Category Archives: 9

Movies that score 9/10.

Review: This Is Spinal Tap

Director: Rob Reiner
Year: 1984
Score: 9/10

1984-a-thonIt’s such a privilege to review this classic for Forgotten Films’ 1984-a-Thon, a celebration of the many wonderful films released in 1984 (which – as well as being a landmark year for cinema – also happens to be the year of my birth). Not only that, but I was lucky enough to revisit it in a cinema (thanks, Golden Age!), always the best way to experience a film you love, especially a comedy.

Mockumentary is one of my favourite genres. Done well, it allows for parody (ranging from acerbic to affectionate) and hilarious comedy, all within a framework that is inherently satirical. It invites viewers to come along for a potentially ridiculous ride while granting them the comforts of familiar documentary tropes (even as, in many cases, those very tropes are themselves being sent up). Best of all, it’s almost always playful, having fun with long-established cinematic and televisual forms and conventions. No other genre so consistently and faithfully winks at its audience.

Over the past few years mockumentary has become mainstream and is now a standard format for television sitcoms (The Office, Modern Family and Parks & Recreation being the best-known examples). Decades ago things were different. When This Is Spinal Tap was released, there had only been a handful of similar films before it, and nothing quite like it. With the glut of mockumentaries available to us now, it’s hard to fully appreciate how casually groundbreaking it really was, and what a surprise it would have been for its audiences.

Marty Di Bergi: Why don't you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top number, and make that a little louder? [one of the most brilliant long pauses in comedy history] Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

Marty Di Bergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top number, and make that a little louder?
[one of the most brilliant long pauses in comedy history]
Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

Taking the ostensible form of a documentary about a British rock band on the verge of collapse as it embarks on a doomed US tour, the film walks the line between plausible and ridiculous perfectly. It’s filmed with all the rough edges of an actual doco; combined with the heavy use of improvisation, this creates a sense of verisimilitude which greatly bolsters the humour and satire. The fact that the music is all real (albeit largely written for the film), and some songs are performed almost in full, plays directly into this.

On the subject of the music, I must admit I’ve been listening to it for years and can call myself a Spinal Tap fan. Gimme Some Money and (Listen to the) Flower People are perfect parodies and catchy tunes, while Hell Hole and Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight are hilarious rock anthems that genuinely rock. There are a few duds, such as Heavy Duty and Sex Farm, but to be fair, the band is supposed to be terrible, so that’s kind of fitting.

The performances are excellent, particularly given all the improvisation. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest may get higher billing, and they’re both very funny, but to me Harry Shearer is the unsung hero of the film. It’s also fun to see Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby and a barely recognisable (being so young) Anjelica Huston. I didn’t even notice Dana Carvey.

For what it's worth, this is my personal favourite gag: Lt. Hookstratten: I would like to get the playing on about nineteen hundred hours if that's satisfactory. I make it now, it's about eighteen hundred and thirty hours. Derek Smalls: So that's, what, fifty hours? David St. Hubbins: A hundred and twenty hours?

For what it’s worth, this is my personal favourite gag:
Lt. Hookstratten: I would like to get the playing on about nineteen hundred hours if that’s satisfactory. I make it now, it’s about eighteen hundred and thirty hours.
Derek Smalls: So that’s, what, fifty hours?
David St. Hubbins: A hundred and twenty hours?

To be blunt, This Is Spinal Tap is basically a sketch comedy idea stretched out to feature length. While that’s usually a recipe for disaster, in this case there’s enough material (effectively amounting to discrete sketches that get strung together), and so many other factors that make it good (acting, improvised dialogue with endless gags, great music, etc.), that it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Lastly, some recommendations. If you like This Is Spinal Tap, check out the many Christopher Guest mockumentaries that followed it (especially A Mighty Wind, which I personally like even more; that might have more to do with my love of folk music than its actual relative quality, but it does also feature what amounts to a Spinal Tap reunion). I’d also recommend Woody Allen’s Zelig, Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver, and most of all, Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (another mockumentary with music and satire at its core).

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Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra
Year: 1946
Score: 9/10

The title is a lie.

The title is a lie.

Uplifting, life-affirming, joyous fable about the life of George Bailey – played brilliantly by James Stewart – and his family and town and momentary suicidal crisis. It’s a true fantasy, not just because of the inclusion of a guardian angel with the ability to conjure up an alternate reality, but because everything about the vivid world of Bedford Falls and George’s wonderful life is inherently fantastical. Donna Reed is great as The Perfect Wife™. Perhaps my only criticism (aside from a slight grumble about over-length) is that George’s period of disillusionment and anger – necessary, of course, for the final act to work – seems to come on too quickly, to the extent that it jars a little and feels out of character for longer than it should. Regardless, this is now officially my favourite Christmas movie and the oldest movie to make me cry. Those last few minutes are truly magical and just thinking about them to write this is enough to make me tear up again. Glorious.

Review: Akira

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Year: 1988
Score: 9/10

And that's why you always leave a note!

And that’s why you always leave a note!

I’m almost completely new to anime (my previous experience is limited to Astro Boy and a couple of Studio Ghibli films), so I decided to try a few. Of the three I watched, this was the best and the one that made me most interested in seeking out more, perhaps in series rather than movie form. It’s a fascinating, moving story full of inventive ideas and incredible visuals. I really liked the strange soundtrack and have been listening to it regularly, especially the track ‘Kaneda‘. It’s so clear when watching it that there’s a wholly realised world and mythology at play, even if not all of it is included within the film itself. The characters are well-rounded, engaging, and easy to emotionally invest in. The ending is a tad head-scratchy, but not in a bothersome way. If you only watch one anime, I say make it this one.

Review: When Harry Met Sally…

Director: Rob Reiner
Year: 1989
Score: 9/10

An early draft of the script had Estelle Reiner saying "I'll have whichever food causes orgasms too, please" at this point. The revised version ended up being the most memorable food-ordering line in film history - unless you count Jack Nicholson's "I want you to hold it between your knees" from Five Easy Pieces.

An early draft of the script had Estelle Reiner saying “I’ll have whichever food causes orgasms too, please” at this point. The revised version ended up being the most memorable food-ordering line in film history – unless you count Jack Nicholson’s “I want you to hold it between your knees” from Five Easy Pieces.

One of the best, funniest, most genuine romantic comedies I’ve seen. At its heart is a hugely appealing performance by Billy Crystal; I’ve never liked him this much before (except perhaps as Mike Wazowski in the Monsters movies). Meg Ryan, who I normally don’t take to, is in good form too. The final act is a tad uneven – we know where it’s all heading, and toward the end there seem to be too many hoops to be jumped through before we get there – but that’s probably my only gripe. There’s such truth to be found in it, and such enjoyment to be had along the way, that I must thoroughly recommend it.

Review: The Selfish Giant

Director: Clio Barnard
Year: 2013
Score: 9/10

Does it still count as 'kitchen sink realism' if the kitchen appears to - quite unrealistically - not have a sink?

Does it still count as ‘kitchen sink realism’ if the kitchen appears to – quite unrealistically – not have a sink?

Poignant, immersive drama about two working class boys in Northern England who collect and sell scrap metal to a local dealer. On paper it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s really something special. It’s a slice of life in this poverty-stricken community, a portrait of quite a beautiful friendship between the two boys, and a thoughtful (and very loose) reimagining of the Oscar Wilde short story from which it draws its name. Writer/director Clio Barnard draws heavily on the style and voice of Ken Loach; in particular, there are strong echoes of Kes. The adult cast, largely unknown to me (the only actor I recognised was Ralph Ineson, who played Chris ‘Finchy’ Finch in the UK version of The Office), is solid enough. However, it’s the young actors who play the boys – Conner Chapman as the hyperactive but resourceful Arbor, and Shaun Thomas as his gentle horse-loving friend Swifty – who truly shine in their film debuts. Chapman is especially good, showing maturity well beyond his years with the power, precision and restraint of his performance. I highly recommend this film and will be keeping a close eye on what both Barnard and Chapman do next. A warning to accompany the recommendation: the final act is kind of devastating (I bawled).

Review: Her

Director: Spike Jonze
Year: 2013
Score: 9/10

Joaquin's impression of his dead brother.

Joaquin’s impression of his dead brother.

Wow, what a remarkable piece of cinema! Spike Jonze has such an inventive, creative mind, and it’s a pleasure to experience a slice of it. Though I loved his three other feature films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both written by Charlie Kaufman, and Where the Wild Things Are, written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, adapting Maurice Sendak’s book), this is the one that made me appreciate him most, since not only did he direct it perfectly, but it’s an original screenplay (never was the term so apt) he wrote alone.

On the surface it’s an exploration of love in the digital future and the question of what it means to be human and to love, but beneath that it’s basically a movie about a man coming to terms with the collapse of his marriage. There are loads of wonderful ideas and it all hangs together into a solid dramatic whole. It’s also frequently very, very funny.

Joaquin Phoenix is memorable and entirely committed to his role; it may be his best performance to date, though to be fair I haven’t seen I’m Not There yet. Amy Adams continues her recent string of strong work; she’s a real talent. Scarlett Johansson is great too in a voice-only part, helping to create ‘Samantha’ as a fully realised character in our minds, which is crucial to the movie succeeding.

The production design is ingenious and the costuming is hilarious (especially the ubiquitous high pants) without being implausible in the least. I also love that the film never bothers to tell us precisely when in the future it’s set, since it’s too busy being awesome. I can’t recommend this highly enough; even if you don’t end up loving it as I did, you’re bound to find plenty to like.

Review: 12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve McQueen
Year: 2013
Score: 9/10

Spoiler alert much?

Spoiler alert much?

There were a lot of reasons I was looking forward to this, but two are worth mentioning: the trailer used some of my favourite music from The Thin Red Line (my second favourite movie ever), and David Simon raved about it. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed. It truly is one of the very best films of 2013, and consequently it took home the Best Picture Oscar; though personally I preferred Gravity and Her, I was fine with this outcome.

A singular, visceral experience, it’s immensely powerful, particularly towards the end. Steve McQueen shows great precision, pathos and nuance in his direction. It’s one of the best cinematic explorations of injustice and suffering I’ve seen. Telling the story of a kidnap victim rather than one of the countless other slaves he finds himself amongst is an interesting and ultimately fruitful window into the broader issue of the immorality of slavery; we focus on the personal hardship and tragedy of this one man, but in doing so cannot help but recognise the wider injustice around him.

The supporting performances from Michael Fassbender (who performed so well for McQueen in Shame) and Lupita Nyong’o are excellent, and Paul Giamatti does well in a small role requiring him to be a racist arsehole, but it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor who shines brightest in a powerhouse lead performance. Indeed, were it not for Matthew McConaughey’s sterling work in Dallas Buyers Club, I would have handed the Best Actor Oscar to Ejiofor in a flash. Also look for Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) in a role that basically amounts to a cameo.

This is the kind of movie that I imagine many prospective viewers are apprehensive about watching; it looks like it will be unpleasant, perhaps the cinematic experience of eating one’s greens. I’d say this: it certainly is unpleasant at times, but it’s also deeply moving, uplifting, and full of meat to go with the greens.

Review: Easy Rider

Director: Dennis Hopper
Year: 1969
Score: 9/10

Bold, brilliant, and like nothing that came before it. I was hooked from the moment Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ kicked off, the first of many excellent songs on the soundtrack to accompany the mesmerising visuals of roads and landscapes. It’s about counterculture and drugs and authority and the great gulf within (or on the margins of) American society; but most of all, it’s about America itself at the tail end of the ’60s. It has moments of incredible clarity, deep sadness, overwhelming joy, and utter confusion, yet somehow it remains tight and cohesive. As far as acting goes, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson are perfect, and Dennis Hopper is quite good too; but Hopper’s real strength here lies in his innovative yet assured direction. Easy Rider is iconic for very good reasons, not least of which is its role in starting the ‘New Hollywood’ movement that completely transformed cinema and made it what it is today, but what’s striking is how well it holds up as a piece of thought-provoking entertainment. Highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t seen it; I sincerely regret waiting as long as I did to check it out.

Review: Love and Death

Director: Woody Allen
Year: 1975
Score: 9/10

Brilliant Woody Allen film, my favourite (along with Manhattan) of those I’ve now seen. The thing that surprised me most was just how funny it was – there’s a joke or two in almost every line. In fact, of the 365 movies I saw in 2013, this would be close to the top in terms of how hard it made me laugh. I confess I didn’t get all of the references/jokes/homages to Russian literature or European cinema, but for the most part I could at least tell that a reference was being made. Beyond the jokes themselves, I loved the central anachronism, the constant mocking of philosophical rhetoric and argument, the performances by Allen and especially Diane Keaton (who is hilarious), and the wonderful sense of ridiculousness and fun throughout.

Review: Detention

Director: Joseph Kahn
Year: 2011
Score: 9/10

Detention

Love it: a movie (starring a porn star) within a movie within a movie within Detention.

Fast, witty comedy, one of the best I’ve seen. I can imagine some people interpreting it as just another high school comedy, but for me it went beyond self-awareness to a level of meta I associate with Community (a high compliment indeed). The cast of unknowns (to me at least) does a fine job, but it’s the script and style that are the real stars. It’s such a shame this was a critical and commercial failure; nobody seems to have heard of it. Track it down and watch it!

Review: Kramer vs. Kramer

Director: Robert Benton
Year: 1979
Score: 9/10

Brilliant drama exploring what happens to a work-focused, inattentive father, and his young son, when his wife abruptly walks out on the family. Superb performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and Justin Henry is also quite good as the little boy. The movie strikes a balance between simply telling its story and thoughtfully examining the broader questions at play in terms of parental responsibility, family law, what it means to be a parent and love your child, and the devastation that divorce causes. It’s deeply moving and has some very emotional moments, but it never feels exploitative. I loved both of the French toast scenes. Entirely deserving of its Best Picture win (even in a year that also saw the release of both Apocalypse Now and Alien) and several other major Oscars.

Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Director: Seth Gordon
Year: 2007
Score: 9/10

Brilliant documentary works on several levels (excuse the pun): it’s a classic story of a rivalry between the evil establishment (reigning Donkey Kong world champion Billy Mitchell and his cronies) and the heroic underdog (good guy everyman Steve Wiebe); it’s an exploration of a subculture that is both unique and representative of every other ‘in crowd’ community we’ve all experienced at some point; it’s a parable about success, failure, honesty and determination in contemporary America; and it’s a portrait of a bunch of fascinating real-life characters. I was going to give it 9.5 but then I read a few things (e.g. claims of inaccuracy, some of which the director has apparently conceded) that made me revise my score slightly. Nonetheless, it’s now my third favourite documentary ever.

Review: Waltz with Bashir

Director: Ari Folman
Year: 2008
Score: 9/10

What an incredible film. I highly, highly recommend it. The manner in which the story is told is very clever, gradually drawing you further and further into the horrific events as the interviewees bring Folman closer to them through his and their memories. So many sequences will stay with me. Also, the animation style is excellent. And when, in the final moments, animation is replaced with archival footage – all of a sudden it hits and crushes you.

Review: Manhattan

Director: Woody Allen
Year: 1979
Score: 9/10

This was only my fourth Woody Allen film, after Hannah and her Sisters, Whatever Works and Midnight in Paris, and it immediately became my favourite of those I’d seen. Subsequently I saw several more, and it has maintained its top spot, though it’s now tied with Love and Death; they’re both equally excellent, but in quite different ways. As for this one: the dialogue sparkles, New York is shot beautifully, the three central characters are fascinating, and ultimately it’s quite moving. Did I mention how good the dialogue is?

Review: Sling Blade

Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Year: 1996
Score: 9/10

A truly beautiful moment.

A truly beautiful moment.

Brilliant, unique, sensitive rural drama about an intellectually disabled man finding his way and developing a friendship with a young boy after being released from long-term incarceration in a mental hospital. It’s hard to decide whether Billy Bob Thornton deserves more praise for his writing, his direction, or his singular performance as Karl. It’s a performance that could easily have come across as over-the-top or condescending or distracting or unbelievable, but it ends up being none of those things. An interesting point of comparison is John Malkovich’s performance as Lennie in the 1992 adaptation of Of Mice and Men: in that case, familiarity with the actor, combined with his overacting, make it hard to swallow; in this case, on the other hand, though I’ve seen Thornton many times, and this is not a subtle performance by any means, he somehow seems to just become Karl and you quickly stop thinking of it as Thornton pretending to have an intellectual disability. Anyway, beyond his performance, there’s so much more to this: wonderfully drawn supporting characters, great work from the actors playing them (especially John Ritter, Lucas Black and Dwight Yoakam), a depth of sadness matched by an undercurrent of optimism and hope in humanity, a palpable sense of pathos, and numerous moments of extreme power. The ending feels somewhat inevitable, but I wouldn’t have it another way. I can’t write this review without reproducing this quote from Doyle in full: “Hey is this the kind of retard that drools and rubs shit in his hair and all that, ’cause I’m gonna have a hard time eatin’ ’round that kind of thing now. Just like I am with antique furniture and midgets. You know that, I can’t so much as drink a damn glass of water around a midget or a piece of antique furniture.”

Review: Being There

Director: Hal Ashby
Year: 1979
Score: 9/10

Some of these credits are pure gold; "DENNIS WATSON (Gay) ("Yes, very")" takes the cake.

Some of these credits are pure gold; “DENNIS WATSON (Gay) (“Yes, very”)” takes the cake.

Superb satire strains credulity but that’s kind of the point. It is a comedy, though as is often the case with Hal Ashby films, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny very often. Peter Sellers is flawless in a difficult role; much like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, everything depends on him getting it just right so we can go along for the ride, and he nails it. At one point, when Richard Dysart’s character starts asking questions, I feared the spell would unravel and everyone would discover the truth, but thankfully that doesn’t happen. The outtakes in the end credits, which I’ve read Sellers hated, only increased my joy after the glorious closing moment. A real gem, made somewhat tragic by Sellers’ death seven months after its release.

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller
Year: 2009
Score: 9/10

Hilarious animated movie that’s just as entertaining for adults as kids. There’s so much going on – constant visual humour (both foreground and background), incredibly witty writing, great performances (particularly Bill Hader in the lead role), a vibrant visual palette, and fast-paced action. Its use of running gags actually reminded me of Arrested Development (a huge compliment). There’s also a good dose of heart, with things paying off nicely at the end (I’ll even admit to shedding a tear at one point). Go watch this movie!