ABANDON NORMAL DEVICES ROUND UP

AND

Still from The Yes Men

Abandon Normal Devices

23-27 September 2009

Various venues, Liverpool

AND website

The first Abandon Normal Devices festival, with its mix of screenings, media art and workshops, successfully established AND as an event with a strong social-political context, albeit not to the extent that a specific ‘mission statement’ was evident. This meant that the festival programme featured filmmakers and artists of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, reflecting not only the geo-political concerns of the creative community, but also offering an insight into their methods of aligning topical subject matter with their own aesthetic sensibilities. Held at various venues in Liverpool’s cultural quarter, but mostly located at FACT (Foundation for Art & Creative Technology), AND demonstrated how developments in both the technology and distribution avenues available to filmmakers have enabled their ideologies to reach a receptive audience.

Two distinctly different filmmaking personalities played key roles in AND, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and The Yes Men offering alternative methods of political engagement. Weerasethakul, the Thai director best known in the UK for his spellbinding features Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, premiered Primitive, a video installation project that was commissioned by FACT in partnership with Haus der Kunst and Animate Projects. Located in Nabua, a region of Thailand that was occupied by the military in the 1960s and where communist suspects were tortured, Primitive echoes the current political climate of Weerasethakul’s homeland, where new cases of ‘enforced disappearances’ began to emerge in 2008. While the softly-spoken Weerasethakul was a low-key figure even when attending the opening night of his exhibition, The Yes Men proved to be masters of modern media by generating feverish discussion during the first two days of AND without actually being present. The conversation revolved around the recent arrest of Yes Men co-founder Andy Bichlbaum while he was pulling a stunt in New York. Although he had made headlines earlier in the week by distributing fake copies of The New York Post to increase awareness of climate change, Bichlbaum was taken into custody on an altogether less exciting charge: arranging a gathering of more than 50 people without a parade permit. The Yes Men obviously have their legal representation on speed dial and Bichlbaum was released within 24 hours with all charges dropped. Bichlbaum’s partner in agitprop, Mike Bonanno, delivered the AND workshop on How to Be a Yes Man and, as this festival strand also included a Yes Men exhibition at John Moore’s University, not to mention a screening of the amusing if somewhat self-congratulatory The Yes Men Fix the World, it could have been cynically viewed as a thinly-veiled Yes Men recruitment drive if the political anarchists were not so self-deprecating in their pursuit of corporate satire.

In terms of screenings, the major coup was the UK premiere of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, an intentionally uncomfortable comedy that won the Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. A hybrid of the mumblecore movement and the more commercial ‘bromance’ genre, Humpday deals with the relationship between two recently reunited friends – one a married suburbanite, the other a bohemian backpacker – and how the dynamics between them subtly shift when they decide to make a gay porn film, despite both being of heterosexual persuasion. The loose plot builds to what is, quite literally, an anti-climax, with the ensuing awkwardness leading to laughs and longueurs in equal measure. The audience response to the Korean drama Breathless was easier to gauge, with this account of the burgeoning relationship between a thuggish debt collector and a troubled high school girl leaving most viewers shaken by its unflinching depiction of domestic violence and its refusal to offer any conventional catharsis. This tour de force by writer-director-star Yang Ik-joon is seemingly straightforward in terms of message and execution, yet its moments of dark humour and insights into familial tension make for a morally perplexing experience. Almost as emotionally gruelling was Katalin Varga, a Transylvania-set revenge tale in which a rural housewife ventures into civilisation to kill the men who raped her 10 years earlier. An intense performance by Hilda Péter in the title role and a haunting use of landscape ensure that Peter Strickland’s debut feature subverts the expectations associated with the rape-revenge genre.

However, the film that perhaps best exemplified the ethos of AND, in terms of engaging the social-political conscience in a manner that is thoughtful rather than judgemental, was Lucy Raven’s China Town, a fascinating documentary project comprised of 7,000 photographs that have been edited together to chronicle the global production of copper from the mines of Nevada to the smelters of China. By methodically capturing this process, China Town touches on such topics as globalisation and nationalism, but leaves the audience to consider the consequences of such industrial activity. The second AND festival will be held in Manchester in 2010, and should prove to be an equally interesting event if the organisers continue to balance issues with innovation.

John Berra

Read our article on Jamie King and Peter Mann’s Dark Fibre, which premiered at AND, in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!

SHORT CUTS: INTERVIEW WITH ROB SPERANZA

Mother, Mine

Still from Mother, Mine

Glimmer: 7th Hull International Short Film Festival

21-26 April 2009

Reel Cinema, Hull, UK

Glimmer 2009 website

The recent Glimmer Festival showcased a wide variety of outstanding short films from around the globe, bringing further exposure to a form of filmmaking that is as industrially important as it is artistically invigorating. Three of the short films that were screened at the 2009 event were produced by the South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to promote filmmaking in the region through developing shorts and running events and competitions, such as the recent 2 Weeks 2 Make It. The network’s Glimmer entries included Susan Everett’s award-winning Mother, Mine, about a young woman tracking down her natural mother, and Matt Taabu’s Into the Woods, in which a family outing in the countryside takes a dangerous turn following the appearance of a stranger. Both are suspenseful and unsettling thrillers, while Kieron Clark’s Joy is an entirely different proposition involving a singing fish. Each film was produced by Rob Speranza, a native New Yorker who relocated to Sheffield 13 years ago to undertake post-graduate study, and is now the Head of Operations of the SYFN and will be line-producing his first feature film this summer. John Berra met with him to discuss his recent projects, the importance of festivals, and the supposed marginalisation of short films.

John Berra: What is the development process for short films at the SYFN?

Rob Speranza: When I get a script, I ask myself if it’s something that people are going to want to watch. It sounds really simple, but it’s the sort of thing that a lot of producers forget about; they ask themselves, ‘do I want to make it?’, and that’s a good question, but I ask that question after asking, is this something that people are going to want to see? Is it something that festivals are going to show? Is it something that is actually going to be marketable? Can I get bums on seats with this film, and can I see people enjoying it? If I can answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions, especially the festival one, then I ask if I want to make it and if I am interested in the subject matter. I might read the script and say yes to all those other questions, but the script might be about windsurfing, and I have no interest in windsurfing. But then I might read a script about a boy who wants to connect with his long-lost father, or a script about a war veteran returning to normal society, and I like those subjects, so then I ask myself if it’s going to be likely for me to have a working relationship with the writer and the director.

JB: Festivals are often discussed in terms of representing a creative community, but there is always an intensely competitive element to such events in terms of securing financing for future projects.

RS: I’ve rarely attended a short film festival with a direct view to financing, aside from Cannes. I love festivals. I go to them with a view to selling the film. I know a lot of producers who don’t like going to them, who don’t like networking and schmoozing with lots of filmmakers, but I really enjoy it, to an extent. After three or four days, I want to go home because when I go, I’m really intense; I go to all the screenings, all the events, I’m at every drinks reception, I’ll keep my mouth open and keep talking and, after a while, I don’t want to drink anymore, I don’t want to give away any more business cards and copies of my film, I just want to go home. But the most important thing about festivals is to go and watch other films, to enjoy other people’s work, and see what else is going on and go, ‘why didn’t I think of that? That’s a great idea, why didn’t I make that film?’

JB: It seems that much of your responsibilities involve handling the film after it has been completed and keeping it alive on the festival circuit?

RS: I’m very fond of saying that a producer’s job begins when the film is finished. It’s relatively easy to shoot a film, and I say that with an emphasis on the word ‘relatively’, but when it comes to getting it seen, that’s when you have to really step up your game. You have to get the film out there, send it to the right festivals and sell it. There is so much talent out there; everybody and their brother are shooting films on DVD camera or on mobile phones, so it’s a very competitive world.

JB: What can an award from a festival do for a short film or filmmaker?

RS: When you start to collect awards, as with a film like Mother, Mine, which is doing really well and has won multiple awards, you get a different kind of reputation where people hear of you and you get a bit of renown, which is very positive. Then, of course, sales agents come to you, and you start to see articles in magazines, and that’s the kind of thing that awards can do. They create a sense of importance, talent and maybe a bit of glamour, especially around the director because it’s a director-led industry.

JB: Do you think that putting a short film on the internet can suggest a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmaker?

RS: If you have a decent short film, you shouldn’t be putting it online first. If it’s a good short film, do the festivals first, put it out there, because that is where you are going to meet the people who will want you to make more films and pay you for the one that you’ve just made. I’m not saying that if you put it online, you can’t direct a sales agent to it, but there are all kinds of chances that you might scupper with a lot of festivals.

JB: The performances in Mother, Mine are very naturalistic and affecting. What is your approach to casting a short film, and is there much time for a rehearsal process?

RS: I always try to build in time for rehearsal for my directors. With short films, you don’t have a lot of money or a lot of time, so it’s wise to rehearse for as long as you can. With Mother, Mine the first thing we did was to get Rachel Fisher, our casting director, on board and she worked very closely with director Susan Everett; Sue wrote out her character descriptions and she had a short list of talent that she had been building up for a couple of years, because the short is a pared down version of a feature script she had written, so she had a short-list of names that she had gathered from either films or television. It takes time to generate the relationship between the director and the character, especially if the director didn’t write the script, and then for that person to suddenly come alive when they find them on the internet, or on the screen, or as a result of a casting director showing them clips. Most of the time when I’m working with somebody and they meet an actor who would be suitable for the role, they know it right away.

JB: Into the Woods is a very tight piece. How important is it to balance atmosphere and aesthetics with narrative urgency, and was the finished film stripped down from the original screenplay?

RS: The film did initially have a longer introduction. In the script, we spent longer with the family, they were walking through the woods, we were getting to know them, and it was clear that the mother and father were fighting and that the father may have had an affair at some point; but that was back-story, and back-story is the death of short films, so get rid of back-story, it’s not important. What is important is the way they are going to handle this confrontation because the subtle message in this film is that everybody probably has some kind of prejudice that emerges when you are confronted with a situation like that, when a stranger comes out of the woods, looking scary and bloodied, and saying all kinds of things in different languages.

JB: Why did you want to produce Kieron Clark’s Joy, a black and white film about a singing fish?

RS: Kieron is not the sort of director that I usually gravitate to but there was something about this story. He wanted to make a trilogy about the sea, and he is a very quiet guy, very reserved, extremely clever, very funny in a subtle way, and he knows what he wants. I thought it was a quirky little story, and he said he wanted to do it in black and white, and that there would be no dialogue, just a song. It appealed to my roots in poetry, because some of the first films that I made were eight short film-poems. I’m a much more mainstream, narrative, sales-and-festivals-driven producer now, I like to think I make things that people want to see, but Joy was a good mix because people do want to see it, because it’s not too weird, it’s not too avant-garde that it makes you go, ‘What in the world was that about?’

JB: How do you feel about the general perception that short films are marginalised, especially when compared to short literary fiction?

RS: Since the internet has taken off, you have all these different websites, popular websites like YouTube, Screening Room and DailyMotion.com, to show your film, and as a result of that, festivals are starting up all over the place. Every little town has a festival popping up, and bigger towns and cities a myriad of them, so there are so many ways to get your film seen. Short films are perfect for small, hand-held devices that do not have enough memory to store a feature film, like mobile phones and PSPs, so the market is expanding so quickly that there is a really good future for shorts. Short literary fiction was always marginalised, and yet now there is a massive market for short stories, mostly anthologies, and there are also more compilations of short films being produced and distributed.

JB: Do you think that short films should take more of an influence from commercial feature films in terms of narrative?

RS:A few years ago, people could only make a short funded by the Arts Council if you had to think about what it meant, but because of the popularity of short films now and the way that festivals like Times BFI London or Encounters have grown you have a very different world for short films now. People are making short films that have got great stories, great ideas, even if some of them are one-trick-ponies, and there are plenty of filmmakers out there who work in features but want to make short films in-between. You could make an argument that films like Short Cuts and Magnolia have got short film elements because they piece fragments together. Short Cuts is a good example because it’s based on a collection of short stories, but Robert Altman decided to merge the elements together and make the stories cross over. I love the way that a lot of short pieces can combine to create a really interesting whole and those are probably my favourite kinds of films.

Interview by John Berra

Rob Speranza is currently undertaking production work on two short films for Screen Yorkshire, shooting in 2009. Visit www.syfn.org for more information about the South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network.

GLIMMER 09

Love You More

Still from Love You More

7th Hull International Short Film Festival

21-26 April 2009

Reel Cinema, Hull, UK

Glimmer 2009 website

Short films are often the ideal form for fledgling filmmakers to develop ideas and themes, whilst also honing their storytelling skills, although they are often unjustly overlooked by mainstream audiences. Laurence Boyce, director of Glimmer, insists that ‘Any good film – whether one minute or four hours long – will ultimately justify its running time. We hope that people will find things to discover and enthuse about, and realise that short films are brilliant slices of cinema despite their smaller running times’. Now in its seventh year as an event, and in its second year under the Glimmer banner, the Hull International Short Film Festival celebrates the recent output of the short film community, whilst also providing educational sessions for aspiring visual artists, and a social-political context that is often absent from such events. Boyce believes that ‘shorts are a great indicator of a culture and a time in society, as if they were snapshots of a particular idea or concern’, and by programming films that deal with life in Israel alongside retrospectives of the work of cult animator David Firth and the experimental filmmaker John Smith, who will be on hand to discuss his career to date, the 2009 Glimmer Festival promises to confirm the importance of the short film format.

This year’s line-up of over 200 shorts from the UK and overseas will compete for the inaugural Anthony Minghella Awards for Best UK Short and Best International Short. Appropriately, one of the main attractions in the UK competition is Sam Taylor-Wood’s Love You More, which was produced by the late Minghella himself and screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 before being nominated for the 2009 Best Short Film BAFTA. Written by Closer scribe Patrick Marber, this is an affecting portrait of youth in 70s London, in which two teenagers bond after they find themselves in the local record shop where they both want to buy a copy of the new Buzzcocks single, ‘Love you More’. The coming of age theme is also explored in Muriel d’Ansembourg’s Play, in which children discover what happens when dares are played for real, and Ryd Cook’s Away, which follows a young boy as he runs away from home and spends the night in a decrepit barn. Grisly pleasures are promised by the Yorkshire competition, which offers a girl coming to terms with her transformation into a zombie in Duncan Laing’s Bitten, and a family outing becoming something more sinister with the arrival of a stranger in Matt Taabu’s Into the Woods.

Aside from rewarding the industriousness of short filmmakers, the festival is not afraid of examining pressing issues within the industry itself, and the Pay to Play? section of the programme will discuss the attitude of the business towards its unpaid workers, many of whom make the realisation of both short and feature length projects possible, and the ethical legitimacy of festivals charging submission fees to filmmakers. Anatomy of a Film 2 focuses on the process of developing and making a short film, while a panel of industry insiders will contribute to What Happens Next?, which will deal with the necessity of advertising and the role of film critics in bringing audience awareness to such projects. With a programme that includes such a wide range of screenings and topics, the 2009 Glimmer Festival should prove to be an essential event for anybody interested in the short film sector.

John Berra

INTERVIEW WITH DA PENNEBAKER AND CHRIS HEGEDUS

DA Pennebaker

Format: Cinema

Title: Return of the War Room

Directors: DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus

Distributor: Sundance Channel

USA 2008

82 minutes

Screened at: Sheffield Doc/Fest

5-9 November 2008

More info on the Sheffield Doc/Fest website

The Return of the War Room is the companion piece to The War Room, the ground-breaking 1993 documentary by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus that went behind the scenes of Democrat Party candidate Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential election campaign to focus on the tireless staffers who pioneered the political concept of ‘rapid response’. The new film, which was financed by the Sundance Channel, catches up with Team Clinton 16 years later, allowing those involved to reflect on their victory and the unconventional approach that was adopted to take the Governor of Arkansas to the White House. Pennebaker was one of the founders of the Direct Cinema/cinéma vérité movement of the 1950s, and he has since aligned his interests of music and politics with documentaries such as the legendary Don’t Look Back (1967), which followed Bob Dylan on his first British tour in 1965. He later partnered both professionally and personally with Chris Hegedus, and the couple formed a company to specialise in documentaries that sidestep traditional voice-over narration and interviews in favour of capturing interesting individuals in real-life situations. Recent projects have included the concert film Down from the Mountain (2000), which contributed to the commercial breakthrough of bluegrass music, and Startup.com (2001), which chronicled the short-lived internet business boom of the new millennium. John Berra met with Pennebaker and Hegedus at the Sheffield Doc/Fest to discuss the evolution of campaign strategy, the similarities between musicians and politicians, and why their documentaries are, in fact, plays.

John Berra: The Return of the War Room comes 16 years after The War Room. Was this an opportunity to comment on how the political landscape has changed with regards to campaigning since 1992?

Chris Hegedus: Definitely, we are interested in the ways campaigns evolve and they changed while we were making the film. Every day there was some aspect of technology that would not only be ground-breaking but change campaign strategy. They had some internet fundraising, and it all of a sudden took off, and then it was people making movies with their phones and putting them on the internet and catching the politician saying something he didn’t want to be seen saying. It became obvious that a candidate did not have one moment of his public life when he could be unaware.

JB: The War Room was a new concept that influenced the campaign strategy of the Labour party in 1997. What was the reaction to the events depicted in the first film in 1992?

DA Pennebaker: The film was received in different ways in different countries. In France it was successful, but in Germany, to see a politician who was younger than 80 years old was shocking. They didn’t know what to make of it!

JB: The original film was supposed to be a study of the Democrat Party candidate Bill Clinton, but he did not want a camera crew following him around. How did you feel about adjusting your focus to the staff of his War Room?

DAP: I thought we were lucky because my experience with the candidates of the major parties is that you don’t really get anything that surprises you, but we were with people who were wonderful characters who really said what was on their minds, and it made it a better movie. I had started a film with Bobby Kennedy because I knew he was going to run, and I had said, ‘I would like to make a film about you, and the end of the film will be you walking into the White House’. But it was too expensive and I couldn’t raise the money to do it. Kennedy would have been good because I knew him, and he would have talked, but trying to dissect the person who is looking to be the perfect candidate, who wants to share every religion, is not realistic; he becomes a cartoon figure.

CH: We were just so lucky that we stumbled across James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. James Carville was brilliant, he was so eccentric, like someone’s drunken uncle at a party, and then you would have this opposite, this brilliant Rhodes scholar, so you would have this buddy thing going on, and on top of that, James’s girlfriend [Republican Party strategist Mary Matalin] was running the Bush campaign. It was absurd.

JB: That relationship plays an important role in both films. Were you aware that James and Mary were romantically involved before you started filming?

DAP: We don’t really edit that way. We’re trying to make a piece of theatre, which means we’re thinking about people sitting in the fifth row and what is going to keep their attention. Carville was behind things like ‘the economy, stupid’. He’s a guy who manages to take these realities and squeeze them down to an epigram and everybody understands it right away, so when he was talking to George we would keep an eye on him. But you don’t make them think that you’re looking to make them be something that they aren’t. They have to feel that the film you’re making is really representative of what they do because they dig what they do and they want people to know what they do.

JB: You have made celebrated documentaries about both music and politics. Is the circus that surrounds artists similar to the one that surrounds politicians?

DAP: They’re not too different. They both have a career based on a talent that they happen to possess, and how they came to decide to exercise it, you don’t know. Musicians are people who, when they go to the party and there is no instrument to play, slip out of the window. They don’t know what to do with themselves.

CH: What they both have is the character to provoke something, they are both taking risks with their careers, and the good ones feel authentically for what they are trying to do. It makes them very similar, and it makes for a very sympathetic character.

JB: Startup.com is probably your most downbeat film in that the subjects suffer the failure of the dot com boom. Is it difficult to remain professionally detached when the people you are documenting experience such bad fortune?

CH: It’s very hard because you become their friends. Even though these guys were really young, they were part of this very exciting moment and within three months they raised $60 million. Their website wasn’t a goofy website. It was actually a very useful government website which had some really good ideas and a lot of altruistic ambition, so it was very sad. You kind of wanted to say something and intervene, but you don’t know the whole story as a filmmaker.

JB: Don, you were a pioneer of the Direct Cinema movement in the 1950s, and yet you have often described your documentaries as ‘plays’. Is that because you look for a narrative and emotional arc within the subject?

DAP: I used to read a lot of plays, and I think that the idea of dialogue driving a situation is what plays are. But in the early days of movies, documentaries were silent; you hired a religious zealot to play organ music over the film because you didn’t have cameras that could shoot synch-sound, so you couldn’t get what happens in a real situation. I think that the theatrical experience is very important to people. I know it’s not real, and I know those people are just actors, but the minute it starts, all that recedes, and all I see is the situation, and I want to know where it’s going to go, and I can follow that through the dialogue.

CH: We do look for situations that have some theatrical arc to them, especially when you make the kind of films where you’re following someone’s life. Return of the War Room was a challenge for us because it was our first interview film, which proved to be a strange new experience. We started out trying to shoot people in their real lives, but that didn’t work out because George Stephanopoulos ended up being owned by ABC Television, and they would only allow us to film him for 45 minutes sitting in a chair. We thought it would be weird to have all this real-life stuff with everybody else, and then George sitting in a chair, but what people were saying was so interesting, that all that other stuff just fell away.

JB: Return of the War Room features footage of Barack Obama, but only passing reference is made to his campaign. Did you not want to compare Obama-mania with the Clinton campaign of 1992?

CH: There were already two filmmakers who were making a film about him, and they were very protective of their access, and we shot this at the end of the spring when the Hilary-Obama dynamic was going on, so we never had a moment. Like our other films, whatever the people talked about was where the film went and that directed us.

DAP: There is no long-term plan. Making one of these films is like wandering into one of those gardens you have here in England, a maze, and you go in knowing it’s going to be a maze but there is a movie there; every turn is a surprise, and that’s interesting because you have to take that turn into consideration.

Interview by John Berra

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.

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews