Film Challenge 2011 - Part One

I've undertaken a challenge this year. I'm to watch one hundred films I've never seen before by midnight on December 31st. So far, so good. Less than halfway through the year, and I've seen fifty one. I'm therefore Making Good Time.

Let me run through, briefly, the first half of 2011 in terms of the fresh films I've seen.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe
(Viewed January 6)
In which Billy Connolly plays a castrated ex-paedophile psychic priest with such admirable dignity and restraint that, y'know, you just can't help but feel for him as he falls to his knees overcome by the force of his visions.

The Weatherman (January 7)
Nicholas Cage plays a TV weatherman with a blossoming interest in archery. His son, played by Tony from Skins, is in the process of being groomed; whilst Michael Caine worries about his granddaughter's camel toe.

127 Hours (January 8)
In which a man has to cut his arm off after getting it trapped under a rock. Features excellent use of Festival by Sigur Ros and a most appropriate sound-effect for slicing through an exposed nerve with a blunt knife.

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (January 8)
It's a Russ Meyer film! You know what that means, right lads? There's a gigolo who talks like a Shakespearian clown and a completely unsubtle reference to the Manson killings which, considering Sharon Tate starred in the original, is pretty offensive. We'll pin that one on Roger Ebert, who, if you remember, doesn't possess a soul beyond those which he's stolen from unborn children.

Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging (January 9)
Like an anaemic, watered-down, heterosexual Sugar Rush; early on in my mission I demonstrated the lengths to which I was prepared to go in order to succeed. Alan Davies was in this.

Run, Fatboy, Run (January 9)
Simon Pegg is red of face and out of breath – plus you get to see Dylan Moran's exposed posterior and Hank Azaria in running shoes. Also look out for a cameo from director David Schwimmer. He plays “The Man Who Hands Simon A Pint On His Victory Lap”. A role he was born to play, truly.

Constantine (January 12)
I started reading the Hellblazer comics almost immediately after seeing this, so within days I was dumbfounded as to just how wrong they'd managed to get everything. Still. Terrifying visions of hell and one of the best cinematic Satans I've ever seen. Shall we just pretend it's not supposed to be John Constantine and treat it as a standalone Keanu Reeves vehicle, then?

True Romance (January 23)
This has dated terribly. Future cultural historians will use it to demonstrate how people used to think in the nineties. The scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, though – that can stay. I'll give them that.

The King's Speech (January 29)
The king's speech impediment is so cute that I spent the entire two hours just wanting to hug him. Geoffrey Rush was wonderful as “The Australian What Had To Help Him”, and the montage of inspired Britons listening to the titular speech was, I found, most affecting.

Horror Express (February 9)
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing take care of some zombie cossacks and fossilised gorillas on a train speeding across frozen tundra using little more than their English Heritage memberships.

They Live (February 10)
Because I'm naturally inclined to pity anyone or anything shown watching television, at the very last minute I found myself siding with the horrific aliens in this film. One of the closing images is of a horrible distorted purple face engrossed in the show he's watching. It got me “right there”.

Never Let Me Go
(February 13)
The book was better. So much so, in fact, that I gleamed very little joy indeed from this maudlin clone-romp. They missed the point entirely.

The Royal Tenenbaums
(February 17)
This masterpiece (ho yes) has furnished me with a go-to answer should anyone ever pose to me the question of “if you could live in any house in any film, which would it be?” Cosy mansions built out of wood just do it for me. They just do.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
(February 19)
Beautiful autumnal stop-motion aesthetic and some pretty adult themes for an animated feature – mix in Bill Murray, Jarvis Cocker and Michael Gambon and you can't really go wrong – and they don't. Ever. Go wrong, that is.

Where The Wild Things Are (February 19)
For a film about big cuddly furry films, this is pretty serious stuff – the tone's got far more in common with the likes of My Sister's Keeper than, say, Time Bandits. I wasn't ready; I need to see it again. Gorgeous soundtrack.

Coraline (February 19)
I may remember 2011 as, amongst other things, the year in which I totally “got into” Neil Gaiman. And, I'll always remember, it all started with Coraline. It's enchanting throughout, a feast to look at, and some of it is genuinely terrifying.

Shine A Light (February 21)
This is a Rolling Stones concert film recorded on their Bigger Bang tour as directed by Martin Scorcese. Jack White guested, but the image which sticks in the mind is a brief grainy, black and white performance of “Under My Thumb” on a small stage which appears to be advancing ominously on the audience.

American Pop (February 25)
I can't shake this one from my mind. It'll be with me now for the rest of my life. It obviously moved me on such a profound level that I welcome its haunting. Essentially the story of several generations of an American family told through the history of the nation's pop music, it's a very strong contender for the very best piece of animation I've ever had the intense pleasure of witnessing.

Crumb (February 28)
This just confirmed a suspicion I've harboured for quite a while now: Robert Crumb is a bad, bad man. Spending almost two hours in close cahoots with him and his troubled family makes for some deeply disturbing viewing. Horror films dream of being this creepy.

The Fog (March 3)
Shadowy ghost pirates with glowing eyes emerge from the titular fog and advance upon our hero's stalled car. Says Ryan: “Oh, you scary bastards”.

Lifeforce (March 4)
An apparent attempt to craft a film about which people can say “man, that film's got everything”, this film truly has got it all – A beautiful naked alien lady wanders the land drinking blood from people who become zombies or something – I can't really remember – but it ends with London in smoke under a military quarantine – fighting in the streets and a possessed Patrick Stewart in a homoerotic sub-plot.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (March 5)
Like Saw, but good. Why? Because there's real sympathy and depth for the psychopathic Dr. Phibes, Vincent Price is in it, it doesn't take itself too seriously and it features a creepy band comprised entirely of uncanny Victorian automatons. Must see the sequel.

Story Of One Crime (March 10)
The next few are from a boxset of Russian animation into which we dipped one fateful night. This one takes a quasi-constructivist aesthetic in order to tell - using mainly stark colours, simple shapes and very creative sound-effects – the humorous story behind an apparently random act of violence.

The Glass Harmonica
(March 10)
Take the surreal collage look of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine film but replace the psychedelic good-vibes with a communist nightmare which deals with conformity and oppression. Like a bad dream, but it's such an intriguing world that you don't quite want to wake up just yet.

Tale of Tales
(March 10)
From him what brought you The Hedgehog in the Fog comes this hazy memory of an animated masterpiece which is frequently praised as the absolute finest that this medium has to offer. The visuals are almost impossible to put into words, but it's something like staring into a bonfire and making out shapes amid the flickering, smouldering embers. Words, though, will never do it justice. It must be seen to be believed. Except, this isn't the sort of thing you “see”. It's the sort of thing you “feel”.

Ghostwatch (March 14)
The mocked-up live séance thing which everyone thought was real. Craig Charles is in it, and Michael Parkinson is possessed by a malevolent presence which calls itself Mr. Pipes. I was  convinced that I was utterly desensitised; that never again would I find a film to be in any way scary. But then I saw this and was, quite honestly, reluctant to sleep with the lights on.

Fears of the Dark
(March 16)
An animated horror portmanteau which, true to form, is of varying quality. Some of it's mediocre, some of it's bad, and a lot of it's very bad. It all looks incredible, though, and the story about the crocodile is wonderfully atmospheric. The framing scenes, though, in which an old man sets his rabid dogs on people and cackles as, at one point, a screaming young woman's pudenda is apparently munched to a bloody mush is coarse, pointless and just plain nasty.

Infamous (March 27)
Now, this I really liked. It tells the story of Truman Capote as he researches the book that would be “In Cold Blood”. Daniel Craig plays the incarcerated murderer with whom, it's implied, Truman develops a homosexual attachment, whilst Sandra Bullock plays a writer's-block besotted Harper Lee. Some intense performances and some moments of almost unbearable tension and poignancy.

Lonesome Jim
(March 28)
I could relate to this one, in which a struggling young writer is forced to move back into the old family home. I loved his collage of admired writers which he hung on his wall – I might make one of my own. The family life is shown to be stifling to the point of madness, but ultimately the story's one of redemption through appreciation of the simpler things in life. Beautiful. Directed by Steve Buscemi!

The Big Easy
(April 4)
A New Orleans corruption battling extravaganza! I was really looking forward to this, but ultimately found myself to be quite disappointed. Not a lot was made of the setting, and not a lot actually happened. Slow and dated. Shame.

Submarine (April 5)
Richard Ayaode's directorial debut ticked every single one of my boxes. It even ticked some boxes which I didn't know needed ticking. It seems that I absolutely needed to see Paddy Considine as a perverse wizard who perceives the inner colour of all around him. This film also did the impossible in making me not just appreciate the music of Alex Turner, but enjoy it.

District 9 (April 6)
The poignant, brutal apartheid subtext gives this film its vitality and urgency, but I'll always remember it for the insane bipedal death robot with the abilities to create magnetic fields in which bullets are trapped in mid-air. Lots of exploding heads and bodies, too, but the thing which sticks with me the most is the infant alien who just wants to play hide-and-seek. Even cuter than Bambi.

Bottle Rocket (April 9)
Luke Wilson's acting debut, Wes Anderson's directing debut, and Owen Wilson is making so much of a debut that, apparently, he was at one point considering this to be the only bit of acting he ever would do. He didn't see himself as an actor, you see. He was a writer; and here he helps to craft a low-key gem in which most every trope which makes Mr. Anderson one of the finest talents in film-making today can be seen in embryonic form.

Vault of Horror
(April 9)
Another portmanteau horror fest, this one was edited for violence in quite a bizarre manner which saw all of the edited scenes replaced with an almost subliminal doctored freeze-frame. It also features a “dazzling young beauty” who is, in reality, pushing fifty.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (April 13)
I really wasn't expecting such surreal imagery. I love how, in this day and age, Jerry Bruckheimer produced crowd-pleasing blockbusters based upon theme park rides are allowed to have scenes in which the sky is the sea and the sea is a sky through which an almighty galleon sails upside down.

Monsters (April 15)
Of course, it's a question of “who're the real monsters?!” - but the main thing to remember here is that even though it was made on a shoestring budget with the lion's share of post-production and CGI being done on a home PC, it's one of the only films I've ever seen which I believe would justify the existence of HD. It's stunningly beautiful, very moving, and the giant luminous floating psychedelic octopi are spellbinding.

Factory Farmed (April 15)
A short film made by the director of Monsters; it was apparently the sheer inventive quality of this which got him the gig in the first place. It was part of a challenge issued to a whole host of film-makers as part of some sci-fi festival. Each were given a prop, a line of dialogue and twenty-four hours, and told to make of that what they will. The results here are a bleak yet atmospheric dystopian nightmare which hints at the ethical dilemmas of cloning – all in less than ten minutes, with, yes, but one line of dialogue. It's everything Never Let Me Go should have been, then.

The Constant Gardener (April 17)
In Ralf Fiennes and Bill Nighy, this unites two of my favourite actors in one tense dinner scene which, for some reason, appears to be told from the point of view of a nearby statue which points an accusing finger throughout. There's also Raquel Weisz being all fiery, smouldering and inspirational; and the plot concerns the aids epidemic and the evil bastard pharmaceutical trade. Oh, and Pete Posthelthwaite's there, all sunburned like. It's a good film.

Hostage (April 18)
Bruce Willis is a down-at-the-heel cop with an estranged family – called in for one last job – it's like Die Hard, only it takes itself a lot more seriously. Soon, though, things descend into a cross between Home Alone and Panic Room, and it ends up as a sort of Cape Fear/Breakfast Club hybrid. It really wasn't bad. It was Gritty.

Mimic (April 22)
I remember being morbidly fascinated by this film when I was much, much younger. It only took me sixteen years or so to actually get round to seeing it. I wasn't exactly disappointed, but I think I'd've enjoyed it much more when I was eight. When I was eight, you see, I hadn't seen Cronos, or Pan's Labyrinth, or any of the Hellboy films. As such, I'd've had no prior expectations, so would probably have been in a better position to just sit back and enjoy the giant cockroaches with human faces.

Zatoichi (April 29)
Ho yes. Zatoichi is a blind masseuse samurai who basically takes it upon himself to sort out a small town's gangster/ronin problem in feudal Japan. When murdering, he's one scary fucker – he slays with slow, lumbering intent – but the rest of the time this film seems to play it for laughs. I can't stop thinking about the slimy clerk who does tiger impressions for the amusement of small children. Also, CGI blood. It doesn't really work, but my word, it's satisfying. And it all ends with a joyous polyrhythmic dance celebration!

A Bothersome Man (May 5)
As visions of hell/purgatory go, the bland, emotionless corporate nightmare isn't exactly new, but I don't know if I've ever seen it realised to such suffocating effect. Paradise is quite literally within the grasp of these poor souls, but they're all doomed to a life in which you can't get drunk, and not even sex or death provide relief. One of the bleakest endings I've ever seen, too.

World of Glory (May 5)
Oh. My. GOD. This was grim. It opened with a shot of a naked, huddled mass being herded into the back of a van. A pipe was attached to the exhaust and fed into the trailer. The van then drove off and started circling a field. You could just hear the muffled screams of those trapped within. A crowd looked on, passively. One man looked to the camera, and, in a series of claustrophobic static shots, began to tell us about his life. He shaved corporate branding into his son's head, and worked as an estate agent because “somebody has to”. It's about how we all ignored the holocaust in favour of the trivialities of life. And it made me want to die.

Girl Chewing Gum (May 5)
This was quite funny in places, though was created as a critique of those who look too hard for meaning in life. As such, it was quite a sneering, cynical sort of affair. But, nonetheless, it gets a few laughs. Essentially they set up a camera on some moribund British street and an offscreen voice “directs” the action. So, a man in a beret crossing the road is preceded by a voice commanding “If the man in the beret could cross the road now.” It ends with the camera panning around a gloomy, weathered field. We're told that the director is hiding in a tree. It's one of the bleakest tableaux possible.

The Adventures of Mark Twain (May 6)
A claymation adventure! Mark Twain was born on the same day as a certain comet passed within sight of Earth. 75 years later he died, just as GUESS WHAT COMET was making its rounds again. This film sees him chartering a wonderful flying machine with Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky in order to intercept the comet again and achieve transcendence. Contained within the central shaft of his machine are his complete works. We're thus treated to excerpts from the diaries of Adam and Eve, plus one disquieting sequence in which Satan creates a town full of humans, kills them all, and tells us that they're not to be missed, as he can always create more. It's strange stuff, but the overall effect is enthralling and inspirational – Mark Twain's various ingenious quotes permeate the dialogue throughout, and it ends with the inspired device of splitting his personality in two and allowing for his “dark side” to provide the dark punch lines: “Always obey your parents/When they're around.”

Shrek Forever After
(May 8)
I got this for Christmas! The final instalment of the Shrek saga, I simply adored Rumpelstilksin and his army of witches who cast explosive pumpkins at their prey.

Gorillas in the Mist
(May 8)
You get a lot of atmospheric shots of gorillas in the mist, but the image that will stick with me 'til my dying day is that of the gorilla leant against the trunk of a tree, shorn of his hands and head. All throughout I was wondering as to why the guide described this as a “powerful biopic”. At that exact moment I understood.

Lou Reed's Berlin (May 13)
I was gifted this DVD some three years ago. It's an unacceptable disgrace that I've only just got around to watching it. Berlin is performed in full, and it rocks. The songs are expanded to accommodate blistering guitar solos, and everyone looks to be having such a great time that one might argue that their grins are doing a disservice to the dark subject matter contained within the lyrics. Such arguments, however, are to be dismissed as “tedious”, and by the time we get to the Trio of Doom (Caroline Says II, The Kids, The Bed) – well, nobody's smiling then, are they? Devastating stuff.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (May 15)
You know how sometimes you see something that's so cute, so unaccountably innocent and twee – that something just has to be wrong? Well, this film takes that air of unease and takes it to its ultimate extremities. It's like fawning over a meadow filled with wide-eyed bunnies – only to find that they're all concealing shivs beneath their fluffy fur. Why is it that every time anyone makes a film about the loss of innocence the results are so fucked?

The Happiness of the Katakuris (May 15)
A zombie musical in which, whenever emotions become fraught, the cast break into a carefully choreographed  routine. Similarly, whenever violence looms its gurning head, affairs transform into a kind of warped claymation. And yet, the madness is there from the start. Right from the outset we're lead gently by the hand into this mad, mad, mad, mad world. As such, we never question anything. Always we're in on it, loving every moment of it – tapping our feet to the tragic massacres onscreen. Now that's how you make a film, Western World.

Mirrors (May 23)
Kiefer Sutherland is a down-at-the-heels cop with an estranged family. He's like John McClane, but without any of the charisma, wit, humility or humanity. He's tasked with supervising a burnt out husk of a department store in which all manner of strange things have been going on. The scope is magnificent. This could have been a supernatural Die Hard – the wreck of a building is the ideal scene for a horror – all distorted mannequins and monstrous mirrors in the darkness. It fails quite badly, though, through being the apparent fruits of a bet to incorporate as many tired tropes of 21st horror as possible into the proceedings. Smashed mirrors represent a split personality. I mean, really. And at one point our hero is enveloped by flames which, in terms of VFX, are of a sub-Bedknobs and Broomsticks quality. It doesn't even work on the “so bad it's good” level, as it's too slick, too well made. No, I didn't like this one.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tide (May 24)
And this is it – the halfway point – the fiftieth film I've seen this year what I've never seen before. Ho, it was a romp. I probably feel exactly the same about this as does everyone who's not a professional film critic: I really, really enjoyed it. It's a thrilling romp, so who cares if it's not going to change the world? Case in point: It's got something like 30% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, but it's got round about an eight on the IMDB. Guess which one was chosen by people who actually pay money to go and see films for entertainment purposes? I'd say “turn your brain off, and enjoy”, but it actually has quite a complex plot, as blockbusters go.

So, there you go. Check back in another six months or so, and I might have seen another fifty.