Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

2016 has been a strange year of film viewing for me (partly on account of getting married, which it turns out takes up a lot of time and energy.) I’m yet to watch a number of essentials (Toni Erdmann, PatersonSieranevada, I Am Not Your Negro, Elle), but I’ve also been plesantly suprised by films I might otherwise have missed. Here are the films that left an impression on me in this craziest of years.

1) ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING (DIR. ANDREW DOMINIK, UK/FRANCE)

Of all the films I saw in 2016, none was more mesmerising than Andrew Dominik’s documentary following the recording process of Nick Cave’s excellent album Skeleton Tree. The film captures a terribly troubling time for the Cave family, following the loss of 15 year old Arthur Cave and this runs through the film making it feel like a painfully private affair. It is a testament to Dominik’s handling of the situation that the Cave family were willing to release the film and it is also the director’s best film next to sprawling epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

2) THE QUEEN OF KATWE (DIR. MIRA NAIR, USA)
Mira Nair’s The Queen of Katwe is a film that sneaks up on you with an emotional undercurrent that pays off extraordinary well by the final sequence. Telling the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, Mira Nair casts newcomer Madina Nalwanga in the central role and surrounds her with established talent David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as numerous child actors. A potentially challenging production from Disney – shot on location with many non-actors – it succeeds thanks to the director’s talent for straddling different worlds of production. A big hearted film for all audiences.

3) INTO THE INFERNO (DIR. WERNER HERZOG, UK/GERMANY/CANADA)
Of the two documentaries released by Werner Herzog in 2016 (the other being internet doc Lo and Behold), Into The Inferno was the most cinematic and most truly Herzogian. In Inferno Herzog tackles volcanoes, not a new subject for him (see 1977’s La Soufrière), but here he expands the subject to explore North Korea, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Iceland. Along the way Herzog discovers some amazing civilisations and wonderfully eccentric characters, particularly the larger than life Paleoanthropologist Tim D. White. Herzog’s recent drone footage, as well as the archive of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft make for majestic, frightening scenes.

4) CHI-RAQ (DIR. SPIKE LEE, USA)
One hell of a Spike Lee joint! Chi-Raq is an adaptation co-written by Lee and Kevin Willmott, based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a Classical Greek play in which women withhold sex from their husbands as punishment for fighting. While the film was criticised by some (including Samuel L. Jackson at the Dubai Film Festival) for not dealing with America’s gun violence in a direct fashion, it is none-the-less one that frequently represents Lee at the height of his polemical powers. Teyonah Parris is a forceful presence as Lysistrata and appearances from Sam Jackson & Wesley Snipes are welcome, alongside John Cusack as a fiery white pastor.

5) ALI, THE GOAT AND IBRAHIM (DIR. SHERIF EL BENDARY, EGYPT/FRANCE)
One of the most refreshing films I saw this year was this tragicomic feature debut from emerging Egyptian director Sherif El Bendary. Set in contemporary Egypt and telling the story of two friends with different afflictions (one loves a goat, the other hears excruciating noises), Ali, The Goat and Ibrahim takes us across Egypt to its major water bodies as the characters attempt to remedy their problems. What exactly the film says about life in contemporary Egypt is hard to define, but its mischievous absurdity is pitch perfect for this most unusual of years.

6) NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (DIR. TOM FORD, USA)
For those in doubt of Tom Ford’s credentials as a film director, Nocturnal Animals goes some way towards quelling those feelings. This is a meta thriller, which makes fantastic use of Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams and Michael Shannon, to explore a failed relationship (the main thread) through a violent fictional narrative written by Adams’ character. I am rarely a fan of duel narratives such as these – as often the intended effect simply falls flat – but in this case Ford creates a compelling, disturbing tapestry which is thoroughly gripping and emotionally complete.

7) A UNITED KINGDOM (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, USA/UK/CZECH REPUBLIC)
Amma Asante’s follow up to 2013’s excellent Belle is a very moving rendering of the true story of Sir Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) – the first president of Botswana – and his English wife Ruth Williams Khama (Rosamund Pike), as they struggled with family, apartheid and the British empire to assume power after Botswana’s independence. Although the supporting characters are more swiftly sketched in, the film finds power in two highly impressive, emotionally engaging central performances by Oyelowo and Pike. With carefully crafted period visuals – contrasting a moody noir-esque London with the sun-kissed plains of Botswana – the film is a pleasure to watch, making Asante’s next film Where Hands Touch highly anticipated viewing.

8) HIGH-RISE (DIR. BEN WHEATLEY,  UK/BELGIUM)
Ben Wheatley’s most ambitious film so far is one that – once again – harks back to the psychedelic British cinema of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, perhaps more overtly than any other he has made. Taking JG Ballard’s original text and adapting it into a relatively plotless, decadent extravaganza, Wheatley gives us a film of surreal delights in which Tom James Bond Hiddlestone glides through sequences that would look at home in the films of Russell and Fellini. Wheatley’s body of work is one that feels organic, developing, never perfect, but always alive; more please.

9) THE HATEFUL EIGHT (DIR. QUENTIN TARANTINO, USA)
A troubling film. When I emerged from watching The Hateful Eight at the start of 2016, I didn’t know what to think, but I certainly felt pretty dirty. A parlour game in which nefarious characters engage with one another in the most base of terms; the film is an old style exploitation flick and Sergio Corbucci would surely be proud. Each scene plays out at a snails pace, the drama brimming with racism and women hating. It is the most disturbing film of Tarantino’s career. Now at the end of 2016 – having witnessing the politics of the last 12 months – I think I understand The Hateful Eight a bit more and I still feel dirty.

10) ONLY MEN GO TO THE GRAVE (DIR. ABDULLA AL KAABI, UAE/IRAN)
An intriguing discovery from the 2016 Dubai Film Festival: Abdulla Al Kaabi’s arthouse melodrama Only Men Go To The Grave is a film that evokes the genre works of Almodovar, Fassbinder and Douglas Sirk (a big influence on the Emirati director.) Telling the story of a group of women, struggling to deal with an undisclosed secret of their late mother, Al Kaabi uses the film as a vehicle to deal with taboos present in his culture and unite unlikely artistic collaborators from Iran, Iraq & the UAE. The film’s constantly inventive shooting style and compelling acting signpost Al Kaabi as a talent to watch in 2017.

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French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has found a great deal of success in the past two years with his Oscar-nominated pictures Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, so it is a little bit of a surprise to see him so unfocused here. He has a more than capable cast at his disposal with the ever enticing Jake Gyllenhaal leading the charge, as a man who discovers his life has been something of a lie – after his wife dies in a car crash, which he survives.

Initially Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) has what many would consider the perfect life: a beautiful, smart wife, a highly lucrative job in investment banking and a nice house in the New York state suburbs. While penning a therapeutic letter to a snack vending machine company – who are responsible for a machine that doesn’t dispense the requested sweets – Mitchell realises in mourning that his life has no substance. He admits that he barely understood his wife, his job was earned on “pure nepotism” (as the CEO is his father-in-law) and due to its nature there was never “anything physical you could hold in your hands” other than the profits made. Furthermore, Mitchell realises that he has merely coasted through life, not really paying attention to anyone and living purely through material objects.

So his newfound focus on “everything being a metaphor” is a believable, if not entirely original, conceit as this widower begins to see the world differently; he pays more attention to the world around him and finds the titular act of “demolition” particularly cathartic, especially when he destroys his own marital house. Gyllenhaal too does a decent job of showing the once fairly shallow Davis transforming into a more attenuative character.

The problem comes when Davis begins practising this in the real world. His new found freedom makes him a far more sympathetic character, but there’s no real progression of this idea throughout the film beyond: wife dies, realises stuff, makes some concessions at the end. It is claimed in the film that “total honesty is your thing” about the new-born Davis, which even he jokes about, as if this is a reason to explain the film’s spotty narrative.

Elsewhere, the film lacks much focus or direction. After a while, his continued letters to the vending company gets a response from a mysterious blonde. Eventually, they cross paths on Davis’ commuter train, and it turns that she is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who let Davis into her life in a plutonic relationship, mostly out of sympathy for his soul through his letters. The film then becomes a dark, romantic comedy and for Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis), a coming of age tale which half-heartedly deals with his potentially burgeoning homosexuality. Troubling is Karen’s addiction to Marijuana and her boyfriend and boss Carl (C.J Wilson) who is a gun-toting “good guy” apparently.

While Davis is a more than polite guest in Karen and Chris’s lives, it is a problematic relationship that tries to make some slightly ill-conceived comment on class differences. The main point seems to be that the rich are a bit selfish, until someone dies and that the working class are not good at looking after themselves, but are more creatively expressive.

It’s a shame because Demolition – despite throwing several half-baked ideas at the screen – does has some genuine warmth to it. Gyllenhaal makes the best of a bad situation, delivering a strong performance that ranges from genuinely humorous, to emphathetic, to sad indifference. Lewis is excellent as the conflicted teenage son, but none of this really means anything without a properly realised narrative to back it up. One feels there is a great film rattling around in Demolition somewhere, it just required more care to truly realise it.

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There is a temptation to write Room off before even reaching for the door handle. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of modern literature, particularly the ‘literary sensations’, as high concept but ultimately quite shallow, lacking the richness and complexity of their predecessors. However, we have to put our prejudices to one side for now and admit that Room is perhaps one sensation that really deserves the hype.

Author Emma Donoghue adapts her own bestseller while Lenny Abrahamson, most recently known for the film Frank, takes on directing duties. Room is one those films where it’s best to know as little as possible, which is how I went in. We are immediately introduced into the ‘room’, a tiny, cramped space with only one skylight and a heavily secured, code protected door. The inhabitants of the room are Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a mother and son combo locked in limbo with no way out.

The enforced isolation has clearly taken its toll on Ma, her eyes orbited by heavy rings and her tatty sportswear ghosting about her. She makes pains to see that Jack is still educated into the ways of the world; motherly lessons of cake baking and stories. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way in which Jack has become institutionalised into the ‘room’. It is his only home, his only way of life. The film has a wider point to say about how much place and environment affects us as human beings.

As the story takes a few (un-revealable) turns, it turns into something much more profound than the struggle to survive in the room. There is a startling scene around the midpoint, where the film changes completely. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the scenes of the year, a breathtaking, cathartic, edge-of-your-seat tour de force. But then we are left with the aftermath, after all the excitement.

This is supposedly the boring part, which Hollywood doesn’t like. There must be always be an active goal to chase heroically; a dastardly villain, a damsel in distress, a dog stuck up a tree. Instead, Donoghue and Abrahamson leave us with something much more interesting and indelible: reflection. I am reminded of some of the films of Claude Chabrol, ostensibly suspense thrillers, but when the excitement fades we are left with this strange, eerie aftermath. The villain has been caught but the consequences of the event are left to catch fire.

The film would crumble without the two superlative performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Ma is lucid, sharp, compassionate but drained, trying to make the best of a torturous situation in order to save her son. Tremblay, meanwhile, gives one of the best performances by a child actor you will ever see. The emotional complexities of a boy torn between the only world he knows and the world that his mother tells him is out there for him, is perfectly embodied by young Tremblay.

Donoghue succeeds in turning her own work into a piece of cinema, which is no mean feat. Her initial idea had the potential to be quite gimmicky, but Donoghue transforms it into something much more universal and pertinent. Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is delicate and unshowy, honing on the little details of the world that Jack sees and letting the audience see through the imaginative, hopeful eyes of a little boy.

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This French-Canadian production is one of the first fiction films I’ve seen to report on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Written and directed by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, it follows the toils of Chloe (Evelyne Brochu), a foreign doctor working in a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank. Specialising in childbirth, she makes the trip from her comfortable flat in the Israeli territory to the battle scarred Palestinian area each day. One of her closest friends is Ava (Sivan Levy), who does her involuntary military duty checking papers at the border. Meanwhile on the Palestinian side she strikes up a friendship with the pregnant Rand (Sabrina Ouazani) and her brother Faysal (Yousef Sweid).

Barbeau-Lavalette has immediately set up a meaty conflict here; Chloe’s limbo between Ava, apathetic to the suffering across the border, and Rand and Faysal’s burgeoning militancy. A young Palestinian boy is struck down by a callous Israeli military driver, and tensions begin to rise. Chloe offers to hand out the flyers that Faysal has printed in the boys memory, but her medical superiors order her not to get involved. She is, as the post-punk band Magazine once sang, Shot by both sides. As Rand’s due date looms and Faysal begins to indoctrinate her into their way of thinking, Chloe’s thoughts and motivations begin to change.

There is a lot to admire in Inch’Allah. The script is engaging and enjoyably murky to begin with, with Barbeau-Lavalette keen not to take any sides. It is competently directed and you get a real sense of the hostility of the environment. The performances are routinely strong, Brochu conveying the sense of confusion and futility of her existence, while Ouazani provides much needed humour as the feisty Rand. It would be quite easy to see Inch’Allah being nominated for a foreign Oscar.

Therein lies the problem; there is something rather Oscar worthy about the film that leaves a bitter after taste. In attempting to sum up a deeply complex conflict into a neat 2 hour feature the film comes across as a little preachy and safe. The initial conflict is interesting but the script veers towards contrivances at the end in order to make its point. It’s not quite the sugar coated fluff that props up every Best Picture competition, but it doesn’t feel entirely authentic and nuanced either.

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Boys on Film: Youth in Trouble is the ninth edition of Peccadillo Pictures’ successful series of gay themed short films. This collection looks around the world to Brazil, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, France, Canada and the UK, to explore the challenges of being a young gay man in a wide variety of scenarios.

At its most interesting Youth In Trouble shows us the inside of an Australian prison, in The Wilding by director Grant Scicluna. Recalling Alan Clarke’s prison masterpiece Scum, The Wilding is a gritty and naturalistic short in which two inmates develop an intimate relationship amid a culture of prison violence. The film thrives on its realistic casting, particularly lead Malcolm (Reef Ireland), and it feels that director Scicluna has potential amongst the burgeoning Australian crime cinema.

Pariah director Dee Rees’ intriguing Colonial Gods looks with bite upon the racist treatment of Somali and Nigerian immigrants in Wales. While somewhat meandering in its plotting, this is a rich film in its social commentary, performances and visual ideas. It also makes for a great sonic tapestry of voices, with Arabic, Nigerian and English dialogue spoken in a variety of accents.

The collection occasionally lapses into an excessive tendency for earnestness. Canadian short Deep End does very little to dramatise its moral dilemma, in which young boy Dane struggles with his older brother coming out. Swiss/German film Prora also wears thematically thin in its exploration of sexual tension, on a backdrop of a derelict Nazi holiday camp (presumably a metaphor, but for what exactly?) Brazilian short Family Affair never breaks free of its limited location to say anything pertinent, in spite of its convincingly claustrophobic atmosphere.

However, UK director James Cook creates some incredibly tense moments in psychodrama Together. Though the film suffers from a few directorial missteps (odd angles and overly flamboyant lens choices) and an abrupt twist in the tail, it is clearly made by a director with a sense to entertain.

Spanish director Carlos Montero smartly builds a darkly numerous psychological thriller in Easy Money. The film sees Spanish rent boy Jamie (Mario Casas) in too deep, when he arrives to service a middle aged client who mistakes him for a hitman. Montero brilliantly keeps us guessing for the entire 15 minute duration.

Finally This Is Not A Cowboy Film is a comical tribute to Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain. Set entirely in school toilets the film amusingly captures a group of male and female teenagers grappling with the frontiers of sexuality.

Boys on Film: Youth in Trouble is a shorts collection that walks the thin line between issues and entertainment, but when the two coalesce it is a real success.

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Canadian director David Cronenberg has had something of  a career change in recent years. Once renowned for his body horror features, he took a turn towards more psychologically probing thrillers. Horror fanboys might balk at this transformation, but you could argue that Cronenberg hasn’t really changed his spots. His films are still focused on human dysfunction and the less palatable parts of our nature, but this time it’s under the skin.

A Dangerous Method tells the story of perhaps the ultimate psychoanalytical drama, that of Freud and Jung. Cronenberg details how the young and upcoming Jung (Michael Fassbender) is taken under the wing of the more established Freud  (Viggo Mortensen), an intellectual buddy duo if you will. Their relationship starts to disintegrate when the two disagree about the right treatment of a wayward patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), which is a microcosm for their wider held views.

The film is handsome and fairly engrossing. There are some Edward Hopperesque mise en scenes, and the era is carefully reconstructed. Fassbender and Mortensen are fine in their roles, though neither character stretches two actors who have given a lot more in other roles. Keira Knightley, however, is a unwelcome distraction. Spielrein suffered from bouts of hysteria and unfortunately Knightley fails to convey this in an authentic fashion. Her gargoyle gurning seems to suggest an actor rooting around for the right way to play a difficult role, but I was yearning for an unknown instead, someone not quite as prim as Knightley.

Much of the film relies on extended dialogues between the characters discussing theories and dreams, and there is only perhaps one set piece in the entire film. This leads me to question whether this story lends itself that well to cinema. It is interesting no doubt, Jung and Freud’s relationship and the ideas that they were pioneering, but you get the sense that you would get a richer, more in depth reading from a book on the subject rather than a film. Additionally, the difficult material leads Cronenberg into some stagey drama that occasionally feels like a parody of a serious Hollywood biopic.

It’s still an intriguing, insightful film, but not wholly successful in its execution.

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1) THE TREE OF LIFE (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK) – USA

A confession– I had been waiting for years for Terrence Malick’s new film to come out, listening out intently for snippets of information on its long production. So forgive my bias, but there is simply no other contender for film of the year. In all honesty ToL is not a perfect film. Some scenes work, some scenes don’t. But when they do work, they soar. I’d take 20 minutes of some scenes from ToL over the whole year in cinema. Pitt and Chastain perfectly convey the complexities of parenthood, while the young boys are a revelation. Lubezki’s roaming camera combined with the beautifully operatic classical pieces is utterly glorious. Malick’s most personal, sincere and adventurous film to date.

2) WUTHERING HEIGHTS (DIR. ANDREA ARNOLD) – UK

Scottish auteur Arnold updates the classic Bronte novel with hyper real cinematography and naturalistic performances. The young Cathy and Heathcliff are excellent as the bruised lovers, while the Yorkshire valleys take on a wild, oppressive life of their own. One of the few British films to use the landscape in a refreshing and exciting way.

3) SLEEPING SICKNESS (DIR. ULRICH KOHLER) – GERMANY & CAMEROON

This beguiling odditiy comes across as a mix of Claire Denis, Uncle Boonmee and David Lynch, combining jungle environment with hallucinatory, surreal touches. A German doctor is working in an unnamed African hospital, where he deals with the ‘Sleeping sickness’ bug, a condition that makes the sufferer feverish and hallucinate. His family have to leave the country without him, and then things start to get weirder on his own…

4) TRUE GRIT (DIR. THE COEN BROS) – US

The Coen’s are so consistently good, it’s almost boring. Here they turn their meticulous hands to full on western, and master the genre in one fell swoop. A remake of Henry Hathaway’s original, the brothers stick to a more traditional approach, harking back to the classic Westerns of the 40’s and 50’s, but with a few of their own surreal touches for good measure. Jeff Bridges seems to be one of the few leading actors of the 70’s not to have settled into semi –retirement, and is a wizened joy here.

5) NORWEGIAN WOOD (DIR. ANH HUNG TRAN )– JAPAN

Based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 60’s set doomed romance, Vietnamese director brings an exquisite visual style to the books foundations. Garnering only luke warm reviews, this is for me one of the more underrated films of the year. Taking his cues from his earlier films, Hung Tran combines lush, sensual cinematography with subtle, restrained emotions. On top of that, it has an excellent soundtrack featuring CAN and The Velvet Underground.

6) SENNA (DIR. ASIF KAPADIA)– UK

Painstakingly compiled from endless hours of footage, Kapadia’s documentary of the golden F1 driver Ayrton Senna introduces a whole new legion of fans to a sport they thought they hated. Or at least for a couple of hours or so he does, anyway. Made up of grainy interviews and races, with only voiceover to compliment them, the film takes on a hypnotic, compelling quality as we follow the charismatic Senna through his highs and lows.

7) MARGARET (DIR. KENNETH LONERGAN)– USA

Kenneth Lonergan’s long gestating follow up to indie hit You Can Count On Me was riddled with studio and editing troubles, and on it’s eventual release it almost went unnoticed. Thankfully a few major critics rallied around it and it looks like it has at least cult appeal. Following a brattish New York teenager, played by Anna Paquin, as her life is turned upside down by a shocking road accident. Regarded as a response to the confusion 9/11 brought to American life, Margaret is a raw, sprawling drama that leaves the audience to work out their own point of view.

8) BIUTIFUL (DIR. ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU) – SPAIN

There was a sense that Inarritu was starting to get ahead of himself, with the bloated Babel and the split with writer Arriagas, but with Biutiful the director has gone back to basics. Anchored by a towering, moving performance from Javier Bardem as a people tracker who starts to have a change of heart. Inarritu shows a side of Barcelona that the tourists won’t see.

9) MELANCHOLIA (DIR. LARS VON TRIER) – SWEDEN & DENMARK

Based on Lars Von Trier’s own struggles with depression, this unusual, elegant film is an effective distortion of the Hollywood disaster movie. Kirsten Dunst plays a bride to be in the midst of the illness, and sees a kinship with the hovering blue planet Melancholia that threatens to engulf the world. The lush visuals and subtle performances elevate this above your standard apocalypse film.

10) CONFESSIONS (DIR. TETSUYA NAKASHIMA)– JAPAN

A fairly low key release this year, this Japanese film was a strange mixture of high school drama, thriller and who dunnit. A teachers child is killed by one of her students, and like Battle Royale, the adults end up having the last laugh. Multiple view points tell the story, and the film is notable for its inventive, playful visual style and soundtrack featuring the XX and Radiohead.

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1) DRIVE (DIR. NICHOLAS WINDING REFN) – USA

Drive is a Hollywood film directed by a distinctly European director. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn rethinks the Hollywood crime thriller with minimal dialogue, strong colour, offbeat casting and an idiosyncratic soundtrack. While embracing it’s influences Drive also subverts numerous cliches and Refn shows a remarkable talent for crafting scenes that are emotionally gripping and utterly tense.

2) ANIMAL KINGDOM (DIR. DAVID MICHOD) – AUSTRALIA

David Michod’s debut feature feels like the work of an accomplished Australian equivalent to Michael Mann. Animal Kingdom tells the story of a naive young man in the midst of a dangerous crime family and the havoc he causes them. With an impressive cast including Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver, Michod rarely puts a foot wrong, from the staging of each scene to his choice of music. Not only an extremely impressive debut, but a great Australian film.

3) INTO THE ABYSS (DIR. WERNER HERZOG) – GERMANY & CANADA

Werner Herzog has been working hard lately, with the release of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into The Abyss premiering at various festivals in 2011. Out of the two unique documentaries Into The Abyss hits the hardest, with some of the best interviews Herzog has ever conducted. Probing the subject of death row Herzog puts together a restrained, yet unmistakably Herzogian investigation, which places moral  questions centre stage.

4) THE SKIN I LIVE IN (DIR. PEDRO ALMODOVAR) – SPAIN

Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In is an intriguing, intelligently structured and stylish film that successfully pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in a manner that is as entertaining as it is unsettling. Almodovar blends classic horror with the themes he is famous for and gains great performances from his cast. Antonio Banderas turns in a dark, well judged portrayl and Elena Anaya brilliantly gains the audiences empathy within an utterly bizarre scenario.

5) MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (DIR. WOODY ALLEN) – USA

Midnight In Paris sees Woody Allen at the top of his game. Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter (Gil), who aspires to become a novelist. He falls in love with Paris while on holiday with his fiancé (and her parents) and begins wandering the streets at night revelling in the city’s mythology. Upon meeting a number of unlikely personalities, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Salvador Dali among others, Gil becomes far removed from his normal life to wonderfully Allenesque effect.

6) TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (DIR. TOMAS ALFREDSON) – UK

Where Drive was an American production directed by a Dane, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a British one directed by a Swede. Tomas Alfredson brings a distinctly Scandinavian approach to this classic cold war story. Like his vampire film Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor makes use of wide open spaces juxtaposed with dingy interiors to create an appropriate paranoia. Alfredson’s remarkable ensemble cast create numerous memorable performances, particularly Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

7) HUGO (DIR. MARTIN SCORSESE) – USA

An ode to cinema by Martin Scorsese, Hugo tells the tale of French film director George Meilies through the eyes of a young boy called Hugo Cabret. Directed with a youthful flare by Scorsese, we follow Hugo’s journey to fix an automaton left behind by his late father, which leads him to a discovery of Meilies forgotten cinema career. The story of a young man discovering cinema and it’s possibilities for the first time is clearly one close to Scorsese’s heart; that’s why Hugo is such a good film.

8) DREAMS OF A LIFE (DIR. CAROL MORLEY) – UK

Dreams of a Life and it’s central character Joyce Vincent captured the hearts and minds of cinema goers this Christmas. Joyce Vincent died in 2003 in her North London bedsit and went undiscovered for three years. She had been a popular, outgoing and successful young woman who became increasingly alienated in the years preceding her death. Director Carol Morley investigates the circumstances that lead to Joyce’s death and meets with friends, boyfriends, colleagues and others to paint a portrait (using excellently performed reconstructions and talking head interviews) of a woman who no one would expect society to leave behind.

9) SNOWTOWN (DIR. JUSTIN KURZEL) – AUSTRALIA

John Bunting, Australia’s most notorious serial killer is the subject of Snowtown. Directed by Justin Kurzel, with cinematography by Animal Kingdom DOP Adam Arkapaw, this film is a gruelling telling of a series of crimes orchestrated by Bunting between 1992 and 1999. The film’s graphic style is tough going even for hardened film viewers, but Daniel Henshall’s intelligent and rounded performance as Bunting demands the audience’s attention. Along with Animal Kingdom, Snowtown shows contemporary Australian cinema in a very good light.

10) PINA (DIR. WIM WENDERS) – GERMANY

Wim Wender’s tribute to the late Pina Bausch contains perhaps the best use of 3D seen in 2011. The film, made after Pina’s death, sees Wenders stage the choreographers work in a manner that complements her work effectively. The juxtaposition of Pina’s choreography and Wender’s choice of locations, camera work and music creates a kind of posthumous collaboration, which functions as both a moving tribute to and preservation of Pina’s remarkable style of choreography.

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Honorary mention:

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (Dir. Mark Cousins) – UK

A remarkable television series for Channel 4 telling the history of film in Mark Cousins’ unique style.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-story-of-film-an-odyssey

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A halloween themed top 10, with a world cinema angle.

1) SANTA SANGRE (DIR. ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY, MEXICO, 1989)

At number one Santa Sangre is an exhilarating, wacky horror made by one of the worlds most extraordinary directors, Alejandro Jodorowsky. This film was inspired by a real life encounter that Jodorowsky had with a reformed serial killer in a Mexican bar. The film uses the killers story as its basis, but the film is very much a product of Jodorowsky’s imagination. A unique piece of world cinema and a unique horror film at the same time.

2) ANGST (DIR. GERALD KARGL, AUSTRIA, 1983)

Angst is a seriously cold and disturbing piece of European filmmaking. While not for the faint of heart this film pushes the boundaries of the horror film. Angst takes both performances and gore to an unparalleled level of realism while, using an unconventional style of camera work to create a sense of mania. Director Gerald Kargl largely shoots from extreme high and low angles using a rig whereby the 16mm camera seemingly floats above and around the action. This implants the audience in the mind of the serial killer, whether they want to be there or not. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Angst bankrupted the filmmakers, leading them to never make a film again.

3) SUSPIRIA (DIR. DARIO ARGENTO, ITALY, 1977)

The ultimate cross over between the art film and the horror film. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is without question his masterpiece, at least in visual and sonic terms. This film has one of the most powerful scores ever composed for a horror film (by Italian progressive rock band Goblin) and its expressive and colourful cinematography complement it perfectly. Perhaps the only downside to this film is its script, but Argento’s strong direction still manages to maintain huge levels of suspense regardless.

4) TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD (DIR. AMANDO DE OSSORIO, SPAIN, 1972)

This is a fairly classical and very spooky Spanish horror made back in the early 1970’s. It features ghostly figures on horseback carrying out satanic rituals and generally murdering attractive young Spanish ladies. Let’s be honest, what more do you want for Halloween?

5) VIDEODROME (DIR. DAVID CRONENBERG, CANADA, 1983)

Canadian director David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror stars James Woods as a seedy television producer who stumbles upon a strange television channel (videodrome) seemingly dealing in nothing but torture and violence. This disturbing film deals with the effect that increasingly disturbing viewing habits have on the public. This idea manifests itself in the film as a tumor created by videodrome which gradually alters the subject’s perception of reality. This is an intense type of psychological horror unique to Cronenberg’s very particular sensibility.

6) THE EYE (DIR. THE PANG BROTHERS, HONG KONG, 2002)

The Eye is an intensely effective Hong Kong horror. Superbly directed for the majority of the film it falls down in the last act. This said the subtle handling of suspense and scares for the first two thirds makes this film one of the most effective horrors for the last decade or so. It is perhaps even scarier that Hideo Nakata’s The Ring series, which treaded into similarly freaky territory.

7) THE TENANT (DIR. ROMAN POLANSKI, FRANCE, 1976)

Roman Polanski’s French made The Tenant sees him on top form as both director and star. This film sees Polanski working in a claustrophobic setting, which nearly always guarantee’s success for this auteur. Polanski’s ability to show a character slipping gradually into insanity rivals his American made Rosemary’s Baby, but in a sense this film is even darker as the threat comes almost entirely from within. For this reason this is a very European film, as it suggests that sanity is a thin layer that hides our potential madness beneath.

8) GOZU (DIR. TAKASHI MIIKE, JAPAN, 2003)

This film by maverick Japanese director Takashi Miike is as nonsensical and probably as much fun as any Halloween party I’ve been to in recent years. Perhaps not strictly a horror film, it is a crazy mash up of genres with elements of the gangster film and road movie blended together with a good dose of surrealism. While I’m still not quite sure what happened here, it’s definitely one to watch for the moment a reindeer (at least I think that’s what is it!?) appears from nowhere and licks a man in the face.

9) PHANTOM CARRIAGE (DIR. VICTOR SJOSTROM, SWEDEN, 1921)

A super spooky silent film from Sweden, 1921. This film uses primitive filmmaking techniques, such as double exposures and high contrast lighting to tell the story of a legend told between a group of drunkards. The story goes that the last person to die each yeah, if he is a great sinner, will have to drive the grim reapers carriage for the whole of the next year collecting the souls of all those who die. One of the drunks dies at the stroke of midnight and it all goes a bit Christmas Carol from there. Scary stuff!

10) BRAINDEAD (DIR. PETER JACKSON, NEW ZEALAND, 1992)

Before he became one of the most insanely powerful filmmakers in the world Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Tintin 3D, The Hobbit) made films in his native New Zealand, involving men massacring hundreds of zombies with a lawnmower. I know which part of his career I enjoy the most.

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Last week I had the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s much anticipated documentary Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life at its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. I am a great fan of Herzog’s work and I recognise that one key to the success of his films is his presence as a personality.

In Grizzly Man Herzog’s own opinion (put across via voice over) plays counterpoint to the outlook of Timothy Treadwell, the films main character. While Treadwell’s story is fascinating it would be much less interesting without Herzog’s idiosyncratic narration.  As an audience we have come to expect Herzog to feature as a key character in his documentaries (as he did in Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams). This is where Into the Abyss differs.

Into the Abyss tells the tale of a triple homicide in Texas, 2001 which lead to one perpetrator, Michael Perry receiving the death penalty and the other, Jason Burkett, a life sentence. The victims’ families feature prominently as part of Herzog’s investigation, as do a number of other figures including an ex-death house team leader, a death row chaplain and the officers who worked on the case. Herzog’s collection of interview subjects and his interview style successfully gain crucial insight into the crime as well as exploring the overall nature of the death penalty.

Herzog’s approach to this sobering subject is always respectful. His dignified approach is evident in his decision not to use voice over narration as normal, opting for title cards and subtitles to offer key information. Herzog does not want to distract the audience with his own personality and this allows us to focus on the characters whose lives were affected by the initial murders, as well as Michael Perry’s impending execution.

Instead what we are left with is an exploration of a crime that delves deep into the issue of whether it can ever be considered right to take another life. It is a film that does not judge its characters, but it does judge the choices and actions that are made by individuals as well as institutions. Into the Abyss is a tasteful study of a difficult subject which remains sensitive at all times without pulling any punches. It is perhaps the best work of Herzog’s recent, outstanding group of documentaries.

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