The book is never better than the film

23 March 2012

My latest column for Killings, where I look at film adaptations of novels, was published a couple of days ago:

The value of a novel adaptation is primarily how well it works as a film, and to a lesser extent, how well it expresses the essence of the source material rather than how well it mimics it. The book is never better than the film; the two are incomparable. It’s not reasonable to critique a film for not functioning in the same way that a novel does. A film may fail on cinematic grounds, but it should not be accused of failing on literary grounds.

Head over to Killings to read the full article and leave a comment.

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Top Ten Films of 2011

28 December 2011

As 2011 comes to an end, I’ve once more looked back at my personal highlights of the cinematic year. For the first time I did a count of how many films I saw during the year to discover that while I watched over 300 films, only half of those were new films released in Australian cinemas in 2011. I also saw several films more than once, which is unusual for me, but extremely rewarding. The result was a very satisfying year that wasn’t guided by what did or didn’t hit the multiplexes. Nevertheless, in order to create a top ten list that makes any sort of sense, won’t need revising and is the most relevant to the majority of my readers (who are Melbourne based and don’t go to advance media screenings), I’ve once again restricted myself to only including films that were given a theatrical release in Melbourne during 2011, even if only on one screen for a limited season.

Top ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia in 2011

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

The Tree of Life

“A cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition.”

Rarely has picking a favourite film of the year been as straightforward for me as it was this year. I returned to the cinema to see Malick’s The Tree of Life a second time within a week of first seeing it to once more have it engage my mind, stir up my emotions and touch my soul. An all too rare cinematic work of art that dares to be so much more than what most people can even imagine cinema to be.

2. We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk about Kevin

“This is sensory and visceral cinema at its most compelling and expertly crafted.”

One of the most confronting films I’ve experienced this year was Lynne Ramsay’s intensely subjective and impressionist film, which like The Tree of Life was also a complex representation of memory.

3. Certified Copy (Copie conforme, Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Certified Copy

“Its beauty, nuanced performances and grace give it the emotional and dramatic weight that make it rise far above being simply an intellectual exercise.”

My most unexpected highlight of the year was this cerebral and charming film where every single element in it contributed in some way to exploring its central question of how do we measure authenticity in art and life.

4. Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011)

Pina

“The whole range of human emotion is expressed and experienced during this film, making it a sublime visual accomplishment.”

This tribute/documentary/dance film uses 3D to almost revolutionise cinematic space to convey the power of Pina Bausch’s choreography. As somebody who had previously been sceptical about contemporary dance, Pina made me see the light.

5. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

Never Let Me Go

“A beautiful and satisfyingly melancholic story of mortality, destiny, love and loss.”

This strange and sad film overwhelmed me. The melancholic film style stunningly expresses the novel’s themes of fate and inevitability, without explicitly stating them.

6. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

Drive

“A gorgeous fusion of pulp genre cinema with an almost abstract approach to characterisation.”

I admittedly had reservations about Drive the first time that I saw it, but it lingered in my mind enough for me to revisit it. The second viewing removed all doubt and I succumbed to this gloriously stylistic and minimalist neo-noir.

7. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter

“One of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence.”

A film that stayed with me long after seeing it, Take Shelter is a tense yet compassionate study of how mental illness can manifest and how it affects not just the sufferer, but also the people around them.

8. Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)

Another Year

“A tribute to kindness, family and friendship without sentiment, easy answers or judgement.”

This has possibly become my favourite Mike Leigh film. The central couple are two of the most wonderfully likeable characters to ever appear on screen.

9. I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)

I Love You Phillip Morris

“Manages to walk a line between hilarity and tragedy throughout, with unexpected moments of sadness that are not undermined by the comedy surrounding them.”

After seeing this at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010, I was so pleased for it to finally get a brief, albeit small, cinematic run this year. This romantic-comedy with its ultra-dark undertones is the funniest film I’ve seen in years.

10. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

127 Hours

“While 127 Hours celebrates the achievement of an individual under extreme duress, it is also a critique of individualistic behaviour.”

Danny Boyle pulls out every trick in the book to convey the range of emotions and thoughts experienced by Aron Ralston. The resulting film is a thrilling survival story, cautionary tale and character study.

Honorary mentions

Selecting my top ten films was relatively easy this year, however, finding another ten films to list as honorary mentions was extremely difficult given that the standard of cinema that I saw this year was extremely high. Nevertheless, in alphabetical order, here goes:

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein, 2011)

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010)

Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, 2010)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010

This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film

Top ten unreleased films

Many of my highlights from the year are from films that were either only screened at festivals (in my case mostly during MIFF), during special seasons or went straight to DVD. The follow films are the best films that I saw this year, which weren’t given a full theatrical release and to the best of my knowledge aren’t scheduled to receive a general release in 2012.

How to Die in Oregon (Peter Richardson, 2011)

Inni (Vincent Morisset, 2011)

The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2011)

Polisse (Maïwenn Le Besco, 2011)

Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010)

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Matthew Bate, 2011)

Surviving Life (Přežít svůj život, Jan Švankmajer, 2010)

Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)

The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, Béla Tarr, 2011)

Inni

Inni

Top ten retrospective screenings and re-releases

While these lists are obviously personal, this next list is more so since it is dependant on what screenings I happened to make it to out of the many to choose from. To try and narrow the field down somewhat, I’ve restricted myself to films given full re-releases in their own season, films shown as part of a special event and films shown as part of curated seasons (for example those shown at the Melbourne Cinémathèque in what I think was one of their best years and I wish I attended more). Some of these are films that I was revisiting for the umpteenth time and some were new discoveries, listed alphabetically:

American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) at the Astor Theatre

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Sophisticated Madness: Classics of American Screwball Comedy season

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) at the Astor Theatre

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s You Can’t Go Home Again: The Ballard of Nicholas Ray season

King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) – screened at the Astor Theatre’s 75th Anniversary

Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s The Garden of Forking Paths: The Films of Alain Resnais season

Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006) – Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne Film Festival charity/protest screening for the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof

Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung, Tsui Hark, 1991) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Phantoms & Fireworks: The Incredible Adventures of Tsui Hark season

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) at Cinema Nova and the Astor Theatre

Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder season

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

And there you have it, 40 films – 30 new and 10 old – that most fuelled my passion for cinema during 2011. I was pleased to have been able to write full reviews about nearly all the new films and the three major re-released films I listed, so please click through to those reviews for more details about why I embraced those films to the extent that I did. This year I also particularly enjoyed writing reviews of Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011), A Serbian Film (Srpski film, Srdjan Spasojevic, 2010) and The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994), as well as penning my love letter to Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986).

Thank you to everybody who has read this blog over the year as well as subscribed to it and shared links from it. The readership and number of page views has grown considerably over the year (more than anticipated) so that’s been wonderful. Most pleasing has been the generally high level of discussion that has started to regularly appear in the comments so I’m very grateful for that and I hope in the future I’ll get better at responding to everybody.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks in mid January 2012 when Hugo gets released in Australia, so see you then!

Thomas

PS Debate and difference of opinion are as always very welcome under my reviews, but for this post I’d like to keep things celebratory and focus on the positive cinema experiences from the year just gone.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011


Film review – We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

15 November 2011
We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton)

Eva (Tilda Swinton)

There’s little actual blood in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but director Lynne Ramsay’s pervasive use of the colour red makes sure that the idea of blood constantly remains in the audience’s mind. One of the most dramatic images comes at the start of the film where Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) is submerged in a sea of red while taking part in the Spanish tomato festival, La Tomatina. The red suggests both the birth of her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) and Kevin’s violence as a teenager. Covered in tomatoes, Eva is stained by Kevin’s actions, just as her house has been aggressively sprayed with red paint. The opening tomato festival scene also establishes Eva’s love for travel, freedom and adventure, all of which were taken away from her when Kevin was born. This plants the suggestion that Eva is wrestling with the possibility that Kevin became who he is because of her resentment towards him.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is set after Kevin’s violent actions with Eva living alone in a state of depression and borderline dereliction. Woven through the basic narrative involving Eva starting a new job and cleaning her vandalised house are her fragmented recollections of all the events that lead up to the day Kevin committed his horrific crime. The film is therefore deeply subjective and is comprised of a series of impressionist memories rather than flashbacks. The audience sees Kevin and his relationship with Eva through Eva’s eyes, resulting in a portrait of Kevin as an almost demonic, and certainly sociopathic, being who rejected his mother from even when he was a baby. It is telling that during the only major scene featuring Kevin in the present and non-subjective part of the film, he appears notably differently to how he is presented in Eva’s memories.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly)

Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C Reilly)

And yet, Eva’s guilt still intrudes, as the film is also full of moments where she is subconsciously questioning herself as a failed parent. There are several incidents where the nature of what may or may not have happened are deliberately left unresolved, further highlighting how Eva then concludes that Kevin is the one to blame. Not that the film suggests Kevin has been falsely accused or somehow justified in his actions, but it does raise plenty of nature versus nurture issues, even though it is not about attempting to reconcile that dynamic. Instead, it is a portrait of a woman living in a state of shock, guilt, emptiness and loss who is trying to process what went so wrong.

Many of the stylistic techniques that Lynne Ramsay has used in previous films are once more utilised in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but they work far better than they ever have before. The unconventional editing weaves Eva’s memories in with the present day scenes and the ironic music is genuinely chilling as it provides the soundtrack to a mild mannered suburban community that will never be the same. Close-ups on particular visual details and amplified sounds create a pattern of reoccurring visual and sound motifs that are effectively atmospheric, but then become emotionally charged when their full significance is revealed. In this way the motifs also function as sensory memories for Eva, further demonstrating how much what the audience experiences is filtered through her interpretation of events. We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on a novel, but Ramsay has made dramatic changes in structure and style for it to function as a film in the most effective way. Fretting about what’s been changed or what’s been left out is redundant and ignores its accomplishments as a film in its own right.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer)

Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer)

This is sensory and visceral cinema at its most compelling and expertly crafted. You are thrown into the mind of a woman suffering unimaginable despair, self-loathing, anger and bewilderment. At times the tension and dread is close to unbearable, especially when the film begins to hint that it will show something that you really don’t want to see (and because it’s a film of such integrity, the horror comes from the idea of seeing something rather than explicitly seeing it). We Need to Talk About Kevin rivals Alien and Eraserhead for its nightmarish depiction of childbirth and parenthood. It’s a film that will make you want to scream, cry, be sick or punch something. Yet, you won’t be able to tear your attention away from it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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