2009: Top 10
Refn has made himself at home on these lists, and this year’s entry is yet another divisive film that’s currently causing the words “Right on, Millard,” or “Look at this pretentious fuck-nut,” to be spoken inside your head. While Drive took a while to find its critics, after contrary bells got mad that people liked it, this one was inspiring angry derision at its première, albeit at Cannes, a setting which trades only in grand gestures of walkouts or standing ovations that go on until the heat death of the universe.
Only God Forgives is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is fitting of such a trance-like piece, where silent characters slowly drift between migraine-lit scenes like they’re part of a dream. Everything’s laced with a soporific slowness that adds to the tone of unreality, in a world cloaked beneath artificial light. When they’re not obscured in shadow, characters are bathed in dull reds, like they’ve yet to wash away the blood from past wars, while Bangkok’s streets are a parade of sickly yellows. You barely see daylight more than a handful of times. The film’s early stretches almost play like a silent movie, with Refn further paring things down from the monosyllabic Drive to bare-bones minimalism. A near-mute Gosling tip-toes through what’s an essentially a simple story of dominoing revenge, though it’s his nemesis, an unstoppable, unsmiling, and unassuming human Terminator, that leaves the biggest mark. Karmic retribution incarnate, and wielding a sword of vengeance, his slow walk, the gentle squompf of his slip-ons, is the film’s reductive Imperial March. Kristin Scott Thomas, Ma Baker by way of a genetically engineered megabitch, injects an impotent, Oedipal bent to Gosling’s problems, as she mourns for the son who should have lived, the better-respected, better-hung brother to useless Gosling and his four-inch flopper.
The cloud-like dispersion of about ten minutes plot and dialogue into ninety adds to the neon rabbit-hole effect, and the otherwise sleepy pacing makes the violence, including a genuinely horrific torture sequence, all the more jarring, like being awoken by a scream. Only God Forgives does feel like a dream, but the kind you might have if you passed out in an alleyway behind a Soho fuck-parlour, the night filled with sounds of a broken sign buzzing above your head, and the wet thuds of distant fist-fights and bored prostitutes being fingered on a stack of mouldy cardboard.
A film that’s rooted in the hopeless, backwards grasp at faded youth spins on an emotional meta-weight, as the Cornetto Trilogy draws to a close with a crow-footed, thin-haired Simon Pegg. World’s End‘s tale of the grim acceptance of time’s unstoppable march, of friendships that dissolve as people move on isn’t just the experience of the characters, but the audience too, who’ve made the journey from SoTD to Hot Fuzz, to now, and is much more affecting for it. When Shaun came out, I was a penniless writer, trying desperately to find success amid a succession of empty, miserable days, and now, almost a decade on, well… let’s talk about you instead, eh?
The World’s End‘s spiritual logline is ‘You can never go home’, tackling that experience of returning to old haunts and realising that they, and the people inhabiting them, have intangibly changed, in a vague way of being “off” somehow, while you still feel like you did at nineteen. Edgar Wright and co. take this innate human experience and filter it literally, through Invasion of the Body Snatchers paranoia, in a typically funny, flashy, and feelings-heavy film. The charming Frost/Pegg chemistry is present and correct, albeit neatly role-reversed, and the action sequences are caught halfway between a videogame, and the way a drunk would remember it all going down, with pro wrestling moves, and Nick Frost using bar stools like Hulk fists.
Pegg’s Gary King is like those people we all know, who flourished back in the days when social standing was determined by haircuts or being good at football, but with grey, adult lives that made so few new memories, schooldays are grimly fresh in their minds. His rage at the excruciating limbo of adulthood, where you feel you’ve been sold a lie; exciting beginnings that never begin, fulfilling futures that didn’t show up; it all resonated really, really strongly with me. For some reason. These periods are easily revisited, even unintentionally, with sense-memory time-travel, like the Stone Roses songs that farted out of King’s tape-deck. Sometimes you doze off and have a cruel snatch of a dream that puts you right back there. You’re at your first job, or back in the sixth form, and you feel it; that hope, and all the possibilities; things you didn’t even realise you felt at the time, but now they’re gone, and you’re 34, broke, falling asleep in the bath to flashes of a time when you felt like you had a life awaiting you, and the only thing that stops you opening your fucking neck with a bread knife is knowing how badly your mum would take it. Anyway, great film.
In a previous piece on here, I spoke about the term ‘Hauntology’ — think, the innate creepiness in the visuals of the past; brown wallpaper and public information films of 1970′s Britain — and A Field in England has one of the most overpowering senses of hauntology in many a year. There’s something inherently unsettling about that Civil War era, of Matthew Hopkins putting innocent women to the stake, and crop failure ascribed to the meddling hand of the Devil himself. In a time period where modern religion has yet to sweep away Pagan earth-worship with superstitions of its own, it’s a distinctly British mysticism tackled by Field, of ancient nature and countryside, and hallucinogens that grow underfoot, where Pan stalks between stone circles, prancing his cloven feet down ley lines.
Such motifs make for a floppy-hatted sibling to the Brit folk-horror of Wicker Man or Blood on Satan’s Claw, though it’s less implicitly a horror film, than a tale that becomes all the more horrifying, through an array of trippy, grubby visuals and an increasingly disconcerting tone. Military drumbeats pulse like the heartbeat of the earth, and characters stand posed in silent visual tableaux, with outstretched hands crooked like buckled figures from medieval tapestries. There are moments in Field that feel like those hypnagogic flashes as you jerk awake from a vivid dream, off-angle and at uncertain distance, the filmic equivalent of the old hag sitting on your chest in the dark. While onscreen depictions of drug use usually resemble Martin Fowler’s fish-eye lens LSD trip in the laundrette, Field‘s hypnotic ten-minute hallucinatory sequence feels like someone’s fucked a broken kaleidoscope into your third eye, and there are points where your senses implore that you turn away, back to the real world, just for a second, before it properly breaks your brain. That scene alone would be a brave piece of film-making to test any audience, but the ease in which it slots into the film as a whole is a testament to the conviction of cast and crew.
That’s not to say it’s a film without humour, as there’s plenty in the interplay between the bumbling, bickering group, and the comedic spine holds firm even as things lurch to some very disturbing places. In particular, a scene where, following some unholy, unseen shrieks of torment, Reece Shearsmith emerges from a tent, is one of those sequences that will wrap itself to your psyche like a wet sheet, until you’re beneath the soil. Unbelievably unsettling, startling, and mesmerising, Ben Wheatley allows it to play out in a way most films would have pulled back from, forcing us to witness the full horror, with no narrative sofas to hide behind. And that dogged death-grip on experimental images and amorphous ideas is A Field in England in a single, haunting nutshell.
The Lords of Salem is the Rob Zombie of Devil’s Rejects, as opposed to the Halloween remakes, and as someone who always works better with his own material, it’s the perfect melding of artist and subject matter — a horror film about a haunted record. People give Sheri Moon flack for only appearing in her husband’s films, but in her toughest role to date, it’s a flawless performance of a slow descent into madness. There’s a suffocating quality to Heidi’s (Moon) spiralling condition, as she becomes further and further adrift, degenerating into a strained, worn presence, sleepwalking down a path like a beaten, lost dog finding its way back home, with each sleepless night and terror-filled day further dulling her — and our — sense of reality.
Shining-style title cards denote the passing of the days, sliding us down towards inevitable doom, and the whole film is coated in an incredible sense of dread, lurking just over your shoulder and holding its breath when you do. With creeping, silent zooms on the ‘empty’ apartment at the end of the hall, and numerous poo-making jump-scares, this is Zombie at his most frightening; his day-glo visuals — the lure of a red room that brings to mind Corman’s Masque of Red Death; hairy, giant man-beasts — layered with an awful foreboding. As with the Devil’s Chord, the idea of inherently Satanic music is an idea deeply bedded in occult folklore, but one that’s weirdly unexplored in film. One thing I loved, as art within a story rarely lives up to its fictional billing, is that the four-note dirge is super unsettling for real. As a director who’s always made great choices when it came to marrying music with image, Zombie’s use of Venus in Furs and The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties will change how you hear these, honestly, already pretty fucking creepy songs forever.
After years of tweenage, CW makeovers, Lords makes witches scary again, and here they’re primal creatures, their naked, sagging bodies caked in filth, cackling and unrepentant, even as they burn. Meanwhile, the less brazen modern-day coven — Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn — are clearly having a fucking blast, chewing the scenery only as a precursor to gobbing it straight at the lens, and to its core, this is a story of feminine power. The men of Salem are relegated to the dark recesses of the background, where even Bruce Davison’s detective work is clearly fated for uncovering exposition, helpless to stop the horrible events that’ve been set into motion.
Typically with Rob Zombie, the cast is filled with horror icons and forgotten faces; most excitingly, They Live‘s Meg Foster, whose pale blue eyes saw her playing a lot of blind people in the eighties, and who’s terrifying, in a role which sees her, at 64, bravely full frontal nuddy for all of her many scenes. Although, with lines of dialogue like Geeson’s “Have you come here to stick your nosey cock inside her head and fuck her brain, Mr. Matthias?” it’s no mystery why actors would want to work with him. Things come to a head with a Satanic reunion gig that looks like Hieronymus Bosch’s take on a Spencer Tunick shoot, and as we end up in a place we, and Heidi knew we must, crushing final shots remind us just how far she’s fallen.
There’s this idea that old people aren’t proper people, that they’ve always been old. White, ghostly hair; face drooping downward in innocent folds; fingers gnarled and perpetually cold. It’s hard to connect the shuffling vulnerability with who they were; someone who loved, someone who fought and fucked, who did and felt any of the things ‘real’, young people feel, right now. In Killing‘s subjects, it’s instinctive to be similarly conflicted, when faced with smiling elderly men who’ve tortured and killed thousands, and are revered as heroes.
So much has been said about this film that it’s hard to know what to add, except that all the hyperbole is fully deserved. It’s a thoughtful, uncomfortable, and intense mediation on what it means to be human, and presents us with characters who are irredeemable, with a narrative arc that can only ever be about emotionally bringing themselves to account. The Act of Killing‘s method is to involve its participants in cinematic recreations of their past. Everyone wants to be a movie star, even genocidal killers, and unable to refuse the lure of the camera, they eagerly play up to the roles they’ve painted themselves, in decades of retelling stories from their Death Squad adventures. As gangsters and gun-slinging heroes, framed within a school-play, Hollywood aesthetic, they get to retell the oft-traded war stories that have become a twisted version of “tell us what you did in the war, grandpa” — like the general who brags about how many twelve-year-old girls he raped, back in the good old days. At one point, during a bizarre musical dance sequence, Anwar Congo, a man who personally strangled over a thousand people to death with a length of piano wire, is presented with a medal by the ghost of one of his victims. For a documentary that examines humanity through the meta-medium of film, and film within a film, its denouement is essentially a re-take of its opening, leading to a scene where an old man dry-heaves on a rooftop, in one of the most emotionally devastating commentaries on the human condition ever committed.
I was mildly terrified going in to The East, as it contains many single elements I already love, all mushed together in one place, like a surprise birthday party that’ll either be the best night of my life, or end with me sobbing in a toilet cubicle. Alexander Skarsgård. aka hunky Eric Northman, for whom I’d fling aside my hetero-status in a priapic heartbeat; Ellen Page, recipient of a billion unanswered tweets; Brit Marling, a permanent fixture on these year-end lists and major talent-crush, and Marling’s collaborator Zal Batmanglij, a pairing who sat atop last year’s Top 20 with the extraordinarily brilliant Sound of My Voice . It’s a relief to say that, unlike the entirety of my adult life, I was not disappointed.
As with Elysium, The East is a timely tale of corporations bleeding the world dry, as the whole, broken system crumbles around our food-bank queuing feet. The East, the group, are a more socially-minded Project Mayhem, anarchist eco-vigilantes whose ‘jams’ are a halfway squat-house between terrorism and protest. Their hits on multinationals have the set-ups of a heist movie, and it’s a sweet hybrid of the intrigue of Sound of My Voice, with the exhilaration of a thriller. The East keeps things taut, both in tension and scope, and as you’d hope for from Marling/Batmanglij, there are plenty of those — now trademark — electrifying moments of creativity. In particular, now three movies in to her writing work, the straight-jacketed dinner party scene had me sagely nodding out a “Classic Marling…” in the way that an offensively racially stereotyped alien would cause you to exclaim “That’s our Lucas!” In their hands, the hook of an undercover agent, the constant threat of discovery, becomes a creaking balloon of tension, riding on the back of a hedgehog.
The collection of street-kid characters never resorts to dreadlocked stereotypes, with not a Guy Fawkes mask in sight, and Skarsgård exudes a quiet (and dreamy) magnetism, in a leadership role which could have fallen into broader Manson/Durden strokes in a lesser piece. It’s a film that functions as a much-needed escapist fantasy for the helplessness of 21st century life, as you’re forced to choose between heating and groceries, while student protesters get kettled by riot police on the rolling news, and feeling like you want to do something; but what? Should I start a revolution from my cramped, cold little flat? It’s always a good sign when a movie leaves you inspired to inhabit its world, like how Karate Kid saw me waxing on and off, or Raiders had me wrenching the plug from the bathtub and swinging it like a whip until it hit me in the eye, and my mum confiscated it. Following The East, I had a craving to ride the rails, stop showering, and take down The Man, even though I’m likely to be homeless for real next year anyway. But it also made me want to write something as exciting and invigorating, so I peeled off the balaclava and fired up Final Draft instead.
As a commentary on the attribution of blame, in the wake of random acts of violence, being lain at the feet of art; more specifically movies and videogames, The Dirties is, unfortunately, always going to be timely. It’s also always going to set a lot of people’s nerves on edge, by logline alone. A found footage movie about the planning of a school shooting? Tough sell. At this point, we’re almost exactly a year out from Sandy Hook, and always within reach of a similar incident, but this isn’t the dunderheaded provocation of Elephant, as we follow a pair of socially outcast highschool friends, and film-buffs, making a movie about a bully-slaying school shooting that seems to be turning into a documentary.
Matt Johnson (as ‘Matt’, further blurring the lines) sees life as a movie where he’s the star-auteur, always performing, or thinking how to best frame himself for the imaginary audience, effectively treating the universe as a Matt Johnson Joint. I’ve known people like that, who talk as though the cameras are rolling, in fake-sounding, faux-deep dialogue where giving up a hobby becomes “That’s just not who I am anymore…” before staring off wistfully into the middle distance. They’re imitating the grand emotions they saw once on Dawson’s Creek, while being completely hollow and unformed as an actual entity. Although, that’s a little off-point, as Matt’s a frightening character because of the nonchalant manner with which he discusses blowing his fellow students’ skulls off. Is he joking? Is he for real? Everything’s so fucking ironic these days, with people afraid of getting caught being earnest — an entire generation of walking memes — that neither his ‘accomplice’ nor the audience are sure where he stands, at least until the end. Parlaying that modern disease into a self-aware school shooter, borrowing Catcher in the Rye from the school library “cos it’ll be funny,” is a genius move, especially when any would-be maniac is fully aware — often, as a motive — that infamy awaits, with 24 hour news using body-counts like a high score, and where any actual docu-footage would be ghoulishly judged on the Dutch camera angles and soundtrack choices.
The movie-within-a-movie is a superbly observed student film, with surface-level emulation of heroes like Tarantino, but enough loving creativity to make you feel bummed out when the sneering cool kids don’t get it, and to empathise with its sociopathic director. Everything’s littered with cinematic references, from a superb set of end credits, to the Feeney call from Boy Meets World, and the concept of a found footage movie edited by an obsessive movie nerd allows for a lot of meta-foolin’ with the genre, like the moment we pull back to the editing desk from a heartfelt montage to be asked “Is this too cheesy?” Director, co-writer and lead, Matt Johnson is terrifyingly talented and terrifyingly young, and The Dirties is the bravest, most fucking blistering début in recent memory. Other than that hilarious time he was deemed too fat to fly, this is by far the best thing that Kevin Smith’s ever been associated with.
Schooldays are a live combat situation, with enemies on all sides, and friends who’ll stab you in the back just to clamber onto your corpse and stand that little bit higher on the social ladder. Everyone’s jostling for position like chimpanzees, with Alpha sports lads and popular girls sat like the general on the hill, while the gawky and the last-picked huddle together in the trenches, fearful of giving away anything that can be used to destroy them — rumours that you trod in shit that see you referred to as ‘Poo on the Shoe’ for the next decade. I Declare War follows a hot afternoon’s war game between two teams of children, as they navigate the battlefield of childhood, complete with its WMD-sized emotions, and with approaching adolescence looming on the horizon like an enemy sniper. It’s Lord of the Flies through Stand by Me, all seen through the eyes of its young participants.
The stick-and-twine weapons are as real to us as they are to them, and characters are armed with real guns and grenades that transform play into legitimate combat, scouting through the forest and long grasses like Vietnam. Paint-filled water balloon grenades explode, leaving debris and a deafened whistle, and bullets shatter tree bark as kids crouch for cover. The sense of leaking imagination heightens the whole film, with one character who pictures himself with Cyclops-style superpowers, blasting shit to smithereens with eye-lasers, and another who holds imaginary, cloying conversations with a crush. This child-soldier aesthetic provides all the tension and sudden, visceral shocks and shouts of “Nooooooo!”of a real war movie. And that’s what this is, as much as Platoon or Saving Private Ryan.
Rules are laid out with a nifty, child-like animated sequence, as PK, undefeated master strategist, obsessed with military history and Patton, leads a team against the arrogant and unhinged Skinner, a pubescent general in aviator shades, who’s staged a military coup. All the war archetypes are present; nervy pacifist, double-act, mysterious loner, and a female character who’s one of the film’s many strengths. In movies about gangs of kids, the token girl has a tendency to be comparatively smart and mature, but War‘s is as pleasingly flighty and childish as the rest, albeit gifted nuclear-powered skills of bewitchment and manipulation amid a bunch of hormonal boys. The all-child cast adds a fresh angle to aspects of a genre that exists almost entirely on worn clichés, daring each other to eat dog dirts, and bringing new takes on stereotypical war-film dialogue.
“What are you doing after the war?”
“You’re coming over and eating pizza, and we’re watching a movie.”
The gunplay is actually a small part in a war of emotions, as blacks and whites get smeared into the greys of “all’s fair…” and the raising stakes bring issues like collateral damage and torture into the mix. Character motivations lay in rumours and lunch room chatter, in broken friendships, jealousies and crushes; all of these at play on the canvas of war, where the slights of adolescence can be seized for revenge, with past wounds that run as deep and traumatising as anything John Rambo howled over; wounds that will freshly bleed all over the dirt floor before it’s time to go home. I’m just gonna say it — this is the best war film since Full Metal Jacket.
Critics — I refuse to use the word haters; I’m not Kanye West — may accuse me of being lazy in such a shockingly (or at this stage, mercifully) brief write-up, especially for the second best film of the year, but Upstream Color is not your normal film. For one thing, like Stoker, I don’t want to peel back any of the wrapping paper before you get your hands on it, and also, it’s completely fucking impossible to try and categorise or surmise, without me hammering out a 10,000 word dissertation about how densely incredible it is. It’s been almost a decade since Shane Carruth’s previous work, Primer, a film that people are still trying to unravel, and Upstream will similarly be subject to endless dissection and interpretation as we all grow old, hunched and erectionally dysfunctional.
With themes of identity and loss, sense memory and life-cycles, from the startling visual opening, you’re immediately hooked into an ethereal mystery, bleeding out into all the facets of what it means to be you. It’s everything you hoped for from Carruth, and a million times more, although Amy Seimetz’s staggering performance shouldn’t get lost amid the confirmation of one man as the most unbelievably talented and unique auteur of his generation. He’s got the potential to become a mythic figure, eschewing press or social media, and film-biz convention, to emerge from hermitude and gift the world his beautiful works, and though I hope it’s not another ten years before we see the next film, honestly, you could watch this a hundred times and still be entranced.
The zombie genre is as dead and rotting as Bub himself, having lurched itself into the pop-culture mainstream somewhere between pirates and onesies, as studios continue to churn out tedious films and awful, inexplicably popular TV shows. What else is there to be done with the zombie? You’d think nothing. The actual answer: a ton. Though The Battery is closer in spirit to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy than a Romero film, it’s by far the best zombie flick of the post-28 Days modern era. What’s more, it was made for $6,000, which is less than Will Smith’s urinal cake budget on After Earth.
Writer, director, and leading man, Jeremy Gardner is a slacker-survivalist completely at home in the apocalypse, with all the freedoms of employment and hygiene it brings. Picture Ron Swanson’s ostracised adult son; a sweaty, crumb-chinned man you’d want at your back when the shit went down, and the polar opposite to life-buddy Mickey, who shuts himself away behind a pair of headphones, ensconced inside the pre-chaos tunes of a security blanket discman, while trailing the zombie-kill scorecard with a fat zero. Thrown together by the disaster, they live out their days like you did your childhood summers, exploring, mucking about, and idly killing time before sunset. To invoke the phrase ‘buddy comedy’ would be massively underselling The Battery‘s appeal. It’s a thoughtful treatise on the male psyche, with quiet moments that reel us in to the characters’ slow, drifting malaise as they tramp through abandoned back-roads. As a double-hander, its strength lies in the believable relationship of two men who only have each other, which, despite the stumbling threat of flesh-eaters, has settled into regular beats of social interaction. Like 2010′s Monsters, it’s the human condition via genre-film, as with Gardner’s Ben badgering his buddy to take that step and kill his first zombie, like college kids teasing their virgin buddy to be a man, before locking them in a closet with a hooker until its done.
When a voice on a radio offers a sudden alternative, things begin to fracture in the way they do as friends grow apart when one decides to settle down, while the other’s happy to amble through life, free of responsibilities. In that sudden possibility, the hope of something else, of a comfort and security that could never be found in the repetitive days of baseball pitching and Womble-esque scavenging, it’s no longer enough to merely connect with a less-isolated past through a mix CD and a bottle of perfume. As the stakes get raised, things escalate into a series of incredibly tense scenes, and a final act where they become truly trapped, not just with the situation, but with the eventual mundanity of all horror. The finale, a long, single-take stretch, mostly dialogue-free but for the howling dirge of the brain-hungry mob, is phenomenally powerful and brilliantly acted, with one moment that, even on a second watch, dropped the pit of my stomach straight down to Hades.
It’s honestly hard to comprehend that this was made for $6,000. More than any genre, there are a ton of cheapie zombie flicks, as it’s a comparatively easy route to a first film, if you’ve thought up some cool kills in lieu of a decent screenplay. Most film-makers’ idea of trying new things in a Z-flick extends no further than the assortment of wacky implements being stabbed into the heads of the undead, or which locations can be boarded up and splattered with gore. Even in the big-budget Hollywood realm, everyone sticks to the confines of a haggered genre, throwing money, test screenings and reshoots at reels that lack in any innovation. The Battery is the ultimate triumph of creativity and gargantuan lead balls over lazy bullshit and cliché, and at no point would it be out of place against any film on this, or any list. It looks great, sounds great, it’s funny — the ‘Put ‘em on the Glass‘ scene — uplifting, moving, brave, and in one drunken dance sequence, contains the most foot-stompingly joyful thing in cinema this year. All for $6,000. 1/31,666th of World War Z‘s budget, not even counting the probable $100m in promotional costs. But it’s not here because of the low budget. I’m not measuring movies against each other, pound-for-pound, like fantasy MMA fights. It’s here in spite of it; it’s here because it’s the best, most inspiring movie of the year. Go see it.
And there we have it. As is tradition, let’s close out with Gen Ip’s always-superb video love-letter to the year in cinema.
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