Films seen after January 2009

Really short - I mean really short - comments on films with release dates 1996-2008, seen after I stopped writing comments on new movies. These are mostly glorified Tweets (though I'm not imposing any word limit), included only for completeness' sake, and because I hate having unlinked titles on a page with mostly linked titles. Anal-retentive much?  


MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS (57) (dir., Isao Takahata): It's raining so Mr. Yamada calls home from the station, asking his family to bring an umbrella - but Mrs. Yamada is tired, and teenage Noboru claims to be studying, and they just pass the buck to each other. "Forget it, I'll just buy one!" cries Mr. Yamada, exasperated. "Get some pork too," says Mrs. Y. "No way!" he snarls, and slams down the phone - but then, in the store, having bought his umbrella, he relents and does buy some pork, and then, when he goes out into the street, he runs into the whole family, who did indeed come down in the end to bring his umbrella. Wry and essentially soft-centred, in the way of "Family Circus", the style ranging from PRINCESS KAGUYA-type watercolours to the rounded lines of children's-book illustrations. All a bit underwhelming (I didn't find the jokes very funny), though once in a while it really lands. The vignette with Grandma visiting her friend in hospital is stunning.

DECASIA (64) (dir. Bill Morrison): Nuns watch over children, and the shimmering image makes them look like alien sentinels. Camels (of all things) appear in the background, through the kaleidoscopic scrim of film decay which of course is also Time, or Death, or whatever you want to call it. People in the old clips - now presumably dead - emerge from the chaos, now overwhelmed by the decades' deformation, now apparently resisting (comedy becomes oddly touching in this context, the actors' goofy antics a wholly accidental form of defiance). A crowd laughs at a vintage car, and a jumping blob of celluloid rot makes it look like the car is exploding with hiccups. Parachutists hang in the air like black moths. A more wise and poignant KOYAANISQATSI (in technique, not theme), often very fine though I wish avant-gardists were a tiny bit better about finding dramatic structure, not just crafting yet another cool image. Only when the camels reappeared (going in the opposite direction) did I infer that the film was about to end, otherwise it might've gone all night.

EAT, FOR THIS IS MY BODY (57) (dir., Michelange Quay): We open with God's-eye shots and the white Goddess-Mother ("I am abundance!") offering herself to her colonised kingdom, as per the title; we end with her daughter literally brought down to earth and separated from her black companion (though the final shots suggest they may be dreaming of each other). Quay works with repetition and duration, and - despite the subject - very little political correctness, going for Third World exotica and a visual sense of disruptive blackness (black bodies tumbling into milky-white liquid, black fingers tearing chunks out of white cream cake, black hands against white bathroom tiles); the result is unabashedly, sometimes hilariously pretentious - but rhythms are hypnotic and a sense of ambivalence comes through, Sylvie Testud's well-meaning schoolmarm unable to connect (she can't put her own pasty skin in the milky liquid, and looks inscrutable when faced with a squalling black infant). Double-bill with WHITE MATERIAL, though this one's more fun.

MEMORIES OF MATSUKO (65) (dir., Tetsyua Nakashima): Matsuko's life was "meaningless", says her estranged brother, but there's meaning in her constant quest for love (sparked by unloving father) and the way she keeps starting anew: "I felt my life was over," she keeps saying - racked by injustice, physical abuse, prostitution, jail-time for murder - yet keeps bouncing back (until she doesn't). All of the above presented with Day-Glo colours and musical numbers - plus the occasional cartoon bluebird - a flashy style that's initially resistible (burning-hot lights, wide-angle lenses) but increasingly effective, both because it's dazzling and because the dazzle acts as a buffer for Matsuko's grim existence. Young woman in denial - staying with violent men because it's "better than being alone", responding to "tense situations" by scrunching up her face in a clown's grimace - done as offbeat, extravagant fantasy. A punk AMELIE, similarly touching and exhausting.

OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST (68) (dir., Miguel Gomes): This is what PERSIAN CATS should've been like, its music scene emerging organically from a strong sense of place - and in fact everyone's an Artist, not just the musicians but the little boy who draws a picture, the old man telling a story and of course the filmmakers, who look for ordinary people to enact a story and eventually find them. Their story (the fictional second half) is perhaps less compelling than what came before but it doesn't clash, its dark undertow (incest, etc) fitting e.g. with the earlier story about the local man who killed his wife - and the old man telling that story felt free to laugh about it and embellish it (as if it were fiction), even with his wife in the room, just as a singer later feels free to sing about the incestuous relationship, even with the couple in the room (and his audience isn't outraged, though they do think he's being a bit tactless). Art sanctifies, or at least acts as a shield, working in productive tension with the placid rural rhythm as in (say) the Koker Trilogy. A sense of parallel universe - a deceptive, subtly slippery place - is very strong.    

SHIRIN (57) (dir., Abbas Kiarostami): A con-trick of sorts, because we make associations between the women's expressions and the film they're watching (added later, apparently) and because the power of the face is such that we draw inferences about their state of mind, even their personality (but they're actresses; and a face, after all, is only a face). Also a dialogue, a constant tension between the tale told in the soundtrack and the visual symphony of faces, constantly changing in angle and size within the shot (a couple of 'bad cuts' are indeed quite jarring), also a veiled political gesture since Iranian women - second-class citizens - seem to be creating an alternative world solely of women (though some men, incl. the TASTE OF CHERRY guy, appear in the background) and because they're watching a tale of repressed love to echo their own lives, also a link to CERTIFIED COPY in the hook of real emotion being elicited by something quite abstracted (and abstracting the film-within-a-film is of course a comment on all films, and our weird relationship to them). Probably would've worked just as well as a short, though. 

SUICIDE CLUB (65) (dir., Sion Sono): A shape-shifter - or just the product of a magpie mind - seguing from gross-out to J-horror (the dead nurses) to police procedural; turns into camp halfway through - "Welcome to my pleasure house!" - and all seems lost, but then it doubles back into socio-philosophical comment which was probably its default tone all along. What it's saying is another matter, since the ending ("Live as you please") seems to confirm suicide as an existential right - a way of rediscovering your "connection to yourself" - but earlier it's also been suggested as a connection to others, a way to appreciate their hidden pain (hence e.g. the girl curling up inside a chalk outline of a body on the pavement, as if in empathy with its former occupant). Loads of style, slapdash but gripping with memorable images (bowling alley strewn with writhing sacks, etc); strange to see Internet 1.0 - have things changed so much in nine years? - and the whole millennial angst about teen anomie and alienation. Wonder if ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU, with which it has much in common - lonely teens, online cult, obsessive worship of sugary pop singer(s) - now looks similarly dated.    

MUKHSIN (49) (dir., Yasmin Ahmad): Malaysian kidpic that goes out of its way to be neither Malaysian nor kidpic, soundtracked with Mozart and "Ne Me Quitte Pas", touching on difficult topics - little girls getting periods and little boys getting erections, a woman despondent over her husband marrying a second wife, an angry teen seeking solace in booze and hookers, and of course the inter-racial puppy love - with disarming frankness. Ahmad may identify with the heroine's strong-willed, rather didactic mother - who studied in England, and annoys the neighbours by pointedly speaking English - though the autobiographical figure is presumably the young heroine, hence the (unearned) I-was-never-the-same-after-that-summer final V.O. and appearance of the film crew as themselves just before the final credits; a stunt which - like the rest of it - means to be artless but comes off mostly transparent.   

GO GO TALES (59) (dir., Abel Ferrara): "Freedom of expression, creativity, passion, love for each other. That's what this is all about!" Also camaraderie, show-must-go-on persistence in the face of dire financial straits, and the idealistic tenet that inside every loser is creative talent burning to express itself - a never-never notion leading Ferrara to a fittingly naive, unreal world out of a 30s movie (gruff-but-courtly palookas, a lilting Irish leprechaun, a lost-lottery-ticket sub-plot as in LE MILLION), visually translating into pools of coloured light and a gaudy bubble of non-stop erotic cabaret (it's a shock when Willem Dafoe ventures out of the club and into real-world daylight). More charming than successful - the final gag is particularly lame - but one thing's for sure: it's a sad day when something with this much nubile flesh can't get a commercial release. 

24 CITY (60) (dir., Jia Zhang-ke): As a straight documentary, this would be an incisive look at China's journey from a communal (and controlled) society to greater fragmentation and individualism, notable also (a) for the way Jia manages to get so many stories in single takes, with minimal cutaways, and (b) for the way almost every subject seems to end up close to tears (the Mark of Authenticity in today's docs). The fact that it's not a straight documentary, however, that some of the subjects are actors - incidentally explaining much of (a) and (b) - and that Jia makes no apparent distinction between 'real' and staged, makes it more problematic but also more interesting, esp. if someone can make the case (not sure I can, but it's do-able) that he in effect aligns himself with the controlled, centralised society of "Factory 420" over the free-market ethos of "24 City", positing the filmmaker as arbiter - not to say manipulator - of Truth (unless of course he's simply cheating, using actors to make his job easier). As in STILL LIFE - which became a lot more surreal after its straightforward We The People opening shot - Jia's project is more ambivalent than simply picking out stories from the teeming mass of humanity in the opening scenes, interested more in the way sudden change makes all narratives seem unreal and untrustworthy. Also this looks so much better than STILL LIFE - just in the sense of balanced colours and non-burned-out highlights - I'm convinced that must've been a bum dvd.   

STELLA (73) (dir., Sylvie Verheyde): A triumph of intimate camerawork, modest budget - almost no conspicuously 'retro' period detail - unfussy narrative and autobiographical resonance: 11-year-old Stella Vlaminck internalizes everything, forever the outside observer both at school and home (the rather louche café run by her parents), but we know the director with the same initials will one day remember it all, from watching Marlene Dietrich on TV to glimpsing a bloodied man on the sidewalk after a fight, from the pervert who liked to give her gifts to the trashy grandma who wore no underwear and peed standing up. Has the knack of crafting Significant Moments, then moving on; the kid goes through a literary phase (like Antoine Doinel's brief Balzac fixation), gets affected by various things - a new History teacher, an outcast friend in the dingy small town where she spends her holidays - but no one thing changes her, all of them together do. By the end, the cumulative effect is overwhelming.

IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS (38) (dir., Alex Holdridge): Passive slacker surrounded by pushy people meets a manic pixie with belligerent Attitude - instantly toned down, lest it make her too unsympathetic, so within 15 minutes they're having quirky-yet-true conversations about how frustrating it is when others ask "Are you having a good time?" - and they wander through LA ("where love comes to die") on New Year's Eve, seeking connection. Proof that notions of what's romantic vary widely, even with b&w images and MOR ballads on the soundtrack; also proof that Richard Linklater (and/or Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) is some kind of genius.

SERAPHINE (62) (dir., Martin Provost): Not an exceptional movie but an exceptional biopic, because it sidesteps most of the obvious traps - esp. in making Seraphine (simple-minded peasant woman with a God-given talent for painting) alternately loony, greedy and genuinely inspired. Also ambivalent on whether her gift may be a case of divine inspiration, the point being that she thinks so but mostly - it's implied - because religion is the only point of transcendence in her empty life, and when she starts buying bridal gowns to become a Bride of Christ it's clear we can't take her word for anything. Yolande Moreau holds on to the character's mystery - adding a sly peasant cunning - Ulrich Tukur is a noble and tormented identification figure. Bad genre, worthy entry.

PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA (71) (dir., Hayao Miyazaki): The ease with which everyone accepts magic - "Ponyo's a little girl now, Lisa!" - may be the defining difference between Miyazaki and US cartoons, though it's also that there aren't any villains (that said, the obsessive-idealist authority figure trying to capture Ponyo recalls Muntz in UP). Picaresque structure fits the easy tone, details beguile - Ponyo's love of ham, little boy skittering away from giant wave with angry eyes (!) that comes out of the sea (then just muttering to himself: "That was weird") - and the emphasis on bad or absent dads is intriguing, if a little puzzling.

DESERT DREAM (54) (dir., Lu Zhang): Distinctive style, mixing static master-shot visuals with slow pans to reveal things going on beyond the frame - as if to say no master-shot can accommodate the vastness of the Mongolian desert - but everyone acts so emotionless it becomes hard to care, plus there are various details that just seem puzzling, Zhang (apparently) deciding to puncture the ethnography with post-modern touches. Why the glimpses of a film crew in the middle of the steppe? Why the judder-cam effect whenever the Korean mother starts to walk away? What's with the 360-degree pan at the end? (At least in JAPON it had a point.) Still > TULPAN.

GOODBYE SOLO (47) (dir., Ramin Bahrani): Bahrani's exotic name tends to obscure his all-American politics imho: CHOP SHOP was entirely uninterested in the corrosive effects of capitalism - 'a kid's gotta do what it takes to survive' was the subtext there - and this one's equally atomistic, the apparent Message being that, if you want people to stay out of your life, you have to stay out of theirs as well (admittedly it's played as a life-loving cabbie learning the limits of compassion, lending a certain poignancy). CHOP SHOP and MAN PUSH CART at least felt like real life, whereas this smacks of contrivance - see e.g. Solo finding the old man's notebook (just lying on the bed) at a critical moment - and the people, from cantankerous codger to precocious little girl, feel like caricatures.

FRONTIER OF DAWN (45) (dir., Philippe Garrel): In no way a companion-piece to REGULAR LOVERS, except perhaps in showing how anomie and self-destructiveness are only poignant when framed in terms of a Lost Generational Ideal. Laura Smet is blank and inexpressive (probably on purpose, but still), Louis Garrel gets to speak lines - cuddling in bed post-coitally: "The day the last concentration-camp survivor dies, WW3 will begin" - which would be hard to make convincing even if he weren't Louis Garrel. Points for "the law of windshield wipers" (already used that once, it sounds profound) and totally insane direction taken in the final act - though I'm not sure it works, and the ending just seems cruel.

DEPARTURES (53) (dir., Yojiro Takita): As bland as expected, but the subject-matter can't help but be affecting - and credit (I suppose) for not spelling out what's obvious anyway, that this frustrated cellist finds a kind of sublimation for his abandoned dreams in the artistry of "encoffining". Decent and dull as movie, more interesting as ethnographic wrinkle, how a none-too-religious culture finds comfort, when confronted by Death, in elegance and courtesy. I wonder if the same is true of the British.

THE BEACHES OF AGNES (72) (dir., Agnes Varda): Memories "like flies, swarming through the air" ... Varda elevates the autobiographical essay-film (and redeems what might otherwise have seemed like name-dropping) through her rabid interest in everyone she's ever met - except herself - her poignant homage to those who've passed on, her love for the "peaceful island" of Family - the last two factors combining in her unabashed love-letter to the late Jacques Demy - and, above all, her own ambivalence about the whole process, expressed in meta-detail (a maudlin moment - Agnes bringing flowers to the dead - undercut by also showing the camera that's filming her) and a sense of memories (like flies) being a kind of annoyance to be tamed by Art, not to overwhelm or define it. What does one gain by such recreations? wonders Varda, re-enacting a scene from her childhood. Does one really "relive the moment"? No - "For me it's cinema. It's a game". Lightly poetic, and (in parts) incredibly moving.

THREE MONKEYS (58) (dir., Nuri Bilge Ceylan): My take: Ceylan is a fabulous image-maker but not a great director of actors - performances are all a bit busy, esp. the mother; too many tics and bits of business - and here (as in CLIMATES) he leans too hard on the actors, instead of playing to his strengths. That said, the Bergmanesque trappings (the title implying denial and repression) are really a red herring, the film being closer to a thinly-disguised horror movie - from the great early image of a car swallowed up into darkness (setting the plot in motion) to a startling creepy-ghost-child-approaching shot that suggests Ceylan as a candidate for "Grudge 3: The Cursed Turkish Family". Stranger than it looks, and more of a departure.  

CONTAINER (60) (dir., Lukas Moodysson): Same sense of dislocation as in (say) INLAND EMPIRE but no sense of humour, no really memorable images, making the dislocation literal (body/mind, i.e. external reality / inner monologue) reduces it to a stunt, constant allusions to Issues and buzzwords - transgender issues, eating disorders, celebrity culture, the Beckhams, religion, Chernobyl - make it seem glib and would-be-relevant, and there's a whiny unhappy undertow to the whole thing anyway. Still hypnotic, even more so (I assume) on the big screen, instead of being forced by audio issues to watch it on the computer where it looked like someone's YouTube video. Or maybe that was appropriate.

I JUST DIDN'T DO IT (71) (dir., Masayuki Suo): Can a courtroom drama still be gripping with character shadings removed, replaced by a grimly didactic 'j'accuse' re: the Japanese legal system? Surprisingly, yes. Stark look and stately, implacable rhythm help, and even the stilted, public-service-announcement dialogue ("Re-enactments are important. Remember that!") and general air of restrained formality add to the effect of (gotta say it) Kafkaesque nightmare. Riveting. 

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE (68) (dir., Nobuhiro Yamashita): Hurt feelings, tiny tensions - visualised e.g. in the shot where the camera tracks with a group of children as they walk, but some are walking normally while others start and stop - a teen romance that turns out quite unsatisfying (it's not even clear that boy and girl like each other very much; they just happen to be the only kids in their grade in this tiny rural school); above all, burgeoning Consciousness, a young person's first real understanding of Time passing, or her realisation that other people - even people she's known all her life - view her in ways she can't control or even understand. Near-perfect for a long time, then it missteps imperceptibly - maybe the adults are too broadly drawn - but Yamashita remains among the subtlest, most delicate directors out there. Best moment: heroine smiles blissfully as 5-year-old friend smears watermelon all over her face, implicit forgiveness/penance for a mistake that's never even mentioned (no-one else in the room has any idea what's going on) - and slow fade to black.

NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS (68) (dir., Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig): Closest to QUIET CITY among the mumblecores I've seen, or whatever we call them now - might I suggest "minimindies"? - in focusing so closely on a couple, but these people are a lot more interesting, (a) because they're older, (b) because, in their self-consciousness (incl. the two scenes of taking photos, an interest in Performance that anticipates ALEXANDER THE LAST) and concern with 'true' feelings - cf. "artificial happy" and "sarcastic fun" - they contain the seed of the break-up of their own relationship, a seed which they nurture constantly and even semi-consciously, (c) because they're expressed partly through sex, slyly cutting through the genre's annoying over-emphasis on dialogue (you can talk and talk, but the body doesn't lie at the end of the day) (*), and (d) because Greta Gerwig is an alt. Meg Ryan, a fizzing presence of doubts, second thoughts and things blurted-out. Also she is hot, etc.

(*): Also an important theme in HUMPDAY. Could it be the body is becoming (for filmmakers, esp. younger filmmakers) the last symbolic bastion of resistance and honesty in a world where it often seems like everything is controlled and controllable?

PAPER SOLDIER (74) (dir., Alexei German Jr.): German Jr. channels German Sr., proves himself worthy, even shows the old man a trick or two. Intricately choreographed takes, people and things drifting in and out of frame, ceaseless stream-of-consciousness talk with repeated lines and non sequiturs - "Want me to carve you in marble?"; "These are circles of existence"; "Look what I taught the dog" - stunning mud-and-puddle Central Asian vistas, and of course behind it all the Soviet Dream still reeling from its Stalinist horrors, hanging on to the promise of space travel (like the promise of salvation-by-ideology) even though everything in the USSR - from light bulbs to ideological zeal - is broken-down and dilapidated. "Soon one of us will fly to the stars," says someone, "and everything will change" - but they do and it doesn't, the space launch reduced (audaciously) to a way-in-the-background epiphany, irrelevant as a rainbow. The result is futile, hypnotic, and rather magical. 

A SHORT FILM ABOUT THE INDIO NACIONAL (59) (dir., Raya Martin): One of those despite-themselves successes, not especially well done but rich with all kinds of mystery (I get more of a Third World folklore feel - or maybe it's Third World exotica - than in, say, OPERA JAWA): the inter-titles don't always seem to fit the images - are those girls really "arguing"? - even the main title lies (the film is of normal length) and the images carry unknown meanings presumably linked to Filipino history, even if it seems a straightforward tale of "liberation". A friar is dunked in a river - to a chorus of "One ... Two ... Three hundred years!" - a young man parts his knees to reveal a winking, animated sun, the Virgin Mary knocks on the door then disappears in a dazzling fade-to-white, and meanwhile that jangling piano jangles away. Groovy.

BIENVENUE CHEZ LES CH'TIS (49) (dir., Dany Boon): Globalisation? Je m'en fiche! Awesomely parochial French comedy, predicating most of its laughs on the notion that people in the North of France talk funny. Totally edge-free, the humour and general tone reminiscent of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, its huge domestic success being presumably the white middle-class French response to all those banlieue movies - though it actually works rather like a banlieue movie, setting up an ethnic sub-culture and urging us to look past lazy stereotypes. Inadvertent irony? Fous-moi le camp!

LAST CHANCE HARVEY (61) (dir., Joel Hopkins): Clearly artificial, suffocatingly genteel (do English people really kiss that much - when they greet, not when they snog - nowadays?), touristy in its views of the South Bank - but also restrained, honest in its picture of two middle-aged sad sacks who've basically stopped trying ("I'm more comfortable with being disappointed," admits Emma Thompson's sensible wallflower), and not aggressively cute in Richard Curtis fashion. The best scene has Dustin Hoffman's character giving a speech at his daughter's wedding, and there aren't any zingers or Deep Truths or colourful metaphors; all that really happens is he doesn't embarrass himself, wishes everyone well and sits down. That simple act of grace is very moving.

BIG MAN JAPAN (48) (dir., Hitoshi Matsumoto): More inspired than HANCOCK, not as smooth. Once the great mockumentary joke plays itself out - viz. that the shabby, rather depressive middle-aged dude talking to the unseen interviewer about umbrellas and stray cats is in fact a superhero who grows to Godzilla size and saves Tokyo whenever monsters attack - it's mostly a procession of half-assed skits and half-explored ideas (e.g. that heroes are diminished in today's media-infected society, measured in TV ratings and corporate sponsors) until the ending. Which is daft and ridiculous and makes no sense at all, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

PROFIT MOTIVE AND THE WHISPERING WIND (60) (dir., John Gianvito): Emphasis on natural beauty alongside (left-wing) political bias seems wrong, just like any attempt to co-opt Nature to a narrow political Cause would be wrong - one can easily imagine a right-wing filmmaker e.g. piling on close-ups of WW2 graves and Normandy landscapes in celebration of the 'good war' - but still fascinating as a hidden (or hidden-in-plain-sight) history of the United States, and poignantly fitting to watch shots of gravestones insofar as these people are now one with the (literal) land in the (metaphorical) land they fought for. Never boring, which is an achievement in itself.

DONKEY PUNCH (47) (dir., Olly Blackburn): Hugely promising, at least till the plot kicks in and everyone starts behaving like an idiot. Trying to bully the girls is the first yeah-right moment, when the only way out is clearly to sweet-talk them and try to secure their co-operation (what's going to happen when they get back on land? even if it's just 'our word against theirs' any police investigation is bound to be disastrous, given the sex and drugs on a boat that doesn't even belong to them), but really everything that happens in the final hour - the stabbing, letting off the flare in the dinghy, Josh mentioning the tape in front of everyone - is unconvincing. Thought it was going to be another Girl Power Brit-pic but in fact destruction and stupidity cuts across gender lines, so that's something.     

ANO UNA (67) (dir., Jonas Cuaron): Easy to scoff. The gimmick - still photos, LA JETEE-style - is a gimmick, the sensibility is Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN lite (horny teenage boy, with a poignant undertow of Time passing and things drifting apart), the he-said-she-said ruse of putting characters' thoughts side-by-side is pretty feeble (boy thinks his cologne makes him irresistible, girl thinks he's nice but wishes he hadn't worn so much cologne, etc). But the gimmick is poetic visual shorthand for the theme - that "the human condition is transitory", as fleeting as a moment captured in a photograph - Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN was funny and moving, and the his-and-her viewpoints, like the rest of the voice-over dialogue, float on a cloud of distant, ethereal fantasy (or memory) detached from objective reality - the photos (being photos) admitting nothing, except the historical record - that's unusual and affecting, despite the feebleness. Dreamlike and fragmented, like a stray recollection of childhood - which of course is exactly the point.

ADORATION (64) (dir., Atom Egoyan): Egoyan brings his A-game, right from the opening shot - a low-angle dolly-pan across looming buildings, with mournful oboe (?) on the soundtrack. Lots of ideas get thrown around, but the main one is perhaps the personal and political confluence of "getting to know" people, hero's inability to know his parents driving him to extreme measures just as cultural deadlock - i.e. being unable to humanize the Other - leads to prejudice or terrorism (the fact that extremism is expressed (by the kid) through performance echoes e.g. Damien Hirst's comment about 9/11 being "a work of art"). As so often with the Mighty Atom, questions of human interaction (the way in which we "get to know" people) lie at the heart of it - see e.g. the contretemps with the taxi driver, devolving into an argument over social norms and expectations - implicitly complicated by the fact that so much interaction is now mediated through video, Internet etc, taking place at one remove. Second half gets a bit much - Khanjian's revealed relationship with the dead Dad is a bit too strong, tends to overbalance - even flirts with the ludicrous. Still the most gripping Egoyan in 11 years.    

WHAT JUST HAPPENED (51) (dir., Barry Levinson): What just happened? Nothing too earth-shattering, just an in-jokey satire confirming Hollywood as a "cruel and shallow money-trench" peopled by pill-popping neurotics, where Art routinely makes way for Mammon - and you briefly wonder why Levinson, Linson et al. didn't use their clout to make a dozen no-budget features on a video camera, if they're so fed up with the System, at least till you realise making this movie is 'like' making a dozen no-budget features on a video camera in their self-abasing mindset, a therapeutic screed - and mea culpa - that functions as a cinematic cry of 'I can't go on, I'll go on' (plus they get to make money, unlike with the no-budget features). Entertaining, if basically hollow. 

THE GOOD THE BAD THE WEIRD (49) (dir., Kim Ji-woon): One to watch on the big screen, both to enjoy spectacular visuals and avoid tuning out due to stillborn plot (took me three sittings to finish on video). Less imaginative spoofery than expected, less imaginative detail in general - needed more stuff like the shoot-out punctuated by a deep-sea diving helmet - more confusion and casual slaughter. Who can play buffoonish for two hours then convincingly snap into badass mode in the twinkling of an eye? Song Kang-ho can.

JOHNNY MAD DOG (62) (dir., Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire): Slightly boring, which is very much a good thing. Sensationalist subject - child soldiers in Liberia's civil war - calms down after the first 15 minutes, Sauvaire mostly going for docudrama intercut with the adventures of a blank-faced civilian girl (representing the victims of Mad Dog and everything he stands for), once or twice edges close to 'they're only children after all' truism (see e.g. No Good Advice and his pig) and abandons mindless CITY OF GOD excitement altogether with the Martin Luther King scene, a didactic reminder of Liberia's history as a state founded by African-Americans. Surreal touches, like the kids wearing wedding dresses and butterfly wings, simply fade into the bigger picture. Filmmakers mostly European but it still has a bit of that desultory 'African movie' vibe - and for once it's an advantage. 

TRANSPORTER 3 (63) (dir., Olivier Megaton): "There are no more countries," says the villain, enjoining the Russkie-jailbait heroine to "think global, not local" ("Think this!" she replies, holding up a middle digit) - but in fact there are still countries, and it's scandalous that Hollywood uses its clout to get its action behemoths shown everywhere while Besson's more imaginative French copies just get the crumbs off the blockbuster table. TRANSPORTER flicks are always a case of enumerating awesome bits (the rest is mostly generic), so here goes. Jason Statham not just fighting a dozen thugs single-handed but also doing a striptease in the process, taking off his coat, tie, shirt and belt and using them as weapons. An insanely complicated car-chase punctuated by drugged-up nymphet in the back seat wailing "I'm hungry!" (she's the aforementioned Russkie - actually Ukrainskie - and also tells Jason to "make playtime for me", then - when her attempts at seduction are rebuffed - concludes: "Oh! You are the gay!"). François Bérleand arguing Jerry Lewis vs. Dean Martin, ditto talk of Dostoyevsky, ditto talk of delicious restaurant menus in various European capitals (M. Bérleand is also there when an overhead shot of a ship dissolves into a fish-bone, picking it up and musing: "I know what happened to you ... but what happened to Frank?"). Plotting Isn't Dead Dept.: our hero hemmed into a truly impossible spot - drowned if he stays, blown up if he goes - and actually using his brain to get out of it. Think this, G.I. JOE!

THE BURNING PLAIN (27) (dir., Guillermo Arriaga): Because isn't Life, too, like a jigsaw puzzle, present and past forever intermingling? Because isn't Life, too, like a Burning Plain, a flat expanse of desolate destruction? Because isn't Life, too, like a Charlize Theron performance, naked and painful and grimly moving forward? Spare us.

HOME (56) (dir., Ursula Meier): Set-up is stark and striking - home vs. highway, like in PET SEMATARY - human dynamics a little fuzzy. Is the family supposed to be a little odd? (Are the early scenes implying unhealthy over-intimacy, or good family fun?) How does Mom vacillate between Beacon of Love and Crazy Lady? Is Dad a positive, problem-solving, rather explosive type - as indeed he seems to be - and if so why does he take the decision to entomb the clan in their own home as opposed to, say, kicking up a fuss with Town Planning? At some point it goes into family-breakdown mode and seems a little random in its all-purpose weirdness (daughter eating grass while son runs about with a snorkel, etc) - or maybe it's just that the family's behaviour is 'realistic' (i.e. shaded, often contradictory) whereas the concept calls for broad-strokes stylization. Or maybe it's just what you get with an ace cinematographer (Agnes Godard's images pop) and a script credited to six different writers.  

MOMMA'S MAN (59) (dir., Azazel Jacobs): Initially inert, like its hero, but gradually the dry joke takes root - viz. that it plays like a shambling slacker indie but it's really THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL - then moves beyond a joke, first with the dawning realisation that Mikey's having a serious breakdown then the quiet celebration of his (and the director's) parents, bringing him back from the brink with unconditional love (the climactic pietà is almost as moving as the shift to childhood home-movie). Still a bit inert at the end of the day, but Ken and Flo - screening films and cooking nutritious meals in their little warren of shelves and corridors, so cramped they have to pull their wardrobe down with a hook from the ceiling - can rest easy: seldom have parents been graced with a more loving screen tribute.  

CHICAGO 10 (51) (dir., Brett Morgen): Nowhere near as audacious as expected, just a straight documentary with animated interludes - and yes, it's excitingly done, but this subject (and this wealth of found footage) was never going to end up as a talking-heads snoozefest. Might've been better with a little more doubt, and a little less hagiography, re: its radical heroes - though it prompted me to look everyone up on Wikipedia (even the people I'd already heard of) so I guess mission accomplished.

BAGHEAD (58) (dir., Jay & Mark Duplass): Amateur filmmakers brainstorm in remote mountain cabin; one guy says he wants to make a horror movie, one girl prefers a "relationship movie" - and the film itself is both, which is pretty smart, though irony (the dreaded snark) nearly derails both aspects. There's latent irony in the way the film views these characters - from their artistic pretensions to chubby Chad's designs on smokin'-hot Michelle - making them hard to care about, while the horror scenes are a testament to the power of hidden threats and a roving camera to unsettle even when a movie isn't sure it wants to unsettle ('cause that might be corny), finally squelching the horror with satire. Greta Gerwig is going to break out soon, you can feel it.      

JULIA (72) (dir., Erick Zonca): Thought I'd found my No. 1 for the year, but the final-act mayhem is just a bad idea; tried to rationalise it away as an extension of Julia's mindset (she's such a full-time fantasist, it'd make emotional sense if she fantasised herself into a lurid melodrama), but it's still tired macho bullshit, and conviction/originality fades away by the minute. Before that it's astonishingly good, not sparing Julia at all - note e.g. her absurd hauteur when she sniffs that AA meetings are "obscene" - but making her alive and unpredictable (Zonca's work with actors is extraordinary; even the random guy who picks Julia up in a bar in the opening scene is memorable). Bonus points for handling the kid thing so skilfully as well, inching close to sentimentality but never succumbing; much more controlled than the oft-cited Cassavetes comparison would suggest - and in fact, despite the protagonist's gender, the film that kept coming to mind wasn't GLORIA so much as A PERFECT WORLD.

IL DIVO (75) (dir., Paolo Sorrentino): Watch the hands, Fanny Ardant is told, they provide the clues to what he's thinking; not the head, which we first see as a pincushion for acupuncture needles then blocked by a strategically-placed lamp (translation: we'll never know what goes on in there). Sorrentino's hollow-but-powerful style finds its perfect subject in this hollow-but-powerful man - pacing around at night stiff as a robot, floating into screen space like he owns it, tearing out a page of a detective novel so he won't know the killer, knowable only by his deeds (watch the hands!), if at all - the jug-eared gremlin at the rotten centre of Italian politics, subjugating ethics, honesty and truth (especially truth) to the exigencies of political survival. Style itself hasn't changed significantly, though I don't know if Flash Paolo's ever done anything as delicious as that first use of Fauré's "Pavane". "Have you ever danced, Mr. President?"; "All my life, signora..."

DEAR ZACHARY (17) (dir., Kurt Kuenne): I think I liked documentaries more when they were made by the boring pedagogues, as opposed to the hustlers.

NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST (52) (dir., Peter Sollett): File under Fairytale of New York, which doesn't necessarily explain why it's so oddly sexless - not an absence of sex per se, though when it arrives it's pretty G-rated (Nick gives Norah a pleased little peck on the cheek afterwards, like they've just baked cookies together), but an absence of behaving like sexual beings. Indeed, the strangest thing about it may be the way Nick and Norah's friends are all not-quite-right for them - his pals are all gay, though he is not; her two girlfriends range from unreliable to actively hostile - the film obviously (despite all the talk of the world being broken and ourselves being the pieces) setting them up for friendship rather than anything more exalted. Often found something infantilized about mumblecore - a self-conscious innocence - though this is obviously the glossy Hollywood version, and besides Michael Cera is an endlessly inventive actor. Also, a THIN MAN reference? I don't see it either. 

TWO LOVERS (73) (dir., James Gray): "Cyprus Mail" review for convenience (though much of it is plot description). Not much more to say, except to emphasise how (unlike THE HEARTBREAK KID, where the hero was a shallow yuppie, or LATE MARRIAGE where he was just unworthy and a jerk) Phoenix here is a lost soul and frustrated artist, which is why he belongs with the messed-up Paltrow character - it's not just Blonde Shiksa vs. Nice Jewish Girl - but equally Gray makes it clear (in the rooftop scene where we can't see their faces, in the way his later "I love you" is compromised by being mediated through cellphones, in the sheer physical chasm between their two windows) that they probably won't be happy together, they just fit because they're both fucked-up. His only chance of happiness - and you sense that he secretly knows this - is to sink into the bosom of Family, despite (but actually because of) the fact that it means giving up his identity (again cf. LATE MARRIAGE, where the hero's so obnoxious this is hardly a tragedy). Visual sensibility both masterful and utterly self-conscious; Phoenix isn't really a good actor imo, but his mannered style works in a film so rich in paradox.

RED CLIFF (57) (dir., John Woo): War is Art, just like music or painting, based on strategy and creative (mis)direction, requiring subtlety and an affinity with Nature - wait, no it isn't, it's a terrible and tragic waste of life ("We have all lost," intones Tony Leung at the end, looking around at the piles of dead bodies). Woo can't quite bring complexity to what looks like straightforwardly martial source-material, and characters remain very thin (a problem in a 146-minute movie) - but he makes it move, makes it stylish and gives a good account of the stakes involved in the fighting. Not unlike TROY, minus Iraq War metaphor but including the CGI shot of massed ships as far as the eye can see; also wipes, zooms, dissolves and - in a sly nod to the action-movie audience - a fierce warrior-chief demanding bigger and better fireballs.  

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE (36) (dir., Robert B. Weide): The book was a chattering-class mediocrity packaging himself as a cack-handed fuck-up because Brits love self-deprecation. The film is a chattering-class mediocrity re-packaging himself as a fun-loving scalawag, plausible romantic hero and Man of Integrity who achieves his dream but chooses to turn his back on the whole celebrity culture, because Americans love self-actualisation, rugged individualism and endings that try to have it both ways. It's hard to know which is the more repulsive.

CADILLAC RECORDS (53) (dir., Darnell Martin): "Based on a true story", all right - damn near the entire history of rock'n roll, with a sidebar in American race relations. Too-broad canvas dilutes the impact, not helped by risible moments like Little Walter taking his first fateful taste of the demon rum or Etta James - unfortunately played by Beyoncé - nailing her song on Take 15 after an intense, dare-you-go-all-the-way pep talk from producer Leonard Chess. Then again, there's also a suggestion that Chess (especially early in his career) wasn't too comfortable around all these black people - a detail which a white director might not have thought or wanted to include - and Jeffrey Wright has seldom owned the screen more completely. Speaking of which, I only had a vague idea who Eamonn Walker was, but I'll be keeping an eye out for him from now on.

SPARROW (48) (dir., Johnnie To): Rather emaciated change-of-pace for To, his shifting tone - which works in his action movies - slightly damaging in this delicate context. Much of it seems to be inspired by 60s comedy - esp. one scene where the soundtrack comically shifts into boing-boing noises and wow trumpets over an ECU of heroine's lips as she smokes a cigarette, like some cheesy retro-chic commercial - but then some of it is urban crime movie, some is slapstick, some (like the constant pilfering of objects) has a Lubitsch touch, and some even inches close to Gothic (the shots down the stairwell, or the room full of birdcages). Climax is memorably staged, with its rows of umbrellas, but also obscurely plotted so it's hard to tell who's doing what to whom. A film made in dribs and drabs, and it shows.

LA FRANCE (47) (dir., Serge Bozon): Sylvie Testud pines for a soldier during wartime - all very hetero and macho, prompting her to snub what looks like a lesbian flirtation and smother her own femininity by dressing as a boy, except the world of soldiering turns out to be feminized, the men bonding by swapping recipes, everything coded as female: a bridge ("La Douce"), Atlantis, and of course La France. The latter is presumably the "little blind girl" of the song interludes, and the end credits reveal that each song is named for a combatant country, making them presumably a kind of analogue for the War itself - a rather academic explanation for something so hilarious (the soldiers' expressions are priceless), but the film too is rather academic, chilly and mostly dreary between the highlights. Often very beautiful, from the opening shot to probably the most magical cloud-passing-across-the-moon effect in movie history; Bozon cites OBJECTIVE, BURMA - and I see his point, but only if form = content. 

BLIND LOVES (56) (dir., Juraj Lehotsky): Four thumbnail sketches, one surprisingly great, one quietly affecting, one watchable, one deadly-dull (the order goes 1-4-2-3). Blind people make good documentary subjects (maybe it's a trend), being unable to stare back at the living-room voyeurs, and special-pleading educational footage - this is how they tell time; this is how they peel potatoes - segues into blind-people-in-love (this is how they flirt; this is how they fear discrimination), though it does get interrupted by a stop-motion animated fantasy sequence featuring a giant octopus. You heard me. 

ZIFT (48) (dir., Javor Gardev): Does this make an aesthetic choice out of coarseness and ugliness, or is it just coarse and ugly? I vote (a) but it's still pretty nasty, and any pretensions to be saying something - anything - about the impact of Communism in Bulgaria need to be taken with a ton of salt. Still some striking scenes - rampant cross-cutting between copulating couple and a praying mantis devouring her mate - and a (shall we say) unorthodox view of human endeavour: "Man squats down in Life's flower-bed - but only after he's been raped by a bunch of vulgarian Bulgarians". My thoughts exactly.

ALL IS FORGIVEN (76) (dir., Mia Hansen-Love): Hansen-Love, the young girl in LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (and also, I now discover post-movie, engaged to Assayas), makes the best Assayas film in ages - same questing camera, same milieu of messed-up creative types, same emphasis on music (incl. Scottish ballads on the soundtrack!), same glancing dialogue, same elegant ellipses and elisions. The title alone - in the context of what happens - makes it deeply moving, but the snippet of verse by that unnamed German poet (death giving way to rebirth, everything moves on but "certain things remain lost in the night") seals the deal. Paul Blain = French William Fichtner.

SITA SINGS THE BLUES (74) (second viewing: 72) (dir., Nina Paley): Betty Boop, anime, even MST3K, not to mention the obvious (and inspired) juxtaposition of 20s jazz and Indian legends. Very funny, very angry, skilful enough to prevent the angry from souring the funny. Totally charming, constantly inventive scene-for-scene - though also slightly repetitive, even at this short length.

JUST ANYBODY (65) (dir., Jacques Doillon): Scruffy Provincials With Mood-Swings, but the push-and-pull rhythm - initially off-putting - eventually becomes quite compulsive. Key line seems to be heroine's remark (re: shiftless hero) that "If I can't see his inner beauty, my life has no foundation. If he's a loser, so am I"; in effect, she eggs him on to do bad things so she can feel good for 'understanding' him, a Girl Scout in the guise of a femme fatale (twisted!). Maybe too quirky for its own good, i.e. these people aren't always recognisable as normal people; then again What Is Normal, etc.

LINHA DE PASSE (60) (dir., Walter Salles & Daniela Thomas): Four stories (five, if you count the Earth Mother's), not really linked except insofar as the four protagonists are half-brothers who live in the same house - but have nothing in common, being a device for Salles to illustrate different facets of working-class life in Sao Paulo (football, Church, crime...). He tends to think in neat little concepts - and uses the city's crumbling bus system (cf. BUS 174) as a symbol of dreams and decay - but he does have a nose for the memorable incident. I wasn't bored.

TAKEN (67) (dir., Pierre Morel): Absurd but spectacularly awesome MAN ON FIRE variation, with skilfully-choreographed action scenes and Liam Neeson - of all people - as the ultimate badass. Morel now two-for-two as an action director, totally thrashing Hollywood at its own game ... but it's also implicitly (and not so implicitly) pro-torture and anti-immigrant, with Le Pen-like rider that state institutions are too weak and corrupt - and desk-bound - to tackle the problem. Guess entrepreneurs (like e.g. Luc Besson) often skew conservative.

UP THE YANGTZE (52) (dir., Yung Chang): Things we basically knew - China's a capitalist country under a thin veneer of socialism, the Three Gorges Dam is a symbol of the ruthless inhuman pace of change in the country - with some handsome visuals and the steadily-rising water (flooding its markers as it slowly engulfs the valley) as a potent visual indicator of mounting problems. Undeniable highlights (a "relocatee" suddenly bursting into tears at his own helplessness; arrogant young "Jerry" revealing himself to be a money-minded jerk who never helps the elderly because they're too poor), but a fatal lack of narrative momentum, a reluctance to acknowledge that the dorky foreign tourists going up the Yangtze are exactly like its own audience - not to mention its Chinese-Canadian director - plus what looks like occasional sleight-of-hand. Are we supposed to think the girl is actually there when her parents tearfully explain why they have to send her off to work? Because she isn't.

BIRDSONG (66) (dir., Albert Serra): Perched, like HONOR DE CAVALLERIA, between absurdist dialogues and contemplating "the beauty of things". Not as funny as HONOR but more beautiful, indeed amazingly so (even more amazing since HONOR was mostly in the so-grungy-it's-perversely-beautiful camp): the play of light on a hillside, fog lifting in the early morning, a jaw-dropping, nine-minute, three-men-in-the-desert plan-sequence, a final shot finding magic in a clump of shifting whiteness surrounded by black (and a pale twilight sky in the background), plus a blinding cut from pitch-darkness to sun-baked daylight. Just in case you doubted Serra's joy in fucking with your synapses.

ELEGY (52) (dir., Isabel Coixet): Finally, regretfully stopped caring with about 20 minutes to go. Witty exchanges (like the one about the Pulitzer Prize) and fine performances (the acceptable face of Ben Kingsley As Dirty Old Man; see below) just about balance Coixet's total misunderstanding of the material - giving hero (un-ironic) classical-music sex when his whole (comic) point is that culture is but a facade for the baser passions - and the way everything is made explicit, from V.O. explaining the obvious fact that Ben uses Kafka and Goya to seduce women to the final, rather cheap twist heavily underlined in the dialogue ("I feel older than you now") - but it finally ends up in such a maudlin place it becomes impossible to follow. I should definitely read more Philip Roth, though.

THE WACKNESS (42) (dir., Jonathan Levine): Smug with pretensions to soulful, playing up the stylistic tics and offbeat characters then soliciting pathos for its cartoons (most misjudged: Ben Kingsley as a middle-aged satyr with his own built-in vulnerability). The mid-90s setting is presumably symbolic - the point when the old NYC disappeared to be replaced by Giuliani's sanitized facsimile, fitting the film's preoccupation with Time passing and things (or people) dying out - but seems to work more as an excuse for folks saying "mad hot" and "mad tired", and old-school hip-hop beats dropped on the soundtrack.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE (55) (dir., Neil LaBute): Surprisingly fair-minded and well-marshalled (except the foolish ending), though all the careful plotting is really just trying to make excuses for a character so excessive he'd seem ridiculous if he weren't (a) played by Samuel L. Jackson at his moodiest and (b) placed within a hopelessly polarized red-state/blue-state template. Goes down smoothly, but this really isn't where I would've pictured LaBute winding up 12 years ago.

SEVEN POUNDS (45) (dir., Gabriele Muccino): Will Smith goes from playing Jesus - martyrdom and sacrifice, as per his previous three movies - to playing God, punishing the bad and promising "gifts" to the deserving (though he ends up doing martyrdom and sacrifice as well). Actually quite gripping, till the plot becomes obvious and the rest is just a long-drawn-out male weepie. Also, a jellyfish? Come on.

BILLY THE KID (56) (dir., Jennifer Venditti): Seems to me, if your documentary subject is a kid who's a little bit strange - mild Asperger's, apparently - there's an obligation to probe and try to understand, instead of just letting him babble on and do his schtick. Emphasis on puppy-love is as cloying as the final dedication to Smokey the Dog and Chloe the Cat, but it's still compulsively watchable, if only to see how long he can babble without people openly starting to make fun of him. Thank god he has the camera to protect him.

ELITE SQUAD (52) (dir., José Padilha): If Michael is right, and the point is indeed to perform a halfway shift and expose the BOPE cops as psychotic fascists, then it doesn't work at all; dwelling on their boot-camp only makes them look cooler - points up their elite-ness - and besides Padilha still retains the chief cop in V.O., saying reasonable things like "You may think what we do is inhuman, but as long as the [drug] dealers have guns, we have no choice". If the point is just to entertain, it does (albeit garishly), when the digs against know-nothing, cop-hating college kids don't get in the way; if the point is to complicate, it doesn't, except as an anecdotal account of Rio's dysfunctional police force. Best bit: massaging crime stats by physically moving the corpses to a different precinct.

CRASHING (68) (dir., Gary Walkow): Dense with meta-ramblings, but it still ends up on the good side of pretentious (Campbell Scott helps, ditto some sprightly writing); obviously a small, home-made film with no commercial life - barely even a film at all - but anyone who fancies themselves a writer or has any interest in the writing process may find it delightful. "Fucked-up can be good. For the work. Fucked-up can resonate..."

THE HEADLESS WOMAN (66) (dir., Lucrecia Martel): Nature of Truth is part of it, as you might expect with a heroine named "Vero" (fact! up to 60% of Argentines have Italian ancestry), the final few minutes even suggesting the whole thing might've been some kind of dream - the Room 818 business - unless I missed something, which I might've done since the film thrives on misdirection. Class difference is also part of it, the "boy who cleans cars" - like the dead boy - being pointedly ethnic-Indian, but Martel's overriding project (like e.g. Haneke's) seems to be locating the strangeness in everyday things (car rides, home movies, family gatherings, or just the quotidian background buzz of random encounters and overheard conversations). I wish she'd re-apply her filmmaking chops to the seething life of LA CIENAGA - especially since those chops have become exponentially more awesome in the years since - but I think that's just me.

LA RABIA (63) (dir., Albertina Carri): Somewhere in the Argentine heartland: dogs kill a rabbit - the strong prey on the weak; it's the way of Nature - farmers kill a pig, a father beats a child, a man ties his belt around a woman's neck and takes her roughly from behind, a mute little girl draws monsters, their spindly shapes taking over in animated interludes à la PINK FLOYD: THE WALL. A piece for five actors, slow and spare but Gothic rather than miserablist, with some bold stylistic choices. Incidental chuckle, Third World Meets First Dept.: our heroine shaves and guts the pig that's just been slaughtered - graphically, on camera - while wearing one of those WWF "Save the Panda" T-shirts.

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (36) (dir., Uli Edel): Plot plot plot violence atrocity plot brief conversation plot. Showing B-M's rise and fall as a procession of violent acts - and nothing else - might've been interesting as a formal stunt, but in fact it's childishly attracted to the mayhem, dwelling on kidnappings and killings like so much exploitation even while decrying the terrorists as deluded and hypocritical; character shadings get lost amid the tabloid pile-up. Maybe I need to watch DOWNFALL again.

LORNA'S SILENCE (64) (dir., Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne): The first (mature) Dardennes film I've seen that fatally lacks urgency, though it certainly goes in some unexpected directions - maybe too unexpected, the twists muddying the Brothers' usual lucidity. At the end, the (mature) Dardennes' first-ever use of non-diegetic music seems to imply that Lorna's achieved some level of saint-like transcendence - a direction previously set up by her earlier behaviour (a friend was reminded of Bess in BREAKING THE WAVES): pummelling herself to help her unworthy man, offering her body in order to save him - but the plot suggests a guilty conscience leading not into redemption (as in THE CHILD) but simply into madness. What to believe?

INKHEART (37) (dir., Iain Softley): BEDTIME STORIES - or indeed "The Kugelmass Episode" - done in the busy, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink style of STARDUST, only with a lot less charm and bewilderingly stupid/illogical ending (looks like anything that exalts the Power of Reading gets a pass in the insecure world of children's books). Notable mainly for a Jennifer Connelly cameo, (a) because it's so transparently a case of hubby Paul Bettany saying 'Let us make a children's film together, so we can show it to the sprog someday and enjoy a family moment', and (b) because she has exactly one line - "Come home. Please come home" - and still comes off stilted and unconvincing. Ma'am, I'm gonna need you to give. The Oscar. Back.

PASSENGERS (38) (dir., Rodrigo Garcia): Wintry-looking slice of sub-Shyamalan, wall-to-wall sluggish chatter with the occasional false alarm to reassure restless punters; Anne Hathaway's role mostly consists of saying "It's okay" and trying to sell a bafflingly irrelevant back-story wherein she's cautious while her (unseen) sister is a "risk taker". As for the twist, I believe Bo Derek put it best: Ghosts Can't Do It.

MARLEY & ME (50) (dir., David Frankel): Decent, restrained (except for the shameless climax), even well-observed, and of course any film about the passage of Time and people - or dogs - growing older is a surefire tear-jerker, but it's all so smoothed and patted together into MOR comedy-drama it becomes almost indistinguishable, canine hi-jinks trumping triumph and tragedy alike. I'll never achieve my dream of becoming a serious reporter - but I love my dog. My wife had a miscarriage - but I love my dog. A girl got stabbed and almost raped in her driveway - but I love my dog.

THE DUCHESS (53) (dir., Saul Dibb): Kudos for figuring out that the audience for lavish, powdered-and-periwigged period drama and the audience who believe Princess Diana was a kind of secular saint martyred by Royal injustice (as opposed to a good-natured clothes-horse) are one and the same. Amusing and even quite subtle, once you accept how completely the deck is stacked; Ralph Fiennes' performance is solid, and his character - the obtuse, insensitive, cruelly limited husband - surprisingly well delineated.

[REC] (69) (second viewing: 65) (dir., Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza): More upsetting and intense than scary per se (except the climax), but extremely well marshalled, and canny enough to take a leap to another level in the last few minutes. Lessons of BLAIR WITCH thoroughly learned - esp. how the limitations of the 'camera eye' (the in-built ellipses of cuts) can add to the tension - though there may never be another horror movie brave-or-foolhardy enough to keep its nerve, and keep the horrors totally offscreen. (Second viewing, first on the big screen: Still very impressive, but it seemed a bit mechanical this time. Final twist helps a lot - leading directly into [REC] 2 (I watched the two as a double-bill), which is busier, slicker, maybe more interesting, but not really scary at all.)

UNRELATED (49) (dir., Joanna Hogg): More Continental - or even Asian - than English: master-shots, ellipses and long uneasy pauses, as opposed to witty banter, Cool Britannia attitude and TV-derived facility (Hogg cites Bresson and Ozu in the DVD extras). Has its hidden depths, the title acting as a hint that it doesn't go where you might expect (i.e. May-December sexual tension), but the characters are chilly, the dialogue sounds self-conscious - possibly because of the long uneasy pauses - and it's hard to care much about any of it. Not one for video, possibly.

YES MAN (54) (dir., Peyton Reed): Self-improving Message - magical things can happen if you open yourself up to Life - hit me surprisingly hard, given how overall predictable the film is (I guess it's connected to the reasons why I shut down this website). Jim and Zooey make a good match, albeit the kind of couple that never works as a couple (both are basically misanthropic, tending to put distance between themselves and others), Rhys Darby scores as nerdiest boss ever; Harry Potter party is a bull's-eye, even by the standards of absurdly easy targets.

VALKYRIE (63) (dir., Bryan Singer): Plot over character, a scurrying emphasis on mechanics that may be intended to distract from our knowledge of ultimate failure - though that knowledge also makes for terrific tension, since things can go wrong at any moment (nail-biting scenes include the Cointreau bottle, the row of identical brown briefcases and a brazen piece of bluff involving an empty phone-line). Fits alongside the likes of THE EAGLE HAS LANDED and DAY OF THE JACKAL, tales of doomed missions thriving on the tension between robust action and a sense of underlying futility, though it's also weird to see this film about 'good' Nazis so soon after the sexy concentration-camp guard of THE READER (what's next, tap-dancing stormtroopers à la "Springtime for Hitler"?). Tom Wilkinson = never not awesome.

THE HOUSE BUNNY (41) (dir., Fred Wolf): ENCHANTED - bubbly innocent in the big bad world - given a saucy twist (fairytale princess now a Playboy bunny) then hammered hard with two lethal weapons, the MIGHTY DUCKS team-of-misfits template and the Both Sides Learn Something From Each Other And Become Better People template. Anna Faris = deft comedienne, but this film = increasingly desperate, despite isolated chuckles. "The eyes are the nipples of the face!"

CHOCOLATE (44) (dir., Prachya Pinkaew): "Special" little girl becomes teenage kickboxer, but lacks Tony Jaa's spectacular athleticism and kinetic way with screen space (the fighting is impressive, but much of it is standard chop-socky in static wide-shots). Incoherently plotted and mostly dull, despite tranny assassins, cartoon interlude and hilarious early fight scene where our girl - still learning the ropes - kicks ass while squealing like ... well, a girl.

THE READER (54) (dir., Stephen Daldry): Presence of Susanne Lothar prompts the thought that it needed a Haneke to mine the heroine's complex pathology - esp. the way she craves, then destroys her 'betters', i.e. those who can read. More intriguing than expected - it takes some moxie to demand sympathy for a cradle-snatching ex-Nazi who once locked 300 Jews in a burning church and watched them die - but the plotting doesn't justify the mounting melodrama (our hero just moons around looking poleaxed for most of the second half), and of course it's smothered in tastefulness. Suicide is tasteful. Even a vomiting scene is tasteful.    

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (64) (dir., Patricia Rozema): Great Depression for kids with a side of "Nancy Drew", let down by predictable mystery and saccharine ending, helped by winsome charm and general air of solidity. Also, please find some more zany roles for Zach Mills to play, Hollywood peeps. Kid's gonna be the next Emo Phillips or something.