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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Film of the Year No. 1

Written by Cinesmith | Wednesday 31 December 2008

1. Cloverfield

Given my previous two picks – Gomorrah and Lust, Caution – my choice for the best film of 2008 may seem like an odd one. Cloverfield is, after all, an Americanized take on the Godzilla genre, filmed entirely on handheld camera and aimed squarely at a Hollywood blockbuster audience. But I don’t think that necessarily disqualifies it from movie-greatness: Cloverfield is, in its own way a truly brilliant film.

As the film opens we are told we are watching a camcorder video, recovered by the US military from an 'incident' site known as “Cloverfield". First we see a happy couple spending the day together; then we cut to the preparations for a going-away party. During the party, something attacks New York and the city is plunged into chaos. The party-goers flee the apartment, but the camcorder is kept on, capturing the terrifying events that follow...

Cloverfield succeeds completely as a genre film, keeping you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. It also wins points for its innovative style, telling the story of a disaster entirely from the camcorder-point of view of a small group, and lasting the exact same time as a real DV tape. The feeling of panic that envelopes the whole film is almost overwhelming, such is the skill with which it is put together. But while Cloverfield’s only real intention is to scare you, it is also more than simply a monster movie: the implicit parallels with 9-11, though entirely unforced, give the film a powerful and unexpected resonance.

Watch the trailer here

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Film of the Year No. 2

Written by Cinesmith | Tuesday 30 December 2008

2. Lust, Caution

Wong is a student in Hong Kong in 1938. As her drama troupe becomes involved with the effort to resist the Japanese, Wong infiltrates the social circle of Mr Yee, a hated collaborator, intending to facilitate his assassination. The action shifts to occupied Shanghai, 1941, as Wong becomes Yee’s mistress. The conflict inherent in their dangerous, passionate relationship gives the film both its emotional core, and its title: Lust, Caution. The closer Wong gets to Yee, the more vital she becomes to the resistance – and the more difficult her deceit becomes.

Directed by Ang Lee, Lust, Caution is a brilliant, intense, and moving piece of cinema. It melds espionage, romance, noir and war into a seamless, epic whole that has rightly been hailed as his masterpiece. The acting is superb, the cinematography sumptuous, and the story astoundingly powerful. Most of the publicity surrounding the film may have centred on its sex scenes, but that is unfair. While they are undeniably explicit, and sometimes shocking, these scenes reveal far more than just naked flesh. Indeed, they say far more about Yee and Wong than simple dialogue ever could. Lust, Caution is a remarkable achievement. Watch the trailer here.

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Film of the Year No. 3

Written by Cinesmith | Monday 29 December 2008

3. Gomorrah

It’s not easy to summarize the plot of Gomorrah, mostly because there isn’t one. Rather than taking a narrative approach, the film simply follows a group of loosely connected characters around a grim Neapolitan estate ruled by the Camorra, the local mafia. Based on the 2006 non-fiction book by Roberto Savianno (who has been in police protection ever since), Gomorrah is a bleak, brutal film that pulls no punches and offers no easy answers. Indeed, such is the film’s commitment to realism that even Italian audiences needed subtitles to understand the heavy dialect it is filmed in.

If you sit down to watch Gomorrah expecting ‘the Italian Goodfellas’, you are going to be sorely disappointed. There are no characters to root for, and no compromises made for the sake of entertainment. And at no point in the film is it possible to vicariously enjoy the gangsterism being depicted. But that, surely, is as it should be. Real-life organized crime isn’t glamorous – it is a vile force that corrupts and destroys everything it touches. Gomorrah is a deeply powerful reminder of that. Watch the trailer here.

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Film of the Year No. 4

Written by Cinesmith | Sunday 28 December 2008

4. Changeling

Who would ever have thought that Clint Eastwood, once Hollywood’s drifter/cowboy/anti-hero par excellence, would also become one of America’s most celebrated directors? And yet his recent filmography – Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima – really says it all. He still appears to be improving with age though, since his latest effort, Changeling, is undoubtedly his best to date.

The (true) story centres on Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single-mother in 1920s Los Angeles who comes home from work one day to find her young son, Walter, has disappeared. Some months later the LAPD (seemingly mired in prohibition-era corruption) find a child and claim it is Collins’ son. It isn’t. But when Collins’ tries to tell the police that they turn against her, insisting she is mentally unstable and an unfit mother. But what happened to the real Walter? Can he be found before it is too late?

Changeling is flawless cinema, and it would be surprising if it did not feature heavily in 2009’s Oscars. Jolie is superb, and Eastwood’s classical style and mastery of tone and atmosphere makes Changeling reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece Chinatown – high praise indeed. It may sound like mere melodrama, but the narrative shift that occurs part way through the film turns Changeling into something altogether darker and more disturbing. It’s still showing in cinemas, so be sure to catch it if you can. Watch the trailer here.

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Film of the Year No. 5

Written by Cinesmith | Saturday 27 December 2008

5. The Orphanage

Laura grew up in an orphanage, but was later adopted. Years later, she and her husband Carlos buy the orphanage – which has since fallen into disrepair – and move in with their own adopted son, Tomas, intending to reopen it as a home for handicapped children. Before long, Tomas starts to communicate with an invisible new friend, who may be just a product of his young imagination, but could be something altogether more sinister...

The Orphanage is everything a horror film should be. Unlike most recent examples of the genre – which tend to rely almost exclusively on gore and extreme violence to unsettle the viewer – The Orphanage puts story and atmosphere first, scaring us with the unknown and the unseen, and connecting with the audience on a deeper, more psychological level. Ultimately, that makes it all the more terrifying.

Too often, films like this fall at the final hurdle, failing to deliver on the suspense they have built-up. Not so here: what makes The Orphanage transcend it genre is the knock-out blow it delivers in its final act, a brutal and unexpected twist that lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer here

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Film of the Year No. 6

Written by Cinesmith | Friday 26 December 2008

6. In Bruges

In a nutshell: Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of hit-men, sent to lie low in Bruges by their gangster boss, Ralph Fiennes, after a job goes horribly wrong. Gleeson enjoys the sightseeing, Farrell gets involved with a girl, the pair hang out with an unpleasant midget – and then Fiennes arrives in town, triggering the film’s climactic showdown.

Assuming you take your humour pitch-black, In Bruges is hilarious. It is also thoughtful, moving (on occasion) and (once things get going) exciting to boot. Some people won’t like it, and a few may even be offended. With a peculiar plot, no real hero, and lashings of foul language, In Bruges is clearly catering to a particular audience. But if – like Cinesmith – you like that sort of thing, you’re sure to enjoy In Bruges. It is without doubt the best black comedy of the year.

Watch the trailer here

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Film of the Year No. 7

Written by Cinesmith | Wednesday 24 December 2008

7. No Country for Old Men

This film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers behind cult classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, is probably their best yet. Based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is a modern-day western that's every bit as terse and dark as that genre's greatest hits, and yet still manages to exude the wit and humour that the Coens are famous for.

The story is a simple one. Llewellyn Moss is out hunting in the desert when he comes across a macabre scene: abandoned cars, dead bodies, and a briefcase full of money – the hallmarks of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Taking the cash and going on the run, Moss is relentlessly pursued by a seemingly unstoppable assassin (Javier Bardem, in an Academy Award-winning role), with the county's laconic sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) following a few steps further behind.

No Country for Old Men is a suspenseful and truly exhilarating film, let down only by a rather flat finale. While it may be true to the spirit of the source material, it doesn't really work on film. That's a shame: if No Country for Old Men had gone out with a bang rather than a whimper, it could have been my film of the year. That said, it still won Best Picture at the Oscars. Watch the trailer here.

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Film of the Year No. 8

Written by Cinesmith | Tuesday 23 December 2008

8. There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is probably the most acclaimed film of 2008, and it's not hard to see why. From a technical perspective, this is filmmaking at its very best. Everything from the cinematography to the soundtrack is absolutely top-notch, and Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning central performance is everything it's cracked up to be – intense, compelling and, occasionally terrifying.

Loosely based on the novel OIL! by Upton Sinclair, the story follows the rise of Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil-prospector driven as much by his hatred for others as his seemingly boundless greed. The details of the plot are not so important as its themes: ultimately, There Will Be Blood is about the corruption of the human soul. From its stark opening to its extraordinary conclusion, this is a powerful piece of cinema.

Yet There Will Be Blood is a flawed masterpiece. For all its technical brilliance, the film too often feels artificial, even theatrical. Its characters are unreal, their motivations hard to fathom or accept. They are ciphers rather than people. That's why There Will Be Blood is merely a very good film, rather than a great one. See the trailer here.

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Film of the Year No. 9

Written by Cinesmith | Monday 22 December 2008

9. Priceless

Audrey Tautou (of Amelie fame) plays Irene, a beautiful young gold-digger in the South of France. One night – after her elderly boyfriend has fallen asleep – she mistakes the mild-mannered (and penniless) bartender in her hotel for a wealthy man. One thing leads to another, and a very glamorous farce ensues.

Priceless is a lightweight, charming comedy that aspires to be the French Breakfast at Tiffany's and comes pretty close. It won't win any awards, but it's stylish, funny and highly entertaining from start to finish. Sure to cheer you up even in the midst of a grim British winter.

Watch the trailer here

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Film of the Year No. 10

Written by Cinesmith | Sunday 21 December 2008

10. Charlie Wilson's War

Set in the early 1980s, and based on a true story, Charlie Wilson's War stars Tom Hanks as the eponymous Texas congressman – a fun-loving, hard-drinking, womanizer (Cinesmith's kind of politician, in other words), who uses his membership of several key committees to covertly fund Afghan rebels fighting against the Soviets.

The film succeeds in being very amusing, and in making its political point – not surprising given that it was written by West Wing creator, Aaron Sorkin. But while Charlie Wilson's War manages to keep the sharp dialogue and tight plotting of Sorkin's TV work, it never falls prey to the preachiness that characterized The West Wing in its lesser moments. Credit for that is probably due to director Mike Nichols, the man behind classics like The Graduate, and top political satire Primary Colours.

Tom Hanks gets excellent support from Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a CIA analyst with 'anger management issues', while Julia Roberts supplies some additional star-power. If only working in politics was really so glamorous. Watch the trailer here.

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