Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

Owen’s 2015 in Film: Part 4 – April Fool

With the fourth entry in his continuing year in review series, Owen casts a glance over the films he’s been watching throughout April 2015. As with each of the previous articles in the series, Owen will be breaking down the month by week, providing a review of one arbitrarily chosen film seen during each period.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Oh boy. This is getting a bit embarrassing. I think I better just stop promising to catch up on my Werner Herzog films because yet another month has passed where I’m still so far behind on them. In fact, I’m so far behind on a huge pile of movies that it’s getting a bit ridiculous. I’m not even going to make excuses this time (Daredevil) as to the reasons why so many days (Daredevil) listed below indicate that I’ve seen “absolutely nothing” (Daredevil) on them. There’s no (Daredevil) point. I just haven’t seen anything (Daredevil) on those days. I’m sorry. (Daredevil) That’s how it is. The website itself has been a bit manic, as you can probably tell if you’ve been on here over the past 4 weeks. I doubt we’ve ever published so many podcasts in such a short period of time before!

What I did end up watching last month doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme nor reason. A lot of them were classic films I watched because I felt like I had to after Amazon kept posting them to me and I had little else important to do or things I’d rather be watching. I did squeeze in another couple of Albert Pyun movies during April, which I’m quite proud of. A shame that neither were exactly good; they certainly weren’t better than March’s Heatseeker, Cyborg or Adrenalin even. But there weren’t any specific themes I was chasing. No science fiction binges, no run through of a studios output. Just an assortment of stuff.

Anyway, enough waffling. On with the reviews…


Week 1 – Wednesday 1 – Sunday 5 April 2015

Wednesday – [absolutely nothing]; Thursday – Opera (1987); Friday – Little Norse Prince (1968); Saturday – MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (1988); Sunday – [absolutely nothing]

totoroI haven’t always been the biggest Studio Ghibli fan. It took a long time before I came around to their work. The fantasy movies they produce, whilst spectacular to look at, just don’t hit me emotionally. Visually they’re unbelievably impressive pieces of art that absolutely deserve the admiration they get. However, there’s only so much that pretty pictures can do for a film to stop it from being boring. If the story isn’t all that great, then that’s where these films have faltered for me in the past. Their films such as Whisper of the Heart, Ocean Waves, Only Yesterday and Grave of the Fireflies, those that are more tightly based in reality, or playing on nostalgia, these are the films of theirs that I enjoy most. There are a few exceptions, such as Miyazaki’s story of two young sisters who find their new forest home has some unusual neighbours. The message of the film is to respect nature and look after your family, not forgetting where you come from, and as such the whole movie is just nice and fuzzy. It’s a sweet little story; at times sad, tense and perilous, but so sweet and fun. You can’t help but like every single character, from the two sisters, to their father, the dustbunnys and the cat bus, and of course the eponymous Totoro. It’s the first time I’ve watched it since learning of the supposed reality behind the story (seriously, do not click this link if you don’t want to ruin My Neighbour Totoro for yourself forever) which did have an overwhelmingly depressing effect on the movie, but it was still just as good as it was the last few times I’ve watched it.


Week 2 – Monday 6 – Sunday 12 April 2015

Monday – Splash (1984), The Dark Crystal (1982); Tuesday – JOHN WICK (2015); Wednesday – Captain America (1990); Thursday – The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982); Friday – [absolutely nothing]; Saturday – [absolutely nothing]; Sunday – Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

john wickCallum actually wrote a really good review of John Wick for the site about why you should watch this film, and we did talk about it on the podcast earlier in April. But I feel like even that hasn’t given the film enough exposure, so I’m going to talk about it again here! John Wick is the least-American American-thriller I’ve seen for a long time. It’s clearly an action film heavily influenced by the ultra violent brilliance coming out of Asia in films such as The Raid, The Chaser, The Man From NowhereDrug War, etc more so than it is by anything Liam Neeson has done of late. When I say that John Wick is brutal – watching Keanu Reeves play an ex-hitman getting revenge on the idiot son of a mob boss who was stupid enough to steal his car and kill his puppy – then I mean it is brutal. Even though here in the UK it’s rated a fairly tame 15, do not be alarmed. It is hardly Taken 3 levels of softened, jump-cutting guff. It has a strong cast (Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki, Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, etc) all led by Keanu having something of a Reevesival (consider that term well and truly coined). I really enjoyed Man of Tai Chi, which was his directorial debut, but it’s good to see him doing well again in something like this. It’s a very entertaining, completely over the top, full throttle thriller. Again, as I said on the podcast and on Twitter shortly after watching it, John Wick bullseyed every target it aimed at. A thoroughly enjoyable wince-inducing actioner.


Week 3 – Monday 13 – Sunday 19 April 2015

Monday – SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927); Tuesday – [absolutely nothing]; Wednesday – [absolutely nothing]; Thursday – The House by the Cemetery (1981); Friday – Cœur fidèle (aka The Faithful Heart) (1923); Saturday – Lost River (2015); Sunday – Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

sunriseI think I’ll avoid the wrath of Steve by not talking about Star Wars (which is still not very good, sorry!), nor repeat myself by sighing over Lost River, and will instead pick F.W. Murnau’s very highly rated silent classic, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. It’s only my second ever watch of this film, although it was my first time watching my recently acquired shiny new Eureka ‘Masters of Cinema’ Blu-ray. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Sunrise is still an excellent film. Whilst previously I’ve always thought very highly of this, I always remembered the middle part of the film being substantially weaker than its opening and closing thirds. I doubt I could tell you why exactly now, as I feel like I’ve not only enjoyed the film overall much more on this second viewing, but I think I might even appreciate its structure more. The build up to the collapse of Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien’s marriage was fantastically well constructed in the earlier part of the film, right before O’Brien succumbs to the alluring Margaret Livingston and her promises of taking him to the city, if he can murder his wife and make it look like an accident. The despair and kooky frolicking that follows the dark and grim first 30 minutes or so didn’t come across half as disjointed as the last time I saw it. Instead having the opposite effect of being almost tragic, knowing how close they were to ending it all. Murnau does a truly brilliant job at showing you that love between two people can be a magical, binding and unbreakable thing, particularly through its portrayal in the ending of the movie. But I won’t spoil it! Suffice to say, if you’ve ever put off watching this because it’s in that slightly pretentious looking Sight & Sound list, don’t hold out any longer. Take the risk! It’s definitely worth a chance.


Week 4 – Monday 20 – Sunday 26 April 2015

Monday – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); Tuesday – [absolutely nothing]; Wednesday – ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930); Thursday – Master and Commander (2003), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015); Friday – [absolutely nothing]; Saturday – Gattaca (1997); Sunday – Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Infernal (2015), Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

all quiet on the western frontProbably most notable for being the first film to ever win both Outstanding Production and Best Director at the Academy Awards, no I’m not talking about Age of Ultron. Christ. God no. All Quiet on the Western Front finally made its way into my DVD player last month. Last year, I got hold of a pre-release copy of the restored documentary Forgotten Men, which was released three years after Lewis Milestone’s award laden movie, but dealt with a similar concept. Whereas All Quiet… follows a group of young German soldiers who enlist to help protect “the Fatherland” full of enthusiasm and naivety, but soon learn the harsh realities of war in the trenches, Forgotten Men featured interviews with veterans of the Great War. What both share in common is strong anti-war messages, as well as being genuinely upsetting at times. The tragic loss of life, the impact war had on the lives of ordinary people all for a cause they don’t fully understand, living ‘between the wars’ as we now know it to be, it makes for an unsettling and uncomfortable story. Nevertheless, the direction and cinematography of Milestone’s movie (originally released as a silent film before being re-released as a “talkie”) make it stand out as one of the most important war movies of all time as well as one of the best.


Week 5 – Monday 27 – Thursday 30 April 2015

Monday – Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015); Tuesday – The Sting (1971); Wednesday – STREET FIGHTER: ASSASSINS FIST (2014); Thursday – Maps to the Stars (2014), Rocking Cambodia: Rise of a Pop Diva (2015)

street fighterI think it must have been back in 2013 when randomly on Twitter I was followed by an account that apparently represented a new Street Fighter series that was in production. Being a fan of the video games in my youth, as well as the animated films and even the live-action movie (ahem, JCVD), I have to admit it did peak my interest and I gave their website and YouTube channel a butchers. One thing that struck me fairly quickly was the sheer attention to detail that had gone into every single martial arts fight that they were working on, as well as the attempt to really make this a focused look at the relationship between Ryu and Ken. Having now seen the final product after its release on Netflix, it’s even more clear how devoted to the project that Joey Ansah, who directs and features in the film itself as Akuma, certainly was at capturing a story first and a video game tie-in second. Whilst it’s not a flawless victory (apologies for throwing in a Mortal Kombat reference) with much of the films generous run time of 150+ minutes taken up by work-out sessions, montage moments and plenty of training, it does look very impressive. British actor Christian Howard plays Ken Masters, but also coordinated and choreographed a lot of the fight scenes in this film and that’s where the movie shines. It looks exactly how a Street Fighter film should, with some exceptionally well shot action. It’s probably a bit long and a bit slow for anyone who’s not a fan of the games to stick with right through to the end, but I enjoyed it and have my fingers crossed that they’ll continue the series in some form or another. Whether it’s as another webseries or even another film, I’ll be back for more.


And I’m pretty much done for this article and actually releasing it within a few days of the end of the month for a change. It’s also probably the first of these monthly articles that all four films I’ve chosen are ones I’ve enjoyed as opposed to having a bit of a rant about some. I’m not sure how that happened, but there you go. As always, I’m happy to discuss any of the above in more detail or argue why I liked each of them, or even have a conversation about any of the others I’ve seen and not reviewed! Just leave a comment in the box below or message me on Twitter at @ohughes86. See you in a month’s time!

Failed Critics Podcast: Tearing you apart!

Spirited AwayI did not hit her. It’s not true! I didn’t do it, it’s bullshit. I didn’t hit her– oh, hi listeners. Welcome to this week’s edition of the Failed Critics podcast, full of excessively long sex scenes and soundtracked by MTV Base circa 2002.

Following Carole’s quiz triumph last week, Owen and Steve were forced to watch the cinematic masterpiece* that is The Room., written by, produced by, directed by and starring the unstoppable sex machine and all round nice guy Tommy Wiseau.

(*At least, that’s what Carole led them to believe.)

Amongst the reviews of new releases The Babadook and Mr Turner, the not-quite-as-new releases Turtle Power and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and the blu-ray re-release of Spirited Away, the team chew over the nominations for this years BIFAs.

Join us again next week for a review of the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic, Interstellar!

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US Box Office Report: 17/10/14 – 19/10/14

Sound and Fury signify a change in the top spot, Birdman will be able to buy law books with pictures this time, Nicholas Sparks is not getting the best, the best, the best, The Best Of Me, and Other Box Office News.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Movies, successful movies at that, often go about trying to solve questions that the public need answers for.  For example, our new number 1 film, Fury, finally helped to answer our year-long conundrum, “So, is this what caused Shia LaBeouf, who wasn’t exactly the most stable and upstanding citizen to begin with, to finally go completely off the deep-end?”  As marketing hooks for World War II movies go, it’s a pretty unique selling point, and one really should commend LaBeouf for starting so far away from the film’s release date and sticking with it for so long, too; professional wrestlers can’t commit to a bit this much!  $23.5 million worth of Americans ended up tempted enough by the possibility of a train-wreck to pony up and watch an apparently pretty alright film.

In release news that doesn’t involve me making really tired and terrible jokes about a man who is most likely suffering from some kind of mental health problems, The Book Of Life continued the trend of animated films not made by established companies, and not outstandingly marketed to hell and back, opening rather soft with a third place debut and $17 million in ticket sales.  By contrast, Studio Ghibli’s second-to-last planned film, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, opened in limited release to a very respectable $51,700 from 3 screens – which sounds small, but one must remember that this is the return feature of Grave Of The Fireflies’ Isao Takahata and that not everybody wants to be reduced to blubbering, incoherent wrecks at art-house cinemas filled with snobby judging art-house crowds.

Meanwhile, and thankfully for people absolutely f*cking sick of his goddamn signature brand, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, The Best Of Me, bombed majorly, only managing $10 million for sixth place and allowing hacks like me to make unfunny Foo Fighters references.  Admittedly, Nicholas Sparks films have very fluctuating performances – The Notebook was followed by Nights In Rodanthe, whilst The Last Song was followed by Dear John – so we can’t break out the party poppers just yet, but it’s still the lowest opening for any of his adaptations ever so I’m calling this a win!  Along similar total-failure lines, Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children expanded to 608 screens this past weekend and scored the fifth worst nationwide debut ever, with just $320,000.  Films that managed a better per-screen average than it ($526) include Let’s Be Cops in its 10th week ($795), The Giver in its 10th week ($561), Lucy in its 13th week ($778), How To Train Your Dragon 2 in its 19th week ($566) and… well, pretty much everything else on the list.

Finally, we have the limited releases and the big success story of the weekend: Birdman.  The new film from Alejandro González Iñárritu starring Michael Keaton as somebody who once played a superhero now trying to make it on Broadway and filmed in a way that gives off the illusion that the film is just one continuous shot… actually, now that I think about it, it’s absolutely no surprise that the LA and NY cinemas that got this film ate it up so massively.  In any case, $415,000 from 4 theatres makes it the second-biggest-per-screen-average for a limited release of the year (behind The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the ninth best live-action limited release opening ever.  Also doing great business on 11 screens, for a very impressive $31,273 per-screen average, was Dear White People with a weekend total of $344,000.  I don’t really have anything else to add, to be honest, the film looks way too good for me to get snarky at.


dear white people

This Full List has got another confession to make, it’s no fool, it’s getting tired of star- (*is forcibly pulled away from keyboard*)

Box Office Results: Friday 17th October 2014 – Sunday 19th October 2014

1] Fury

$23,500,000 / NEW

Owen will be handling review duties on this one, folks.  Be gentle with him.  I also find it interesting to note that Fury has made more domestically in one weekend than David Ayer’s other 2014 film, Sabotage, did worldwide throughout its entire run.  Good to see his year has turned around significantly!

2] Gone Girl

$17,800,000 / $107,069,000

Gone Girl has been embraced by Men’s Rights Activists, just as I feared it would be.  Sigh…  I guess that’s the risk one gets when trying to tell stories like this one, but it is saddening to know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life lengthily explaining myself when I tell more Internet conscious people that I love Gone Girl, so that they don’t get the idea that I’m some kind of woman-hating psychopath.

3] The Book Of Life

$17,000,000 / NEW

Out here on Friday, so one last time for good luck: I ORDER YOU TO NOT SUCK!

4] Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

$12,039,000 / $36,871,000

And this is out this weekend, too.  Well, I guess you gotta learn to live with the bad days to ap- (*looks down to see hands have somehow become sentient and are strangling the author to death*)

5] The Best Of Me

$10,200,000 / NEW

Should probably clarify that the strangling that occurred in the previous joke involved my throat, not anything dirty like I know some of you more childish readers were attempting to misconstrue it as.  There are no such uses of toilet humour in these articles.  This is a family feature.

6] Dracula Untold

$9,889,000 / $40,735,000

A pretty large 58% drop between weekends, so it’s a total flop domestically.  Unfortunately, it’s almost cleared $100 mil overseas, mainly thanks to Russia and Mexico of all places, so I can’t smugly sit here and claim that it completely bombed like I predicted it was going to.  Drat and blast!

7] The Judge

$7,940,000 / $26,843,000

No, seriously, watch the trailer for Dear White People.  It looks absolutely excellent and the kind of film I need in my life right f*cking now.

8] Annabelle

$7,925,000 / $74,127,000

Yes, that is a really close gap between The Judge and Annabelle, but actuals have yet to actually flip the places of two films that are dead close to one-another in estimates under my watch, so don’t expect anything to actually happen here.  You know, except for the realisation that I just managed to sufficiently kill time by making a big deal out of nothing with this entry.

9] The Equalizer

$5,450,000 / $89,170,000

Fuck off.

10] The Maze Runner

$4,500,000 / $90,837,000

OK, I’m not stupid.  I know you haven’t actually watched the Dear White People trailer yet.  I have no control over you and can’t force you to visit every single link I attach to these articles.  You’re busy people with places to be.  So I’m just going to leave this here and we’ll all reconvene next week for me to do this dance with another completely different film possibly maybe.

Dropped Out: Addicted, The Boxtrolls, Left Behind

Callum Petch is watching the television with no sound.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Failed Critics Podcast: Directorial Farewells and Debuts

The Wind Rises - Hayao Miyazaki's final film
The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki’s final film

Welcome to this week’s Failed Critics Podcast, as Steve and Owen are joined once more by Carole Petts to discuss the last week in film. There’s palpable excitement about new superhero movie news (not the Batfleck image, but the Mighty Morphin Power Ranger reboot!), as well as reviews of new releases Frank, and Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises.

At the other end of the scale, and with buzz growing at Cannes about Ryan Gosling’s debut as a director, Triple Bill returns this week to discuss Directorial Debuts.

Join us next week as James returns just in time for our Godzilla Special!

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Failed Critics Podcast – COP: Studio Ghibli

My Neighbor TotoroWelcome to a mini-edition of the Failed Critics Podcast, and in this special episode we pay tribute to the latest inductee into our Corridor of Praise, the Japanese masters of animation Studio Ghibli.

James, Owen, and Gerry discuss their favourite Ghibli films, as well as discussing the history of the studio, and it’s impact on opening new eyes to world cinema, as well as exploring its influence over Disney and Pixar.

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Failed Critics Podcast: Riddick, Richard Curtis, and Dr Zaius

BTTF Doc BrownThe Failed Critics Podcast is here, with another helping of shambolic film discussion that will make you wish you could go back in time to the moment you downloaded it and punch yourself square in the throat.

This week’s episode sees us review Richard Curtis’ time-travel rom-com About Time, as well as choosing our favourite time travelers in Triple Bill. We also review the latest Vin Diesel vanity project, Riddick, and catch up on great films you have have missed like Robot and Frank, and Whisper of the Heart.

Finally, we said a sort of goodbye to Gerry McAuley, who missed this week’s recording and is now merely a part-time contributor. It’s okay though, as miserable northerners with a Spanish fetish never die…

Join us next week as we review Rush, Insidious 2, and look at the relationship between movies and video games in time for the release of GTA V.

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Film4’s Studio Ghibli season: The highlights

Princess Mononoke, one of the films showing in Film 4's Studio Ghibli season
Princess Mononoke, one of the films showing in Film 4’s Studio Ghibli season

Today marks the beginning of two and a half weeks of cinematic excellence on Film4, as their Studio Ghibli celebration begins. Of course, very few people will have time to watch them all (Owen Hughes of this parish will probably manage it) so we thought it would be useful to pick out five to watch. These five would provide a perfect entry point into the magical world of Studio Ghibli but this list is by no means exhaustive. There are a large number of great films in their canon and I urge you to watch as many as you can – I will certainly be taking the opportunity to catch the ones I haven’t yet seen.

Wait, Studio Ghibli? What the hell is that?

First, a little intro to Studio Ghibli for those unfamiliar with this powerhouse of Japanese animation. Set up by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985 following the success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, the studio has always prioritised artistic integrity over commercial appeal. This, famously, has extended to a “no cuts” policy when distributing internationally; Harvey Weinstein, upon suggesting that Princess Mononoke be cut to give it more commercial appeal, received a Samurai sword in the post with an accompanying message of “no cuts” from the film’s producer*. Frequent themes are nature (and man’s destruction of it), childhood and magic. The studio is notable for its frequent use of female leads who are very different from the typical Disney Princess.

Of the ten highest-grossing films in Japanese history, Ghibli has produced four of them – including number 1, Spirited Away. John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer and director of Toy Story among others, describes Miyazaki as “the world’s greatest living animator”. Outside of Disney and Lasseter himself, it is hard to think of anyone who has had more influence on animated films.

Spirited Away – Tuesday 26th, 6.30pm [subtitled]; Saturday 6th April 4.35pm [dubbed]

Previously discussed here and here, this is one of my favourite films. I’ll leave it to the BBC’s Jamie Russell, writing in 2003:

With none of the sentimentality of Disney nor the computerised sheen of Pixar, this traditional animé even blows the brilliant Finding Nemoout of the water. It’s epic story is more imaginative, rousing and luscious than anything American animation has produced since the halcyon days of Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIn two hours Miyazaki offers more magic and innovation than most animators could manage in over two decades.

Princess Mononoke – Wednesday 27th, 6.05pm [subtitled]; Wednesday 10th April, 1.10pm [dubbed]

The highest-grossing film in Japanese history until Titanic came along and ruined everything, this is a Princess tale unlike anything Disney has provided. Set in an imagined 14th Century Japan where humans and forest creatures live side-by-side, there is a surprising complexity and ambiguity to this tale. The familiar tropes of animated fantasy in the West are gone here: no black-and-white morality with a valiant hero and a damsel in distress for Miyazaki and co. Instead we find that everyone has their reasons and not everything about them is bad; in terms of educating children how the world works, this is far better than the classic Disney tale. Visually stunning throughout, whilst the film may appear a little impenetrable on the surface please don’t be put off – Princess Mononoke is a landmark in animation.

My Neighbour Totoro – Saturday 30th, 4.55pm [dubbed]

Again, I’ve written about Totoro before so I will leave it to the great Roger Ebert to describe this, the only competitor with Toy Story in my mind for the title of best animated film:

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy… Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile… It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.

Howl’s Moving Castle – Monday 1st, 4.35pm [dubbed]; Friday April 12th TBC [subtitled]

Surprisingly, this film is based on a book by a Welsh children’s author and Miyazaki himself is a big fan of the country; its predecessor and sister film Castle in the Sky draws heavily on his experiences of the Welsh Miner’s Strike a couple of years before its release. Not quite achieving the clarity of thought and purpose of his previous efforts, this is nonetheless a tremendously entertaining film. Here we see Sophie, a young girl, transformed into a witch and journeying to the aforementioned castle to free a fire demon from a curse in the midst of a war.

Grave of the Fireflies – Friday 5th, 12.15am

Takahata’s tale of two children struggling to survive among the bombs in late WWII Japan is more ‘adult’ than the other films here, as evidenced by it being on late at night. One of the most powerful war movies ever made (seriously), this remains the only film to make me cry. You have been warned. That said, don’t be put off by the tragic element at all. The opening scene reveals that our narrator is dead so we know throughout that this is a doomed story; however there is joy, as well as sadness, to be found in the life he tells us about. That is the real power of the film – the characters are brilliantly formed and  we care about them. This is a tale of two lives, innocently caught up in war and the societal breakdown accompanying it. That an animation can feel so real and so relevant is testament to the skill of all involved.

*Miyazaki explains: “…I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.”

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.