Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Not quite the triumphant fanfare that the epic fantasy adventure series deserved to bow out on, but still an impressive conclusion to an entertaining series.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

hobbitDuring the week, you may have read an article that I published on here expressing my excitement at the release of Peter Jackson’s final jaunt through Middle Earth. After I recently watched all three of the extended edition DVD’s of The Lord of the Rings and rewatched the two Hobbit films, the most unexpected thing happened. I found out that despite previously believing these fantasy adventure films to be little more than Hobbity-tosh, they were actually rather marvellous. Full of character, personality and thrills, I could not wait to complete the set by taking myself off to the cinema and spending 144 minutes with Bilbo & Friends one final time.

In fact, I’ve actually been holding out voting on our end of year awards just yet in case The Battle of the Five Armies made my top 10, as both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug had done in 2012 and 2013 respectively. (Yes, that is a plug for our Failed Critics Awards 2014! Finish reading this and then scroll back up the page and click this link to vote for your choices!)

So, where does this third and final Hobbit film begin? It picks up directly from where the previous film left off without pausing for breath or to stroke its long and lusciously thick beard. As we saw in the closing scenes of the second movie in the series, Smaug the dragon has taken flight and is on his way to burn Lake-town to cinders to inflict revenge on the company of dwarves out to steal back their home. Perhaps an even bigger threat to our heroes is the impending arrival of an army of orcs marching towards the Lonely Mountain ready for all out war.

Maybe I made a rod for my own back by over hyping the film to myself beforehand, but I genuinely was looking forward to this. However, as disappointing as it is for me to say, it was something of a let down. Whereas the previous two movies feel like lots of mini-adventures all taking place within one movie, the final part is.. well.. it’s just the third act to the second film. From the arrival of the dwarves at Bag End and Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, to the barrel riding escape plan and awakening of the dragon in The Desolation of Smaug, there’s always one more perilous quest awaiting Gandalf’s party of homeless dwarves and burglars. In that regard, this is lacking somewhat, which is no surprise when you consider the original plan was for JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit to be adapted into two movies rather than three. The main issue is that isn’t very well concealed. This may be the shortest movie of all six films, but that’s because it’s essentially just one long battle sequence with a bit of story at the beginning and a bit more at the end.

Don’t get me wrong, the battle is well shot. There’s the epic scale that is to be expected and director Peter Jackson doesn’t deny the viewer some absolutely fantastic and imaginative set pieces. It’s not like Jackson doesn’t have experience in how to shoot them by now. However, it just wasn’t satisfying like The Return of the King was. Calling it a battle sounds quite grand but it was more of a brawl with thousands of unidentifiable generic soldiers.

My biggest gripe lies with the lack of humour. It’s not completely without comedy; indeed, I chuckled and sniggered during some amusing scenes. However,  the dwarves simply weren’t fun characters to be around any more. A (100% CGI) Billy Connolly pops up to deliver one or two funny lines, but generally they are more concerned with the darkness enveloping their rightful king, Thorin Oakenshield, played brilliantly by Richard Armitage. In fact, the performances across the board were of a high standard again. Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Lee Pace and of course Sir Ian McKellen were all positive aspects, as was Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins. The only problem with Martin Freeman is that he really should’ve had more screen time. All of the best lines and most interesting plot lines come from the little hobbit. Unless of course you count Legolas declaring that “these bats are bred for one purpose; for war” to be the best line in a so-bad-it’s-good way.

Finally, on the subject of characters and their respective actors, I really think Luke Evans as Bard is one of the best human characters from any of the Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit films so far. An honourable character whose sentiment is not over-egged, with a performance that does not seem to be discussed as much as it should. He carries the story on his own during some of the lesser moments and does so admirably.

Overall, it’s still an occasionally exciting and impressive film, but undeniably lacklustre. The first two films made me laugh and had their own identity as fun, fantasy adventure films. Oddly The Battle of the Fives Armies only managed to make me laugh on a handful of occasions and as such, regardless of the fact the run time flies by (unlike An Unexpected Journey), unfortunately it just feels like Lord of the Rings-lite as opposed to the conclusion to an original and new Hobbit trilogy.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in cinemas right now and will be featured as the main review on our next episode of the Failed Critics Podcast, a Christmas special.

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There And Back Again: The Unexpected Return of the Lord of the Hobbit and King’s Ring

Ahead of this week’s big release of the final instalment in The Hobbit trilogy, There And Back Again— sorry, quick name change to The Battle of the Five Armies, Owen has rewatched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and first two Hobbit films as preparation.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

gollumApologies for the profusely long title, but I felt it only fitting given the epic length of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga. Fans of these modern adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s iconic fantasy adventure novels are no strangers to things being stretched out for longer than is probably necessary. For example, within the last four weeks or so, I’ve sat through the DVD extended editions of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy (682 minutes all in all) and re-watched the first two Hobbit movies (a modest 369 minutes by comparison). With the release of the third and final part of Bilbo Baggins and his merry band of dwarves’ journey appearing in cinemas this Friday, re-titled The Battle of the Five Armies after it was decided There And Back Again made little to no sense any more since being split from two films to three, I will have spent a total of 1195 minutes in the company of hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, trolls and dragons. In that time I could have re-watched the entire first two seasons of HBO’s massively successful and increasingly popular fantasy series Game of Thrones! And I’d have seen more boobs. A lot more boobs.

Before I get any further, a bit of context as to my position on the Lord of the Rings movies prior to this not-so-unexpected journey through the series is probably in order. As I explained on one of our recent podcasts, whilst I appreciated the scale and ambition of the projects, I would not have considered myself a fan. “Hobbity tosh” was a phrase an old colleague of mine used to describe them – and I would nod in agreement whenever he said it. Quite how I ended up really enjoying both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug (in all of its 48 frames per second glory) when seeing them in the cinema is anybody’s guess! But I did. I mean, I really enjoyed them and was a little taken aback by how much fun I had with them when expecting so little.

It was with the release of The Battle of the Five Armies looming that I decided to give the entire series another chance. I reached for the unwatched copies of the extended edition DVD’s on my shelf (that I had stolen off my dad in 2012 with the intention of watching them before the first Hobbit film came out) and made my way through each of them. Starting with…


fellowship of the ringThe Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (208 minutes)

Well blow me down. It seems the only reason I can fathom as to why I did not enjoy Fellowship of the Ring the first time around is that it was missing 30 minutes of extended footage, because I really enjoyed what is the start of Frodo’s adventure. As I mentioned on the podcast when I reviewed it last month, it genuinely wasn’t a chore trying to finish it. I know that may sound like a back-handed compliment, but for such a long film, every bit of it was entertaining to watch. From our four heroic hobbits and their first encounter with Stryder, to Legolas and Gimli’s banter, to Bormoir’s battle with the orcs, it was (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) fantastic. I’m still not 100% certain that I like Elijah Wood’s performance as Frodo Baggins, bearer of the one ring on a quest to destroy it before Sauron enacts his dastardly plan, but everyone else seemed perfect. Perhaps none more so than Sir Ian McKellen who was born to play the part of the wise old wizard Gandalf the Grey. It was still as impressive an achievement as I remembered, with some gorgeous New Zealand scenery and beautifully framed shots, but it was probably the first time I really took notice of just how good a movie this is. A genuinely pleasant surprise.


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) (223 minutes)the two towers

Whilst my colleague Gerry may disagree given his thoughts in our Decade In Film series, I personally found that there was a noticeable drop off in quality during the first half of The Two Towers. A title that I found slightly confusing, given the fact there are more than two towers in the film. In an article I read just this week, it seems that Tolkien himself was also of the same opinion that it was a rubbish title. The film started slowly, with perhaps the opening 90 minutes offering little more than a build up to what was to come. Pacing issues dragged this movie down to essentially a story about walking. Albeit one with a number of redeeming features. There’s more humour here than in Fellowship, particularly involving scenes with Pippin, Merry and Treebeard whose light-hearted scenes help brighten an otherwise dark tale of Mordor’s imposing presence as Frodo and Sam draw nearer. Speaking of whom, Gollum’s appearance also marks a turning point in the story as the fork between their relationship, foreshadowing what is to come of Mr Baggins (Sméagol’s dark and twisted nature) and what he once was (Sam’s friendly disposition and naivety). Narratively, its timing couldn’t have been better as an injection of life suddenly surges through the movie. Of course, also helping this film find its large and hairy feet is the political struggles between Madril and Théoden, Saruman’s corrupting influence (played sublimely by Christopher Lee) and the extraordinary Battle At Helm’s Deep. To coin a football cliché, it’s not just a film of two towers, it’s a film of two halves. The first, plodding and uneventful; the second, increasingly magnificent.


return of the kingThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) (251 minutes)

Winner of eleven (yes, ELEVEN) Oscar’s at the Academy Awards in 2004 – that’s seven more than Fellowship of the Ring and nine more than The Two Towers – including the big two (Best Picture and Best Director), it is arguably the most successful film in the entire trilogy. Or, possibly, a recognition of the trilogy in its entirety. The challenge Peter Jackson faced with this final instalment mainly consisted of topping what has preceded it in terms of narrative structure, visual flair and erstwhile adventure, whilst roundly bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. From its opening scenes with Sméagol and Déagol discovering the Ring, to its climactic battle sequence closing the movie.. or was that catching up with the gang back in the Shire? Or was it Aragorn’s ceremony? Or Gandalf shipping former ring-addicts Frodo and Bilbo off to the Elven rehab facility across the water (all in slow motion for some reason)? Or was it… you get the idea, there’s a lot of potential endings to this movie. Even so, from start to finish it was a truly deserving final piece and quite nicely ended the journey without feeling inclined to leave unresolved cliff hangers, include cheap shock twists near the end or unfathomably long indistinguishable CGI fight sequences. If Two Towers momentarily made me question whether or not I would actually enjoy completing the series of films, then Return of the King swiftly put to bed any such thoughts and converted me to a genuine fan of this Hobbity tosh I once pompously sneered at.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (182 minutes)121118_publicity_still_002.tif

As I stated earlier, upon exiting the cinema on 21st November 2012, after just seeing this film in 3D expecting to be bored half to death three hours earlier, I was practically giddy about how much fun I had with Jackson’s triumphant return to Middle Earth. This was my first time rewatching the film since then and whilst I’d forgotten just how slow the opening 50 minutes were, as dwarf upon dwarf arrives at Bilbo (Martin Freeman)’s Hobbit Hole (careful now). It was something I didn’t mind too much in the cinema. It set the tone and jovial atmosphere that would penetrate most of what proceeded through these prequels, but witnessing it for a second time, it was rather tedious. However, things pick up once everybody has been introduced (or re-introduced as the case may be) and they hit the road, beginning Bilbo’s unexpected journey to the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarves reclaim their home from Smaug the dragon. What still holds up well, and has been one of my favourite aspects from any of these films so far, is the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum (which is even more creepy than Peter Woodthorpe in the 1978 rotoscoped animation Lord of the Rings, of which I also squeezed in a rewatch of before starting on The Hobbit). His utter disgust at being accused of sneaking in Return of the King is topped only by the game of riddles with Bilbo. It becomes the stand out moment across either Hobbit film so far and remains as darkly amusing now as it was the first time I witnessed it.


desolation of smaugThe Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (187 minutes)

Just as An Unexpected Journey was a fun frolic through a fantasy world I had slowly become attached to, so too was its follow up from this time last year. In fact, I’d say that this was the much better film out of the two. The pacing was more even and the world expansion seemed more rapid and interesting. Suddenly these worlds and characters we’d glimpsed previously became worthwhile additions as Bilbo no longer had to keep proving himself to Thorin (Richard Armitage) over and over again. Meanwhile, Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) added some much needed romance to these stories. It’s not often I say that, but (excuse the euphemism) it had been a bit of a sausage-fest up until this point. Bromance can only take you so far in a world that explores all manner of creature and race. It also gave Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his moody glances a reason to be here. I can quite safely say that it also has some of the most exciting and amusing battle sequences from any of these five films. There’s never been any questions about Peter Jackson’s ability to shoot these moments; whether it’s a priest battling zombies in Braindead, or the sweeping epic Battle of the Pelennor Fields from Return of the King, it’s clearly an area he excels in. Here, there are numerous encounters that are immensely enjoyable. A barrel ride down some rapids, for example, is as fun as it sounds like it should be. A close-combat sequence in a Lake-town house between some orcs and elves is also fiercely engaging, even if it did look a bit too weird in 48fps. And, of course, the moment the audience were waiting for with Smaug’s awakening and subsequent run-around with the dwarves is totally engrossing, setting up a finale that just made me wish Battle of the Five Armies was due out a few weeks sooner so I could watch it straight away!


With all that out of the way, the only thing left to write is that if you haven’t gathered already, I have converted from cynic to fanatic as I eagerly await the release of what is likely to be Peter Jackson’s farewell to Tolkien. Where is there left to go now? A biopic of JRR Tolkien is a possibility but not likely to fit into this fantasy series. With Jackson having repeatedly denied any intentions to adapt The Silmarillion, works that feature familiar characters from Tolkien’s world but was edited and completed posthumously by his son, not to mention the legal battles there would be over the rights to the book which have never been sold, it seems this is the end for Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and co. Unless Guillermo Del Toro fancies a crack at it, of course…

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be in UK cinemas from Friday 12 December 2014, at which point Owen will return for a full review. It will also be featured as the main review on our next podcast, the Christmas Special episode featuring Matt Lambourne and Callum Petch.

Failed Critics Podcast: An Unexpected Listener and The Desolation of Steve

The Hobbit TDOSWelcome to this week’s Failed Critics podcast, please excuse us if our heads were a little bigger, and our chests puffed out a little more after finding out that our download figures have gone through the roof (well, the roof of a kennel perhaps). We’d like to welcome all of our new listeners, and hope you’ll stick around.

This week sees us review the latest installment of Peter Jackson’s latest sojourn to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. James gets emotional (obviously) watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Steve gets festive watching Arthur Christmas, and Owen gets scared watching The Host (the Korean creature feature, not the Twilight-style alien thing from earlier this year).

We also discuss the Golden Globe nominations, as well as taking it in turns to plead for votes for our favourite films in this years Failed Critics Awards. Don’t forget to vote!

This is the last regular podcast of the year, so have a good Christmas, and we’ll be back on New Year’s Eve with our review of the year, and the results of the poll.

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A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2002

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. Here he gives us his top five from 2002 – be sure to check out the entries for 2001 and 2000 if you haven’t already done so. We’d love to hear your thoughts on these so please get in touch with a comment or on twitter.

5. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-two-towers-large-pictureI think we might have made a mistake leaving the Shire, Pippin.

The first was a towering achievement of storytelling and fantasy narrative brought to life on screen; the follow-up continued that great work and showed a generation of film fans and aspiring film-makers what epic productions are like. With more action than its predecessor, The Two Towers stepped up the cinematic intensity and silenced criticisms from some corners that the films were long and boring. Jackson builds steadily towards a triumphant final hour centred around the battle at Helm’s Deep, a battle scene which absolutely captivated my imagination as a 13 year old watching this in the cinema. I have, of course, since seen many epic films with epic battle sequences but this film is often a benchmark to compare them with. Podcast listeners will know I moaned about The Hobbit recently but as you may guess from this series, I bloody love TLOTR trilogy, and a decade on The Two Towers remains a staggering achievement, a lesson to us all on how to do exciting fantasy drama on a massive scale.

4. Spirited Away

spirited-away-large-picture-1Once you do something, you never forget. Even if you can’t remember. 

Studio Ghibli films are widely regarded by cine-literate people as outstanding. Yet the majority of the population seem blissfully unaware of their work. Spirited Away is much like their other films – it gets to the heart of childhood and imagination, transporting us forward into a hitherto unseen world of the creator’s making while simultaneously catapulting the viewer back to their own youth, that sense that magic lurked so close that a wrong turn could mean you winding up in a vastly different reality to your own. That is precisely what happens in this film. Chihiro’s family end up getting lost and wandering into an abandoned theme park – her greedy parents eating the tempting food left seemingly unattended and, of course, being transformed into pigs. Fans of Disney and particularly Pixar will find much to love in this classic animation, both in thematic content and the rich visuals our senses are practically assaulted with from the word go. I don’t think it quite matches up to My Neighbour Totoro or Grave of the Fireflies (note to Matt Lambourne – they’d better be 1 and 2 for 1988) but nonetheless, this is better than 90% of the kids films you will ever see – whether you’re a nostalgic adult or a child who hasn’t yet lost that wonder at the potential marvels of the world around them. [I’ve included this for 2002 as it was released in Japan in 2001, film festivals around the world in 2002 and in the UK in 2003, making 2002 the middle ground in such a confusing and drawn out release schedule]

3. Punch-Drunk Love

punch drunk love adam sandlerI have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.

I’m not going to lie to you – I only watched this film about a month ago. I absolutely loved it. No, in fact, I fell in love with it. A mild introduction to art-house cinema for the uninitiated (or soft-core art house if you like), Punch-Drunk Love is a quirky tale featuring Adam Sandler as a possibly autistic, possibly partially psychotic entrepeneur who falls for slightly-less-odd Emily Watson.  Despite the backdrop of constant belittlement from his seven sisters, their romantic journey begins, alongside Sandler’s efforts to disentangle himself from a scam he fell into by ringing a phone sex line to chat about his life. It sounds weird and it is a bit, but if you doubt Sandler’s credentials for this then you’ve obviously never listened to Mark Kermode before. Literally the only downside to watching this film is that you will now be even more annoyed by the constant stream of utter shit Sandler is churning out these days when he is capable not only of genuinely funny films like Happy Gilmore but also excellent serious acting performances like he puts in here. Psst Adam, here’s a hint – make more films with people like Paul Thomas Anderson and less with Dennis Dugan and you might be ok.

2. City of God

city-of-godYou need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas. 

A gripping tale of corruption, poverty and crime in the underbelly of Rio de Janeiro, City of God did wonders for Brazilian cinema. I actually studied a module on Brazilian cinema in University purely based on the fact that in doing so I could watch City of God again and find out the context behind it. For all the complex and important social issues it explores, City of God has a fairly standard cinematic trope at its core: two boys grow up in the same place, take different paths in the face of external pressures, yet their lives always seem to be intertwined and meet with dramatic consequences. Famed for its use of first-time actors taken from the streets of the favelas themselves (even including the mother of one of the real-life criminals depicted in the film), there is a brutal realism to Cidade de Deus that some viewers may find unpalatable. In my view it is that harsh realism which makes the film so powerful and for it to be viewed as anything other than a strength is missing the point entirely. This war between drug lords really happened. It wasn’t nice. With brilliant cinematography that captures the lo-fi 70s vibe of the time whilst still producing stunning visuals and some iconic shots, it is no wonder that the film remains one of the most successful and well-known films in ‘world cinema’ to UK viewers. Fernando Meirelles hasn’t made the move to Hollywood big-shot as many predicted but is trying to make himself the Brazilian Almodóvar. Speaking of my mate Pedro…

1. Talk to Her

On the face of it, Hable con Ella is a pretty odd film. It centres on the solitude and inner turmoil of two men who bond over the beds of the female coma victims who they care for, the gradual entanglement of their lives – whilst in parallel the events leading up to the film’s present are slowly unravelled in flashbacks. There is a quiet power to the film which draws the viewer into this world so deeply that it is impossible to forget. Essentially, old Pedro tests how far he can push an audience (again), this time in terms of how much you’re willing to forgive because you like someone. I often say this about foreign films on the podcast but THIS IS WHAT CINEMA IS ABOUT. Tremendous performances, a director whose vision is so clear and whose skill is so well-developed that they are able to interweave symbolism and narrative to devastating effect, a story which engages throughout and an exploration of wider themes and societal issues without being preachy or ever failing to entertain.

Like all of his films are to some extent, at heart this is an exploration of gender roles. We have the two male leads crying over a performance at the ballet; a female bullfighter who is harsh and masculine, while her boyfriend is vulnerable and openly emotional; a male nurse; and a now infamous scene from the film-within-the-film which seems outrageously shocking, but is in fact less shocking than what it masks. There are a number of genuinely haunting scenes in Talk to Her, precisely because we are drawn into the drama so powerfully by the cast and crew. Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti are mesmerising. Almodóvar was under some serious pressure after the global success of All About My Mother and this was what he came up with.

In my opinion it’s his finest work – in a catalogue of films that most people in Hollywood would be proud to have in their DVD collection, let alone make. This is cinema. This is art without being arty or pretentious. This is a film about humanity, morality, imperfection, societal conditioning, sex, solitude, normality, mental illness… There is a disturbing, unsettling effect as you question your morality and precisely why you feel sympathy or empathy at certain points. It pushes you to think outside normality and ask questions of yourself and the world because it has engrossed you so totally and manipulated you so delicately. That, for me, is what cinema is.

Failed Critics Review: The Hobbit

The HobbitIn honour of this week’s main review we thought about splitting this podcast into three full-length episodes, or recording it at twice the speed, or even inviting old guests back for needless cameos (except we’ve never had a guest on the podcast).

Instead we felt the story of a short, hairy old man and his companions resonated enough with us hear to avoid such frippery.

This week sees the Failed Critics dissect Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We’ll give you the low-down on the new 48fps technology, discuss the wisdom of turning a short ‘children’s book’ into a dark and epic trilogy, and two of the team confess to falling asleep at some point.

It’s one of our more argumentative podcasts so far, and there are some very passionate criticisms and defences of the years last blockbuster.

We’ll be back on Christmas Eve with our Christmas Films Triple Bill, and then on New Years Eve we’ll be looking back on 2012 and revealing the first ever Failed Critics Award winners.

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A Decade In Film: The Noughties – 2001

A continuing series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

As this is podcaster Gerry’s own idea, he’s nabbed the noughties. In this article, he talks about his favourite films from the year we were supposed to have a Space Odyssey, 2001.

5. Donnie Darko

Image

I’m going to make an admission before we get started. This one made the list to annoy James, because he hates it and was disgusted that I didn’t like Amelie enough to include it on here (spoiler alert). On this last point by the way, I intend to watch it again as it’s a number of years since I watched it as a teenager and I suspect I might think differently on it now.

Anyhoo, the film that launched Jake Gylenhaal’s career is a moody 80s teenage tale about a young lad who imagines (or does he?) a 6 foot bunny rabbit called Frank, which adds to his already complicated life. Donnie, you see, is already seeing a psychiatrist and struggles to get on with his family, as well as struggling (like we all did) to get things moving with fellow oddball Gretchen who he has somehow managed to date. Richard Kelly explores time travel and mental illness with this cult classic debut, whose success he has never managed to match since either as a writer or director. This is the part where James rants about how deliberately indie this film is but it’s a bit more thoughtful than most teen films and, as a young teen, really hit a chord with me. It straddles genres and tones but somehow makes it work in my eyes – plus it has a deliciously creepy turn from Patrick Swayze. Captures the 80s vibe brilliantly as well as the stifling nature of suburban life which makes it a winner already but the outstanding soundtrack rounds things off nicely.

4. The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

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Guillermo Del Toro’s chilling ghost story is apparently inspired by his own experiences of his uncle’s reincarnation as a ghost. How true this is remains to be proven, but it is certainly filled with a sense of history and realism that adds to the thrills. A dream combination for me in terms of cast (Marisa Paredes, one of Spain’s finest actresses of all time) and crew (Del Toro directing, the Almodóvar brothers producing), this film has all the makings of a classic on paper. It duly delivers. Spine-chillingly brilliant, it tells the story of 12 year old Carlos as he settles into a remote orphanage in the closing stages of the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalist forces are closing in on them although the only signs of this are an undetonated bomb sticking out of the ground and Carlos’ being there at all – his father died in the conflict – as the film eschews portrayal of the conflict itself, instead using it as a backdrop, a pervasive feeling of dread and impending doom that permeates every scene.

Podcast regulars will know of my passion for this period in history (the subject of my Masters), this director and particularly his film Pan’s Labyrinth, which Del Toro describes as the ‘sister’ to this film, the ‘brother’ in the sibling relationship. Indeed, this is an exploration of a young boy’s grappling with how horrendous the real world is in much the same way as Pan’s explores a young girl’s struggles in this regard. To the filmmakers’ credit, the ghost story is often rather secondary to the very human drama and this is most certainly a far cry from the average Hollywood horror. Utterly tremendous. So tremendous in fact that just writing this article has made me decide to watch it again tonight.

3. A Beautiful Mind

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Russell Crowe was number one in my last list and he is outstanding again here as John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose brilliant intellect is unfortunately coupled with rather fragile mental health. Beginning with Nash enrolling at Princeton as an implausibly old-looking student and following his life and career, this is more than a simple biopic. Ron Howard manages to craft an engaging and exciting drama to go alongside excellent examinations of the characters and mental illness in general, as John’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm. There is a sense of genuine care and affection for the material throughout and the cast, including excellent performances from Ed Harris and Paul Bettany, keep the film grounded and engaging. Crowe is absolutely outstanding though and his keenly observed depiction of John Nash, who he met during filming, is consistently wonderful. This is no doubt in part due to the fact that the film was shot sequentially, so Crowe could maintain a sense of steady decline and progress further and further into Nash’s mental illness.

This film speaks to something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on, with Crowe’s emotional turmoil and despair often really affecting me (something films don’t do all that much to me to be honest – I’m half dead inside when it comes to celluloid). The recurring theme of love is dealt with in an even-handed way, building to a deeply emotional ending. A thoughtful exploration of mental illness from a big Hollywood director with a big Hollywood star (who the year before was iconic as Gladiator Maximus, let’s not forget) – who’dathunkit? Yes I know that lots of unsavoury elements of Nash’s life were left out (including homosexual affairs, which were left out to avoid mistaken connections between homosexuality and schizophrenia) but this remains an outstanding film. Even Roger Ebert says so.

2. Monsters, Inc.

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I didn’t get round to watching Monsters Inc until a few years ago, largely because I was at that stage where you feel too old to watch kids films and can’t appreciate them in the same way you do as an adult. What an error. The story of Mike and Sully, two monsters whose job is to scare children to generate power, and Boo – a child who wanders back into Monstropolis, where the monsters are in fact terrified of her thanks to their fear of being contaminated by a child. Pete Docter, the bizarre-looking genius who would later direct Up and write Wall-E, stepped up to directing this having written the first two Toy Story films. He got it bang on.

Visually stunning and setting new standards in animation (frames with Sulley in took around 12 hours to render due to his 2.3 million individually animated strands of hair), Monsters Inc is also brilliantly written. The most outstanding feature however is the voice talent. Unusually, John Goodman and Billy Crystal recorded together, as did Steve Buscemi and Frank Oz – see what I mean about voice talent? Crystal, as an aside, lobbied for this part after turning down a part in Toy Story, calling it the biggest regret of his career. Equally fascinating and reflective of the dedication to innovation at Pixar, the actress who played Boo was so authentically young that she would wander around rather than stand at a mic and perform her lines. Pixar simply followed her around with a microphone as she played, giving her speech a joyfully authentic feeling.

That joy and enthusiasm for childhood, evident in all Pixar’s films, saturates every frame of this. We’ve come to expect the attention to detail and cool trivia (numerous Toy Story references feature, as does Nemo two years before that film was finished. Oh and the pizza planet truck is in the shot of the trailer at the end, the same trailer from A Bug’s Life. METAOVERLOAD) but this really confirmed that outside of Toy Story, Pixar still had a genuine talent for identifying what it feels like to be a kid and to depict that in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be drawn into a world of nostalgia and happiness. I am massively excited about the sequel currently in development and yet simultaneously terrified it will be shit.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

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You knew this was coming. Don’t act like you didn’t. Peter Jackson’s epic saga kicked off with this and it was so outstanding, so visually lush, so joyously nerdish and cherishing of the source material, and so dramatically powerful that it seemed a certainty to clean up at the Oscars. As it was, despite thirteen nominations, LOTR won only (ONLY) four in technical categories, losing out to A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture and Best Director. That said, I prefer this film because despite its length, I feel it offers the most immersive cinematic experience since Star Wars. Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood weren’t big names beforehand but they certainly were after this, along with most of the cast. Ian McKellen is positively iconic as Gandalf and even Orlando Bloom manages to not be annoying for one of only two times in his film career (the other being Kingdom of Heaven). I’m reviewing this as if it’s the entire series because it is the basis for the two even better films that come after it and, despite being the ‘worst’ of the trilogy, was still the best film of the year.

I know a lot of people find it too long or boring or nerdy or whatever but frankly, I don’t care. This is an epic journey in the same tradition that stretches back through human history, a thoroughly British tale about fantastical worlds that is still universal (and helped boost New Zealand’s profile and economy considerably) thanks to its deeply human core. I have my reservations about The Hobbit but there is no doubting that this film is the beginning of a trilogy which sets the benchmark for epic drama. Plus, had this not been made in this way, would we have Game of Thrones on TV in a grand scale? I think not. And Game of Thrones is fucking awesome. So there.