A year in film


Despite a gloomy forecast and the loss of a treasure of Irish cinema, there was cause for some cheer in movieland this year, writes DONALD CLARKEand below, in his first article after a long absence from both the cinema and The Irish Times, Film Correspondent MICHAEL DWYERdelivers his verdict on the best, worst, most pretentious and most offensive films of 2009

THIS TIME last year, had you asked a movie pundit to paint a picture of the cinematic landscape in late 2009, he or she might have imagined something a little like John Hillcoat’s upcoming film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Those few still living will find themselves stranded in a wretched, denuded wasteland, its greyness broken only by the bloody corpses of recently cannibalised refugees. Films cost a lot of money, you see, and, by last Christmas, there was no money left in the world.

Well, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerless. Last week, The Kino cinema in Cork – for 13 years a rare art-house oasis outside Dublin – closed its doors for the last time.

During the summer, An Bord Snip Nua recommended the abolition of the Irish Film Board. Later, the Renewed Programme for Government appeared to save that body’s skin, but cuts and compromises do still loom.

For all that, the atmosphere on Planet Cinema is far from apocalyptic. The Galway Film Fleadh launched an impressive series of domestic features: fine work such as Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Mornings, Ken Wardrop’s His Hers and Brendan Muldowney’s Savage. Tomm Moore’s fine animation The Secret of Kellsplayed in commercial cinemas and picked up the audience prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

When news arrived this week that His & Hersis to play at the Sundance Film Festival – where John Carney’s Once began its assault three years ago – street prophets began reconsidering their plans to drag out the “End is Nigh” sandwich boards.

Further afield, the good burghers of Pittsburgh, Portsmouth and Phnom Penh flocked to the cinemas in ever-greater numbers. What they experienced was often unedifying. We have yet to see what sums James Cameron’s Avatarwill take, but, at time of writing, the cretinous, cacophonous Transformers: Revenge of the Fallenremains the biggest film of the year in the US and the efficiently slavish Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Princetops the worldwide 2009 figures. But what about the surprise smash of the year? No, not The Hangover, but the most jaw-dropping box-office success of the year remains a distinctly ordinary, somewhat ugly second sequel to an animation that wasn’t that good in the first place. Driven by huge ticket sales outside the US, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurshas somehow taken in almost €600 million and is currently the second-biggest film of the year and – get this – the 15th biggest of all time. You could argue that the regrettable rise in 3-D is responsible, but Pixar’s vastly superior Up, also available in the process, has accumulated only about two-thirds of Dawn of the Dinosaurs’takings. Go figure.

Never mind. The really good news is that, 2009 turned out to be another fine year for quality cinema. The ubiquitous JJ Abrams and the rising Neill Blomkamp proved with, respectively, District 9and Star Trekthat the mainstream can still accommodate intelligent, beautifully-crafted entertainments. Elsewhere in the multiplexes, tiny budgeted flicks such as Moonand Paranormal Activitytriumphantly defied the usual orthodoxies of movie financing.

So everything’s great? Not quite. Movies take a long time to finance and even longer to produce. The effects of the economic downturn may yet ravage the highways of Cinema City. By all means put the sandwich boards away, but remember where you stored them.

Donald Clarke's top 10 Films of 2009

1. Let the Right One In/Låt den rätte komma in

One of the greatest of all vampire films, Tomas Alfredson’s defiantly grubby drama dares the viewer to wish for awful things to happen to children.

2. The White Ribbon/Das Weiße Band

More scary children. With his monochrome study of rural life in pre-first World War Germany, Michael Haneke confirms his status as a contemporary master.

3. A Serious Man

The Coen brothers’ mordant wit and nihilistic philosophy combined in their relocation of the Book of Job to 1960s Minnesota.

4. Up

Though slightly less technically dazzling than Wall-E, this was, perhaps, even more moving.

5. Il Divo

Paolo Sorrentino adds substance to style as he looks at the life of former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti.

6. Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Is there any way of summarising this funny, moving documentary without mentioning Spinal Tap? No.

7. Moon

Duncan Jones nods towards sci-fi classics with a tale of life on a dilapidated moonbase.

8. The Wrestler

Both Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke needed (and deserved) comebacks. They got them.

9. District 9

Fock! Catchphrase of the year. Neill Blomkamp’s alien-invasion thriller confirmed the rude health of sci-fi.

10. Tales from the Golden Age/Amintiri din Epoca de Aur

Finding comedy in life in Ceausescu’s Romania?

Donald Clarke's top 10 Turkeys of 2009

1. The Boat that Rocked

The boat that sucked, more like. Misogynistic, miscast, overlong, repetitive: there was no reason for Richard Curtis’s study of pirate radio to be so ghastly.

2. The Ugly Truth

Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler set back gender politics a decade or so. We could have created this list from US romantic comedies alone.

3. Bride Wars

And another one.

4. Couples Retreat

And another.

5. Surveillance

Jennifer Lynch shames her father – David – with a deranged pseudo- existential thriller. Oh well. At least it’s not another crummy rom-com.

Michael Dwyer's verdict

NOT SINCE I was a small boy had I experienced such a gap in my cinema-going life as I did this summer. I was well sated with movies when I returned home from Cannes towards the end of May, having seen close on 40 films, and the festival had set its standards high this year.

Then, illness intervened and I did not see the inside of a cinema again until September. The movie I went to then was Julie Julia, sophisticated entertainment with yet another glowing performance from the sublime Meryl Streep. However, it was not the movie that turned that September afternoon into something special for me, but the joy of being back in a cinema seat again. Cynical as I can be, I clearly had underrated my relationship with the cinema.

We had arrived early and took our seats about five rows from the screen. As the audience filed in all around us, I felt a deep sense of belonging and a surge of pleasure to be in a cinema after all those months, to be back where I belonged.

Afterwards, we chatted with friends about Meryl’s movie and inevitably, opinion was divided, although not as passionately as many other movies this year. Some people even stood by Lars von Trier’s vile Antichrist, and I was surprised to find myself among that minority left cold by Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man.

And it feels good to be working again. This is my first article for The Irish Times since I became aware of my illness in June. I very much look forward to writing for the paper on a weekly basis from next month.

Meanwhile, here is a summary of my reflections on the movies released here in this calendar year, followed by a glimpse back over the best films of the noughties.

Michael Dwyer's top 10 films of 2009

1. Milk

2. Mesrine(parts 1 and 2)

3. Slumdog Millionaire

4. The White Ribbon

5. The Hurt Locker

6. Gran Torino

7. Up

8. Let the Right One In

9. Il Divo

10. (tie) The Classand Three Monkeys

Michael Dwyer's top 10 films of 2009

1. Observe and Report

2. Duplicity

3. Dragonwall: Evolution

4. Lesbian Vampire Killers

5. Paranormal Activity

6. The International

7. Knowing

8. Synecdoche, New York

9. Bride Wars

10. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Michael Dwyer's top 10 films of the decade

1. The Best of Youth(2003)

2. The Lives of Others(2006)

3. Brokeback Mountain(2005)

4. There Will be Blood(2007)

5. Far From Heaven(2002)

6. The Son’s Room(2001)

7. United 93(2006)

8. L’enfant(2005)

9. Downfall (2004)

10. Wall-E (2008)]

Best film of the year: Milk,directed by Gus Van Sant

Best documentary:Sacha Gervasi for Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Best animated feature: Up,directed by Pete Docter

Director of the year:Jean-François Richet for the two-parter, Mesrine

New director of the year:Daniel Barber for Harry Brown

Most promising rising director:Kelly Reichardt for Wendy Lucy

Irish director of the year:John Crowley for Is Anybody There?

Best original screenplay:Dustin Lance Black for Milk

Best adapted screenplay:Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire

Best actress:Meryl Streep for Doubt

Best actor:Michael Caine for Harry Brown

Best supporting actor:Christian McKay for Me and Orson Welles

Best supporting actress:Rebecca Hall for Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Irish actor:Michael Fassbender for Fish Tank

Best Irish actress:Evanna Lynch for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Most promising new actor:David Kross for The Reader

Most promising new actress:Carey Mulligan for An Education

Best original score:AR Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire

Best score drawn from other sources: Inglourious Basterds, as selected with aplomb by Quentin Tarantino

Best make-up:Greg Cannon for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Irish film:Alan Gilsenan for The Yellow Bittern

Most underrated film:Ang Lee for Taking Woodstock

Most overrated film:Jane Campion’s Bright Star

Most disappointing movie:Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che

Most pointless remake:Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play

Most tediously overblown effort:Zack Snyder’s Watchmen

Most deliriously over-hyped release:Larry Charles’s Bruno

Box office surprise of the year: The Hangoverbeats out all the blockbusters to top the Irish cinema takings chart for 2009

Most pleasant surprise (for an avowed non-Trekkie):JJ Abrams’ Star Trek

Tackiest production:Phil Claydon’s Lesbian Vampire Killers

Most offensive movie:Jody Hill’s Observe and Report

Most wholesome experience: Hannah Montana: The Movie

Most pretentious movie:Charlie Kaufman for Synecdoche, New York

Non-event of the year: Paranormal Activity

Worst film:Lars von Trier for Antichrist