My top 10 films

I got nominated in a thing going around Facebook lately, of listing my top 10 films over 10 days. The idea was to simply post a picture from that day’s film but of course I went further and shared my thoughts/feelings about each one, the word count getting longer as the days went on. Anyway, I figured I may as well compile the posts and turn them into a blog post, so here we are…

Day 1

“I have been nominated by Marty Wawrzynczak to post 10 of my favourite films over 10 days. I must post one movie poster for each of my choices and nominate someone new each day to do the same.”

The original rules state that no explanation’s required but I’m gonna break that. My day 1 pick is ‘The Shining’, simply because I don’t think there’s another movie I’ve watched quite so many times. Few movies reward a repeat viewing like this Kubrick masterpiece does, and even once you think you’ve picked up on every last little detail, the foreboding alpine atmosphere of this horror classic never gets old.

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Day 2

Today’s movie came out at a perfect time: in 1999 my friends and I were in our angsty late teens, and Tyler spoke loud & clear to the angry young men inside us… Although these days we probably relate more to the perpetually sleep-deprived white-collar slave narrator. I think Fight Club’s enduring cult following comes from its prescient damnation of the ‘superficialization’ of our society, which has reached staggering heights over the course of this new century that even the twisted genius of Chuck Palahniuk could’ve barely anticipated… One can only imagine how Tyler would react to an age where Starbucks cups litter not only our bins but our Instagram feeds. In replacing ‘safe spaces’ with bloody basements, polished social media narcissism with existentialist self-destruction, and obsession with status and possessions with a lust for raw experience, Fight Club remains a necessary movie for our time: dark, forceful & sardonic, yet never losing its mischievous schoolboy sense of humour along the way.

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Day 3

When I was 12 I noticed ‘The Exorcist’ scheduled for a midnight broadcast in the Green Guide. Even though I knew next to nothing about it, the paranormal title & R rating convinced me to record it – I remember even having to learn how to program the VCR as I’d never bothered to do so for anything before. I watched the tape the next time I was home alone and, needless to say, it freaked the shit out of me. Yet I remained intrigued by what I’d seen and returned to the tape some time later, this time watching it the rest of the way through and becoming mildly obsessed (not possessed) with the film in my early teens. These days, ‘The Exorcist’ no longer warrants its ‘scariest movie ever’ tagline, but it remains an unnerving and timeless horror flick that taps into some very deep themes – of death, losing one’s faith, of puberty and the nature of evil – all brilliantly explored in William Blatty’s novel of which this is an adaptation. The fact that novel, in turn, was based on a true story (whether it really involved possession or not) makes this account of a young girl taken over by a demonic entity all the more compelling.

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Day 4

‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring’ was recommended to me by Attila Zeeman years ago. I d̶o̶w̶n̶l̶o̶a̶d̶e̶d̶ legally acquired it, prepared a plunger full of jasmine tea, and sat down to watch it with Kic late one night… And sure enough it was brilliant. This Korean movie follows a young boy who lives with his father (or some sort of guardian monk) in a traditional house in the middle of a remote lake. There’s very little dialogue throughout the film, which makes its striking cinematography, and its succession of simple scenes coalescing into a tale about growing up and growing old, all the more poignant and profound. The overall effect of watching ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring’ is like absorbing a documentary, poem and sacred text all at once… Not a movie to watch over and over, but definitely a movie to watch at least once in your life.

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Day 5

Historical epics don’t get much better than this. Based on the first of a trilogy of novels whose place in Polish culture is akin to that of Shakespeare in English, ‘Ogniem i Mieczem’ – ‘With Fire and Sword’ – follows the exploits of a Polish lieutenant during the 17th-century Khmelnytsky Uprising, when the Polish Commonwealth came under attack by a coalition of Cossacks, Tatars and Ottomans. Part war movie, part love story, part historical drama, Ogniem i Mieczem thrusts you back into a long-lost world of winged cavalry, chivalry, witches and swordfights, when Poland lorded over eastern Europe but ethnic tensions were tearing deep and bloody fissures in the fabric of its multinational commonwealth.

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Day 6

Today, another historical epic most people would be much more familiar with: ‘Gangs of New York’. Focussing on a young lad taken under the wing of a mob boss – a classic Scorsese narrative – what fascinates me about ‘Gangs of New York’ is its hugely ambitious, dynamic, sprawling recreation of mid-1800s New York in all of its madness, violence and vice. Above all else, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher is hands-down the greatest character acting I’ve ever seen, bringing to life with extraordinary mastery a charismatic, brutal yet paternal gang leader who controls the ‘Five Points’ neighbourhood where the film’s set. So taken was I by the movie back in 2002 that I remember walking past the Dendy Brighton cinemas one night, realising it was about to start playing, and sneaking into the cinema to watch that incredible opening scene again, a gathering of rival gangs that culminates in a street brawl analogous to a medieval battle.

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Day 7

It’s a travesty more people don’t know ‘The Magician’ – so much so I can’t even tag it on Facebook. Combining the quintessential Aussieness of ‘The Castle’  with the violence and black humour of ‘Chopper’, ‘The Magician’ is a mockumentary about Ray Shoesmith, a Melbourne hitman who allows a film student to document his daily life on the agreement he can release the footage if Ray gets killed. And it really does feel that way – the movie was shot on a shoestring budget, the dialogue largely improvised, and the result: a lo-fi masterpiece brimming with grit, authenticity and the recognisable flavour of inner-city Melbourne. It also conveys a plausible sense of the unglamorous lower rungs of the underworld, where deals are made in pub corners and death is dispensed casually and abruptly by folks who could just as well be your local electrician or bottle-o attendant…

Yet it’s also funnier than most comedies I’ve seen, drawing on relatable everyday absurdities and nuances of character that a fly-on-the-wall approach affords. To my great surprise, in Googling the trailer to accompany this text (going for a trailer today since I know virtually no-one’s seen this film), I’ve stumbled upon a brand-new TV series – ‘Mr Inbetween’ – that resurrects Ray Shoesmith as a central character. Check it out!

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Day 8

Wanted to include a childhood favourite here and there are numerous contenders, including the weird & wonderful ‘The Dark Crystal’, the dark, gorgeously animated ‘The Secret of Nimh’, the intense (albeit highly fictionalized) ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’ – even ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Street Fighter – The Animated Movie’. But I’ll settle on this one: the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’. First, it was probably THE defining kids movie of the early 90s, bringing the half-shell heroes to the big screen in a script saturated with the buzzwords of the 80s as it evolved into the 90s (Gnarly, dude! Awe-some!) But there are two things in particular I like about the film, and I say that in the present tense having re-watched it as an adult a few years ago.

1) For all its apparent silliness (I mean, man-sized pizza-eating turtles running around with medieval Japanese weaponry) TMNT’s a pretty dark film atmospherically, set in a crime-ridden New York City where masked ninja thugs are potentially lurking around every corner. Shredder himself is presented with all the chilling ominousness of his similarly masked, sinister-sounding villain compatriot Darth Vader. But what earns this slapstick action blockbuster a place on my list is its distinct Buddhist undertones, personified in the wise, Yoda-like Splinter, who – at one point in the film, mentoring the angsty and troubled Raphael – speaks some of the most beautiful lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie:

‘My master Yoshi’s first rule was, “Possess the right thinking.” Only then can one receive the gifts of strength, knowledge, and peace. I have tried to channel your anger, Raphael, but more remains. Anger clouds the mind. Turned inward, it is an unconquerable enemy. You are unique among your brothers, for you choose to face this enemy alone. But as you face it, do not forget them, and do not forget me… I am here, my son.’

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Day 9

Goddamn, day 9 of my movie challenge and still so many to choose from. What about my favourite horror movie, ‘REC’? How can a Mateusz Buczko top 10 not feature a World War 2 film? The moment I thought about it in terms of something I’d like to watch one day with my kids, though, an answer immediately popped into my head: ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’.

I’m not big on American comedies but PTA is proper funny. As a kid the slapstick’s hilarious; as an adult you totally relate to Steve Martin’s gritted-teeth frustration and sarcastic outbursts as he deals with all the lemons life hurls at him over the course of three calamitous days. Two things really make this movie though: First, the dynamic between Steve Martin and John Candy – two comedic legends of the 80s & 90s – is perfect. But the fundamental magic ingredient is the movie’s big heart. There’s the ‘I like me’ speech Del (John Candy) gives Neale (Steve Martin) in the motel room. There’s Neale taking pity on Del despite everything the latter’s put him through, and sparing him spending the night in his car by inviting him up to share his hotel room again. Finally, there’s the absolute tear-jerker of an ending that you’d have to be stone-cold not to lose some saltwater over. PTA’s a rare comedy in that it delivers as many feels as it does laughs, and it serves up both in abundance. Nice job, John Hughes.

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Day 10

I left this movie til last coz at the end of the day, it’s probably my favourite. There’s so much to love about ‘Lost in Translation’. It’s got Bill Murray pretty much playing himself. Its opening shot is Scarlett Johansson’s bum in pink Bible-page-thin undies. It’s got an awesome soundtrack throughout, adding poignancy and tenderness to an already visually gorgeous, beautifully shot film. It’s set in Japan, a weird and wonderful world unto itself that manages to combine serene, timeless tradition with its own crazy, cutesy, high-octane version of hyper-modernity. But what really elevates this platonic love story of sorts into the ‘most memorable movies’ category is the unusual lead pairing and the relatable narrative, perfectly scripted and portrayed, that brings them together.

LoT is about two people – of different ages, genders, and at very different points in their lives – who nevertheless share the same affliction of feeling lost in life and disconnected from those around them; a situation exasperated in the immediate term by the plush but sterile hotel in which they find themselves spending long hours alone. Striking up a conversation at the hotel bar, the seeds are planted of a connection that blooms into something between a friendship and an unconsummated romance, as the two go on to share a series of adventures and intimate moments through which they end up finding themselves and making peace with their lives again. The film’s ending is the ultimate in bittersweet – I love how it has a ‘false end’ of sorts, before Bob grabs a fleeting second chance to deliver the proper goodbye they both crave – and his beaming grin at the end is intensely moving; the weary, sullen face we got to know at the start of the movie transformed into radiant joy. I should note that the film is also very much an ode to Japan – while some have accused Sophia Coppola of using the Japanese as mere comic relief, I completely disagree and believe her portrayal of the country in all of its whackiness, strange sensibilities and (at times, in stark contrast) Zen stillness comes from a place of great affection and familiarity, and indeed was a huge factor in motivating me to visit Japan for the first time back in 2008.

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TWTWB: The Soundtrack It Should’ve Had

One of the things that interests me most about cinema is the use of music to enhance the atmosphere or energy of certain scenes.  Of course some films work fine without musical backing – like The Magician, a favourite of mine also based and produced in Australia – but I felt Tomorrow, When The War Began should’ve had a diverse and epic soundtrack, powerfully reminiscent of the book’s period, setting and youthful spirit. A few memorable ‘music sequences’ is something that could’ve made the movie a much more stirring and evocative experience, even with all of the acting and directing flaws intact, and its absence is one of the reasons it fell flat for me. Of course the film did feature some music but with the absence of Homer’s ‘theme song’ (when he’s first presented in that over-the-top cop shop skit), it was either very generic rock – an obvious attempt to inject some ‘teen cool’ into the movie – or a repetitive synthetic beat, designed to build suspense, which would’ve been perfect for a techno thriller like Inception but sounded too industrial against footage of rural Australian houses, making me far too conscious of it.

Of course it’s one thing to merely criticize and another to put forward solutions, so here’s the soundtrack for TWTBT as I imagine it. I’d suggest just listening to rather than watching the links provided, so that you can appreciate the music on its own terms and picture it in the intended context.

Opening credits – Smashing Pumpkins – 1979

Singing along in the 4WD on the way to Hell – Bloc Party – One Month Off

Hiking through Australian landscape into Hell – Icehouse – Great Southern Land

Discovering the clearing in Hell – Dan Gibson – Kookaburra

Wirrawee Showgrounds/preparations for Show Day – Connie Francis – Everybody Somebody’s Fool

Discovery of Wirrawee’s fate – Synaesthesia – Surface System

Occupied Wirrawee by night/approaching the Showgrounds – Aphex Twin – Spots

Romantic rapport with Lee – Sophie B. Hawkins – As I Lay Me Down

Preparing to blow up the bridge – Aes Dana – Onset Data

Return to Hell + credits – Enigma – Return To Innocence

Thoughts on a few films I’ve watched recently

PLEASANT SURPRISES

Edward Scissorhands – Bizarre and contrived but in a thoroughly enjoyable Tim Burton way. Johnny Depp said he cried like a baby when he read the script, and you can see why – certain personality types will relate to the character on a deep level and appreciate what’s being symbolized here.

Event Horizon – Creepy, clever and mind-opening – I’d rank it up there with The Matrix for the authentic and foreboding sense of the future that it constructs.

Pirates of Silicon Valley – Probably my favourite of the lot. I knew I’d enjoy this because of my interest in the early history of computers, but the movie goes well beyond an adequate dramatization of those years to a touching and poignant piece of cinema, brilliant portraying the characters of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the shared dynamics and dreams that led to their ascendance, teaming up and falling out.

IN-BETWEEN

Sunshine – Bit sterile, first half drags on and the first few deaths have no impact – just feel like part of a very deliberate effort to get the death toll rolling. Somehow all the characters manage to be slightly annoying as well, making it hard to sympathize with any of them. These negatives aside, the film is beautifully shot, tense with a few twists towards the end and, most significantly, has an interesting, apocalyptic yet very believable/scientific concept carrying the storyline.

Baraka – Awesome in the true sense of the word – it inspires awe: in our natural world as well as the long, rich tapestry of human civilization. Main problem is that with its almost complete absence of dialogue and reliance on subtle sounds and sweeping/panoramic cinematic photography, it’s hard to fully appreciate on a domestic screen & sound system, coming across more as an (overly) long episode of Planet Earth rather than the feast for the senses it would be in a theatre environment.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

Alien – I was expecting a classic like this to be much more atmospheric and scary. As it was, Alien didn’t absorb me that much into its world, it lacks explanation and, most damningly, the alien just wasn’t as insidious or intelligent as it should’ve been – it may as well have been a stock standard wild animal (lion or something) on board the ship.

Spinal Tap – Again, was expecting more from a cult classic. A few lol moments in the first half seem promising but then the movie loses its sense of humour, goes absolutely nowhere and by the end (not that it even has an ending), has completely lost the gritty charm and engaging fly-on-the-wall immediacy that shone through in parts of the beginning.

Thoughts on Inception vs The Matrix

So I saw Inception last night. One friend sent me an SMS describing it as “cream in your pants awesome”. A Facebook contact announced to her 457 friends: “Oh my god – AWESOME!!!!!!” That’s six exclamation marks. That means pretty fucking awesome, right?

Well, I dunno.

It was definitely a damn good film. The concept was brilliant. I also took a fancy to the Uni-student female character… very pretty & natural-looking; no fake blonde curls or balloon lips here.

But that’s beside the point. The point is, was it the next Matrix like some people claim?

The thing is, it’s hard to compare the two coz in my opinion, Inception’s strength is The Matrix’s weakness and vice versa. Basically it’s like this.

Critics & audiences alike called The Matrix the defining film of the 90s. At Uni I even read a text (how Media & Communications of me… a “text”) that divided cinema into two periods: pre-Matrix and post-Matrix. Hell, “post-Matrix” is pretty much a standard term nowadays, the next diner a few miles up past “postmodern”. In short, The Matrix was huge – even the soundtrack became a staple of teenage boys’ CD collections & ushered Rammstein into the mainstream – and its success can be attributed to the fact that it captured, vividly & artistically, the zeitgeist of the late 90s when it was released. In the space of two decades, our world had indeed become saturated with computers and permeated by interconnecting networks & cyberspace, leading to ever-greater media saturation and a blurring between the real and the virtual… and The Matrix, with its seemingly endless streams of green binary code, mirrored with unprecedented flair and conviction the uncertainties and implications arising from this civilizational change, encapsulated at the time by the growing fear and awe of the Y2K bug as the turn of the century loomed.

Inception, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a powerful aesthetic or atmosphere. It doesn’t encapsulate the spirit of the ‘Noughties’, doesn’t crackle with distinctive imagery, fashion or music from its era like The Matrix. It’s pretty generic. It could’ve been filmed anytime in the previous decade or even the 80s, although its “post-Matrix” direction still comes through quite blatantly at times… slow-motion raindrops, anyone?

However, this weakness is also a strength, because Inception’s concept is far more abstract and therefore far more universal, viable and enduring. The Matrix, ultimately a Messiah story steeped in the classic high-tech dystopic future scenario, creates its own fictional reality – a convincing one, but also very specific. Earth’s surface has been taken over by big black machines, and humans have fortified themselves in the planet’s core where they face invasion and extinction at the hands of said machines – with an anomaly in the form of a megalomanic ex-enforcer of the machines’ matrix. Not something I’d wager on happening anytime soon, or ever.

10 years later, this scenario of artificial intelligence gone bad – initially portrayed all the way back in the 1920s with Metropolis, and juiced for all it’s worth ever since (remember how big Terminator 2 was in the early 90s?) – is even starting to seem kind of dated. We can see technology isn’t mutating into armoured shells of simmering hatred for humanity… if anything, it’s getting smaller, cuter and ever more consumer-friendly. Instead of armed cyborgs hissing at us in vocoder English, the 21st century has given us kitten-light iPads, milk-white Wiis and adorable Pixar films.

Inception, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with technology but human psychology – something that’s always been there, always will be, and which is still pretty murky territory ripe for exploration and poetic license-taking. Science still doesn’t know exactly why we dream, how these movies in our mind’s eye are generated or what they mean, and what their effects are on the other reality we occupy – the waking world. In this sense, Inception’s “artificial reality” is far more believable and possible than The Matrix’s, and a lot more intimately familiar. While telephones have never teleported people and a random black dude in leather will probably never offer you insight-stimulating pills (then again…), we’ve all had the experience of Inception’s induced comas, lucid dreams and sudden ‘kicks’ back into reality – not to mention the subtle but immensely potent power of suggestion.

I guess in a nutshell, I’m saying Inception was the better concept, Matrix the better entertainment.

Inception’s characters, for example, aren’t as memorable. The Matrix had a brilliant villain in the smirking, crisp-suited Agent Smith, or the dreadlocked ghost twins of Reloaded. To be fair, Leo’s lead was more interesting than Reeves’ one-dimensional Neo, but even then, the psychological strain of wanting to reunite with the wife & kids has been done to death in Hollywood scripts.

And considering Leo’s character was thus afflicted, Nolan could’ve utilised Cobb’s wife to far more dramatic effect. In the first third of the film she manifests as a vicious and unpredictable figure, and I was convinced that as the film progressed she would loom ever larger into a menacing, eventually even terrifying “projection” (as they’re called in the film) as Leo loses his grip on his mind. Yet this never happens; the nightmarish Silence of the Lambs sequence that Pretty Female Sidekick might’ve found herself in, in the basement of Leo’s subconscious, never unfolds – Mrs Cobs never evolves into anything more than a slightly hostile, eventually just annoying tear generator who helps Leo play out his hackneyed internal conflict. There’s actually a lack of satisfying, nail-biting action right throughout the film; for all the gunfire, back-alley chases and explosions, the action always seems hurried, confusingly & hastily directed, like these were sequences that simply had to be got through to get to the next scene – Good Guy jumps out from behind corner into a hail of bullets, blindly fires his gun, two Villains miraculously fall dead, Good Guy keeps running, repeat… uninspired and not very believable stuff, all the more disappointing considering it’s from the director of Batman Begins/Dark Knight. This is where The Matrix, with its ingeniously choreographed martial arts duels/lobby shoot-out, is undeniably superior.

Ultimately, of course, it’s stupid to compare two excellent films as an A vs B contest. I’ll say outright that Inception didn’t thrill me as much as The Matrix did back in 1999, despite its “next Matrix” tag. The Matrix was the more intense and colourful experience for me, thanks to its much grander scale, its unique, in some cases larger-than-life characters and its characteristic “worn & torn future” aesthetic, perfectly reflecting the 90s penchant for both distressed grunge and sleek futurism. But precisely because it’s void of any caped superheroes or mechanical flying squid, Inception is probably the deeper, more realistic and ultimately more thought-provoking film – that, hopefully, will not sink into incomprehensible weirdness the way the Matrix trilogy did.