REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2008

My Winnipeg

The Electric Sheep team look back at the heroes and villains of 2008.

THE GOOD

Waltz With Bashir/Persepolis
It seems somehow unfair to try and choose between Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir in deciding the best film of the year. Both superbly animated, autobiographical features, they are totally unique, powerful and refreshing in their own ways. Persepolis uses stunning black and white animation to tell Satrapi’s often humorous story about growing up a rebel after the 1979 revolution in Iran, while Waltz with Bashir is a very personal and brave attempt by Folman to come to terms with his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Both are emotionally gripping, riveting films that are also terrifically stylish, making them an absolute pleasure to watch. SARAH CRONIN

My Winnipeg
Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is among his finest work to date, combining documentary footage, theories on psycho-geography and the director’s typical left-field sexual anecdotes to lurid and devastating effect. Maddin has conjured a Canadian Brigadoon that is both lost to the developer’s wreaking ball and to reminiscences of itinerant residents who have long since moved on. My Winnipeg is a beguiling and loving homage to both the news footage and the director’s own home movies of the town itself and an unmissable, metatextual fever dream about places we’ve all loved and lost. ALEX FITCH

Savage Grace
Fifteen years after his critically acclaimed debut feature Swoon, Tom Kalin’s follow-up is another stunning, audacious and dazzlingly well realised exploration of the relation between sex and power, based on a disturbing real-life crime. Shot in deep, lush colours, and with a wonderfully versatile Julianne Moore in the central role, Savage Grace recounts the glittering rise and tragic fall of the aspiring American socialite Barbara Daly. Kalin brings a coolly compassionate spirit to this haunting tale of love and madness while excellent performances throughout lend the film an extra edge of enigmatic power and unsettling perversity. Undeniably graceful, gorgeously photographed but also brutally sharp. PAMELA JAHN

The Orphanage
Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage marks a powerful escape from the clutches of the ‘torture-porn’ franchises devouring the horror genre in recent years. The simplicity of a look, of the sound of footsteps, a long hallway disappearing into darkness, the sound of children whispering… suddenly the subconscious mind is given some credibility again. The Orphanage is almost entirely preoccupied with the topography of the mind and is extremely successful at evoking the (often frightening) symbolism of the past, of childhood, of memories best left undisturbed. There may have been better films in 2008, but The Orphanage got to me deepest. SIOUXZI MERNAGH

Man on Wire
James Marsh’s Man on Wire shocked and amazed me above anything else I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who with the help of a small and fearless team, broke into the World Trade Centre in 1974. Taking with him an arsenal of equipment, he staged a feat of iconic proportions by walking between the two towers. If the heist-like nature of the narrative isn’t compelling enough, the emotional bond between the key players seen through modern-day talking heads and archived footage secures the film’s place as one of the most engaging documentaries of recent years. JAMES MERCHANT

Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s haunting Lust, Caution examines the explicit affair between naí¯ve spy Tang Wei and government official Tony Leung against the backdrop of wartime China. Leung’s performance is a master-class in self-loathing, revealing a supposed embodiment of evil to be a world-weary company man who is aware of the shortcomings of the political power to which he has sold his soul. Lee presents a multi-layered recreation of 1940s Shanghai wherein even a mah-jong game is an exercise in alliance and betrayal. Skilfully adapted from an Eileen Chang short story, Lust, Caution is as suspenseful as it is emotionally complex. JOHN BERRA

Far North
With Michelle Yeoh magnificent in the central role, Asif Kapadia’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature The Warrior is another stunning epic folk tale, set amid the savage beauty of the Arctic Circle, in an environment where life is a constant, violent fight for survival. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

THE BAD

Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth
When making a nostalgic film about lost possibilities and childhood heroes on a limited budget, you sometimes end up with a work of genius like My Winnipeg and sometimes you get ill-conceived and tedious claptrap like Captain Eager. Inspired by the classic British comic book character Dan Dare and 1930s adventure serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, this is a film that tries to be an innovative, funny and affectionate homage to the past but fails on almost every level, while criminally wasting two of this country’s finest comic talents – Mark Heap and Tasmin Grieg. ALEX FITCH

Awake
Awake is a ridiculous thriller that strives for novelty by exaggerating, or exploiting, a medical statistic concerning the number of people who wake up during open heart surgery. When a bland junior business tycoon, portrayed by jobbing Jedi Hayden Christiansen, becomes conscious during a life or death operation, he discovers that he is the victim of a conspiracy masterminded by his new wife and his surgeon. However, his physical paralysis means that Christiansen spends much of the film relaxing on his back while his voice-over attempts to take care of the acting. Not to be viewed without anaesthetic. JOHN BERRA

Angel
Franí§ois Ozon’s first English-language feature, a foolish adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor’s unduly neglected novel Angel (1957), may be his most love-it-or-hate-it film to date. It is a strained, disastrous mixture of camp spoof and lurid melodrama, a would-be satire of Hollywood dramas of the Douglas Sirk variety that completely misses the mark. PAMELA JAHN

My Blueberry Nights
While not necessarily the absolute worst film to come out this year, Wong Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights was certainly the most disappointing. The director’s first foray into Hollywood resulted in a film inferior in every way to his Hong Kong-based work, while the most egregious offence was the misguided casting that saw the inexperienced singer Norah Jones and the mediocre Jude Law take on the two leads. The story itself is a mere confection, with Jones waitressing her way across America after she’s jilted by her boyfriend. Thankfully, Wong Kar Wai quickly restored his reputation by re-realising his 1994 film Ashes of Time, a beautiful, elegiac picture that helped dull the painful memory of My Blueberry Nights. SARAH CRONIN

THE UGLY

RocknRolla
Arch-chav Guy Ritchie’s pathetic films are littered with embarrassing caricatures: mockney wide boys, smart-arse gangsters, Fagin-esque thieves and air-head tarts. This ridiculously contrived, self-consciously ‘cool’ macho wankathon was utterly boring, adolescent and stupid. But what’s most reprehensible about it is its glamorisation of the most disgusting elements of male, thuggish society: greed, misogyny, egotism, immorality, narcissism and random violence. JAMES DC

27 Dresses

This film is a triumph of formula, a mastery of the Machine:

1. Distill the identity of the ‘modern woman’ into one crisp, shiny, easily opened package.

2. Extract money from the ‘modern woman’ by marketing a tried and tested ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride (unless you’re younger and blonder)’ movie to her.

3. Stew the ‘modern woman’ in saccharine juices until her brain is pink and pliable.

4. Await congratulations from film investors.

Unfortunately, 27 Dresses grossed $160 million worldwide, with around 75% of the audience being female (boxofficeguru.com). And this from a female director… SIOUXZI MERNAGH

PHILIP WINTER’S VERY OWN ROUND-UP OF 2008

Unlike most of the other pundits writing this end of year review, I haven’t been to the cinema. 2008 was a grand year for cinema-phobia as far as I’m concerned. Despite my love of the art form I have never been a regular cinema-goer. My preferred time to go to a screening is mid-week, mid-afternoon, with no companions apart from my fellow strangers. Sadly, work and life have thwarted my indulgence in that proclivity, as has the fact that there has been very little fodder on offer that I have wanted to squander my cash on. I haven’t even attended press screenings. Indeed, most of my cinematic consumption has come via conduits such as DVDs and the Web. However, (here’s the me, me, me bit) I have been proactive in producing cinematic events. All of them low-key, thoroughly amateur and jolly good fun in a kind of botched together from Sellotape and twigs way. In the summer, I started an occasional evening entitled Philip Winter’s Lucky Dip (this title permitted me to decide what I wanted to screen the night before). At these events, I screened an eclectic range of films – local history documentaries, British transport films, instructional videos, Super 8 non-sequitur, YouTube chaff. Experimentalists like William English, Oliver Mezger, Fari Bradley, David Leister and Toby Clarkson presented 16mm and video works live, and as master of ceremonies I talked nonsense in between. The screenings took place in a room above a pub adjacent to the pub’s Thai kitchen, which provided a constant background din. Audiences weren’t huge but we all had fun, albeit of the shoddy variety, and best of all, it was free. I am glad I haven’t visited a cinema in 12 months.

SUPER SIZE CINEMA: THE ART OF GLUTTONY

Taxidermia

In an effort to be seasonal we take a look at ten different approaches to gluttony from the stuffing-centric Taxidermia to Oldboy‘s infamous live-octopus-devouring scene via the heroic overeating of Cool Hand Luke before finishing with Luis Buñuel’s inverted view of eating and defecating in The Phantom of Liberty.

1- La Grande bouffe (1973)
A fate worse than death by chocolate: for La Grande bouffe (1973) Marco Ferreri corralled Europe’s leading fatuous males – Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Ugo Tognazzi – alongside the ineffectual Philippe Noiret, as a group of successful but jaded gastronomes taking their food obsession to its ultimate conclusion. Each wraps up his daily business surrounded by admiring female subordinates before heading off, like podgy avatars of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, to Noiret’s secluded mansion to await the arrival of van-loads of flesh, and a gaggle of apparently obligatory but ultimately supernumerary hookers. Into a whirl of lounging, vintage porn slide-shows and cake art, wanders Andréa Ferréol’s primly fleshy schoolteacher. As the hookers are eclipsed by their hosts’ cuisine-bonding, and possibly disgusted by Piccoli’s heroic struggle with flatulence, only Andréa remains. Ferreri’s always impressive misogyny never came closer to seeing its preposterous logic. Poor Marcello and Michel: they can only declare their love in the language of cake. Skinny pink turtlenecks over seventies waistlines abound. Sadly for our heroes it was probably the additives that did it for them before the calorific. STEPHEN THOMSON

2- Se7en (1995)
The image of gluttony in Se7en is a memorably grotesque one – a massive, sauce-spattered figure lies face down in a plate of spaghetti and vomit, flies buzzing around his swollen head. The first victim of Kevin Spacey’s biblical psycho, poor Gluttony has been force-fed to death, his wrists and ankles bound with barbed wire, made to eat until his intestines ruptured, a human foie gras. To be honest, it seems somehow unfair to lump this poor sap in with the more intentionally greedy monsters on this list, but we are assured by the coroner that he was already quite rotund and therefore, presumably, deserved it. Perhaps there are worse ways to die than shovelling spaghetti sauce until your guts burst, but offhand I can’t think of any. TOM HUDDLESTON

3- The Meaning of Life (1983)
The most obvious movie glutton is of course Mr Creosote – Terry Jones in perhaps the world’s largest fat suit projectile vomiting in a chic French restaurant. Carefully perusing the menu (once John Cleese’s head waiter has wiped off the vomit) before grumpily announcing, ‘I’ll have the lot’. However, watching it nowadays, I realise I may have misunderstood the punch line. I’d always assumed the ‘waffer-thin mint’ to be the straw that made the camel’s guts explode. But having recently discovered the cinematic delights of YouTube I now understand the science behind it all: it is the combination of mint confectionary and fizzy drinks (mixing six crates of brown ale and a Jeroboam of champagne with an After Eight). PAUL HUCKERBY

4- Cool Hand Luke (1967)
One of the more bizarre but ultimately winning displays of gluttony in cinema appears in this 1967 prison camp classic, as Paul Newman’s eponymous inmate (jailed, in a similar display of wilful recklessness, for cutting the heads off parking meters while drunk) forces himself to down fifty hardboiled eggs for a bet. The sight of our hero forcefully cramming yet another slippery white oval into his already overstuffed maw is at first amusing, then worrying, then horrifying, then depressing, and finally sort of heroic. This is gluttony as rebellion against the system, even if the system doesn’t really notice, or care. TOM HUDDLESTON

5- Taxidermia (2006)
While many American films look outward at ‘the other’ to disturb audiences, Taxidermia finds horror in looking inwards by telling the tale of three generations of Hungarians who like stuffing themselves. The first character likes stuffing his favourite appendage into whatever he can, his son likes stuffing his face and his grandson likes stuffing dead animals. The first two, more comedic, acts of the film contain horrific scenes (a pig being graphically slaughtered and an eating contest where the massively obese gorge themselves and then regurgitate) that will elicit gasps and laughter in equal proportion; but it’s the third act, concentrating on the life of the taxidermist that slips over into full-blown horror. I’d like to think I’ve got a strong stomach, but this is one of the few films that has made me feel somewhat faint and genuinely nauseous, so be warned! ALEX FITCH

6- The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
In British cinema rough working-class types have no place in fine dining restaurants. Mr Creosote and East-End gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover are no exceptions to this rule. Usual social faux-pas, such as using the wrong cutlery, don’t even register. You wouldn’t wish customers like these on Gordon Ramsay. Both share a similar bullying way with restaurant staff (beating them or puking on them) and they can be disturbing to fellow diners (stabbing forks into their cheeks or drenching them in semi-digested food). They are both unimpressed by the restaurant’s pretentiousness – ‘Give it some more parlez-vous Franí§ais’, Spica advises a hapless waiter. And they feed on delicacies in a most indelicate manner – Creosote orders foie gras, caviar, truffles and quails’ eggs all mixed together in a bucket (with the eggs on top). But of course gluttony is a deadly sin and both Creosote and Spica get their come-uppance in memorable fashion. PAUL HUCKERBY

7- Stand by Me (1986)
Heroic gluttony is a rare thing, but Davey ‘Lardass’ Hogan, like Cool Hand Luke before him, is a pioneer in the field. Appearing in a campfire yarn told by budding writer Wil Wheaton to his childhood compadres, Lardass’ story is one of pies, intrigue, humiliation, revenge, and more pies. Swearing vengeance on the town that spurned him, Lardass drinks a pint of castor oil, swallows a raw egg and enters the Tri-County Pie Eat, shovelling down five whole blueberry pies with both hands tied behind his back. Needless to say the results are deeply disturbing. Never have the words ‘when the smell hit the crowd’ brought on quite such a Technicolor display of human explosion. TOM HUDDLESTON

8- Super Size Me (2004)
Along with Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock is one of the most successful documentarians of his generation and like Moore, he picks obvious, albeit clearly guilty bad guys. With McDonalds he has one of the easiest targets on the planet, associated with obesity and the never-ending Americanisation of our culture. Shock value and tabloid paranoia make this a fascinating but repulsive film to watch. When Spurlock vomits his Supersize meal on what is only the second day of his experiment, it almost seems too soon and too predictable but as is often the way with modern documentaries, the points have to be made disturbingly loud and clear. For your average Guardian reader this is preaching to the converted – of course eating every meal at McDonalds for a month will make you ill – but this is a credible exaggeration of a lifestyle that doesn’t send enough people to the vomitorium. ALEX FITCH

9- Oldboy (2003)
Having just escaped from a mysterious prison where he was kept locked up for fifteen years without ever being told why, Oh Dae-su sits down in a sushi restaurant for his first meal as a free man. The waitress places a live octopus in front of him but before she can chop it up for him Oh Dae-su grabs the mollusc, stuffs its viscous grey head into his mouth, viciously tears it off and proceeds to masticate with frightful determination while the beast’s tentacles squirm and writhe in his hand. Most filmmakers would have shown Oh Dae-su’s thirst for revenge by having him gun down a roomful of villains but Park Chan-wook puts all of his character’s pent-up rage into this brief but intense display of primal gluttony. Almost unbearable to watch, it brilliantly conveys Oh Dae-su’s equally unbearable inner turmoil. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

10- The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

Today there is going to be gold.

This micro-feature is supposed to be about gluttony but being the contrarian that I am I prefer to look at gluttony’s occult, shit.

A social gathering in a bourgeois house. Guests sit at a large dining table and chat and gossip banally about their hair-do’s, sex lives, politics, business; they do so sat astride rather fine porcelain toilets, trousers at their ankles, skirts hitched up to their hips. In Luis Buñuel’s 1974 portmanteau film The Phantom of Liberty the conviviality of a typical middle-class dinner party is inverted. It is the norm to defecate socially and collectively but to eat is another matter; to do this the guests cough lightly and ask to be excused from the niceties of group defecation in order to go off and eat in the illicit confines of a special cubicle that is reminiscent of nothing other than a lavatory. A true Freudian surrealist, Buñuel makes the process of eating appear to be a socially embarrassing act to indulge in and a grotesque thing to listen to too. Buñuel really exploits the mystifying echo-chamber-like acoustics of lavatories and the bestial chomp and slather of eating.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about the toilet being a conduit between us and a primordial underworld and not just a conduit between us and the equally fascinating worlds of plumbing and sanitation. One only has to gaze briefly at the 1968 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to see a connection between effluvia, greed, plumbing and terrifying nether worlds. The greedy Bavarian boy Augustus Gloop drinks from a faecal-looking chocolate river and is eventually sucked up a large colon-like pipe. But as the end of this featurette encroaches upon us, let’s move from Dahl to Dali, and close with a quote from a man more than au fait with excrement. In his diary (Diary of a Genius) entry for September 1st, 1958, he states: ‘At daybreak I dreamt that I was the author of several white turds, very clean and extremely agreeable to produce. When I woke up I said to Gala, “Today there is going to be gold”’. PHILIP WINTER

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews