book about¬†the Comorrah, a criminal organisation centred around southern Italy (especially¬†Naples¬†and¬†Caserta).

There is a 13-year-old boy (Salvatore Abruzzese) who falls in with a criminal gang; a messenger (Gianfelice Imparato) who pays the families of prisoners; a young graduate (Carmine Paternoster) who gets involved in toxic waste management; a tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) who wants to break free of local suppliers and two wannabe gangsters (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) who find a stash of weapons and want to act like Scarface.

Director Matteo Garrone cast the film impeccably and the ensemble acting was terrific but he also created a hellishly believable modern landscape far removed from that of mob movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas or The Sopranos.

This was a world riddled with poverty, tension and despair where crime infects everyone like a rampant virus. It paints a devastating picture not only of regions in modern Italy, but the tentacles of the Comorrah spread out to the wider world.

The film scooped the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, where it deservedly screened to critical acclaim.

Although at times it was an uncomfortable and brutal film to watch, it remains one of the most powerful and haunting crime films of the last decade.

* Listen to our interview with Matteo Garrone about Gomorrah *

[Gomorrah is available on DVD on February 9th)

 

Hunger UK posterHunger (Dir. Steve McQueen)

Every year there are a handful of films that know will end up in your ‘best of the year’ list as the credits roll and this¬†stunning drama about¬†the¬†1981 IRA hunger strike¬†was just such a film.

A stark and harrowing look at one of the key episodes of The Troubles was about a group of IRA prisoners in the Maze led by Bobby Sands (a mesmerising performance from Michael Fassbender) went on a protracted hunger strike.

Their aim was to apply pressure against the British government, so that they could be classed as political prisoners and it marked a significant escalation in the conflict.

What the film managed to capture so well was the bitter brutality of life inside the prison Рa world in which inmates refused to wear clothes, smeared excrement over their walls and were savagely beaten.

But at the same time this was no apologist for the IRA and perhaps the most shocking scene in the film explored the constant danger the prison guards lived under, where reprisals could lurk anywhere and at any time.

This is not a film that ‚Äėtakes sides‚Äô, but rather it explores the full human horror of The Troubles through the lens of the hunger strike – the physical brutality and sheer squalor point to the entrenched hatreds that ensnared all of those caught up in it. Echoes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are never far away.

The sounds and visuals were breathtaking with McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt showing a remarkable attention to detail whether it was a snowflake landing on the bloodied fist of a guard or urine gradually seeping out from beneath the cell doors before being gradually swept back in. 

One lengthy sequence involving Fassbender and Liam Cunningham (who played Sands’ priest) was perhaps one of the most riveting and daring pieces of cinema I’ve seen in years.

This was an astonishing directorial debut for Steve McQueen, who has been best known until now as an acclaimed visual artist, but this holds the promise of a hugely successful career in feature films.

* Listen to our interview with Liam Cunningham about Hunger *

[Hunger is out on DVD on February 23rd]

 

In Bruges UK posterIn Bruges (Dir. Martin McDonagh)

Perhaps the funniest film of the year was the directorial debut of the playwright Martin McDonagh, a brilliantly executed tale of two Irish hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who have been sent to lie low in the Belgian city of Bruges.

Not only does it contain several memorable sequences, but it contained the sort of ballsy, politically incorrect humour absent from a lot of mainstream comedy movies.

It also features some excellent performances, most notably from the two leads. Gleeson is his usual dependable self whilst Farrell shows what a good actor he can be when released from the constraints of big budget Hollywood productions.

Ralph Fiennes also made a startling impression in a menacing supporting role that owes more to his turn in Schindler’s List than some of his more recent performances.

If you are familiar with the sensibility of McDonagh’s plays, such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, you will find much to feast on here Рit feels like Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter remade by Quentin Tarantino.

Despite a warm critical reaction, it didn’t really get the attention it deserved, which may have been down to bad marketing (the US one sheet poster was horrible and the UK one not much better) or the fact that the title confused people.

One sequence in a hotel room involving drugs, a hooker and a dwarf was one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year and is worth the price of admission. ¬†¬†

[In Bruges is out now on DVD]

 

I've Loved You So LongI’ve Loved You So Long (Dir. Philippe Claudel)

An intelligent and beautifully crafted portrayal of family love which revolved around two sisters named Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who reconnected with one another after a prolonged absence. 

To say too much about the plot would spoil the cleverly constructed narrative which gradually reveals their past and the reasons as to why they have been separated for so long. 

Writer and director Philippe Claudel was better known as a novelist in his native France and this also shares many of the pleasures of well written fiction: nuanced characters, slow burning emotions and a real sense of the complexities of human relationships. 

This is a film in which a lot of characters spend a lot of time in rooms talking about themselves, but at the same time manages to burrow deeply into the tangled emotions of it’s protagonist. 

Much of the power comes from two marvellous central performances and Scott Thomas proved what a captivating screen presence in what is arguably the performance of her career so far.

Her work on stage Рnotably in Chekhov productions like Three Sisters and The Seagull Рdemonstrated that she had much more range and ability than some of her screen performances suggested, so it was gratifying to see her grapple with such a juicy part and take it to another level. 

Credit must also go to Claudel for the way in which he has captured the small but subtle details that gradually reveal her character: the silence as she sits alone in a cafe, the wetness of her hair or even the way she smokes a cigarette. 

Since screening at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals a few weeks ago, this film has had a good deal of awards buzz and deserves recognition for the sheer excellence of the writing and acting.

[I’ve Loved You So Long is released on DVD on February 9th]

 

Man on Wire DVD coverMan on Wire (Dir. James Marsh)

British director James Marsh crafted a superb documentary about Frenchman Philippe Petit, who on August 7th 1974 gave an incredible high-wire performance by walking between between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center eight times in one hour.

The act itself almost defies belief but what the film does brilliantly is capture the tension, beauty and brilliance of Petit’s highly illegal operation. 

Born out of a dream and an idea, Petit and his team of accomplices spent eight months planning the execution of their ‚Äėcoup‚Äô down to the most intricate detail.

Like a team of bank robbers planning their most ambitious heist, the tasks they faced seemed virtually impossible: they would have to bypass the WTC‚Äôs security; smuggle the wire and rigging equipment into the towers; suspend the wire between the towers; secure the wire at the correct tension to withstand the winds and the swaying of the buildings; to rig it secretly by night ‚Äď all without being caught.

The film is also an emotional experience Рalthough it never mentions or shows footage from the 9/11 attacks, the Twin Towers are a haunting presence in the stock photos and footage from the time.   

But the ultimate message of the film is a positive one as it reminds us that the joy and magic Petit created on the Twin Towers is still there, even though the actual building is not. 

* Listen to our interview with Philippe Petit about Man on Wire *

[Man on Wire is out now on DVD] 

 

Milk posterMilk (Dir. Gus Van Sant)

Sean Penn is often regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation and his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this biopic was one of his very best.

Milk was a gay rights activist who in the 1970s became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The film opens with opens with archive footage of police raiding gay bars during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the announcement in November, 1978 that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been assassinated.

What follows is an inspiring and moving tale of political courage and hope with many fine performances across the board from Emile Hirsch, James Franco and Josh Brolin. 

Directed by Gus Van Sant¬†from a script by¬†Dustin Lance Black, it skilfully juxtaposed the drama of Milk’s political battles against the inner conflicts of his private life.

It was also a nice change to see Penn play a warm and inspirational protagonist, an added dimension to the film which gave it an extra lift.

Watching the film unfold just a couple of weeks after the election of Barack Obama it was hard not to see the parallels: both were political outsiders who thrived on changing the status quo through a combination of hope and grass roots activism.

Sadly, Milk’s legacy was not enough to prevent the passing of Prop 8 – a¬†California ballot proposition¬†that changed the laws of the state to ban same sex marriage.

But this film will almost certainly become a lasting testament to his political and moral courage.   

[Milk is out at UK cinemas on Friday 23rd January]

 

Slumdog Millionaire US posterSlumdog Millionaire (Dir. Danny Boyle)

In the spring of 2007 director Danny Boyle told me that his next film would be set in Mumbai and was the story of a young man on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

But it was only afterwards that I started to wonder. Would the film be made in English? Would it be a Bollywood film? Comedy? Drama?

It is a testament to the final film that Slumdog Millionaire is so many different things – a vibrant and rich journey through modern India through the lens of a Dickensian tale of love and redemption.

Adapted by Simon Beaufoy from the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, it deservedly received a lot of buzz and acclaim at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

What’s interesting is that the narrative plays a little like The Usual Suspects, as we learn how the central character Jamal (Dev Patel) came to be on the game show.

It then flashes back to periods of his life growing up as a kid from the slums (or ’slumdog’ as some less than charitable characters in the film put it) and his desire to find the true love of his life (Frieda Pinto).

Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle don’t shy away from the poverty of the slums in the film but also capture the live wire energy of Mumbai with some inventive use of digital cameras and a cracking soundtrack.

Whilst some audiences might be a bit taken aback by some of the darker sequences, they are necesssary counterweights for others aspects of the story to really work.

A huge amount of credit must go to Beaufoy who has constructed a jigsaw puzzle narrative that somehow manages to hold everything together in a way that is exciting, clever and moving.   

Another clever touch is the realistic portrayal of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire show, complete with the right music and graphics which are expertly woven into the film and play a key part in how the story unfolds.

The cheesy tension of the TV show somehow has a new life here, with added meaning on the tense pauses and multiple choice questions. 

It is currently regarded as the front runner for Best Picture at the Oscars and deservedly so as it mixes serious social commentary with a classical tale of lost love into something truly special. 

[Slumdog Millionaire is out at UK cinemas on Friday 9th January]

 

Synechdoche New YorkSynecdoche, New York (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)

In the last decade Charlie Kaufman has become one of those rare screenwriters whose work has even overshadowed the directors he has worked with.

This is quite a feat given that he has collaborated with Spike Jonze (on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). 

However, it is fair to say that all those films bear certain recognisable tropes: ingenious narratives, surreal images and a tragi-comic view of human affairs.

It would have also been a reasonable assumption to think his directorial debut would be similar, but¬†Synecdoche, New York¬†(pronounced ‚ÄúSyn-ECK-duh-kee‚ÄĚ) does not just bear token similarities to his previous scripts.¬†

In fact it is so Kaufman-esque that it takes his ideas to another level of strangeness, which is quite something if you bear in mind what has come before.

The story centres around a theatre director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who starts to re-evaluate life after his health and marriage start to break down. 

He receives a grant to do something artistically adventurous and decides to stage an enormously ambitious production inside a giant warehouse.

What follows is a strange and often baffling movie, complete with the kind of motifs that are peppered throughout Kaufman’s scripts: someone lives in a house oblivious to the fact that it is permanently on fire; a theatrical venue the size of several aircraft hangars is casually described as a place where Shakespeare is performed; and visitors to an art gallery view microscopic paintings with special goggles. 

But despite the oddities and the Chinese-box narrative, this is a film overflowing with invention and ideas. 

It explores the big issues of life and death but also examines the nature of art and performance Рa lot of the film, once it goes inside the warehouse, is a mind-boggling meditation on our lives as a performance. 

Imagine¬†The Truman Show¬†rewritten by¬†Samuel Beckett¬†and directed by¬†Luis Bu√Īuel¬†and you‚Äôll get some idea of what Kaufman is aiming for here.¬†

I found a lot of the humour very funny, but the comic sensibility behind the jokes is dry and something of an acquired taste.

Much of the film hinges on Seymour Hoffman’s outstanding central performance in which he conveys the vulnerability and determination of a man obsessed with doing something worthwhile before he dies. 

The makeup for the characters supervised by Mike Marino is also first rate, creating a believable ageing process whilst the sets are also excellent, even if some of the CGI isn’t always 100% convincing. 

The supporting cast was also impressive: Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan and Dianne Weist all contribute fine performances and fit nicely into the overall tone of the piece. 

Although the world Kaufman creates will alienate some viewers, it slowly becomes a haunting meditation on how humans age and die.

As the film moves towards resolution it becomes surprisingly moving with some of the deeper themes slowly, but powerfully, rising to the surface.

This means that although it will have it’s admirers (of which I certainly include myself) it is likely to prove too esoteric for mass consumption as it has a downbeat tone despite the comic touches.

Having seen it only once, this is a film I instantly wanted to revisit, so dense are the layers and concepts contained within it.

On first viewing it became a bit too rich at times for it‚Äôs own good but on reflection I don’t think I’ve seen a more ambitious or challenging film this year.

[Synechdoche, New York is out at UK cinemas on Friday 15th May]

 

The Class posterThe Class (Dir. Laurent Cantet)

The surprise winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival was this deceptively simple tale of a French teacher (François Bégaudeau) at a state school in Paris.

The actual French title is ‘Entre Les Murs’ – which translates as ‚ÄėBetween the walls‚Äô – which is apt as the film never (apart from one shot at the beginning) strays outside the confines of the school.

Adapted from the 2006 novel of the same name by Bégaudeau, which in turn was based on his own real life experiences teaching in a Paris school, it is a rich and deeply satisfying film.

Not only did it scrupulously avoid the cliches that can plaue films set inside schools, but also managed to offer a plausible snapshot of modern French society by focusing tightly on a class of pupils and their teachers.

Although it is shot in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35, the camera hangs tight on each character and never really gives us a look at the French city landscape.

This might sound claustrophobic, but makes the lessons and world inside of the school (the staff room, the corridors, the playground) all come alive in an unexpectedly thrilling way.

Performances Рespecially from Bégaudeau and a very special cast of non-professional teenagers Рwere outstanding but the film also had a tremendous sense of humanity to it without ever slipping into cheap sentiment.

An example of a rare film that touches the heart whilst engaging the brain, The Class is a gem that I would urge anyone to go and see when it gets released in the UK in February.

[The Class is out at UK cinemas on Friday 27th February]

 

The Dark Knight posterThe Dark Knight (Dir. Christopher Nolan)

The most commercially successful film of the year (globally at least) was also one of the best, as this Batman sequel transcended its comic book origins to become one of the most ambitious blockbusters in years.

When Batman Begins came out in 2005, it was an impressive reinvention of the DC Comics character but I wasn’t as blown away as some were. But props to the suits at Burbank for recruiting a director like Christopher Nolan who had already made his mark with Memento in 2000.

The realistic approach to the Bruce Wayne character and Gotham City worked well and reaped dividends with this sequel, which built on the first film but also made for a richer experience.

Managing to transcend the usual limitations of the comic book genre, its ambitious approach owes more to crime epics like Heat and The Godfather than the usual summer comic book adaptation.

The story, set in a Gotham City soaked in crime, violence and corruption, revolved around three central characters: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a billionaire vigilante dishing out justice at night time; Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney boldly taking on organised crime; and The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious psychopathic criminal wreaking havoc on the city.

Nolan and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (with story credit by David S Goyer) crafted a spectacularly ambitious summer blockbuster with the different narrative strands developed in engrossing and genuinely surprising ways Рat times it was so layered that key sequences often had parallel consequences.

As for the action, it follows the script in being similarly dense, and some of the big set pieces Рespecially two key sequences Рhave an unpredictable and chaotic quality to them, which is refreshing for this kind of genre.

The performances too were a revelation for a genre movie: Bale continues his solid work from the first film but Ledger and Eckhart brought much more to their roles than some might have expected.

As The Joker, Ledger managed to completely reinvent an iconic character as a wildly unpredictable psychopath who brings Gotham to it’s knees. Although Рdue to his tragically early death Рthere was always going to be added interest in his performance, he really was outstanding in creating a villain who is scary, funny and unpredictable.

Overall the technical contributions were outstanding Рof particular note were Wally Pfister’s cinematography, Nathan Crowley’s production design and Lee Smith’s editing.

Special mention must also go to the diverting score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, which thankfully will be up for Oscar consideration after initially being barred due to a technicality.

Many aspects of the film raised interesting questions and parallels. Can we see Batman Рa sophisticated force for good caught up in a moral dilemma Рas a metaphor for the US military? Could The Joker Рa psychopathic enigma wreaking terror on society Рbe a twisted version of Osama Bin Laden?

The fact that a comic book adaptation subtly provoked these points was daring and clever but also true to the darker comic books¬†–¬†especially¬†The Killing Joke¬†– that influenced on the film.

Although Ledger is almost a forgone conclusion for Best Supporting Actor – for both valid and sentimental reasons – the film itself might find more nominations in the major categories, which when you think about it speaks volumes to its quality.

[The Dark Knight is out now on DVD] 

 

The Visitor posterThe Visitor (Dir. Thomas McCarthy)

Tom McCarthy made one of the best films of 2003 with The Station Agent and his second film was just as good.

The story involved a college professor (Richard Jenkins) who finds a young immigrant couple living in his New York apartment and then follows the characters as they connect with one another in unexpected ways.

Like his previous work, it is thoughtful, beautifully observed and features rounded characters who feel like people you might actually meet in real life.

Jenkins is a character actor you might recognise Рhe’s probably best known for his fine work as Nathaniel Fisher in Six Feet Under or as the FBI agent in Flirting with Disaster.

Here he is finally given a lead role that allows him demonstrate his considerable acting skills and there is fine support too from Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira and Hiam Abbass.

But what really made this stand out is the way it managed to tackle some really big themes with intelligence and grace: immigration, loss and love are just a few of the issues dealt with here but the approach was never stodgy or patronising.

Instead, it managed to take us deep into the hearts and minds of people caught up in the chilly climate of a post-9/11 world.

A rare film that manages to engage both the heart and brain, but does so with the subtle skill of a gifted director.

* Listen to our interviews with Richard Jenkins and Tom McCarthy about The Visitor * 

[The Visitor is released on DVD in the UK on February 9th]

 

The WrestlerThe Wrestler (Dir. Darren Aronofsky)

When I first heard about Mickey Rourke playing a has-been wrestler in a film directed by Darren Aronofsky I was intrigued. 

Would it be similar to the director’s previous films like¬†ŌĬ†and¬†Requiem for a Dream? And what would Mickey Rourke be like in his first proper leading role for many years?

For Aronofksy it is a major – but welcome – departure in that it eschews many of the stylistic devices of his earlier work in favour of a raw, stripped down approach.

For Rourke it is nothing less than a triumphant comeback: a dream role that proves not only what a fine screen actor he can be, but also atones for the chaos of his professional career over the last 20 years.

The film itself is the story of a big time wrestler from the 1980s called¬†Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, who has fallen on hard times and¬†wrestles on the weekends in independent and semi-pro matches for extra money.

Health problems force him to re-evaluate his life which includes working in a deli, a possible relationship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and an attempted reconciliation with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

The parallels between Rourke’s own career and that of his character are there for anyone to see but there is more to the film than just brave casting: it paints a moving yet unsentimental view of outsiders struggling to make it in modern America.

The world of semi-pro wrestling is also brought to life with remarkable authenticity. Although the theatricality and hype of the WWF dominates the public perception of wrestlers, the realism on display in this story creates a much more authentic and poignant world.

A lot of the film’s charm rests on Rourke and Tomei, who play two contrasting characters who actually have much in common: both are performers who use their bodies and have problems reconciling their double lives.¬†

Rourke is already being talked of as one of the frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar and there is no doubt that he deserves recognition for what is one of the most memorable screen performances of the year.  

[The Wrestler is out at UK cinemas on Friday 16th January]

 

WALL-E posterWALL-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton)

Pixar continued their incredible run of form this year with yet another landmark animated film.

Set in a dystopian future circa 2815, it was about a waste disposal robot named WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) who meets another robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) and gets involved in an unlikely romance, as well as the future of the human race.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, it is probably the most visually impressive work Pixar have yet committed to film (and that is saying a lot) but it also resonated as a surprisingly moving love story.

Robots haven’t been this endearing since Silent Running and the two central characters are joy to watch Рthe boxy old school charm of WALL-E contrasting beautifully with the cool, sleek beauty of EVE.

Although I would never thought I would ever compare a Pixar movie to There Will Be Blood Рboth have startling opening sequences with little or no dialogue.

One of the clever aspects of the film is the casting of sound designer Ben Burtt as the central character Рfor those unfamilar with his work he was the pioneering sound editor on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.

Along with the animators, Burtt has helped create a character who is extremely expressive without using conventional language.

The same is true for EVE, so it is even more impressive that the filmmakers have managed to craft a compelling relationship between them.

The landcaspes were equally impressive, full of rich detail and nods to other sci-fi films.

* Listen to our interview with Angus MacLane, the directing animator of WALL-E *

[WALL-E is out now on DVD]

 

Waltz With Bashir posterWaltz With Bashir (Dir. Ari Folman)

One of the most daring and original films was this astonoshing animated film about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre and the memory of the Israeli soldiers involved in the invasion of Lebanon at the time. 

Directed by Ari Folman, it examines his own experiences on that mission and the struggle to remember what happened when he interviews various army colleagues from the time.

The strange title is taken from a scene with one of Folman‚Äôs interviewees, who remembers taking a machine gun and dancing an ‚Äėinsane waltz‚Äô amid enemy fire, with posters of¬†Bashir Gemayel¬†lining the walls behind him. (Gemayel¬†was the Lebanese president who whose¬†assassination¬†helped trigger the massacre.)

Animation isn’t normally associated with historical and political films, but here it worked brilliantly creating some haunting and indelible images.¬†

A hugely ambitious project, it took four years to complete and is and international co-production between Israel, Germany and France.

Another aspect which makes this story so intrguing is that the Israeli troops were not guilty of the massacre itself but of standing by and letting Lebanese miltia murder Palestinian refugees. 

It is the memory of, or rather the inability to remember, this event that lies at the core of the story. Has Folman unconsciously blocked out the memory? Does guilt cloud any rational perspective? 

The raw power of the source material is enhanced by some extraordinary imagery, with a remarkable and inventive use of colour for certain sections, especially those involving the sea.

Added to this is Folman’s narration which has an almost hypnotic effect when set alongside the visuals, almost as if the audience is experiencing a dream whilst watching the film itself. 

Back in May it premiered to huge acclaim at Cannes and was one of the front runners to win the Palme d’Or. The film also won 6 Israeli Film Academy awards (including Best Picture) and looks likely to be a strong contender for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

Much of that praise is richly deserved because this is an arresting and highly original film that deserves special credit for taking a highly politicised and contentious event and yet somehow makes a wider point about the futility of war.

The recent events in the Gaza strip only reinforce what a timely film this is but the central message about the horrors and futility of war has a relevance not just confined to the cauldron of the Middle East.

* Listen to our interview with Ari Folman about Waltz with Bashir *

[Waltz with Bashir is out on DVD in the UK on March 30th]

[ad]

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

[Rec] (Dir.  Jaume Balagueró)

Appaloosa (Dir. Ed Harris)

Battle For Haditha (Dir. Nick Broomfield)

Blindness (Dir. Fernando Meirelles)

Burn After Reading (Dir. The Coen Brothers)

Changeling (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

Flight Of The Red Balloon (Dir. Hsiao-hsien Hou)

Funny Games US (Dir. Michael Haneke)

Gran Torino (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Dir. Mike Leigh)

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (Dir. Guillermo Del Toro)

Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Dir.¬†Peter Sollett)

Religulous (Dir. Larry Charles)

Revolutionary Road (Dir. Sam Mendes)

Sugar (Dir. Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dir. David Fincher)

The Reader (Dir. Stephen Daldry)

W. (Dir. Oliver Stone)

N.B. Have a look at my list of the best films from 2007 which has now been updated to include those that got a UK release in 2008. (They were Gone Baby Gone, Persepolis, The Orphanage, In Search Of A Midnight Kiss, Joy Division, My Winnipeg, Savage Grace, Shotgun Stories, Son Of Rambow, The Band’s Visit and The Mist).

What about you? Leave your favourites from this year in the comments below.

> Find out more about the films of 2008 at Wikipedia
> Check out more end of year lists at Metacritic
> Have a look at the Movie City News end of year critics chart
> Check out our best DVDs of 2008