Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes



Guy Ritchie has needed a hit for years - and his slick revamping of deerstalker-wearing icon Sherlock Holmes will surely bring it. Yet don't be fooled by the MTV packaging - his so called 'reinvention' is more traditionally entertaining and old-fashioned than it appears.


Not that this is a bad thing; rebranding Arthur Conan Doyle's classic hero for the Youtube generation was after all met with much derision, and so it proves that the focus on the recognisable nuts and bolts of yore - spotting clues, references to Empire, London on the brink of change - is inevitably where the film derives the greatest pleasure. Impossible to reinvent the wheel? Try a much beloved literary creation.


So, after a snappy opening salvo, where Robert Downey Jr's rogeuish Holmes and Jude Law's more dapper Watson foil a sacrificial offering by Mark Strong's sinister Lord Blackwood, Ritchie stops trying to be a wise-ass and lets us go with the flow. When the deliciously evil Strong is reported to have risen from the grave, it doesn't take long for Holmes, stagnating after a long period with no work, to get the grey cells in gear. The re-emergence on the scene of his ex and equally devious crimebuster Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) complicates the agenda. And this is when our interest really takes hold.


For a supposedly modern take on a legend, Ritchie perhaps forgets that his notion is less than fresh, borrowing equally from 1987's Without a Clue (the notion that Watson supplies Holmes with intelligence) among others. It may be a spangly jumpsuit on the top but ultimately carries the feeling of a pipe and slippers, meaning what it gains in comfy familiarity (Holmes deducing info from seemingly arbitrary clues) it loses in the slickly packaged areas (Holmes and Watson's buddy movie rapport, for one) designed to pull in younger viewers.


Law's Watson, although likeable, therefore suffers from the tinkering, becoming an anonymous sidekick who could be slotted into any actioner, period or otherwise, while a miscast McAdams is far too perky when she should be conveying mystery. The main attraction of course is Downey's Holmes whose babbling, nervy energy is the perfect fit for a character whose pragmatism comes at the expense of others. Maintaining a perfect clipped accent, his is not the aristocratic Holmes of old but a down-at-heel one, a vessel through whom Ritchie can explore the grime covered streets of the capital.


This is the one area where Ritchie most successfully breaches the modern audience, capitalising on Downey's newly energised star status and lending a staid character some much needed attitude. And of course there's no-one better at the moment at projecting a view of London (albeit exaggerated) from the ground up: Phillipe Rousselot's washed-out photography, Hans Zimmer's inventive, jangly score and Sarah Greenwood's sets brilliantly draw us into a grubby world nonetheless palpably on the cusp of change.


And that, after all, is the essence of Doyle. For all Ritchie's whizz bang aplomb in staging slo-mo fights, explosions and the like, it's terrific to see his devotion to the core constraints, from a pulpy Gothic vein of horror weaving through to ruthless Blackwood's plans to consolidate a new Empire. Nice also, to have a major blockbuster that wraps up most, if not all, the story strands, in uniquely Holmesian fashion. Elementary, it seems, is best after all.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The 50 Greatest Films of the Noughties

So I'm bowing out of the 2000s in style with a round up of all that was good cinematically over the past decade. A lot happened to me personally over the past 10 years - the joys of discovering alchohol and going to university to name but two - but film became more than a mainstay. It became a passion and hopeful focal point for a future career. Peruse the list and see what you think; try not to be consumed by the ordering - that was entirely on a gut level by me. Instead try to focus on the films chosen for selection.

See you in 2010!



1) Dead Man’s Shoes – (Shane Meadows, 2004)

- Shane Meadows’ masterpiece, this is the epitome of what can be achieved on a low budget with top actors and a (semi-improvised) script so steeped in melancholy, it transcends its revenge movie framework. A disturbing, thoughtful and engrossing tale of a world gone blind, Paddy Considine electrifies in what may be his finest role to date


2) The Motorcycle Diaries – (Walter Salles, 2004)

- My most uplifting film of the decade is the joyous, humorous and moving story of the origins of Che Guevara, winningly played by Gael Garcia Bernal; any young person desperate for a sense of adventure must watch this, and be consumed by the sense of fun only a road trip can bring. No other film on this list will make you want to don leathers and see the world more…


3) Hot Fuzz – (Edgar Wright, 2007)

- Shaun of the Dead is more subtle and subversive but for huge laughs coupled with the best Brit comedy ensemble of the decade (Timothy Dalton, where have you been?), Fuzz can’t be beaten. Who’d have thunk it – an action comedy filmed in Wells…


4) Shaun of the Dead – (Edgar Wright, 2004)

- The one that reignited the stagnating British film industry, lots have attempted to bottle Shaun’s razor sharp blend of comedy and horror but none have succeeded. Largely because they don’t have Pegg, Wright and Frost behind them…In bringing the zombie movie to the London pub, the lads capture the comedy zeitgeist more successfully than any other film this decade


5) The Bourne Ultimatum – (Paul Greengrass, 2007)

- Edited to within an inch of the audience’s fingernails, the duo of Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon give the action movie a much needed shot of adrenaline. Forget Michael Bay – embrace a gritty world of amnesiac superspies and omnipresent surveillance cameras, wound so tight you’d swear it were a documentary crew following Jason Bourne around


6) Minority Report – (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

- Spielberg’s most ambitious movie of the decade is a masterful blend of past and present. It’s set in a future dominated by Tom Cruise’s psychic crimebusting squad – but Janusz Kaminski’s lush photography and John Williams’ spare score say something else: this is a noir in every sense of the word


7) The Prestige – (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

- Was there a more intricate, rich, literate thriller released this decade? Wider in scope than Memento and unfolding like the layers of an onion, Nolan’s period piece (taken from Christopher Priest’s novel) is diabolically clever in offering audiences their own magical prestige. After all, it’s what we don’t want to see that blinds us…


8) The Dark Knight – (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

- No longer a ‘mere’ comic book adaptation, Nolan’s second Batman effort is instead a grand tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, rife with foreboding while blessed with brilliant set pieces and an extraordinary turn from the much missed Heath Ledger as The Joker. We’ll forgive Christian Bale’s stupid bat-voice when the supporting cast is so rich and the story so well bolstered. Truly an action film that crosses over into the art-house


9) The Descent – (Neil Marshall, 2005)

- The finest Brit horror of the decade has spawned a host of inferior imitators, like Shaun of the Dead did for comedy. But Neil Marshall realises he derives true terror not merely from gore alone but from the deep recesses of the mind. Descent in name and nature, it’s not only grisly but poetic too – only the best horrors achieve that


10) Finding Nemo – (Andrew Stanton, 2003)

- For me, Pixar reached their peak with this delightful undersea adventure. Refusing to be outdone by their astonishing work in recreating lush aquatic environs, the story is particularly strong and witty, a father-son odyssey peopled by a hysterically funny supporting cast of surfer turtles, abstaining sharks and British swordfish


11) Gladiator – (Ridley Scott, 2000)

- The comeback for Ridley Scott and the making of Russell Crowe, Gladiator is big budget filmmaking at its finest, a rousing, triumphant recreation of ancient Rome, a taut revenge thriller and a hypnotic tale of Elysium. That’s the afterlife to you and me. Did more for sales of ethnically tinged chill out albums than any film for years…


12) Little Miss Sunshine – (Jonathan Dayton; Valerie Faris, 2006)

- Shattering the notion of the smug indie comedy, Dayton and Faris’ delightful first effort is cynical and heart-warming in equal measure, a paean to that most curious of units: the family. Just when Rick James’ ‘Superfreak’ has reduced the audience to bits in the glorious pageant-set finale, your heart (and a big grin) is restored in the wonderful finale


13) Sexy Beast – (Jonathan Glazer, 2001)

- There were a glut of Guy Ritchie-influenced gangster flicks this decade but few were as memorable as Jonathan Glazer forever turning Ben Kingsley’s image on its head in casting him as Don Logan, a vile vicious bulldog of a man tormenting likeable ex-con Ray Winstone in his Spanish paradise. Surreal, tense and endlessly quotable.


14) American Beauty – (Sam Mendes, 2000)

- Former stage director Mendes made an astonishingly assured debut with this witty, dark-hued tale of suburban alienation, influencing everything from Desperate Housewives on down. Thomas Newman’s peerless plinky-plonky rhythms coupled with Kevin Spacey’s impeccable dead-pan voiceover encapsulated the ennui of the middle class family everywhere


15) Slumdog Millionaire – (Danny Boyle, 2009)

- Danny Boyle finally finds substance to match his trademark visual √©lan in this glorious adaptation of Vikus Swarup’s novel Q&A. Painting the Mumbai slums as a riot of colour and pounding music, the narrative finds a palpable human centre in the relationship between Dev Patel’s Jamal and Frida Pinto’s luminous Latika. An intricately scripted, beautiful masterpiece.


16) No Country for Old Men – (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008)

- Perhaps the most straightforward Coen Brothers effort since their debut Blood Simple in 1984, this beautifully filmed slice of southern Gothic grips like a polished bear-trap and, in Javier Bardem’s oxygen tank-wielding villain, unveils the most intimidating movie character of the decade. Forgoing the quirky and ramping up the tension to unbearable levels, its later philosophical discursions are thoughtful and infuriating in equal measure


17) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – (Peter Jackson, 2003)

- Yes, yes, yes, the Rings films (if not the books) are a trilogy but space had to be made so the logical choice for inclusion was the magnificent conclusion. The pinnacle of cutting edge CGI moviemaking in the awesomely staged battle scenes, Peter Jackson sensibly brings us back to Earth every time in honing the human emotion at the heart of Tolkein’s opus, evoking as many tears as thrills


18) The Departed – (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

- Scorsese returned to prime gangster territory on the mean streets of Boston after two ambitious but misfiring epics (Gangs of New York and The Aviator). The results were terrific and won him a long overdue Oscar: snappy dialogue from William Monahan, a piercing insight into law and corruption and standout, tough performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg.


19) Collateral – (Michael Mann, 2004)

- Mann’s lush, LA-set neo-noir combines his two greatest strengths: lucid, pop psychology and riveting action, best seen here in an astonishing night-club shootout so loud you’d swear you were there. Jamie Foxx singlehandedly launched a successful career as kindly cabbie Max while Tom Cruise is a revelation as silver-haired, ruthless assassin, Vincent. A rare brawny actioner with brains to match.


20) Drag Me to Hell – (Sam Raimi, 2009)

- The Spiderman movies were bigger but Raimi’s personal touch was diluted. Drag Me to Hell is a terrific return to his glory days: energetic camerawork, wizened old crones, nasty make-up effects and a wonderful sense of humour. Gore porn is a foregone conclusion; all hail the return of a master who really understands how to scare (and tickle) his audience.

21) The Devil’s Backbone – (Guillermo Del Toro, 2001)

- Indeed, it’s better than Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro’s second full-length Spanish effort is a much more confident affair, a ghost story set in a Spanish orphanage, more subtle in its sense of creeping dread and more sparsely filmed, meaning the imagery is all the more striking (an unexploded bomb sticking out of the ground; a child spirit peering though a keyhole)


22) Pan’s Labyrinth – (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006)

- An ambitious, visually stunning fusion of a dark fairytale and the even darker era of the Spanish Civil War, Del Toro cleverly puts the audience in an unenviable position. Which would we rather escape into? The two halves of the film are never quite reconciled but it’s an ambitious, shocking, superbly acted masterpiece nevertheless, and utterly unique


23) Shrek – (Andrew Adamson; Vicky Jenson, 2001)

- Toy Story is the granddaddy but Dreamworks also proved they could knock it out of the animation park with this wickedly funny send-up of Disney and fairytales in general. Not just an upstart to the Pixar crown, Shrek instead honed a whole new animated genre, cynical, hysterical but always with its heart in the right place


24) Road to Perdition – (Sam Mendes, 2002)

- Less striking than his debut, Mendes’ sophomore effort, a languid gangster movie, nevertheless must be the most beautifully shot period piece of the decade (props to DOP Conrad L. Hall). An introspective look at the criminal lifestyle, Thomas Newman’s moody score sounds a moving death knell for the way of life while the other Tom (Hanks) acquits himself well in a cast-against-type role, ably supported by legendary Paul Newman and a creepy Jude Law


25) 28 Weeks Later – (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)

- Yep, it’s better than 28 Days Later! Rather than self-destructing in the third act as Danny Boyle’s effort did, Fresnadillo maintains a quite ruthless consistency in depicting life going the way of an apocalypse: bloody, grim, relentless and utterly terrifying. Want a nightmare enacted on a cinema screen? This is it.


26) Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – (Gore Verbinski, 2003)

- Johnny Depp had been knocking out quality work for years beforehand but it was Pirates that let him loose on a mainstream blockbuster for the first time – and the results were delightful, his addled, mumbling, mascara-tinted Jack Sparrow eating up the screen. Not that the film’s lacking elsewhere – the script is sharp and the effects nicely organic – but it’s Depp’s show


27) The Others – (Alejandro Amenabar, 2001)

- Likely Nicole Kidman’s finest performance, her intense fear in the face of elusive ghosts haunting her dilapidated Jersey mansion makes The Others an utterly riveting, chilling experience. Amenabar’s masterful use of light and dark, often melted away solely by oil lamps and candles, hearkens back to the style of genre masters like Jack Clayton who understood the greatest terror exists in the shadows.


28) Children of Men – (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

- Disgracefully overlooked on release, Cuaron’s loose adaptation of PD James’ futuristic novel is in fact more a frightening reflection of our times, Emmanuel Lubezki’s groundbreaking photography and Clive Owen’s weather-beaten hero drawing us into a desolate Britain haunted by infertility, immigration and rampant violence. No other sci-fi this decade felt more relevant.


29) Sweet Sixteen – (Ken Loach, 2002)

- Loach’s miserabilist brand of kitchen sink drama here translates into something much more tragic and involving. The story of a boy on a rough Scottish council estate desperate to keep his junkie mother on the straight and narrow is flecked as usual with raw humour and improvised dialogue but it’s the compassionate, rather than pragmatic, examination of lives on the edge that secures its moving quality.


30) War of the Worlds – (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

- Here was further confirmation (as if it were needed) that Steven Spielberg had left his frothy Indiana Jones roots behind. Worlds is no straight blockbuster but instead a big budget horror film clad in horrific post-9/11 imagery, everything from ash falling from the sky to the assignation of the aliens as terrorists. Spielberg may miss the essential point of HG Wells' classic novel in updating and relocating it but still maintains its primal power.


31) This is England – (Shane Meadows, 2007)

- Shane Meadows’ most acclaimed film is not his best but did mark our finest home-grown drama in years, a gripping coming-of-age story that dovetails beautifully with the development of skinhead racism in 80s Thatcherite Britain. Ol’ Maggy may not have been too popular but boy her legacy has inspired some great movies.


32) Bloody Sunday – (Paul Greengrass, 2002)

- A remarkably even-handed portrayal of the horrific 1972 Derry massacre, Paul Greengrass’ film is both a blistering suspense thriller and a blistering polemic. Not that you’d know it from his dispassionate approach, his trademark, nervy camerawork suggesting the potential for violence from both the English and Irish sides


33) Donnie Darko – (Richard Kelly, 2002)

- The teenage film for anyone who was a moody adolescent in the early 2000s (as I was), Richard Kelly’s time-splicing, inscrutable yet darkly beautiful horror/black comedy/fantasy somehow speaks to the alientated teen soul inside all of us. We’re waiting for the director to live up to his early potential but it’s unlikely he’ll ever top the image of demonic rabbit, Frank.


34) City of God – (Fernando Meirelles, 2003)

- Hitting audiences like a slap in the face at the start of 2003, this freewheeling drama set in a South American slum threatens to break free from the frame, so fast is it paced and so colourfully is it directed. A mix of coming-of-age story, social study, gangster thriller and more, it may be the most accomplished crime drama since Goodfellas.


35) Paranormal Activity – (Oren Peli, 2009)

- Blair Witch for the Facebook generation, the impact of Paranormal Activity in once again bringing an audience’s attention to the possibilities low budget horror can’t be overlooked. It’s all in the set-up: a DV camera, a bedroom, a darkened corridor beyond…Will something pop out? In a way it’s a perverse relief when something finally does.


36) Spirited Away – (Hayao Miyazaki, 2003)

- Studio Ghibli have been crafting masterpieces for years but it was Spirited Away that finally got them much deserved worldwide recognition, a puzzling but utterly charming and beautifully made cautionary tale on the perils of greed. In the current climate of mass produced animation, to come across something as poetic and bold as this is a real joy.


37) United 93 – (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

- Hugely and justly controversial for its close proximity to the tragic day it re-enacts, Greengrass’ shattering drama reverberates in the mind and on the nerves long after the credits roll, a deeply upsetting, direct portrayal of human lives on course with catastrophe. It’s not about politics but, as is usual with Greengrass, the outlook is deeply political.


38) Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

- Getting the Bond franchise back on track after the dreadful Die Another Day couldn’t have been easy but Martin Campbell, as with Goldeneye, makes it seem effortless. Defying impossible expectation, Daniel Craig becomes the most dangerous and charismatic Bond yet, completely in-tune with a new tone for 007 that sensibly goes the way of the Bourne movies.


39) Hunger – (Steve McQueen, 2008)

- The most striking debut of 2008 was this Maze Prison-set IRA drama, a stunningly eerie, breathtakingly shot collage of painterly images somehow combining together to tell the story of hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Wearing his Turner Prize winning background on his sleeve, director McQueen never titillates but always provokes.


40) There Will Be Blood – (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008)

- Few recent films have been as ambitious, strange or ambitiously strange, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s oil centred epic, a grandiose Kubrickian drama resplendent in insidious roving camerawork, unnervingly discordant score from Johnny Greenwood and a persistent flouting of genre conventions. Riding the mighty colossus is an astonishing, Oscar winning turn from Daniel Day Lewis.


41) Being John Malkovich – (Spike Jonze, 2000)

- Likely the most bizarre and unique film on this list, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman made their idiosyncratic stamp on the world with this twisted tale of a portal inside John Malkovich’s head. Nightmareish, bleak and hilariously funny (‘Mr Wartz?’/’Schwartz’), it’s either a send up of celebrity or a Freudian psychodrama. Or, ya know, it could be something else entirely…


42) The Insider – (Michael Mann, 2000)

- No one makes adult thrillers quite like Michael Mann, here taking on a tale of tobacco industry corruption and transforming it into a razor sharp examination of media ethics and one man’s struggle in the face of corruption. As usual, Al Pacino gets the shouty part but here Russell Crowe really impresses as corpulent, nervy whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (bagging his first Oscar nom in the process).


43) Happy Go Lucky – (Mike Leigh, 2008)

- Sally Hawkins walks just the right side of effervescent in Mike Leigh’s atypically sparkling comedy, about a perennially upbeat woman’s relationship with her misanthropic driving instructor (a magnificent Eddie Marsan). Forgoing his usual insight into working class British life but keeping his improvised approach, it’s a film that feels both familiar and refreshing.


44) Touching the Void – (Kevin McDonald, 2003)

- The incredible true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ battle against the elements on the Siula Grande gets a fine docudrama makeover in McDonald’s riveting treatment. Blending archive interviews with an agonising re-enactment, once your nails have gone you’ll start work on the furniture. Thank goodness Tom Cruise didn’t get his hands on this…


45) Brokeback Mountain – (Ang Lee, 2006)

- No sniggering in the (broke)back row – Ang Lee’s decade spanning drama, greatly expanded from Annie Proulx’s short story, is a deeply moving piece of work. Not a glib gay love story but a tragic tale of forbidden romance, this is the one that finally reminded us of the late Heath Ledger’s strength as a performer.


46) About Schmidt – (Alexander Payne, 2003)

- In the twilight of his career, Jack Nicholson finally acts his age and delivers his finest, most nuanced performance as a retired pensioner contemplating the rest of his life. Heart-wrenching, amusing and perceptive in equal measure, one doesn’t need to be elderly to see loneliness affects all of us. If the finale doesn’t reduce you to tears, you have a heart of stone.


47) Once – (John Carney, 2007)

- Imagine a film about a busker and an immigrant meeting on the streets of Dublin and chances are yawns will spring to the mouth. Which is why Once’s charm, wit and big, big heart are an utter joy, with effortlessly likeable performances from Glen Hansard (under the direction of former Frames member Carney) and Marketa Irglova as the nameless, aspiring musicians.


48) Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)

- Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly inventive backwards-forwards thriller feels somewhat stagy and mechanical (preventing it from a higher place on this list) but is noteworthy for digging out of its slippery nature a haunting meta-narrative, of a man (Guy Pearce) condemned to live forever in the long term.


49) Munich – (Steven Spielberg, 2006)

- Spielberg wears his Important hat for this uncharacteristically violent and moody depiction of the aftermath of the Munich games hostage crisis. Po-faced and baggy it may be but the film inhabits the foggy world between revenge and consequence better than any big budget drama in years and there are moments of tremendous power.


50) Million Dollar Baby – (Clint Eastwood, 2005)

- A female Rocky for the first two thirds (being glib), Clint Eastwood pulls an almighty right hook in the final act of his Oscar winning drama, transforming it into a heartbreaking tale of father-daughter relationships and Catholic guilt. Although graced with excellent turns from Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, the biggest revelation here is Eastwood himself, real emotion spilling out of his granite features.