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Number9dream by David Mitchell (2001) 418 p.
I like the idea that an author’s personal travels are reflected in their writing. You can know nothing about Hemingway’s life and still know, from reading his stories, that he travelled to continental Europe, East Africa, the Caribbean and the upper Midwest – and apparently nowhere else. Similarly, David Mitchell’s novels are largely focused on East Asia, as he spent nearly a decade working in Japan as an English teacher. On the other end of the spectrum is Stephen King, who sets virtually everything in his home state. I hope that my own works one day reveal a rich history of globetrotting.
Number9dream, Mitchell’s second novel, takes place entirely in Japan as 19-year old Eiji Miyake travels from his sleepy island home to seek out his long-lost father in Tokyo. This is one of those time-honoured stories about a young man hitting the road with nothing but a guitar case and ten bucks in his pocket, taking a series of crummy jobs and sleeping in a tiny rented room, gradually networking his way through the grand adventure that is life, making friends and falling in love. These stories are always overly romanticised, which is why I tried to write a more realistic one, but I’m a young man myself and I’d be lying if I said they don’t appeal to me.
This novel is something more than that, fortunately, because it is written by David Mitchell, a god among men. Number9dream takes us on a beautifully evocative tour of the gigantic, incomprehensible sweep of Tokyo, the subways and teahouses and love hotels and construction sites, the hackers and gangsters and lawyers and pizza delivery boys. Not only that, but this is a book about dreams and fantasies, the power of the imagination, and Mitchell mixes this in to make a dazzling, fantastic narrative where what is real and what is not are not always distinct.
There are other stories mixed in as Eiji navigates his way through Tokyo. Memories of his childhood on an idyllic island, which reminded me strongly of both a Miyazaki film and Final Fantasy X (with a sports team taking a ferry to another island for a tournament, come on). Bizarre and poetic stories featuring a fairytale character called Goatwriter, perused by Eiji as he sits in an attic. The journal of his great-uncle, a kaiten pilot in World War II. It’s not as pronounced as in Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas, but Mitchell’s talent for voices emerges once again. There are also, as always, some nice links with his other works, in this case a character and a secret government facility from Ghostwritten.
The only problem I had with this book was the story thread in which Eiji falls in with the Yakuza, which I thought was unrealistic, even for a Mitchell novel. Mitchell likes to push all our buttons at once. He wants to write profound literary fiction dripping with beautiful prose, he wants to write about slice-of-life journeys of discovery, and he wants to write about Yakuza gunfights and satellite weapons and post-apocalyptic wastelands. In novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, consisting of distinct narratives where these conflicting urges can be safely filed away in separate drawers, this works a charm. In Number9dream, not so much. Eiji goes from spending an evening with a Yakuza grandmaster, watching men get gunned down and cars explode as though he’s a character in Grand Theft Auto, to sitting in his apartment on a hot summer night ruminating on the mysteries of life with his girlfriend. The Yakuza chapters are brilliant, they just don’t fit with the rest of the book at all. Similarly, I found the Goatwriter stories to be tedious, and the great-uncle’s WWII journal to be surprisingly mediocre for such a rich opportunity.
On the whole, Number9dream was better than Ghostwritten, but not quite as good as Cloud Atlas or Black Swan Green. It’s still an amazing, awesome trip through a fascinating world with a gifted author as a guide, always readable, always intriguing, every page covered with beautiful sentences and paragraphs. I discovered David Mitchell at the beginning of this year, reading Cloud Atlas in Japan; now, on the last day of the year, I’ve finished reading his collected works and he has become my favourite author. How appropriately cyclical. Happy New Year!
P.S. Reading a few other reviews I’ve come across the notion that Mitchell is “looting” from Haruki Murakami. While this book clearly owes a debt to the tone and themes of Murakami’s works, David Mitchell is one of the greatest writers of his generation, whereas Haruki Murakami is one of the worst. Point, match, Britain.
10. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Directed by Ari Folman
Starring Ari Folman, Ron Ben-Yishai
“Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Happy New Year.”
When Ari Folman set out to make a documentary about his experiences in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the massacre of civilians that haunted his memory, he used animation simply as a matter of convenience. He didn’t have the budget to recreate large-scale battle scenes. In making this decision, he has created one of the most beautifully animated films of all time – the wash of streetlights over his avatar’s speeding car, the light of signal flares slowly descending over Beirut, the slavering of vicious dogs running through a cafe – and fully enhanced the possibilities of his film. Only through animation can he explore the dreams, the nightmares, the memories, the fantasies, the possibilities.
This film is not just a reconstruction of Folman’s experiences, but an exploration of the insufferable guilt he felt over his part in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Hundreds or even thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were slaughtered by a Lebanese Christian militia, which was under the command of the IDF. Israeli commanders were indirectly complicit in genocide. I won’t detail Folman’s personal role in the massacre; suffice to say that some might think his feelings of personal guilt to be strange, given how far removed he was from the actual killings. That would be to miss the point entirely. Waltz With Bashir focuses on the massacre only in the final twenty-five minutes, yet the theme of the film is clear: knowledge of wrongdoing grants an obligation to stop it. Failure to act equals consent. Or, as Roger Ebert put it, “Truman was dreaming. The buck never stops.”
9. Oldboy (2003)
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong
“You stayed in this place for fifteen years?”
“Yeah, but after eleven it felt like home.”
This film is beloved by my 18-25 year old demographic mostly for its admittedly awesome single-take corridor fight scene, in which the protagonist faces off against a horde of thugs with nothing more than a claw hammer. But Oldboy is far more than that. Beautifully shot, acted and directed, it is a powerful story about a Korean man named Oh Dae-su who is imprisoned, for reasons unknown to him, for fifteen years. Following his release, he sets out to track down his jailor and exact revenge.
But this is not some Asian action flick, some blood-drenched B-movie with only the flimsiest of plots to support it. It is a fascinating, almost Tarantino-esque world of quirky dialogue and stylised violence, yet with great thematic weight behind those appealing aesthetics. Dae-su’s tormentor had very precise reasons for his imprisonment, as part of his own scheme for revenge, which culminates in one of the most shocking and gut-wrenching plot twists I’ve ever seen. Oldboy is a brilliant film – perhaps not brilliant enough for me to remove South Korea from my Enemy List, but brilliant nonetheless.
8. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze
“Every creature on this Earth dies alone.”
As with Pan’s Labyrinth, so with Donnie Darko: the thing that attracts me to this film is Frank. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a teenager who has recently gone off his meds, and begins to have visions of a demonic rabbit named Frank warning him that the world is going to end within the month. Mixed with a disturbing soundtrack, Frank is (like the Pale Man) one of cinema’s greatest monsters: a nondescript rabbit suit, with a mask that is freakishly twisted, with sharp jutting teeth and cold empty eyes.
The movie has merit beyond that, of course, or it wouldn’t have earned such a high place on the list. It’s a protrait of the loneliness, awkward love and blossoms of rebellion that mark everyone’s teenage years, and yet it achieves this without ever once feeling angsty or self-obssessed. Maybe it’s because Donnie isn’t really angsty or self-obssessed; he has more important things to worry about. Kelly achieves an apprehensive tone similar to Shyamalan’s better films, as Donnie is confronted by his inner demons and deals with them as best he can.
Without Frank, of course, this film would drop several slots down the list.
7. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Cristoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent
“You see, we’re in the business of killin’ Nazis, and boy, business is boomin’.”
Watching a director renowned for his quirky pop culture references, stylised violence and odd sense of humour direct a film set in World War II was quite weird. Try comparing something like Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill to Inglourious Basterds, a film where the dialogue is in equal parts English, French and German. You can’t do it. The mind rejects it.
I’m really torn over whether Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds is better. I give Pulp Fiction the benefit of the doubt, because it’s enshrined in retrospective nostalgia whereas I saw Basterds a couple of months ago. But something about this movie just feels so right. It’s a perfect Tarantino film, which makes it a perfect film. You simply don’t get characters like Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) in any other film. You don’t get such memorable, heart-grindingly tense scenes as the cellar tavern sequence in other films. And you most certianly don’t get those moments where characters gleefully lean all the way over the boundary into parody before drawing back at the last second, as exemplified in Basterds by the scene where Winston Churchill and a general played by Mike Myers brief a British spy on his mission, with delightful English stereotypes up the wazoo to the point where you’re grinning as broadly as you can, but not actually laughing.
Tarantino crafts larger than life characters and sets them loose on the world with a relish. You don’t watch a film like Inglourious Basterds so much as you let it take hold of you by the throat and shove itself in your face, and I love the goddamn thing.
6. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor
“I told you I’d finish you! I told you I’d eat you up!”
This is a movie that is quite easily called a classic, but it’s a classic in a grand and impersonal sense, like Citizen Kane. Vast and cold and dark – oh yes, very dark. It’s also a tedious film, yet a fascinating one, something you cannot turn away from.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives us one of the greatest performances of the decade as money-hungry oil baron Daniel Plainview, a man who is obsessed with making himself a fortune for no reason other than the money itself. Along the way he accumulates power and influence, sitting on the porch of his house and drinking whiskey. He is a strong-willed man, a dangerous man, and an utterly joyless man. He has no friends or family, save for an adopted son that he uses as a prop to secure contracts. When a charlatan claiming to be his half-brother comes into his life, Plainview confides in him: “I have a competition in me. I want no-one else to succeed. I hate most people… there are times when I look at people and see nothing worth liking.” This, Anderson argues, is what truly lies at the heart of capitalism: not money, not even greed, but dominion.
There are many films that, while already great, are propelled into magnificence by the strength of their fascinating protagonist. Taxi Driver was such a film; so is There Will Be Blood. This is a brilliant film, and it rests upon the shoulders of a titan.
5. The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, John Hurt
“I will civilise this land.”
Australian cinema tends to struggle a lot, so if this film is perhaps a few rungs higher than it should be, I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s a matter of pride. This is, in my opinion, the greatest Australian film ever made. It is a film of horrific violence, of terrible places, of atrocious people. It is a film that feels real.
The Proposition is set in the 1880s of Outback Australia. The environment is captured perfectly, the cinematography and the set design thrusting into the viewer’s face a sense of the blinding sun, the burning air, the oppressive heat and dirt and sweat that any Australian who has ventured outside our air-conditioned cities can attest to. It is a bushranger story, in a sense, focusing on the Burns gang, a group of Irish criminals who have recently raped and massacred a family of innocent settlers. The film opens with the capture of two gang members, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns, by the local British garrison officer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Both are destined for the gallows, but Stanley offers Charlie a proposition: if he can find and kill his brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the gang leader, by Christmas Day, then Mikey shall be spared.
Thus begins an odyssey of violence, of poetry, of the depth of the human soul laid bare. Several critics have said that it is a cinematic counterpart to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, an epic of unrelenting brutality, of harsh landscapes, of deeper ruminations on the nature of man. Winstone, Huston and John Hurt (playing a gnarled and ancient bounty hunter) all turn in excellent performances. The cinematography, as mentioned before, is simultaneously beautiful and bleak. The soundtrack and screenplay were both written by Nick Cave, one of Australia’s premier poets and songwriters, and – as a man whom, I have commented several times, looks as I imagine the Devil to look when he goes to Georgia to harvest souls in fiddle competitions – is uniquely qualified to craft a film like this.
Gallipoli is most often cited as Australia’s greatest film, but although it is well-crafted it is hypocritical; despite portraying young lives tragically cut short for stupid and wasteful reasons, it still radiates a vibe of noble sacrifice, of nationalism and baptism by fire, and was instrumental in creating the blood cult that surrounds the event in modern Australia. The Proposition, on the other hand, is well aware of the brutality and injustice of violence. It is deeper, more meaningful, and infinitely more deserving of a place as Australia’s greatest film.
4. Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette (English)
“Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.”
When discussing Howl’s Moving Castle further up, I said that it was my favourite Miyazaki film but not his objective best. This movie is his objective best.
It’s a difficult film to describe. A fairytale, I suppose, in a Japanese animation kind of way. A young girl named Chihiro is travelling to a new town with her parents when they come across an abandoned amusement park. Amongst the deserted stalls they find one brimming with food, which her parents tuck into greedily. Chihiro explores further, and as spirits emerge at nightfall she returns in fright to find her parents transformed into pigs. And then, you know how it is, these things escalate and before you know it you’re in servitude to an evil old crone working in a bathhouse surrounded by frogs and radish spirits.
I’ve already talked about Miyazaki’s beautiful animation, his attention to detail in a traditionally detail-free medium, but there are so many beautiful little things that make Spirited Away such a cogent whole. The quiet spirits on a 19th-century railcar; the happy mouth of No-Face as he shoves pie into it as the edge of a scene; the way heavy rain floods the entire world, as it would in a dream. “Apart from the stories and dialogue,” Roger Ebert writes, “Spirited Away is a pleasure to regard just for itself.” I can think of no better way of putting it.
3. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Directed by the Coen Brothers
Starring Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
“It’s your lucky quarter. Don’t put it in your pocket. It’ll get mixed with the others and become… just a coin. Which it is.”
This film is in many ways a brother to There Will Be Blood. Both were filmed in the same area of Texas, both were released on Boxing Day 2007, and both are extremely dark Western masterpieces. But while I often describe There Will Be Blood as “fascinating, but tedious,” No Country For Old Men is an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller.
Llewellyn Moss, a stonefaced Texan hunter played by Josh Brolin, stumbles across a failed drug deal in the middle of the desert. Like an Old West caravan, the trucks are drawn up in a circle and corpses are strewn all about. Moss silently examines the carnage and tracks the only survivor to the shade of a lone tree on a hill, where he has died after trying to escape with a briefcase containing two million dollars.
Moss takes the money and runs, and finds himself pursued by a monster named Anton Chigurh, a killing machine dispatched by the drug lords to retrieve the money. Chigurh is one of the greatest characters film has ever seen: an utterly remorseless killing machine. His motives are unclear; he is certainly not in it for the money, and he seems completely indifferent to killing. He is not a sociopath, but instead is more akin to a natural disaster, completely detached, a personification of the universe’s indifference towards us. He displays no emotion, other than slight annoyance when his victims inevitably say “You don’t have to do this.”
What this story is ultimately about, however, is Sheriff Bell, played perfectly by Tommy Lee Jones. Bell is an old man, perplexed and astonished that such a creature as Chigurh can even exist, acutely aware by the movie’s end that he no longer has a place in this land.
2. The Life Aquatic (2004)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett
“Klaus? You’re A-Squad.”
I thought long and hard about giving this – a movie that can be accurately described as both “quirky” and “zany” – the second place on the list, before deciding that yes, fuck it, The Life Aquatic really is that good. Wes Anderson has never been a director to truly fill me with delight. He crafted good films, perhaps even great films, but nothing I ever enjoyed so greatly as this. I suspect that it is more Bill Murray than Wes Anderson that makes this film so resoundingly fantastic.
Mirroring himself, Bill Murray plays Steve Zissou, an oceanographer/documentarian/adventurer who has lived a long and illustrious career, but feels struck down with a considerable sadness and ennui. This is partly due to the death of his longtime partner Esteban, who was eaten by a previously undiscovered “jaguar shark” right in front of his eyes. Zissou takes his boat and his crew and sets out on one final expedition, to track and kill the shark, purely for revenge.
Anderson has crafted a beautiful world, an eccentric world, a world of whimsy and wonder. Zissou’s ship sails from Mediterranean film festivals to tropical pirate hideouts, crewed by an odball collection of unlikely heroes. One of the sailors plays David Bowie songs in Portuguese, Jeff Goldblum captains a spartan rival vessel crewed by vaguely Aryan sailors, and Zissou leads his crew, armed with Glocks and dynamite, in a “lightning strike rescue op” where they attempt to rescue their bond company stooge from his Filipino abductors. And yet it never seems quite zany; against all the odds, it maintains its knife-blade balance between comedy and sincerity. Towards the end of the film, tragedy enters, and it feels entirely appropriate.
Murray plays a weary, flippant man in only the way that Bill Murray can. The movie is intricately detailed, with new pieces of dialogue or costume or plot quirks noticed upon every subsequent viewing. The set design is meticulous down to the last pot plant and paperweight. The soundtrack is fantastic. The characters, even minor ones, are all unique and loveable in their own odd ways. Every piece of this film unites into a greater whole.
This is, perhaps, not the movie for you. I understand that it’s a niche film, that people will either love it or hate it. But if you die without ever finding time to watch it at least once, do not expect me to buy you a beer in heaven. Because you will be in hell. Hell, sir.
1. Children of Men (2006)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Caine
“It’s a miracle, innit?”
The reason I love this film above any other of the decade is that it is the most atmospheric movie I have ever seen.
Children of Men delivers us into the grimy, bleak and oppressive world of 2027, where no human beings have been born for 18 years. Clive Owen is everyman Theo Faron, who trudges through a life devoid of hope with millions of other Britons, wondering what the point of living is in a world that has no future, until he is approached by his ex-wife to help transport something precious (guess what) across the country.
Cuaron’s dystopian United Kingdom is reminiscent of the early scenes of Half-Life 2 (one of the greatest video games of this decade) in which Valve painstakingly created a grimy, dystopian police state that exudes an air of depression and misery. It is the tiny details in this film that work so well: the graffiti slogans, the advertisements for government euthenasia, the throwaway lines and the background objects. William Gibson once said that the most important element of science fiction is the minute details, which he used to great effect in Neuromancer, and which has been used perfectly in Children of Men.
The moment I realised I was watching a masterpiece was in a scene that takes place as five characters are driving down a rural road and are suddenly attacked by bandits. In a single-take action scene, they reverse back down the road, sustain a casualty, manage to kill two pursuers on a motorcycle and then escape onto a main road. It’s not fast-paced, there’s no music and it’s shot in a single take. It is, as Roger Ebert said, superior to any whirlybird shaky camera action in the Bourne series, and one of the most intense moments I have ever seen in a film.
A lot of people are put off by this movie because it is “bleak” or “depressing.” This is an odd argument, which essentially translates into saying that real life is bleak and depressing, but it’s also a false argument. Children of Men depicts a world where the sound of a baby crying brings an entire battlefield to a sudden, grinding halt. That’s anything but bleak.
20. Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Sam Astin, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen
“Do they, Gandalf?”
I read the Lord of the Rings when I was eleven because my uncle lent it to me, saying I’d love it, and I didn’t want to let him down. Maybe I was too young for it, but I still think it’s a bad book. It’s incredibly tedious and awfully paced. The only volume that’s decent is the first one, which is just about a bunch of guys on a quest through a fantastic world. In the second two books Tolkien starts masturbating with all his elf languages and regal dynasties and topographical maps and my mind just switched off.
While the second and third movies are far more watchable than their corresponding books were readable, the first is by far the best. It’s surprisingly easy to separate them for a trilogy that’s so closely bound; Fellowship of the Ring has a group of nine people travelling across snowbound mountains and through orc-infested dungeons, and the other two have people running every which way and kings sticking their noses into shit and Frodo and Sam doing basically nothing for two movies except trudge through a wasteland. Yeah, Fellowship is definitely the best.
19. United 93 (2006)
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Christian Clemenson, David Alan Basche, Cheyenne Jackson
“What the fuck good is it gonna do if we get up there and we can’t fly the plane?”
Forget the Iraq War, forget Bin Laden, forget George Bush, forget Dick Cheney, forget extraordinary renditions, forget the conveniently worded PATRIOT Act, forget weapons of mass destruction, forget Guantanamo Bay, forget the United States’ use of torture, forget the War on Terror. Forget the development of the phrase “nineleven” as a cheap political get-out-of-jail-free card. Forget the entire geopolitical clusterfuck that followed September 11, the invasions of two countries, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Take yourself back to the day when it happened. When innocent people on planes were suddenly swept up into shocking violence, into world-shattering events, into tests of courage. A sudden intrusion of animal instincts into the ordinary, civilised world. Push versus shove. Time to make a stand.
This is not a poltical movie. This is a painstakingly recreated version of what happened on United Airlines Flight 93, the plane with passengers who fought against their hijackers and in doing so probably saved hundreds of lives. It takes place in realtime, intercutting scenes on the plane with scenes in varous air traffic control and military centres. It is a fly-on-the-wall documentary; we know nothing about the characters, not even their names. This is why it is so powerfully effective – because it feels like we’re right there with them, sitting in the seat across the aisle. Their dialogue and mannerisms are so convincingly real that it feels like a documentary, something that I mistook for a low budget when I first saw this on TV.
I often watch television out the corner of my eye when I’m on the computer. The moment in United 93 when I swivelled my chair around was when the terrorists make their move, stabbing a passenger and a flight attendent, taking control of the plane. It is a chaotic and terrifying moment, disrupting the casual normalcy that has been built up in the way that a horror film would build suspense. As the film progressed I moved over to the couch, and as it concluded I was sweating and my heart was pounding. The scenes are filmed with shocking clarity and realism. We know how this turns out, and yet we scream inside our heads anyway for the passengers to prevail – because it feels as if we too are on that plane, our own lives dependent on their success. No other movie has ever wrenched my emotions as much as this one did.
This could have been a very different film. It could have been a typical Hollywood film, with chiselled-jaw heroes and speeches about the glory of America and personal romantic subplots. It is not, and for that I am eternally grateful. To watch this film is to be taken back to that shocking, gut-wrenching day in 2001, when thousands of people were murdered and the brave actions of a few ordinary men earned them a place in history. United 93 is a masterful piece of cinema, and a fitting tribute to their heroism.
18. Signs (2002)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
“I can’t hear my children.”
Everybody knows this movie is about aliens, but when it first arrived on screens the trailers and advertising were ambiguous. There’s a good reason for that. Even without aliens, this is a suspenseful and disquieting film. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former priest living on a corn farm with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). His wife died in a recent car accident, causing him to lose his faith, and it is implied that Merrill moved in to help Graham take care of the children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin).
Graham is clearly discontent with his life, frightened and angry with the world in the absence of God. His inner torment is reflected in the outer world, which is full of disturbing portents. His daughter screams out in the cornfields. One of his dogs attacks his children, and Morgan kills it with a barbecue fork. Wind chimes tingle and Graham stands on the porch of his dilapidated farmhouse staring out over those vast fields. Something is wrong. We can feel it, even before the crop circles show up.
This is Shyamalan’s natural talent: not the plot twists for which he is renowned, but rather the ability to create eerie anxiety as powerful as that in any Hitchcock film. He went wrong in The Village by giving an explanation when none was needed; he went (appallingly) wrong in The Happening by amplifying this breathless fear to the point where it became laughable. Signs strikes the perfect balance. When the aliens do show up, it is gradually, and with a low-key dread. It’s often said, but rarely heeded, that what we can’t see is scarier than what we can. Obviously it doesn’t get said enough, since Shyamalan is one of few filmmakers who abides by this rule. We see a leg in a cornfield. A reflection in the blade of a knife. Grainy TV news footage, aided immensely in its impact by Phoenix’s acting and James Newton Howard’s brilliant score. He pushes the envelope a little too far in the climax, with CGI that became quickly dated, but the rest of the film is so perfect that I will easily forgive him that.
People who complain about the plot holes in this film miss the point entirely. Signs is not a science fiction movie, to be niggled and prodded and poked to see if it stands up under light. It is a horror, a suspense and a character drama. It creates an atmosphere humid with apprehension and delivers some of the best jump-out shock moments in cinema history, moments so well crafted they almost feel like a wholly original technique. This was the last good film Shyamalan made this decade, possibly the last one he’ll ever make, but it’s a greater film than many directors can ever dream of.
17. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal
“What can a slumdog possibly know?”
The word that comes to mind about Slumdog Millionaire is “colourful,” but that does not even begin to do it justice. My vocabulary is insufficient to describe this movie because my vocabulary is insufficient to describe India. That’s the word for it – “India,” a gigantic portrait of India in all her beauty and all her squalor, strengths and sores laid open for the world to see. I think I first described this movie as a biopic of India, which is obviously stretching the definition a bit, but you can see what I mean metaphorically.
Slumdog Millionaire is a rags-to-riches story about how Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is close to winning twenty million rupees on the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He is getting the crap kicked out of him by the police, who believe he has been cheating, because a slumdog could never know the answers to such difficult questions. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the story of Jamal’s life, and understand why he knows the answers – because he remembers everything he learns.
Boyle uses a rushing soundtrack, energetic cinematography and the momentum of Malik’s personal tale to make this movie erupt with dazzling colour on the screen. It’s a whirlwind story of all the kinds Bollywood loves to make: romance, crime, drama and mystery. A triumph of craft.
16. The Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman
“The bandit. In Burma. Did you catch him?”
“We burned the forest down.”
IMDB’s user-generated ranking list currently rates The Dark Knight as the eighth-greatest film of all time, scoring higher than movies like Star Wars, Casablanca, Goodfellas and Fight Club. This is clearly wrong, but it does serve as an example of the wide appeal this film has. This superhero comic book film.
I never got into the superhero mythos, not even as a kid, because I found it to be fundamentally silly. There’s no other word for it, except perhaps “cheesy.” The idea of people dressing up in tights and capes to “fight crime” never struck me as particularly cool, and as I grew older the ideas of “vigilantism” and “accountability” became relevant. BADGES NOT MASKS, as the protestors in Alan Moore’s Watchmen put it.
So the brilliant thing about Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is how mature they are, how they do away with the campiness and replace it with a view into the dark abyss of evil. “The Dark Knight plays more along the lines of a psychological horror film like Seven or a fast-paced action thriller like Heat,” I wrote last year.”This is a movie for adults, not children, leaving behind the familiar world inspired by childhood fantasies and venturing into the rugged territory of artistic merit.”
While the thing people will remember most about The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger’s swansong perfomance as the Joker, a twisted and haunted soul wreaking havoc across Gotham City in his disgusting fungal makeup, the rest of the film should not be forgotten. It’s a superbly cast and acted movie with an excellent script and a gifted director, and easily the greatest superhero movie ever made.
15. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez i Ayats, Doug Jones
“Please, Ofelia, call him father. It’s just a word.”
One of my favourite books is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which tells of two magicians living in England at a time when a fairy realm exists alongside it – not fairies with pink wings who twinkle in buttercups, but traditional fairies, fairies who live in hill-forts and castles in gloomy forests at the edge of stormy seas, who kidnap human children and use them as slaves, fairies of immense beauty but capable of horrific cruelty. “If cats looked like toads,” Terry Pratchett wrote in a similar book, Lords and Ladies, “we’d see them for the cruel bastards they are.”
Pan’s Labyrinth is a fantasy story in the same vein, relating the tale of Ofelia, a girl living in 1940’s Spain with her mother and horrible military stepfather. She escapes from a world of partisan battles and facsism by exploring the ancient fantasy world within the crumbling stone labyrinth near their mansion. The world she discovers may be fantastic, but it is no less frightening and dangerous than the real one.
del Toro has made a beautiful film, where special effects and costumes meld seamlessly with brilliant cinematography to create a fantasy world of spellbinding horrors and delights. It’s also a powerfully thematic work of art, dealing with issues such as freedom and choice in the face of fascism. But I am a fantasy/sci-fi geek at heart, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that what I dig most about this movie is the Pale Man: one of the greatest monsters ever created in cinema, a disgusting creature with detached eyes, hanging folds of skin and disturbingly bent legs, sitting at his banquet table and waiting, waiting, waiting for a child to break the rules.
14. Moon (2009)
Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
“Gerty… is there someone else in the room?”
Moon is a very sparse film. There is, strictly speaking, a single character. It takes place in a single location (spoiler: on the moon) and features a minimum of special effects. Yet it is not sparse in the way “2001: A Space Odyssey” is, marvelling the audience with the incomprehensible grandeur of space. It is a human story, intensely personal and moving.
Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an American astronaut and sole crew member of a lunar mining station owned by a Korean corporation. He’s approaching the end of a three-year contract, and with only pre-recorded videos from Earth (with a hint of something not quite right with his wife) and his robotic companion Gerty (Kevin Spacey) for company, he’s starting to go a little stir-crazy. Having also worked an unreasonably long contract for a heartless Korean corporation, I can sympathise. Sam’s cabin fever is starting to have serious effects: he sees someone sitting in his chair while pouring coffee and badly burns himself, and while driving a rover out to inspect some mining machinery, he has another ghostly hallucination and crashes. Waking up safe and sound with Gerty tending to him in the medical bay, he finds one spacesuit and one rover missing. Taking the spares out, he drives back to the crash site and finds… himself, comatose inside a wrecked rover.
I’m going to stop there, because Jones intends the viewer to be as confused as Sam is. It works quite well, and the movie shifts gears from a psychological suspense film into a profound experience. It’s very lonely and very sad, brimming with sterile environments and existential misery. It contains one of the most human moments in cinema – coming from a robot. By the end of the film you’re pouring sympathy out onto the screen for this poor, wretched, miserable man who just wants to go home. It’s a triumph of science fiction.
You’ll also notice that unlike every film critic on the planet, I got through this without mentioning that the director is David Bowie’s son, because it is fucking irrelevant.
13. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Starring Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush
“Now… bring me that horizon.”
WHAT THE FLYING FUCK HAPPENED TO MY PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN IMAGE?
I’m in two minds about the Pirates films, with this one having spawned two corpulent sequels universally condemnded for their needlessly complex double-crossing plots, and with a fourth in the works. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are huge, loud, messy films that take everything about the original and crank it up to full volume, blowing the speakers out and ruining what we loved in the first place. But they also contain some of the most fantastic (in the classical sense) elements of the world: Davy Jones the squid-mouthed captain, the dry salt plains of the Locker, the deadly Kraken, a Caribbean calypso goddess and the barnacle-encrusted sea monsters of the Flying Dutchman. Compared to these colourful outings, the first film almost seems pedestrian, merely boasting undead skeletal pirates.
But it also has a logical plot, which I think we can agree is vital to a good film. Popcorn movies are funny things. All the special effects and big set pieces won’t save you if you don’t have loveable characters and a script that is, at the very least, tolerable. (This is why The Mummy is an objectively great film and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not). In any case, I’m now on two paragraphs and all I’ve done is talk about the sequels to this movie. I guess they grind my gears.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is an awesome movie. It’s swashbuckling in the extreme. It has Johnny Depp being a hilarious semi-drunken pirate, Geoffrey Rush being typically brilliant, and lots of awesome battles and fights and adventures. You don’t need me to tell you any of this. We’ve all seen it. Good old Pirates of the Caribbean. You warm my heart, you do.
12. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Jean Simmons, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal (English translation)
“The best part of that spell is that you can’t tell anyone about it. My regards to Howl.”
This is not the greatest of Miyazaki’s films by objective standards, but it is far and away my personal favourite. It reaches deep inside me and tugs at my childhood spirit of adventure. Based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, the sequel of which I greatly enjoyed as a youngster, Howl’s Moving Castle tells the tale of Sophie, a young woman who works in a hat shop in a fantasy world reminiscent of 19th century Europe. A chance encounter with the flirtatious Wizard Howl leads to another encounter with one of Howl’s jealous, unrequited loves – a witch, who transforms Sophie into a rickety old woman. Fleeing her hometown, Sophie finds Howl’s Moving Castle in the wilderness, and is taken onboard as a cleaning lady, becoming part of Howl’s close circle of friends and associates.
It doesn’t have the tight narrative of Spirited Away, or the classic timelessness of My Neighbour Totoro, or even the wonderful visuals of Ponyo, but Howl’s Moving Castle provides me with a Ghibli film that slots neatly into the category of “assembling an oddball crew on a strange vehicle” (see also: Cowboy Beboy, Firefly, #2 on this list). And for that I cherish it. It’s a movie about a gigantic, wheezing, creaking steampunk castle that roams the countryside on its claw-like legs, powered by a magical fire voiced by Billy Crystal and ruled by a charismatic and dashing young wizard voiced by Christian Bale. How can you not love it?
11. Atonement (2007)
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan
“Atonement begins on joyous gossamer wings,” Roger Ebert writes, “and descends into an abyss of tragedy and loss.” There is certainly something enchanting about the film’s first act, set on a hot summer day in an English country manor. Something palpable about the heat, the refreshing coolness of the fountain, the verdant shadows by the forested brook. By the day’s end, something horrific has happened and an innocent man (Robbie, played by James McAvoy) is on his way to prison based on the testimony of a child – a girl named Briony (Saoirse Ronan) who is wrong, clearly wrong, but who knows she is right with the absolute surety only a child can command.
The film is no less powerful as it goes on, following Robbie as he drifts through the wreckage of World War II, British forces in rout after their defeat on the French border. There is one absolutely stunning shot, a single take of nearly five minutes length, that details the messy chaos at Dunkirk as troops await evacuation – the shooting of horses, the burning of documents, the sabotage of equipment, half the soldiers doing their jobs and the other half singing and brawling and drinking. The cinematography throughout this movie is unparalleled: every shot is perfectly composed, every character in the right place and every scene beautifully or originally filmed.
It also has a shocking plot twist at the end, one that forces us to question everything that went before and leaves us with a deep question on the nature of atonement. At first I thought the ending was supposed to reveal the atonement that Briony has finally achieved. The more I consider it the less I’m sure. It may be that, even in the final scenes as she makes her confession to an interviewer, she is still digging herself deeper into that pit of betrayal and selfishness.
30. Memento (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano
“I have this condition…”
Every now and then you see a film that does something really, truly original. Memento is such a film. I suppose it’s technically a thriller, since it follows one man’s quest to find and kill the man who murdered his wife. He is hindered by his medical condition, inflicted by the same man in the same attack: a brain injury that has left him with short-term memory loss. He remembers the last twenty minutes or so, and his whole life leading up to the attack, but everything between that is blank. To keep himself focused, he has tattoos on his body constantly reminding him what happened and what his mission is, and he regularly takes notes and Polaroids as new information comes his way.
In order to keep the viewers as adrift as the protagonist, Memento takes place in reverse chronological order, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. We are pushed into scenes as abruptly and confusingly as he is, and not only does this work, but it works in a movie that has a complex plot and still manages to be understood after only a single viewing. It’s easy to come up with a gimmick, harder to pull it off, and almost impossible to pull it off really well. Nolan succeeds at all of these tasks, and proves himself a gifted director.
29. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Directed by Sam McKay
Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd
“So damn hot… milk was a bad choice!”
I was going to say that the noughties were a dry decade for comedy, before realising that film in general has never been that funny to me, barring a few exceptions. I guess for a generation raised on the comic majesty of the Simpsons, nothing is ever going to compare.
The standout comedy of the decade is, for me and many others my age, Anchorman, which walks a fine line between high-brow and low-brow. For every physical stunt or toilet joke there’s an improvised one-liner or a joke that relies on the excessive verbiage of the characters. It’s goofy, stupid fun in the spirit of Austin Powers, relying heavily on the ability of its lead actor, who is thankfully up to the task.
28. Gone Baby, Gone (2007)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris
“A four-year old child is on the street. It’s seventy-six hours and counting. And the prospects for where she might be are beginning to look grim, you understand? Half of all the children in these cases are killed, flat out. If we don’t catch the abductor by day one, only about ten per cent are ever solved. This is day three.”
As an actor Ben Affleck has always been something of a joke, so it was astonishing to see him craft such a perfect film on his very first attempt at directing. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone follows private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Affleck’s younger brother Casey) and Angela Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) as they are hired to solve the abduction of a young girl in Boston.
Besides being a superbly written and cast police procedural, Gone Baby Gone is a study into the best and worst parts of human nature – the shocking, horrific things people are capabale of when they are trying to do the right thing. At the climax of the film Kenzie is faced with an almost impossible decision, an excruciating pick between two evils. He makes the same choice I would have. Is it the right one? Who knows?
27. Shrek (2001)
Directed by Andrew Adamson
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Drew Barrymore, John Lithgow
“All right, you’re going the right way for a smacked bottom.”
The important thing to remember about Shrek is that it is not Shrek Two, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, Shrek The Halls, Puss In Boots: The Story of An Ogre Killer or any of the other twenty thousand sequels and spin-offs that Dreamworks has vomited forth in their scramble to suck as much money out of the franchise as possible. Shrek is the best example since The Land Before Time of a wonderful, successful film that gave birth to a long dynasty of progressively awful sequels.
The first film is a great family movie, perhaps the best family movie of the decade – suitable for both kids and adults, plenty of in-jokes, sly and satirical, but still possessing loveable characters and genuine sentiment. There’s not a lot more to say about it. It’s Shrek.
26. Cast Away (2000)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
“I would rather take my chances out there on the ocean than stay here and die on this shithole island spending the rest of my life talking to a goddamn VOLLEYBALL!”
It takes a powerful actor to go through nearly an entire film with only a volleyall for company, and Tom Hanks is that actor. Playing Chuck Noland, a time-obsessed FedEx employee who rushes packages all over the world, he suddenly survives a plane crash and finds himself stranded on a South Pacific island where time doesn’t matter at all.
Bookended by largely irrelevant scenes in the United States, the focus of the film is obviously Chuck’s time on the island, where he learns to survive, copes with bitter loneliness and eventually makes a reckless gamble to escape. We see Chuck – in largely dialogue-free scenes – building fire, splitting coconuts, catching fish, signalling to a rescue boat and climbing a mountain. This is a situation everybody (or at least every boy) imagines themselves to be in as a child, after reading adventure books and comics and daydreaming of survival scenarios. What we don’t think about is the hardship, the misery, the solitude and the danger. The attempted suicide, the realisation that you have absolutely no control over anything, and the eventual return to a world that has moved on without you.
And as if this film wasn’t already brilliant enough, it made people cry over a volleyball. Goddamn.
25. Lost In Translation (2003)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Bill Murray, Scarlet Johansson
“For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”
I once said that Japan was as foreign and alien a society as one could find while still remaining on Earth. After actually visiting it I rescinded my statement, but perhaps I was too hasty. I was only on a three-week vacation, after all – I never really had to interact with the Japanese beyond pointing at something in a shop. I spent three months working in Korea and nearly hurled myself off the balcony of my apartment, so, yes, East Asian society can be quite frustrating and confusing.
Lost In Translation is a film about middle age, and loneliness, and ennui and unhappiness. All of these factors are enhanced by setting the film in Tokyo, that colossal and intimidating sprawl of faceless crowds and neon landscapes. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a middle-aged American actor doing a whiskey commercial when he could be making a movie; Scarlet Johansson plays Charlotte, a young woman who is accompanying her photographer husband on an assignment. The two of them meet in the same hotel and feel… something. Not love, because that would be too easy and unrealistic, but there is a connection and they both know it and they both know they cannot act upon it, because it exists in Japan only. They help each through their problems, failing to solve them but at least discussing them. They share a kinship for a while, and then go home.
Coppola has crafted an extraordinary film, one that avoids following the obvious course and instead explores more interesting avenues. It’s also a funny film, a comedy of manners, playing off the bizarre quirks of the Japanese and the wearily bemused reactions of Bill Murray. Murray really is one of the most interesting actors alive, loveably versatile, and it’s no coincidence that his recent films (this one, and another further down the list) are clearly, to some extent, reflections of his own dissastisfaction with the turns his life and career have taken. His performance in Lost In Translation is profoundly moving, not just because of a strong script and strong partner, but because it’s so genuine.
24. Kill Bill (2003/2004)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Uma Thurman, David Carridine, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen
“You’re not a bad person. You’re a terrific person. You’re my favourite person. But every once in a while, you can be a real cunt.”
When the first Kill Bill movie came out, I was fifteen. It was the first Tarantino film I’d ever seen and I spent most of it staring at the screen in frustration saying “Why doesn’t somebody just pull out a gun and SHOOT her? Bang, problem solved! There’s a REASON we don’t use swords anymore!” Twenty-one year old me wants to travel back in time and slap fifteen-year old me upside the head for being a stupid fucking idiot. If I’d watched Reservoir Dogs at that age I probably would have said, “Why the fuck did he confess to being a cop?! He was going to die anyway!” YOU ARE A STUPID FUCKING IDIOT YOU STUPID FUCKING IDIOT
Despite having grown older and wiser, I still find it immensely satisfying when the Bride cops a shotgun blast to the chest in the second volume. Largely for that – and because the second volume is more dialogue driven, more Western, somehow more Tarantino than the first – I considered listing the second here alone. Instead I’ve opted to count them as a single film. They are, after all.
I don’t think this is one of Tarantino’s best films, not by a long shot, but I do feel that of his entire canon, this is the one he wanted to make the most. You can tell he’s enjoying himself, cramming together all this bloody pulp mayhem into four hours of stylised revenge. It’s his calling. While, as I said, this isn’t his best film (although that’s akin to saying that Ghostwritten isn’t David Mitchell’s best book – it’s still fantastic), I wouldn’t hesitate to call it his magnum opus. It’s just so… Tarantino.
23. 28 Days Later (2002)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston
“Then it wasn’t on TV anymore. It was on the street outside. It was coming through your windows.”
28 Days Later is an engrossing post-apocalyptic science fiction movie and all that, but the part of it that is burned into my memory is the series of scenes near the very beginning of the film. Our protagonist Jim wakes up in an empty and quiet hospital (shades of John Wyndham’s “Day of the Triffids”) and, in a state of shock and confusion, emerges onto the utterly deserted streets of London. He calls and shouts (imprudently, as it turns out) but sees absolutely nobody. He crosses Westminster Bridge and Piccadlly Circus, finding nothing but dire newspaper headlines, talk of mass evacuations, missing person flyers pasted to a statue. He gathers food, accidentally sets off a car alarm, grows increasingly distraught below the shiny, vibrant smiles of supermodels on a billboard.
These scenes (synchronised perfectly with an unsettling, nerve-jangling song by Godspeed You! Black Emperor) would have worked in very few cities other than London. Here we can appreciate the statues and plaques of ancient heroes, the buildings and structures with all that weighty age in them. Here we can truly feel the thousands of years humanity has existed, and feel the same numbing, bleak horror Jim feels to find that it’s been swept away in an instant.
The rest of the movie does manages up to these early scenes, except perhaps in the third act, but this is itself capped off by a wonderfully uplifting ending. (The second film was pretty forgettable in comparison, but had an ending that was absolutely devastating only if you’d watched the first film, which I thought was pretty cool.)
22. Minority Report (2002)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Max von Sydow
“Do you know what I hear? Nothing. No footsteps up the stairs, no hovercraft out the window, no clickety-click of little spiders. Do you know why I can’t hear any of those things, Danny? Because right now, the precogs can’t see a thing.”
While the effect is less pronounced in film than it is in literature, I often find myself dividing movies into three categories: those that are enjoyable but lack any artistic merit (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Mummy, or essentially any action movie), those that have artistic merit but aren’t very enjoyable (There Will Be Blood, The Godfather), and those that fit so beautifully into both of the first two categories: that thin sliver of the Venn diagram where Minority Report resides. It’s appropriate, then, that this film is also straddles various genres: science fiction, noir, detective story, thriller and action. With both Spielberg and Cruise operating at the very peak of their respective careers, Minority Report is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.
Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, a police captain in charge of the “pre-cog” program, a police operation relying upon the psychic precognitive abilities of three humans to identify murders and apprehend the would-be killers before they take place. The pre-cogs float in tanks hooked up to a computer, the computer spits out images and names, and Anderton’s assault team rushes out in futuristic helicopters to… well, not to enforce the law, exactly, since no laws have been broken. So what are they doing? Is it legal? This is the question posed by Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), an agent from the Justice Department who is assessing the program as part of a proposed national roll-out, and is highly critical of the system. Anderton, citing Washington’s murder rate of zero, is a staunch defender of the program – at least until the computer spits out the name JOHN ANDERTON, sending him on the run with only two days until he will murder, desperate to stay one step ahead of his own men and figure out some way to stop himself from killing.
There is much more to the story than that, too much to go into detail here. Suffice to say that it is a unique and brilliant film by one of history’s greatest directors. While Spielberg may utilise special effects and CGI as much as any other director, he uses them to service the film, not the other way around (as both James Cameron and Michael Bay have done in recent years). Spielberg makes films with all of his mind and heart, and it shows.
21. Ponyo (2009)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson (English translation)
“Ponyo loves Sosuke!”
Miyazaki has spent the last two decades crafting animated films that weren’t just aimed at children, sometimes swinging away from that only a little bit (Porco Rosso) and at other times featuring graphic violence clearly not intended for youngsters (Princess Mononoke). Ponyo is his first film since 1988’s My Neighbour Totoro that firmly returns to the G-rated category, weaving a spellbinding tale of magic and delight.
Miyazaki is renowned for his integrity as an animator; while most people think of Japanese animation as a handful of different Pokemon frames rushing forward with a colourful blur in the background, Miyazaki makes movies even greater than the very best craftsmen at Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. (And I am not being an elitist snob, because I genuinely do love and appreciate many films from Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks.) In an industry that often cuts corners, he is a man who creates as much detail as he can, often in throwaway events at the edge of the scene. Ponyo was painstakingly drawn in water-colours, resulting in a wonderfully atmospheric and magical film. Watch the first five minutes and tell me you disagree. “There are so few movies that can delight both a small child and the adult in the next seat,” Roger Ebert wrote. “Here is one of them.”
Also, PONYO PONYO PONYO
40. Casino Royale (2006)
Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench
“I give him 00 status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is he deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have the good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.”
Daniel Craig is a fantastic Bond, the best since Connery. The franchise had been flagging for a very long time under the stewardship of Wrinkleface Brosnan, the point of no return being the awful CGI sequence in which Bond outsurfs an ice cliff being melted by a laser satellite and parachutes to safety with the drag chute of his car. Or something. God damn it, I got angry just trying to remember that.
Casino Royale hauled the series to safety out of this era of gadget-driven camp with an audacious reboot and a rugged, blue-eyed new Bond. I’m straight – I’ve slept with women and everything! – but, damn. Daniel Craig. Daniel Craig.
Casino Royale has a lot of spectacular action sequences (including that memorable parkour chase in Madagascar), some classic Bond tuxedo card games, and the most absolutely gorgeous Bond girl in the form of Eva Green. (Ha! See, I’m not gay). It’s a shame it was followed up by the atrociously named, written and directed Quantum of Solace, but hopefully the third installment will see this promising reboot back in shape.
39. Cloverfield (2008)
Directed by Matt Reeves
Starring Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Lizzy Caplan
“Maybe you should have left town a bit earlier, man.”
Cloverfield is (like Avatar) one of those movies you simply have to see in the cinema to enjoy. It is not a film you watch but a film you experience, a film that loses most of its grandeur and majesty when it loses the big screen and surround sound.
An unconvential monster movie, Cloverfield relates the tale of a monster attack on Manhattan through the eyes of a group of twenty-somethings who begin the night at a going-away party and end it, bleeding and decimated, in Central Park shortly before a nuclear strike. A mockumentary in Blair Witch style, shown entirely through a camcorder, the film follows this group of friends and absolutely nobody and nothing else. We see no military leaders, no tense scenes in the White House, no scientists explaining the monster and no vignettes featuring ancillary characters. We never learn about the origins of the monster at all. We know as much as we would if we were right there alongside the characters. I like movies that tell stories in this way, encouraging the viewer to use their imagination and intelligence rather than spoonfeeding them exposition, and would respect Cloverfield for breaking formula even if it were not a good movie.
But it is, fortunately, a fantastic movie, boasting some of the most tense and stunning scenes in the history of the genre. If I owned an indie cinema that played old movies all the time, Cloverfield would be showing at least once a month.
38. Avatar (2009)
Directed by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
“You are not in Kansas anymore!”
The story of Avatar is a maddeningly frustrating political allegory of the lowest common denominator, a one-size-fits-all anti-war, anti-coporate piece of environmental propaganda. The basic gist is that a human mining corporation backed by U.S. Marines has landed on an alien planet and is raping and pillaging to its heart’s content with not a thought for the indigenous inhabitants. I’m anti-war, anti-coporation, anti-genocide and pro-environment, but this movie pissed me off the same way Michael Moore does. If you want to attack ideological positions in an allegorical film, you represent them (and your own) fairly. You don’t create a legion of fucking straw men, the worst offenders being the sneering, arrogant corporate suit played by Giovanni Ribisi, the HOO-RAH FUCK ‘EM UP Marine colonel played by Stephen Lang, or the noble savages who live ~Perfectly In Balance With Nature~ played by the CGI division of Lightstorm Entertainment.
So I would have been rolling my eyes the entire movie if they weren’t too busy GETTING THEIR SOCKS ROCKED BY THE MOST MIND-BLOWING CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO MAN. This was the first movie that existed outside a previously established franchise that actually got me excited, because there were strong (and correct) implications it would be an unforgettable film purely on a visual level. It’s the first movie I ever saw in 3D, and I’m glad. The screenshot above makes it look like concept art for Halo, but when you’re actually in the cinema watching it in 3D, it looks real. Avatar is an exhilarating dragon-ride across an alien planet brimming with beautiful, bizarre plants and animals, with stunning action sequences and near-perfect computer imagery. It is the biggest technological step forward in cinema in my lifetime. It’s because of this unbelievably gorgeous visual feast that I was able to overlook the one-dimensional characters, the ham-fisted moralising and the crummy screenplay. Avatar’s staggeringly colourful visual world allows us to overlook its black and white ideological world, and for that it earns a place on the list.
37. The Bourne Identity (2002)
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Matt Damon, Franka Potente
“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside, and, at this altitude, I can run flat out for half a mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?”
Before he was turned into a cash cow franchise and an example of the worst possible cinematography known to man, Jason Bourne was the star of a very tight, very cool story. I am a male aged between 13 and 25 years. It is impossible for me not to love a well-crafted film featuring a man waking up in the Mediterranean with no memory, but the keys to a safety deposit box in Switzerland containing fake passports, thousands of dollars in various currencies and a gun. I don’t give a flying fuck about Jason Bourne himself or his German lover, but I am quite happy to watch him chase and kill people all over frosty Europe to uncover a CIA plot. The Bourne Identity is a spy thriller of the highest quality. Just ignore the subsequent sequels in which Paul Greengrass buries every camera lens in somebody’s shoulderblade and ensures that no shot lasts longer than 1.5 seconds.
36. Serenity (2005)
Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor
“This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.”
Firefly was a science fiction TV series in 2003 that was cancelled by FOX after only 13 episodes and later achieved cult status on DVD. I heard about it and bought the one and only season based on its good press, and was disappointed by the first few episodes. I hated it. Low budget and stupid concept. An unsuccessful Western version of Cowboy Bebop.
I watched the rest of the series anyway, because I’d already bought it, and by the final episode I fucking loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more rapid change of opinion. Once you accept that Firefly is a low-budget show with an incongruous Western theme, you realise that the characters are hilarious and charming, and you love it. Joss Whedon may be subpar at things like pacing and plotting, but he’s absolutely brilliant at dialogue and characterisation, and it was the strength of the ensemble cast that made Firefly a success.
Serenity is essentially everything fans wanted in a movie: it follows the further adventures of the ship’s crew in a feature-length film, while also advancing (and somewhat resolving) the nature of Simon and River, two of the most intriguing characters upon whom much of the series’ story arc was built. Nathan Fillion is at his wisecracking best and Chiwetel Ejiofor provides a satisfyingly cultured villain – although what is it with Americans always casting British antagonists in films? They’re not still sore about the Revolutionary War, are they? You won, guys.
35. Monsters Inc (2001)
Directed by Peter Docter
Starring Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
“Pssst, Fungus, you like cars? Because I got a really nice car. You let me go, I’ll give you… a ride… in the car.”
When it comes to popular comedy franchises, I always have a different favourite to prevailing popular opinion (for example, the best Judd Apatow flick is by far Forgetting Sarah Marshall). Monsters Inc stands out as my preferred Pixar films for reasons not entirely clear to me. I think it’s because it’s the only one that’s not overly sentimental, it’s the only one that’s a buddy movie, and its characters are just plain charming. I wish Billy Crystal was my uncle.
34. Gladiator (2000)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou, Oliver Reed
“Are you not entertained?”
In the pre-Lord of the Rings world, Gladiator was quite an ambitious task: a sprawling epic of a film in the classic swords-and-sandals subgenre. Now we have a whole slew of rubbishy big-budget clones like Alexander and Troy and Kingdom of Heaven and Clash of the Titans and, oh God, the sweaty homoerotic high-five-fest that was 300.
But Gladiator was that rare breed, that mix of big-budget battles and huge set pieces with, good God, complex characters and an actual storyline! It’s no Citizen Kane, but for a blockbuster movie whose highest priority is to give us awesome sword fights and chariot battles, it’s head and shoulders above the rest. Yes, Maximus, we are entertained.
33. The Mist (2007)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Hayden, Toby Jones
“People are basically good, decent. My God, David, we’re a civilised society!”
“Sure, as long as the machines are working and you can dial 911. But you take those things away, you throw people in the dark, you scare the shit out of them, no more rules. You’ll see how primitive they can get.”
The Mist is the best thing Stephen King has ever written – better than the Stand and better than any book in the Dark Tower series (well, so far, I’m halfway through it). Stephen King also has a track record of having his decent books turned into terrible movies. So it didn’t look promising. Fortunately, it was filmed by the same director who made the Shawshank Redemption – not only the best King film ever, but widely regarded as one of the best films ever made.
The Mist is a standard horror film, in which a group of small towners are stranded in a supermarket when a huge storm sends the bizarre Mist their way, cutting out electricity, dampening sound, and forcing them into a state of siege as horrific creatures prowl outside. There’s little original about that, but the way King wrote the story was perfect, creating a palpable boiler-room atmosphere as the survivors gradually lose their shit and turn on each other.
Darabont does a good job of translating these elements into the film, assisted by an able cast. But what really makes this film one of the best of the decade is the ending. Darabont has taken King’s typically weak cop-out ending and transformed it into the most shocking and horrifying moment not just in this film, but in any film – in a way that, ironically, has nothing to do with either the monsters or the hostile survivors in the supermarket.
32. Michael Clayton (2007)
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton
“I’m not the guy you kill! I’m the guy you buy! Are you so fucking blind that you don’t see what I am? I sold out Arthur for eighty grand. I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me!?”
This is a brilliantly written and acted film about a powerful law firm’s fixer, the titular Michael Clayton, a man in a suit who makes problems go away. He cleans up messes; he’s a “janitor”; he’s somebody that the firm needs but prefers not to think about. Clayton realises this, and hates it. When the firm comes close to a merger, he confesses his fear of “standing in a room full of people trying to explain what it is I do around here.”
Michael Clayton is a perfectly cast thriller in the legal/business subgenre. I don’t think it has much of a legacy – it does nothing new, but is rather the culmination of a genre – but it is, quite simply, an excellent film. And I will always love it for the epic burn delivered to Tilda Swinton in the final scenes, the aftermath of which is pictured above.
31. The Departed (2006)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
“Two pills? Great. Why don’t you just give me a bottle of scotch and a handgun to blow my fucking head off?”
The Departed is a typical Scorsese crime film, and one of the prerequisites for a typical Scorsese crime film is excellence. (I think I’m using the words “brilliant” and “excellent” way too much in this post, but I’m tired and behind schedule.) A remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, The Departed is about a cop going undercover in the mafia, and a mafioso going undercover in the police force, and the tangled web this weaves. It’s a fascinating idea, but honestly, the most memorable thing about this film is simply that it’s excellent. (Arrrgh!) Read Roger Ebert’s full review if you want to see him explore it more deeply (drawing fascinating allusions to Catholicism) and namedrop about how long he’s personally known Scorsese.
Anybody who reads this blog will be aware of my propensity for compiling lists during the final week of December, lists that identify the best movies, music and books of the year. These lists are entirely objective, widely read and will serve as reference material for cultural critics for many centuries to come, quite possibly outliving Western civilisation itself.
Since we are now living in the final week of the decade, however, not just the final week of a mere year, I thought something grander was in order. Over the next few days I’ll be presenting a meticulously ranked list of my favourite the best films produced in the unpronouncable decade of my teenage years, the 00’s. Ah, and such a decade it was!
Each movie is accompanied by my rambling thoughts and opinions and I will probably be quoting Roger Ebert quite often, since he’s the only film critic I read. We will begin at number 50; proceed to number 49; follow with number 48, and so on, in that fashion. Here we go, kids!
50. Snatch (2000)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Benicio del Toro
“There’s a gun in your trousers. What’s a gun doing in your trousers?”
“It’s for protection.”
“From who? Ze Germans?
As a director, Guy Ritchie is a one-trick pony. Snatch is that pony. Yes, it follows precisely the same formula as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but simply because it was made second does not mean it is inferior – besides which, Lock Stock is from the 90’s.
There is little to be said about this movie beyond that it’s a profanity-laden, violent, darkly witty crime film with an impenetrable plot, a haycart of one-liners and a thoroughly entertaining world. Certainly not something to hold dear to your heart and raise up as one of the greatest achievements of cinema, but my word, it’s a fun two hours.
49. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor
“They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”
Black Hawk Down is a war film that (like another movie further down this list) does not grandstand or sensationalise the true events it depicts. It succeeds in reconstructing the story of what happened in Somalia in October 1993, when a U.S. humanitarian force attempted to capture several warlords and instead wound up with two Black Hawk helicopters shot down and hundreds of soldiers trapped in the city under heavy fire. Not only is Black Hawk Down an engaging, well-crafted film by an excellent director, it shows – as closely as a film can – what it’s like to be a soldier in modern warfare. It shows their failings, fears, strengths, opinions and experiences, portraying them as neither villains nor heroes but as the human beings they really are. This is an important thing to do, especially in Western nations outside the US, where popular perception of American troops is not nearly as glowing (or even sympathetic) as Americans might expect.
48. Pitch Black (2000)
Directed by David Twohy
Starring Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell
“Got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker.”
This is by all reasonable standards a bad film, or a mediocre film at the very best. I’m not entirely sure why I like it, except that it appeals to the juvenile in me who digs this kind of thing – predictable creature features with a science fiction bent.
Enroute to a colony somewhere in deep space, Pitch Black follows the survivors of a spaceship crash on a remote desert planet. We have a wide cast of characters, ranging from an Islamic imam to Australian miners, and with Vin Diesel playing a violent convict being transported to a prison planet. The group is soon forced to fight its way across the desert to safety while being attacked by subterranean creatures that only emerge during the planet’s rare nights.
Again, I’m not sure why, but I dig this movie. I can’t defend the monsters or the story or the directing or the writing, but I can say that I enjoyed the hell out of it. The characters live in an interesting world and face an interesting situation, and that is all I ask from my science fiction adventures. That’s also why I get a guilty pleasure out of watching the sequel, Chronicles of Riddick, even though that falls even more deeply within the category of “Films That Are Objectively Bad.”
47. A History of Violence (2005)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, William Hurt, Ed Harris
“You were always a problem for me, Joey. When Mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids try to do that. She caught me… whacked the daylights out of me.”
A History of Violence begins in a sleepy Indiana town where family man Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) owns and runs a classic all-American diner. He is happily married and well-respected, with a nuclear family, small business and comfortable home – the American dream. Cronenberg works very carefully to construct these small-town scenes convincingly so that it feels appropriately shocking when, one day, Tom kills quickly and efficiently kills two robbers in self-defence, in a very graphic scene. Making the news as a hero, he soon attracts unwanted attention from figures from his past, and the film escalates accordingly.
This seems like a fairly straightforward movie, but there are depths of analytical wealth. “This is not a movie about plot, but about character,” Roger Ebert wrote. “It is about how people turn out the way they do… Cronenberg is most interested in survival of the fittest. Not the good, the moral, the nice, but the fittest.” The mark of a good film, of course, is that you think about these things later – because you’re too engrossed during the viewing to think about them at all.
46. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michael Gondry
Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo
“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see that shows me the least bit of attention?”
I’ve been reading a lot of other top 50 lists before writing my own, and this one comes in very close to the top in a surprisingly large amount of them – sometimes even first. I don’t recall it to be that great; good, yes, but not amazing. In fact I don’t remember much about it at all. Here’s the kicker: I watched it with my girlfriend, who is now my ex-girlfriend, and whom I have done my best to edit out of my life. Coincidence? I THINK NOT!
45. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Martin Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
“You have no idea how fortunate that makes you – liking people. Being liked. Having that facility… that lightness, that charm. I don’t have it. I never did.”
The most enduring thing about this film is Frank Langella’s protrayal of Richard Nixon. It’s a very well-written film, certainly, and Sheen is no slouch, but simply nothing can compare to the powerhouse performance Langella delivers. He bears little resemblance to the former President, but has his voice and tone and mannerisms down perfectly. He is the absolute focus of the film, its driving force. Against all the odds, he (and Howard) manage to make us feel sorry for Nixon, that poor old man who just wanted to be loved.
The fact that this film was made during the Bush administration is certainly no coincidence – you may despise these men, vilify them, whole-heartedly condemn them for being disgraces to their office and traitors to their country. But they know, deep down, that’s precisely what people think of them. And doesn’t that make you feel pity rather than hate?
44. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Directed by Shane Black
Starring Robert Downey Jr, Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
“I’m retired. I invented dice when I was a kid.”
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a pretty overlooked film (in fact I think it won an award purely for that) which is a shame, because it’s also pretty great. It’s essentially a buddy film/noir thriller/detective story/black comedy, which somehow works, with a great onscreen relationship between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr, whose snarkiness factor peaked in the mid-00’s. It also contains my favourite Russian roulette scene of all time.
43. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Starring Guy Pearce, James Caviezel, Richard Harris
“Drink up – we’re drinking Napoleon Bonaparte’s wine!”
The Count of Monte Cristo is a swashbuckling adventure film containing Napoleon in exile, pirates, betrayal, false imprisonment, escape tunnels, swordfights, Venician festivals, buried treasure and an elaborate plot for revenge. If you don’t like the sound of it yet then it is not the movie for you. It is competently acted, directed and written, and precisely the kind of enjoyable popcorn movie (exemplified in the 90’s by “The Mummy”) that you want to see when you go to the cinema and don’t want to think too hard, the kind of film that has been mostly replaced these days by CGI explosions and poorly choreographed gunfights. I wish there were more movies like this.
42. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Drew Barrymore, Kurt Russell
“Forgive me. I’m blowing your mind.”
An immensely puzzling film, similar in a way to Memento (which was released the same year, but which is better and therefore further down the list). Memento features a protagonist who has no memory; Vanilla Sky one who has an unreliable memory, a dreamlike memory, a man who inhabits a world he is not sure is real. The film begins conventionally enough, but as it progresses it becomes more and more complex and confusing, layering dreams and fantasies upon an already shaky reality. This is not a bad thing; just be prepared to use your brain. I still don’t wholly understand how this film works, even with the reasonable explanation given at the end, but it’s not the kind of film you need a neat resolution for. It’s more style than substance – beautifully written, acted and shot, with one particularly amazing scene where Tom Cruise (in a dream, or not?) goes running through a deserted Times Square.
41. Borat (2006)
Directed by Jim Emerson
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen
“My country send me to United States to make movie-film. Please, come and see my film. If it not success, I will be execute.”
The ABC likes to broadcast a lot of British shows, to balance the wave of American TV the Australian commercial networks are wholly reliant upon, so I’ve followed Sacha Baron Cohen since the days when Da Ali G Show was confined to the UK. I noticed when he moved to the USA that he was reproducing material from the British version wholesale – and yet it was funnier, because somehow Americans react funnier. The Brits are too polite, and will meet grossly offensive questions with awkward silence or weak protests; Americans are much more brash, and will either whole-heartedly agree with what Cohen says, or vainly try to re-educate him. Borat is not a bad man at all, but he is grossly ignorant and hates Jews and homosexuals, despite having little understanding of what they actually are, and his statements either expose the bigotry of his interview subjects or leave them visibly uncomfortable. For the viewer, both are entertaining.
Borat (with its full subtitle: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) portrays Borat as a real character, a “journalist” from the remote, backwards nation of Kazakhstan, who comes to the United States to learn about American culture for a documentary back home. The Kazakhstan Borat hails from is nothing like the real Kazakhstan, and is not supposed to be – it represents what Americans think of countries like Kazakhstan, and is delibrerately constructed as a reflection of America itself. “Borat’s view of Jews are like his view of Uzebeks,” Roger Ebert wrote. “They are the bad guys because, well, that is what people in his nation believe, and his country has institutions and customs designed to reinforce such useful, identity-defining prejudices against the Other.” The film is a scathing indictment of American customs and ideologies, and yet it is not hostile towards Americans themselves at all – even those who are racist, homophobic fuckheads or drunken, irritating louts are still genuinely nice people, trying to help Borat learn, trying to be kind to him. It’s not the best comedy of the decade, but it’s certainly the cleverest.
Incidentally, what makes Cohen such a brilliant comedian is that, no matter how outrageously his stunts escalate, he always keeps a straight face.
TOMORROW: Numbers 37, 32, 35 and several others!
As somebody who works in retail – in two jobs, no less – I should really loathe Christmas. I did last year. My current lust for money is somewhat overriding this, since I’m getting a lot of extra hours and stores in Western Australia are allowed to open on Sundays in December (with extra compensation for casual workers like me). So it’s a love-hate relationship. I am fucking sick of Christmas carols, though. Does anybody actually enjoy them? I hear them getting piped out of the store’s speakers and I feel like I’m in a Christmas movie that’s trying to establish the scene.
I’m still working at a supermarket deli, the job I had for two years in university and went crawling back to after fleeing the frying pan of Korea to the fire of near-recession Australia. I’m comfortable there: I know what I’m doing, I’m good at my job, I love my coworkers and I have a fantastic department boss and a pretty good store boss. The other job that I picked up in my desperate scramble for extra work back in October is at a newsagency at the local shopping centre, where, in the Christmas season, I’m entirely relegated to the Siberian outpost that is a stand in the main concourse hocking calendars. I dislike this job because it’s fucking tedious. I stand there for five hours twice a week with literally nothing to do except ring up the occasional transaction. It eats away at the mind. At least in the deli I always have something to do.
We had some retarded woman who worked for our seafood supplier standing outside the deli hocking her particular brand of prawns earlier this week. I was talking to one guy about placing a Christmas order when she rushed up and started gabbing to him about WEST AUSTRALIAN EXMOUTH PRAWNS. I’m standing there trying to give him an order form, with customers mounting up along the counter, and she has his full attention waffling on about how if you’re a patriotic West Australian you shouldn’t be buying those prawns from South Australia, and they’ve probably been “sitting on a tarmac for hours, but these are fresh from Exmouth.”
Okay, first of all, if you want to support the West Australian economy, you should be shopping at IGA – not at fucking Coles, headquartered in the ivory tower of Toorak, Melbourne. Second of all, EXMOUTH IS LITERALLY AS FAR AWAY FROM PERTH AS THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN BORDER IS. This is one of the biggest fucking states in the world. You might want to reconsider your “sitting on a tarmac” spiel, because those prawns didn’t fly down from Exmouth on no fucking pegasus.
I can’t stand people who demand to buy Australian stock. The first popular explanation is that they want to support the economy, because, as a special unique snowflake, they obviously have an impact on that sort of thing. The second is that they simply distrust seafood imported from Asia because of some vague environmental xenophobia – I once had a woman decline to buy scallops from Taiwan because they could have been “swimming in the Yangtze.” Apart from the fact that the Yangtze is not in Taiwan, and that scallops live in the sea, do you really think there’s the slightest chance Coles might be selling food that would make you sick and therefore get them sued?
There’s signs around my workplace that say “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE NEED YOU.” That makes me laugh. Not “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE ARE CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND DON’T WANT YOU TO GET HURT,” but rather, “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE THE MANPOWER.”
My dad’s starting to get his annual haul of Christmas gifts from clients, which basically amounts to fuckloads of whiskey that he freely shares with me. When I came back from Korea and went into instant $SAVINGS$ mode, I basically went from being a borderline alcoholic to a complete teetotaller. Now it’s flowing back into my life and it feels mighty fine. I missed that undescribable warm, blurry glow it gives you. I also miss raspberry wine. Oh God, how I miss raspberry wine. I had a dream about it a while back and, as I was dreaming, I thought to myself: “Man, I used to guzzle this nectar down. I should totally buy a bottle. Why don’t I drink it anymore?” Then I woke up and thought, “Oh yeah, because I can’t.”
I feel more inclined to write when I’ve been drinking. At the moment I’m using that to vomit out frivolous shit about my job rather than work on End Times or any number of short stories, but hey, baby steps.
A guy I knew on the Internet died recently. Zach Recht. It’s a very weird feeling. He was a published author and I recall commenting on the very first fiction posts he made at Hotel 23, that rabid nest of right-wing survivalists, back in… oh, 2005, I suppose. I haven’t spoken to him in years but it feels very odd that he’s dead, considering I used to have a regular dialogue with him. I’m not sad, because I didn’t really know him, but it was quite shocking to see news of his death when I was only logging into Hotel 23 for my monthly dose of crazy Republican ranting to angry up the blood. Very disconcerting. So, yeah, I just thought that merited a mention at the end of this flow-of-thought blog post. Brave pioneers of the Internet, we are.
The Dark Tower IV: Wizard And Glass by Stephen King (1997) 845 p.
The previous book ended with Roland’s motley crew escaping the ruined city of Lud aboard Blaine the Mono, a train controlled by a half-insane artificial intelligence. Wizard and Glass begins with them defeating Blaine in a riddling contest and arriving at their final destination of Topeka… specifically Topeka, Kansas, in the world of King’s other grand novel The Stand. This is as jarring for the characters as it is for the reader, as they explore a corpse-choked, post-apocalyptic city and wonder why the hell they’re there.
It’s of little concern, really, since the majority of the book (about 80%) is flashback, a story of Roland’s youth that he tells the others around a campfire. I knew this in advance, which is perhaps why I didn’t hate it as much as those who were waiting for this book for six years. (I also know Roland’s ultimate fate, and I like the idea, but we’ll see how the execution goes.) Roland’s world is an interesting one, and so is his backstory; I was waiting to have it filled in for quite some time, and the fourth book is the logical point in a seven-book series for that to happen.
The flashback story takes place when Roland is fourteen years old, shortly after the much briefer flashbacks in The Gunslinger, which detail how he beat his teacher and became the youngest gunslinger ever. Roland’s world is already beginning to crumble, as a warlord named John Farson raises armies and starts wars in the lands surrounding Gilead, stronghold of the gunslingers. Roland and his two friends, Cuthbert and Alain, have been sent to the far east to the sleepy seaside barony of Mejis. Ostensibly this is to take stock of the barony’s resources for logistical purposes; an actuality, it’s to keep the boys out of harm’s way. Things are not as they seem in Mejis, however, and the three young gunslingers soon find themselves in worse danger than they were in Gilead.
Unlike the previous books, which all involved time-honoured fantasy quest travel, Wizard and Glass‘ flashback section takes place entirely in Mejis’ central town of Hambry, and the deserts and ranches surrounding it. There’s a cast of several dozen characters, a mystery to follow, and a well-established sense of place – orchards, farms, the inns and mansions of the town, the local witch’s hut and a box canyon containing a bizarre and dangerous anomaly are all locations visited more than once. Particularly interesting is “Citgo,” a ruined industrial complex dating back to the ancient times of Roland’s world, where a few automated pumps still draw crude oil from the ground, and words like HONDA and SHELL are stamped on decaying vehicles and tankers. Despite appearances, Roland’s world is not ours in the future, yet there’s obviously been some crossing over in the past – the song “Hey Jude” is popular, people talk of the Jesus-Man, and Mejis has a Spanish-speaking underclass of servants and peasants. And Citgo is not just a nice worldbuilding touch, but an integral part of the plot.
For a book of eight hundred pages (and why is always the fourth book that gets bloated?) Wizard and Glass could easily have dragged on, but it’s paced well and I never found myself reluctant to read it. There are a few chapters here and there that dawdle, especially those dealing with Roland’s first love (romance is not King’s strongest hand, which he freely admits) but on the whole this is quite a page-turner – after you get past the rocky start with one of those weird, shuddering scenes that grosses you out and makes you wonder at authorial motives. King establishes his characters well, particularly the rough-and-hard trio of thugs who run the town’s “security” and emerge as Roland’s bitter enemies. These men are not one-dimensional villains, but believeable bastards who have arrived at their current positions after a lifetime of immoral decisions.
The ending was also enjoyable, one of those well-constructed climaxes like a chess end-game where the pieces are making bold strategic moves and quickly knocking each other off the board; one of those sequences where, as a writer, I can feel the bare skeleton of the plot underneath, who needs to be where, what needs to happen, who has to die, and with plenty of exciting action scenes. The last one of those I read was Snow Crash.
At the end of this we have an extra hundred pages of the “real” story, concerning how Roland and his new gang escape Topeka after encountering some old enemies. It moves very quickly and feels almost rushed; somewhat unneccesary, in fact. If this book was going to be predominantly backstory, I don’t see why the frame narrative was needed at all, let alone why King dragged it out to an almost-but-not-quite story that takes up 200 pages split down the middle by the enormous chasm that is the flashback. But, hey, whatever.
On the whole, I’m glad this book turned out to be much better than I expected. There are several loose ends, which Roland suggests he may tell at another time, and I hope he does. Maybe not through flashbacks as long this one – the Dark Tower awaits, after all – but he’s an intriguing character from an intriguing world, and I’m now invested in the fate of his old friends and want to know how, precisely, they met their gruesome deaths.
December 2009 marks five years that I’ve been writing End Times, the foundering ship which I am riding all the way to the ocean floor. I began writing the first entries in December 2004, and publishing them online in real-time format on January 1, 2005. The real-time format lasted for about three months before inevitably slipping away from me, and now I’m staring at my stranded characters across an ever-widening fissure of time.
I posted a new entry a few minutes ago, and given my track record, we all know it’s the last one I’ll be posting in 2009. This was an entry for October 10. The first entry I published in 2009 was for October 1. Some days have more than one entry, so that’s a total of fifteen, which is still abysmally low.
The reason I don’t post nearly as frequently as I used to is, shock horror, because I don’t enjoy writing End Times anymore. When I started it (in high school!) I had no idea where it would lead. A few other people were writing apocalyptic journals online and I thought it looked like a bit of a lark, so I figured I’d write one myself until I got bored with it. It proved to be quite popular, with – at its peak – maybe twenty or thirty regular readers. That made me feel good, and encouraged me, and I kept going.
Somewhere along the way I began to gradually lose interest in it. I have no idea where in the five-year saga that happened. The result was that I posted less frequently and that there was (in my opinion) a noticeable decline in the quality of writing. As a result less people read it, which meant I had less incentive to write it, and with that the negative feedback loop was up and running. And now we come to the close of a year in which I posted, on average, once every 24 days – a span far too long to keep all but the most devoted reader’s attention. Even assuming I were to post more frequently, and only have an entry for every couple of days of storyline time, that would mean an optimistic finish date of late 2012.
I do have an outline for the rest of the story. I know how the rest of October plays out, I know what will happen in November and December, and I know how it’s going to finish. The only thing preventing all this from happening is my deep loathing of actually sitting down and doing it.
Here’s the kicker: I don’t really have much of a desire to write anything these days. There was a time when I felt obligated to write End Times before anything else, so that it was holding me back from other projects; there was a time when I had abandoned that notion and worked quite often on other projects; and now there is a time when I have dozens of ideas for novels and short stories floating around in my head, and this enormous barnacle-encrusted leviathan sitting unfinished on Livejournal, and yet I devote less than a couple of hours every few weeks to working on any of them at all.
That worries me. Writing is pretty much the only thing I’m good at. Why don’t I want to do it?
The best explanation I can offer is that perhaps, in my early twenties, I’m in the period most writers spend actually exploring the world. Explaining it and telling stories about it comes later – though no doubt they spend these years constantly writing anyway, even if none of it comes to fruition.
I do write, though – I write a lot of book reviews, and when I go abroad I keep travelogues. Who says I have to write fiction? Apart from the fact that I want to be a fiction writer.
That’s the thing, really. I’ve become one of those writers for whom the actual writing is an unfortunate and unpleasant step on the way to the accomplishment of having written.
I didn’t always used to feel like that. I used to love it. I used to get excited when I was writing End Times, when I was pounding through a particularly action-packed entry and the words were flowing like water. Now… nothing. The most recent entry is quite eventful. But I felt nothing writing it.
Am I over the whole idea of swashbuckling boy’s adventure stories? Do I want to write something more mature?
I don’t think I can. If I’m really lucky, I might have it in me to be another Stephen King. But I will never be another David Mitchell or Michael Chabon.
I’m starting to ramble and it’s getting late, so I’ll finish with the same topic I started: I have been writing End Times for five years now. While I may compare it to a stinking albatross hanging around my neck, I do not regret it. It has been an interesting experiment, an absolutely epic work of fiction, and regardless of its dubious quality as a piece of literature I will feel quite accomplished when I finally finish it. And I do still intend to finish it, even if nobody wants to read it and I don’t want to write it, because I am an exceptionally stubborn person. I am a person who read the entirety of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, who watched an entire season of 24 in a single sitting, who spent months longer than he had to working at a hellish kindergarden in South Korea. Partly because I feel that I owe it to the few remaining readers, and partly because I have come too fucking far to give up on it now, I WILL FINISH THAT DAMNED NOVEL OR DIE TRYING.
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1938) 192 p.
This is another book I read after plucking it from the Classics list of the New York Review of Books, and while I was reasonably entertained, I can’t say it held up to the high standards of Inverted World.
Written and set in 1938, Rogue Male begins with a famous English sportsman recounting his attempt to assassinate a European dictator. The book goes to great lengths to avoid stating precisely who the dictator is and which country he rules over, but if you read between the lines and carefully follow the implications, you can deduce that it is probably HITLER. ADOLF HITLER. IN GERMANY. The hunter, one of those unnamed stiff upper-lip narrators in the grand tradition of 20th century British literature, maintains that he wasn’t going to pull the trigger – that he was simply seeing if it was possible. The German agents who come across him in the act aren’t convinced of this even after an extended torture session, and so they eventually try to kill him by throwing him off a cliff to make it look like an accident. He survives, however, and manages to evade pursuit. After successfully returning to England, he realises that national borders are of no interest to his pursuers, and the hunt continues.
What I found most odd about this book was that the narrator decides against turning himself over to the British government, suspecting that they will simply extradite him to maintain good diplomatic relations with Germany. While this is true, it seems quite bizarre from a modern perspective. It would have seemed bizarre to readers even a few years after the book’s publication.
In any case, I found Rogue Male to be a fairly quick read, a standard thriller with a good bit of dry wit sprinkled throughout. I saw nothing of the “lip-chewing tension” that other reviews harp on about, but neither was I bored by it.