Notable Films of the Noughties

18 12 2009

Walking the walk. 'Elephant'

And so here, with all of the usual caveats, and in no particular order, is a list of films that have moved, excited and inspired me over the last ten years.

The Great

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

A long, lazy stroll around the scene of a gathering storm, Elephant uncovers both the very particular, private world of the American teenager and the kind of wider social malaise that finds an outlet in the occasional high school massacre. It’s an angry film in some ways, but also by turns calm, dreamlike, and level-headed, and filled with unforgettable moments (that scene with the bulimic girls: need I say more?).

Syndromes and a Century / Sang sattawat (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)

I’ve said it elsewhere on this ‘blog recently, but to my mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or ‘Joe’ to his friends) is one of the few contemporary film-makers who’s genuinely interested in finding new and exciting possibilities in cinema. This 2006 film tells mirrored stories of love in a rural and an urban Thai hospital, and is my favourite of his. Like all of Apichatpong’s work, the film is split into two halves, with scenes that unfold with a gentle, unforced naturalism, and much to think about once you’ve left the cinema. If you let it (and you should) Syndromes… will hypnotise you. In a good way, of course…

Hidden / Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

A thriller of sorts from everyone’s favourite Bad Santa Michael Haneke. Here the subject matter is class and colonial guilt, and the director’s gaze has never been harsher. Juliette Binoche is intense and French, Daniel Auteuil is conflicted, and the film itself is a veritable puzzle box for the unpicking. Also contains possibly the most shocking cut (so to speak) in Noughties cinema. Ouch!

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Among the Believers

10 12 2009

'The Wicker Man'

A few weeks ago it was my girlfriend’s birthday. To mark the occasion we had a nice Italian meal and a bottle of wine, then sat down to watch a policeman being barbecued alive inside a giant wicker statue. We were watching The Wicker Man of course, and we were doing so partly to mark the passing of Edward Woodward, the film’s star, who died in November at the age of 79.

In The Wicker Man, Woodward plays Sergeant Howie, a strict Presbyterian copper who visits a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Initially finding the locals somewhat uncooperative, the policemen soon uncovers sinister forces at work on the island. To his shock and evident distain, he stumbles across people worshipping phalluses, dancing naked around bonfires and engaging in all kinds of unsavoury pagan activity. “Have ye not heard of Jesus Christ?” he asks some schoolchildren at one point. But it’s evident that neither they, nor their parents, nor the barman’s sensuous daughter (Britt Eckland) have been brought up on the Good Book, a fact that continues to rankle with Howie even as he fights his own, newly-awakened desires. 

The film was made in 1973, and even then Howie would have seemed like a character rather out-of-step with the times. Now, 36 years later, and with Western societies both more multicultural and more secular than ever, it’s hard to imagine that any contemporary character would be so shaken to the core to see his or her religious beliefs challenged.

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Location, Location, One Location

3 12 2009

 

'Paranormal Activity'

If you’re out shopping for, say, a small car or an acre of land, then $15 000 is a reasonable amount of money to have in your back pocket. If, on the other hand, you’re planning to make a feature film, $15 000 is very little indeed.

Yet that’s the amount of money that American director Oren Peli reportedly spent on his debut film Paranormal Activity, a chilling tale of suburban demonic possession that has, in recent months, taken over $107 million at the US box office.

Peli was partly able to keep production costs so low by shooting the film almost entirely within the confines of his own home in San Diego. With a principal cast of two, Peli presents his movie as ‘found footage’ shot by a young couple trying to get to the bottom of spooky goings-on in their house at night. This device largely works, with the director using the confined spaces of his home and some unnerving night-vision footage of the couple sleeping to create a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere that’s ripe for all kinds of shocks.

But if shooting an entire film in one location is easy on the pocket of the cash-strapped film-maker, it throws up some unique challenges too. How do you hold the audience’s attention for 90 minutes or more without a change of scenery? How do you make your film cinematic as opposed to theatrical? And how do you move the camera around in what could be a pretty restricted space?

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