Friday, 27 April 2018

Top 100 Favourite Films: #20-11

#20: Ouija: Origin Of Evil – Even The Other Side has rules

This is one of those films that instantly sounds like a bad idea. The 2013 film Ouija was such a horror non-event that it’s surprising that anyone even cared enough to remember it, let alone try and expand on it. Add to that the influence of producers like the annoyingly prolific Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions and the reliably dismal Michael Bay, whose studio Platinum Dunes have made the words “horror” and “prequel” synonymous with “run” and “hide”. Enter director/co-writer Mike Flanagan, fresh off of an already unprecedented success with Oculus, who did something that no-one would have expected from a production with this starting point: He put the effort in to make it work.

He put the effort into the characters, turning the crudely-explained waifs of the original into people worth caring about. Bonus points for the cast, from the motherly strength of Elizabeth Reaser as Alice to Annalise Basso’s youthful rebelliousness as Lina, all the way to Lulu Wilson as the epitome of all things childish and creepy as Doris. Flanagan’s filmography is full of stories about how the presence of the supernatural can affect a tightly-knit family unit, and it’s here where that trait of his is at its most powerful, resulting in a sometimes-humourous, frequently-scary and ridiculously-emotional film.

He put the effort into the visuals, taking the 60’s period setting and going full force with it, only using then-contemporary filmmaking technology to bring it to life. This is evident right from the start with the deliciously-retro studio logos and the ever-present cigarette burns on the film stock. Add to that cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s use of blurred perspective, pushing the old-school rule of horror of how much the unseen can scare an audience to wring the most out of the setting.

But more than anything else, he put the effort into showing the ins-and-outs of this world, from the technical trickery of Alice’s trade as a spiritual medium to the rules that dictate the actions and intentions of the resident ghostly presence. I’ve come to accept that the real world runs far more on chaos than anything resembling logic, but when you’re crafting a fictional story, it needs to hold enough internal continuity to make seem even more real than that. Indeed, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard utilize so much cold-brick logic to explain what is happening on-screen that it genuinely floored me when I saw it for the first time. Consider how much of modern cinema, particularly in the supernatural horror sub-genre, runs on the idea that nothing needs to be explained properly and that filmmakers can get away with nonsense, and you should see why I hold this film in high regard. Because it shows that cinema can benefit from people willing to put all the effort in, and it can create some truly amazing experiences as a result.

#19: Toy Story 3 – “It’s just for kids” is no longer an excuse

Even in the realms of Disney/Pixar, a factory that has produced some of the most emotionally-intense childhood memories on a global scale, this film stands out as something special in their filmography. A threequel to the film that put Pixar on the cinematic map, this story feels far more like it was made for that original audience instead of the younger audience of the time it came out. It’s an incredibly heavy sit, looking at ideas of abandonment, maltheism and even existential ennui, resulting in moments that are sure to traumatize a whole new generation of filmgoers. I mean… that furnace scene… holy hell, that furnace scene is one of the most intense things I can remember seeing in a “kids’ film”.

But that’s kind of the problem: No-one truly expects films aimed at children to be this good or this weighty. Hell, whenever subpar family films come out (and they continue to do so with alarming regularity), one of the most common defences for them is that kids aren’t as picky as adult audiences and we don’t have to appeal to a higher standard that they ‘obviously’ don’t possess. With that in mind, I have an even greater adoration for this film because it quite categorically proves that that defence is bullshit. No, films aimed primarily at children don’t have to be crap; in fact, they benefit from a far wider audience than most, meaning that they have a chance to show truly poignant ideas on a larger scale. This is a film about CGI-rendered plastic toys that delves into deep character psychology and heavy philosophical ponderings that outclass quite a few “mature” releases. It made me weep intensively when first watching it, and that effect has stayed true with each subsequent re-watching. Something being made for younger audiences isn’t an excuse for it being crap; not when they can be as good as this.

#18: Inception – Less head trip, more head odyssey

I’ve always had a real affinity for heist capers. The emphasis on character motive to justify why we’re watching a heist take place to begin with, the tightly-constructed machinations of the plan to pull the caper off, the reactive ingenuity to the inevitable surprises that stand in the way of that plan; all of this really appeals to the part of me that likes seeing time and care put into narratives.

But even with that in mind, it’s an easy bet that this particular heist flick is unlike any other, turning the concept on its head and diving in to create a story about the power of influence and planting ideas into the minds of others. Between Nolan’s penchant for somewhat unorthodox crime narratives and the reality-bending effects work of Double Negative and co., this matches intricate writing with immaculate visuals to create a real head trip of a film. Add to this the acting, from the reliably captivating Leonardo DiCaprio to the working man’s hero Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the characterization that comes with it (which, admittedly, stays strongest with Leo’s Dom Cobb more so than everyone else here) and we are presented a story about the power of dreams, their influence on reality and one’s perception of it, and how regret can haunt the mind.

But ultimately, even with the nimble genre juggling on offer here, from dialogue-heavy exchanges to James Bond-worthy action beats, it’s the main conceit that draws me in the most. The idea of sufficiently-advanced technology being used to tap into the human mind is one of my favourite sci-fi tropes, as I find most things to do with human memory to be quite fascinating, and while the initial conceit of stealing ideas right out of people’s heads is intriguing, it’s the titular conceit of planting ideas into people’s heads that makes this feel like something worth cherishing. I mean, the notion of using technology, imagination and exhaustive planning to craft a narrative meant to give a person a specific idea? How else would you describe the aim of cinema?

#17: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut – The anti-musical

This film is my all-time favourite musical. It also comes from a TV show that, as polemic as it can get, garners a lot of respect from me due to how ruthless it has been throughout its run. Originally put forward as the last hurrah for Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s greatest creation, they went all out to basically take shots at anything and everything they could with this film. Yes, even more so than usual, as they believed that this was gonna be their last chance. Well, while the show would only go on to thrive after this point, that same level of dedication to leaving no lamb unslaughtered results in a truly bombastic piece of cinema.

Religion, politics, sex, vulgarity, scapegoating, Big Gay Al being super and thanking you for asking; as overused as the word has become nowadays, this is straight-up vicious in how efficiently it rips through anything it touches, resulting in a film that not only preaches the free speech gospel but, unlike a lot of wannabes in the modern era, actually follows through on it. To this end, the big central point of the film is Eric Cartman and the V-Chip, a device meant to deliver an electric shock anytime Cartman swears. Needless to say, it gets used quite a bit. But as the film continues, with him at the forefront, we see how language and blue language in particular is commoditized and controlled. It’s the most pure form of human speech, meant primarily as a means to express raw uncut emotion, but suppress it for too long, it becomes a threat. It becomes weaponized. And when the enemy comes a-knockin’, that weapon can be used to tear down the very institutions that shut it up in the first place. As someone who treats human speech and freedom of expression as a very necessary right, this only strengthens my regard for Stone and Parker’s ethos.

But even more than that, it’s the way this film handles the musical side of things that appeals to me. Stone and Parker may have cut their teeth earlier on with films like Cannibal! The Musical, and even later on with The Book Of Mormon, but this represents the more punk side of their musicianship. Every song here, from the rousing sing-a-long Mountain Town to the scapegoating national anthem Blame Canada to the incessantly catchy What Would Brian Boitano Do?, even the hilariously grandiose Up There, is designed to riff on more popular musicals like Oklahoma and Les Miserables, with Up There basically being every Disney Princess song ever written before or since. The music itself is solid, but it’s the fact that it succeeds through outshining its more illustrious competition that gives it the edge.

#16: mother! – A singularity of human history

When I watched this film in the cinemas, I imagined that this is what it must have felt like to see a David Lynch film in the cinemas: I walked away from it with the feeling that I had just seen something truly special, while the rest of the audience was going “Well, there’s two hours of my life I’m never getting back”. I hold Darren Aronofsky in very high regard as one of my all-time favourite filmmakers, and even I didn’t know that he was capable of something this spellbinding.

Through very claustrophobic framing, with the camera clinging to Jennifer Lawrence’s title character like a lost child scared by the carnage going on around it, and a blunt but layered approach to scripting, this film manages to cover a lot of thematic ground in a scant two-hour running time. It combines Biblical stories, contemporary political fears, bubbling-under-the-surface feminism and environmentalism on blast to create a narrative that uses pain and prejudice to speak to a number of higher ideals. It’s violent, coarse, more than a little vulgar (cannibalism and child death are rarely if ever shown tastefully, this being no exception), but it avoids being shocking simply for its own sake. Instead, it forces the audience to confront a blisteringly fast rundown of human history to show what we have done, what we’re still doing, and where we’ll end up if we keep doing it.

That’s the bit that really sinks in for me: The fact that this film manages to cover several thousand years worth of humanity’s impact on this earth in the space of two hours. Beginning rather literally on the Biblical side of things, recontextualizing the stories of Genesis to fit within a far smaller frame, it kicks into high gear by the third act to show humanity’s many atrocities. That kick into high gear is jarring, no doubt, but it still matches up to the trajectory of human development. We went through thousands of years of slowly amassing our skills and resources… and then, in the last 200 years, we ourselves have kicked into high gear, developing even faster than the natural world around us. We went from years-long voyages just to go to another country to clicking on a website and getting tickets the same day. It all happens so fast that, by the time we’ve touched down and seen how scorched the earth has become, it’s already too late to save ourselves. All we can do is start all over again… and hopefully, remember the mistakes we made.

#15: Hot Fuzz – The class clown who scored the highest

This is Edgar Wright at the absolute peak of his cinematic powers. Everything that makes his filmography so aggressively rewatchable (the cleverly-delivered foreshadowing, the aptitude with action scenes, the always-hits-the-bullseye sense of humour, the excellent use of music) is pushed to their utmost limit to create a buddy cop flick that absolutely nails every tone it goes for. The acting presents the primest of prime British comedic talent, with everyone from the main stars to the cameos leaving an impact by film’s end, while the writing takes a familiar Western conceit of the outside sheriff being brought in to sort out a deceptively-peaceful settlement and exhumes so much character analysis out of it as to make it seem laughable that the others aren’t this good.

That’s what makes this film stand out for me: It’s a film that actively set out to mock the ever-loving hell out of action tropes, particularly those found in buddy cop movies, and yet managed to do better justice to those tropes than even the lauded kings of the genre. An overly intricate motive behind all the murders in Sandford involving property, loyalty and bragging rights? Nah, they just wanted to get rid of some bad actors and annoying journalists. The policeman who is the best at what he does? Not only are his workers unable to stand how by-the-book he is, he himself is so fixated on his work that it is all that he knows. His charge and later colleague who hungers for the explosion-heavy depiction of police work in cinema? Not only does he get his wish once it comes time for the amazing town-wide shootout, the aftermath shows the most fidelity to actual police work of any film in the genre. You’d be surprised how much paperwork goes into this profession in the real world, something that only this particular story feels right in acknowledging. This isn’t just a great and biting action-comedy; it’s an action-comedy that sets a bar for every film after it to follow. As someone who tries to make his mark on the world through a rather idiosyncratic sense of humour, I like the idea of the class clown being the one who sets the biggest precedent for the bookworms.

#14: Being John Malkovich – A sociopathic romance

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to experience the world through someone else’s eyes? This is something that I have often been forced to wonder about, as I have frequently felt so out-of-tune with everyone else around me that I have no choice but to wonder how I am perceived by everyone else. It’s the kind of thought that keeps me up at night sometimes, but at the same time, that forced intent of being aware of the perceptions of others is what helped me, at least a little, to survive in the real world.

But what about those people who take that idea literally? What about people who only experience comfort in their own skin when they are able to manipulate others to suit their purposes? This story, directed by music video director-turned cinematic titan Spike Jonze with the ever-peculiar Charlie Kaufman handling the script, is a pretty straight-forward bit of high-concept storytelling: A puppeteer-cum-office clerk discovers a portal into the head of John Malkovich. This film deals in the usual fascination with human psychology that has become a staple of Kaufman’s writings, but it also shows one of the most unorthodox romances I can recall seeing. The love triangle of John Cusack’s Craig, Cameron Diaz’s Lotte and Catherine Keener’s Maxine is built on manipulation and textbook sociopathic behaviour, one that is only strengthened by the perpetual weirdness that surrounds them. The portal into the head of an infamously memetic actor, who delivers one of the crowning moments of surreal when he takes a trip into his own head, is only the tip of the iceberg; particularly when you consider that this film also involves misinterpreting a puppet show for a display of smut, an office floor that technically doesn’t exist, and a group of people seeking to become a singular cerebral gestalt in the mind of another.

Part of me wonders how well this film would’ve held up if it stuck with Kaufman’s original ending, which would have involved a puppeteering showdown with the literal Devil, but the film we actually got still holds up as an impossibly strange but endlessly fascinating bit of mentally-damaged romance. Also, that ending is heartbreaking as fuck.

#13: Fuck – The blessing of curses

I swear, I don’t intend to make these segues. I’m not that clever.

All the same, this is a fairly easy production to get one’s head around: Bring in a collection of comedians, porn stars, culture critics and legislators to discuss the myriad of uses behind one of humanity’s favourite profanities. It does a pretty well-deserved run-down of the word in and of itself, from its figurative uses as a “sentence enhancer” to its more literal uses as an adverb for the act of copulation, and even delves into how the word has been so overused in human history that, to this day, we still don’t actually know what the word even means. This speaks a lot to the use of language in the modern era, where it seems like dictionaries have become pointless since we all seem to define and redefine words as we see fit. Hell, even I’ve done it a fair few times on this blog; somehow, I doubt the word ‘mindfrag’ is an actual word, nor does everyone define it the same way I do.

That said, this documentary isn’t exactly the slickest thing to find its way onto this list, but I’d hold that up as a positive more than anything else. It sticks to the rule of ‘cheaper = better’ and allows the content to take its rightful place at the forefront over any kind of technical wizardry. Don’t get me wrong, it features some great soundtrack choices and the use of Bill Plympton’s cartoons make some of the explanations really pop. It’s just that it puts more emphasis on what it has to say than how it chooses to say it; kind of like the use of the word ‘fuck’ come to think of it. That ends up working in the long run because this film’s ultimate intent is not just to highlight how versatile this one silly word can be, but why it needs to exist. Whether it’s the depths of political outrage (“fuck the system!”, etc.) or the heights of sexual ecstacy (“fuck me!”, etc.), this kind of purely emotional speech exists for a reason. And considering how many barriers it broke down in the realms of free speech and freedom of expression, it’s a damn good reason.

#12: David Stratton: A Cinematic Life – More than just a film

When I first learnt about the art of media critique back in 2010, I went through numerous phases as far as what I planned on doing with it. Wanting to give back to an art form that gave me all that has been discussed on this list already, exercising my brain’s natural pattern of overanalysing everything it can latch onto, maybe even turning it into a viable career if I put enough effort into it; for my high-school brain, the possibilities were endless. But as I graduated and made my way out into the real working world, I wound up resigning myself to the notion that while I am deeply dedicated to this hobby of mine, it’s likely that it will remain a hobby and nothing more. Bit disheartening, I know, but bear in mind that I’ve always had a certain pessimistic realism in a lot of my thought patterns; how I feel doesn’t change the reality that this is a difficult enterprise.

Enter this documentary about one of the most famous film critics Australia has ever produced, as much a chronicle of his life as it is a primer for Australian film culture as a whole. It still mesmerizes me just how much David Stratton’s life mirrors my own, from the endless cataloguing of the films he’s seen (kind of like my consistent yearly rankings for films I review on here) to taking internships and employment opportunities for the chance to see free movies (I once took a job at a movie theatre partly for that very reason), even going to a lot of movies with his grandmother (I wound up watching this film in the cinema with my grandmother, a coincidence that the both of us still can’t get over).
But beyond the surface comparisons, it’s the guy’s utmost respect and admiration for the cinematic art form that rings true for me. Having grown up surrounded more by YouTube critics than traditional media critics, something about Stratton always set off some of my pretence alarms. That’s always been part of his draw, as part of the At The Movies double-act with Margaret Pomeranz, but for me, that sort of high-brow elitist critic has come to be the epitome of everything I dislike about this business. All of that took a very heavy left-turn once I saw not only his dedication to that craft but just how much cinema itself helped him throughout his life, from his emigration to Australia to his re-examination of his family relationships. This entire list exists because of how much cinema has influenced my own life and my own worldview, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t make this rather vital connection.

More than anything else, though, this film is a point of pride for me. Watching Stratton and others extoll the many cinematic boons this country of mine has given the world, from the critical darlings to the box office crushers to the genuinely significant advances (we have bragging rights to the world’s first-ever feature length film with the lost film The Story Of The Kelly Gang), fills me with joy that I am just as much a part of that culture as the filmmakers themselves. Stratton may have been an observer to the work of others, but he raised that status to a height where it made critical discussion a vital part of the conversation. For the Aussies, he made the role of film critic into one worth pursuing and cherishing. I tend to stay away from feelings of pride in most things, feeling far more comfortable just making of light of myself rather than puffing out my chest, but here, I actually feel proud that I am a film critic, an Aussie and an Aussie film critic. And honestly, as those of you who have seen my turn in Employable Me can guess, being able to meet the man in person was a defining moment in my life that only confirmed this film’s place in my heart.

#11: Her – Love in the 21st century

I have never been that lucky in love. A combination of social phobias and an all-or-nothing approach to expressing my own emotions resulted in more than a few situations early on where I was either getting rejected or lead on against my better judgment. Hell, to this day, I’ll admit to not feeling like I know enough about the matters of the heart to really get anywhere in a timely manner. Add to that my non-straight sexuality, and the haunting words I was once told by a gay guy I tried chatting up at a bar years ago (“You’re not bisexual. Trust me: Any hole is not a goal.”), and things are more than a little complicated.

It’s because of this that I hold this film in extremely high regard, to the point where this might be my single favourite romantic film. Wielding a slight tinge of social science-fiction in its main conceit about the most advanced A.I. the world has ever seen, director and now-writer Spike Jonze takes us through a road map of modern sexuality. From phone sex to swinging to polygamy to relationships-by-proxy, even dipping its toes into specific fetishes like the sexual conversation between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Kristen Wiig’s Sexy Kitten that takes a turn for the cringe-inducingly awkward, this manages to highlight a lot of how modern technology and still-advancing understanding of human sexuality have influenced each other and how humanity has progressed as a result. Even some of the more fanciful aspects of the setting, like Theodore’s job writing love letters for strangers and the eerily human A.I. played immaculately by Scarlett Johansson, are closer to reality than you would think.

Actually, more so than its views on love and companionship, it’s the film’s ethos on human joy in its purest form that resonates with me the most. I can trace a lot of my contemporary attitudes towards media, socialising and life as a whole to this one speech by Amy Adams’ character.

Life is short. The chances we have to experience joy are even shorter. So long as no-one gets hurt and everyone involved consents, seize any chance you have to experience that joy. Spike Jonze took the age-old adage of “it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” and extrapolated it to cover pretty much any bittersweet moment of humanity that we’re capable of experiencing. These are truly words to live by, and ever since first watching this movie in December of 2014, I have certainly made the effort to do just that.

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