Sunday, 13 November 2016

116 Christmas Movies You Must See Before You Die (2016 update)

Well here we are again. This time last year I was finishing off my epic quest to find the best 101 Christmas films ever made. Now I'm back with an update to the list.

I wasn't planning to do any more blogging for a long while, but over the last year I've come across another 15 films that I thought were worthy of inclusion. It seemed a shame to leave them out. I also added a rating out of five for every film, just for fun. So now I'm up to 116 Christmas Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Click here to view the updated list.

And a Merry Christmas to you. In the middle of November.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The New York Times Best 1000 Movies Ever Made... My Top 40

The New York Times 1000 Best Movies Ever Made - My Top 40


Deep breath. I'm done. Every film on the list of The New York Times' 1000 Best Movies Ever Made, watched and ticked off.

I started this latest epic quest immediately on the back of having completed the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, so for the last three years or so I've been doing almost nothing but watching films from these two books. I imagine I must be one of the very few people in the world (stupid enough) to have watched their way through the entirety of both books, and so feel uniquely placed to advise anyone contemplating doing likewise to run like hell in the other direction. You have to be seriously obsessed with cinema to get through this, there's no getting away from the fact that there are an awful lot of films on these lists that will have you losing the will to live. The sheer volume of them doesn't help your sanity much either.

There is, however, one crucial reason why it is worth persisting: you also get to discover, and rediscover, some of the best films you will ever see.

The New York Times Best 1000 Movies Ever Made Book

I liked that the book included all the New York Times reviews as they were originally published, even those that were heavily slated at the time and then came to be regarded as classics later on. My favourite review is for The Exorcist, which it describes as "a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap... practically an impossible film to sit through... a new low for grotesque special effects... boredom by shock and insult."

As for me, I'm worn out by film lists. I feel like I've exhausted my need to absorb the entire history of cinema, and can at last return to the status of normal human being. Ish. From now on I'm just going to watch whatever I feel like - TV boxsets, impulse Netflix and Amazon Prime selections, DVD's of my own choosing - no more lists and no more snooty critics dictating my viewing. What a joy that will be.

The most satisfying Post-It Note I've ever received.
In the end, I counted 351 titles from the NY Times list that I enjoyed, click here to see all of those. Below you'll find a countdown of my top 40 films from that list. Films that featured in the 1001 Movies book aren't eligible; this is for the avoidance of repetition, and because it doesn't seem necessary to say again that The Godfather and Fargo are great. And also because I like arbitrary rules. Let the countdown begin!

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40. The Match Factory Girl
Perhaps the best Finnish film I've ever seen. Admittedly I think the only other one I've seen is the Christmas film Rare Exports, but anyway... this is an absurd comedy drama following the monotonous days of a girl who works in the most boring job in the world, leads the most tedious home life imaginable... and then something exciting happens to flip her life upside down. Tremendously odd.

39. About Schmidt
Dear Ndugu… Jack Nicholson is an old-timer who finds himself retired and at something of a loss. Circumstances then lead to him setting off on a campervan road trip across the States to visit his daughter. Along the way he writes unwittingly hilarious pen pal letters to a child in a third world country that he happens to be sponsoring, keeping the child fully up to date with his progress. Like all good road movies, it’s filled with quirky characters, humour and a smidgen of melancholy, and it’s that mixture that makes it my favourite movie sub-genre. Pleasingly for me, there were several such movies in the list.

38. Dead Man Walking
Sean Penn plays an inmate on death row whose only remaining hope of appeal lies in the hands of a nun (Susan Sarandon) who takes an interest in the case. An intense and affecting statement on capital punishment and the American penal system, elevated by two leads at the top of their game.

37. Barton Fink
One of the Coens’ most overlooked titles, certainly not in the league of Fargo but still fun to be had. John Turturro is a screenwriter with writer’s block, under pressure from the studio to deliver a low-budget boxing movie, whilst living in a decrepit hotel with the neighbour from hell (John Goodman). Sends up Hollywood in a similar way to their recent release Hail, Caesar! - except this one’s actually good.

36. Living in Oblivion
Another film industry send-up, this time with Steve Buscemi as a fantastically incompetent director trying to make an obviously terrible zero-budget film with a bunch of clueless actors and crew. Cleverly structured and rammed with comedic imagination, really enjoyed this one.

35. Tunes of Glory
The commander of a Scottish army regiment, the excellently Scottish-sounding Major Jock Sinclair (Alec Guinness), does his best to turn his troops against the overbearing Lieutenant appointed to replace him (John Mills). Worth watching just for Guinness' magnificent finale speech to the troops within the atmospheric setting of Edinburgh Castle.

34. The Verdict
A washed-up alcoholic lawyer, Paul Newman, tries to resurrect his career with one last case. All I need to say is that it's directed by Sidney Lumet, the master of riveting courtroom dramas (see: 12 Angry Men). One of those films I knew was going to end up as a favourite even before I'd seen it.

33. The Full Monty
I'll confess that this was the first time I'd watched The Full Monty, somehow the idea of a film about male strippers never much appealed. And yet it turned out to be as good as all the hype suggested - hilariously funny, brilliantly acted (especially Robert Carlisle) and with a powerful political message lurking beneath the comedy. I would probably never have gotten around to watching this if it hadn't appeared on the list.

32. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
A little-known gem from Martin Scorsese, one that begins with an absolutely inspired opening scene riffing on films like The Wizard of Oz, before settling into a good old road trip movie. A lounge singer heads out on a long-term journey through a succession of towns and failed relationships, trailing her precocious yet still somehow likeable son along for the ride. If you want to see a different and less violent side to Scorsese, this is a great place to start.

31. Les Miserables (not the Russell Crowe one)
I don't know how many film and stage versions of this there are now, but I'm sure I must have seen them all. Long before they let Russell Crowe near a microphone, this 1935 version was told as a regular story rather than a musical and is actually more powerful and impressive for it. This is the definitive version in my opinion (even though the running time is about 3 months too long), made better by the use of French actors and language rather than the strange London Cockneyisms found in the modern musical versions. 

30. The Apostle
Robert Duvall, one of my favourite actors, plays a dodgy preacher man who goes on the run after committing a crime. He sets up in a new town, builds a church and congregation, and settles into a new life. Then Billy Bob Thornton turns up. Whenever that happens you know you're in for trouble, and of course a mighty fine film. Praise the Lord! etc.

29. Sexy Beast
"People say, "Don't you miss it, Gal?" I say, "What, England? Nah. Fucking place. It's a dump. Don't make me laugh. Grey, grimy, sooty. What a shit hole. What a toilet. Every cunt with a long face shuffling about, moaning, all worried. No thanks, not for me." They say, "What's it like, then, Spain?" And I'll say, "It's hot. Hot. Oh, it's fucking hot. Too hot? Not for me, I love it." Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, and an absolutely brilliant script. Job done.

28. My Dinner With Andre
A film that breaks every screenwriting rule in the book, one in which almost the entire plot (aside from a few minutes at the start) is simply a static conversation between two men in a restaurant. One guy recalls a series of fantastical experiences he's had, whilst the other listens in intently. For a film in which next to nothing actively happens, save for the waiter bringing them food, it's a remarkably engaging watch.

27. What's Up, Doc?
A Barbara Streisand-starring comedy in my favourites list? Didn't see that coming when I started the book. From director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), this mad screwball comedy races around San Francisco and owes a huge debt to Jacques Tati's Mr Hulot. As a Hulot fan this was right up my street, very silly and packed with sight gags, my impression of Streisand has changed entirely.

26. Stevie
I'm a sucker for characters reciting poetry in films, it's one of those things that movies can do that real life rarely copies. This is a film composed of multiple poetic ruminations on life and death, recited directly to camera by Glenda Jackson, in the role of poet Stevie Smith. Set in a single house, it feels more like a stage play than a movie, but is riveting viewing nonetheless. Not yet available on DVD but is currently on Youtube, track it down before it disappears, it really is worth it.

25. American Movie
This wonderful documentary follows Mark Borchart's efforts to make it as an independent film director, persisting over many years to complete a succession of self-penned scripts without any meaningful budget or crew. Along the way he ropes in whoever he can to help - his long-suffering mother, his uncle, and his best friend Mike. Oh yes, Mike. He's the real star here, a doped-up softie who's addicted to lottery scratchcards, and who happens to be one of the funniest real-life characters I've ever seen in a movie. You have to see this for him alone, but the documentary's biggest success is in drawing out the sadness and sense of failure lurking beneath the surface.

24. The Prisoner
Alec Guinness again, this time playing a cardinal held captive under accusations of being a spy, who resists every attempt at police interrogation. Guinness was the perfect choice for this, his calm withdrawn acting style helps to keep you guessing where the truth lies, and the concept of religion possibly being used as a cover for espionage is a fascinating one.

23. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Tom Courteney, a wonderful actor I only discovered during the course of this book, delivers a brilliant performance as a delinquent sent to a young offenders school. The school attempts to reform him by pushing his only talent - long distance running. The question is, will it work? I know this doesn't sound particularly special, but that's more to do with my description, the film itself is undoubtedly a classic of British cinema.

22. Moonlighting
A strange-in-a-good-way tale of four Polish men, led by Jeremy Irons, illegally working in the UK as house renovators. Irons is brilliantly deadpan with a droll monotone narration, and aside from his encounters with a few shopkeepers (that he's trying to steal from) and a neighbour complaining about the noise, he is the only significant character who says much of anything. It's such an unusual film, could possibly be described as a comedy though I'm not even sure that fits, I just don't think I've seen anything quite like it before. For a good part of the time, we are literally just watching men ripping out walls and hammering things, eating soup from old tins, filling a skip, or sleeping. The weirdness is only enhanced by the fact that this bleak, drab, monochrome existence takes place entirely over Christmas. I can't wait to see it again.

21. Secrets & Lies
An astonishing family drama from Mike Leigh, real heavyweight writing and acting that I regard as a must-see. A middle-class black woman discovers her birth mother is a working class white woman living in a council estate, and sets off to find her. Brenda Blethyn is incredible in the role of the mother whose life is thrown into chaos by the surprise arrival, arguably the standout female performance from any film in the book, but everyone involved is top notch.

20. Nobody's Fool
Paul Newman, in what proved to be his final Oscar-nominated performance, plays a cranky old man who distracts himself from his family troubles by stealing his neighbour's lawnmower and tranquillizing his dog (the neighbour's, not his own obviously). Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman turn up in roles so early in their careers that they don't even warrant a mention on the DVD case. Gently comedic, warm-spirited, and a beautiful original score that I can't stop listening to.

19. Gregory's Girl
A Scottish classic from Bill Forsyth, surrounding a teenager's attempts to woo the only girl on the school football team. A girl who also happens to be the best player in the team. Small in scope, and unashamedly Scottish, I love the idea that this played in New York. I can only imagine how much of the Scots dialect and humour washed over the audience's heads, making it even more refreshing to see a wee Scottish film like this make it onto such a list.

18. The Man Who Wasn't There
Another curiously underrated Coens film, though obviously not underrated by the New York Times. Perhaps it's because it's in black and white, that seems to be a reason alongside subtitles for many to not watch a film. Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber who blackmails his boss in order to raise money for an investment in a dry cleaning business. Things get somewhat complicated along the way. The best looking Coens film by a country mile, and packed with many of the customary writing traits that make their early scripts so difficult to surpass.

17. The Train
A German officer is trying to get a train loaded with a collection of the world’s finest priceless paintings out of France into Germany before WWII comes to an end. Burt Lancaster has to think up increasingly audacious and imaginative methods of sabotage to prevent that train making it. I really enjoyed this, they clearly went to great expense and effort in the making of the action sequences, and it’s a proper thrill-ride with many of the same perilous qualities that made Wages of Fear so good. It also raises some interesting questions about the value of art against the value of human life. Explosions, derailments, hostages, subterfuge, guns, fine art and philosophy. What's not to like?

16. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A poignant, sentimental and exceptionally well acted story about a mother trying to raise her poverty stricken family in a small New York apartment. Added to this, her husband is an unemployed alcoholic, yet his fantasist daydreamer personality makes him unusually likeable. Sounds heavy, but in fact is a deserved Oscar winner of real heft, and the performance of the daughter is exceptional considering her age. My highlight was the father singing the old Scots folk song Annie Laurie - not a dry eye in the house.

15. The Hill
Another gem from Sidney Lumet, and one that gave Sean Connery an opportunity away from 007 to really show what he could do. Even as a massive Bond fan, I'd say this is comfortably his best role and performance. Within a military prison camp looms a huge man-made sandbank that the camp commanders use to punish/torture the inmates. Taken to breaking point, Connery leads a rebellion against their treatment, continuously ratcheting up the tension until the brilliant conclusion. Top class filmmaking.

14. On the Beach
A couple of sci-fi gems now. It's the aftermath of World War III, a nuclear war that's killed off almost the entire planet. Only Australia is yet to succumb, and the radiation cloud is headed that way. In the submarine that might just ensure their survival, Gregory Peck and his team receive a strange signal from a previously thought to be deserted San Francisco, and head over to investigate. Intelligent, slow paced and sobering, as you'd expect from a Gregory Peck film, it's one of cinema's finest visions of Earth's apocalyptic finale.

13. Starman
My favourite sci-fi film in the book, however, features Jeff Bridges as an alien who crashes to Earth after his spacecraft is brought down by the military. He takes the form of a human, kidnaps a woman, and together they try to reach a particular destination before his only means of escape departs the planet. Think E.T. crossed with Thelma and Louise, and you're somewhere close. Bridges' robot-like mannerisms and curiosity about human behaviour really make this something to see. I'd never heard of this before, again underlining why trawling through these lists is worthwhile.

12. Rififi
The greatest heist film I've ever seen. The story tracks a group of men planning and then attempting to break into a vault and make off with a fortune's worth of jewels, and the inevitable complications that follow. The heist section ratchets up the tensions to a level rarely achieved in movies of this type, perhaps only surpassed by the masterpiece prison escape film Le Trou. The heist section itself is incredible, a wordless half hour of unbearably taut silence and meticulous thievery. What a film.

11. Ghost World
Now this is one film I never thought I'd see in such a list, but I'm very glad it is. Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannsen play a couple of cynical teenagers fresh out of school, whose lives are entirely changed by an encounter with an oddball loner played by Steve Bucemi. In the coming-of-age genre I'd put this right at the top, such is the quality of writing, and the performances really get across the disillusionment and uncertainty of that age. The haunting piano track adds a special melancholy tone to proceedings, and it's also stashed with plenty of humour. Again, I'm so surprised to see this film in the list, but it really merits it's place.

10. Local Hero
A second Scottish classic from Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl). An American oil man is sent by his boss, Burt Lancaster, to a small Scottish fishing village with intention to buy out the land to make way for a new refinery. The quirkiness of the locals and beauty of the location soon has the man questioning his motives. I love this film to bits, it perfectly captures coastal life in my wee country, and the gentle humour and warm characterisation make the little fishing village of Ferness one of cinema's most likeable places. Utterly charming.

9. Tender Mercies
A washed-up country singer, Robert Duvall, is aimlessly drifting through life until he happens upon a motel. He falls for the owner (who Breaking Bad fans will recognise as Jesse Pinkman's mum) and settles down, until his past catches up with him. From the pen of Pulitzer prize-winning writer Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Trip to Bountiful), this is one of the gentlest and most subtly moving films I've had the pleasure of watching. Some of the dialogue towards the end, aided by the magnificently withdrawn acting masterclass from Duvall (winning him his only Oscar), I believe has rarely been bettered in American drama. He can also hold a note or two.

8. The Trip to Bountiful
“I guess when you've lived longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough.” An elderly woman, stuck living with her son and nightmarish daughter-in-law, has one last wish to fulfil: return to her old home in Bountiful, Texas, one last time before she dies. When they won’t agree to her wishes, she decides to board a bus and make it happen for herself. Adapted by Horton Foote from his own acclaimed and long-running stage play, it's a seemingly simple story that reveals it’s depth as the old woman shares her life story with others she encounters on the journey. It is quite sentimental, some might find it too much so, but Geraldine Page (who won a best actress Oscar for her performance) portrays the woman with such warmth and humbleness that you can’t help but root for her to make it.

7. Judgment at Nuremberg
Slow, methodical, meticulous and exceptional in every regard, this is filed alongside 12 Angry Men as one of the best courtroom dramas I’ve ever seen. The second world war is over, Hitler is dead, and Germany is now occupied territory. Four high-ranking Nazi judges are being tried within the American legal system for war crimes relating to the mass murder of millions of civilians in the concentration camps, and it is up to Chief Judge Dan Haywood to preside over the case. Spencer Tracey plays the judge, and it’s a real tour-de-force performance, his ragged face and worn-out demeanour perfectly expressing the weight of the decision he is going to be faced with and the political pressure he’s coming under. By the end of the eight months of testimony, rousing speeches, accusations and graphically upsetting details of what occurred in those camps (including harrowing actual footage), he just seems shattered by it all. In all honesty I was too, it is difficult to absorb three full hours of this and not be affected by it. This isn’t fiction, it really happened, and forevermore people will wonder how on earth these people could have got away with such atrocities for so long before the world came to realise. Masterpiece is a word used too often in the description of movies, I likely overuse it myself, but I can’t find any other word that could do this film justice. 

6. Amélie
Or, Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, to give it it’s full title. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s wondrous comedy romance follows a young woman on a flight of fancy around the fable-like streets of Paris, as she manipulates and toys with her neighbours and work colleagues for her own amusement. If someone is rude, she sets out for revenge in her own uniquely funny way. If she sees two people in need of a bit of matchmaking, why she just steps in and melds them together. But then she gets whacked by the love bug herself, and sets out to lure the man into her life through a series of creative endeavours. But will he get the message? A film that has zero interest in the realities of life, this is pure fantasy in terms of how people behave, live, and what the suburbs of Paris are actually like. All the better for it. I’m not especially keen on Jeunet's other films, but he got the tone of this just right - maybe the incredible piano score had something to do with it. So funny, imaginative, perhaps a little sad in spots, and dare I say, probably the most charming film ever made. If you need your spirits lifted, there are few better films in existence to make you feel better about life. An absolute joy.

5. Il Postino
The setup here is similar to another Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves. An unemployed man spots an ad for a job as a postman, bicycle required. He is tasked with delivering the mail to a famous Cuban poet living in exile on the island, and when he falls for a beautiful local woman, he hooks the poet into helping woo her with words. It's a genuinely beautiful film, using poetry and metaphors to create a romanticised and moving story that you only really find in the movies, particularly Italian ones. Yet the most poignant aspect of the film lies not within the script, but in the real story of the lead actor Massimo Troisi; he collapsed three days into filming, and discovered he needed a heart transplant. He decided to return to filming instead, risking his life in order to finish the film, and scheduled the surgery for immediately after shooting was due to finish. It was completed, and he died the following day. Now knowing this, it is a profoundly moving film to rewatch, but even leaving that aside, it will last as one of Italian cinema's finest works. This was the last film in the list I watched, and a perfect way to finish this epic experiment.

4. The Pawnbroker
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Need I say more? Yet another masterpiece from him, and one of his very best. It tells of an old man still haunted by his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, and memories of what happened to his family there. Now running a pawn shop and living day to day, his understandable bitterness and disdain towards humanity is immensely powerful, and like his character, Rod Steiger in the lead role just seems shattered by it all. I don't know how Lumet drew performances like this out of his actors, few other directors get this good this often, and it really is something to see. Exceptional doesn't come close.

3. Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring
Gerard Depardieu plays a hunchback outsider who inherits a countryside house in Provence, France. He innocently moves his family there with the intention of farming the land, only to be driven to the point of madness by the jealous locals who attempt to force him out by sabotaging his water supply. This delightful, funny and moving story was released as two separate films, but is actually one continuing story. If you don’t like spoilers please don’t read anything about the second part, Manon des Sources, it’s events are entirely dependent on the prior Jean de Florette. That's why I don't really want to say any more about what unfolds. Really something special, if you consider yourself a fan of cinema you simply have to see these. And oh god that music.

2. Seven Up / 28 Up (Up Series)
"Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man". A groundbreaking series of documentary films in which director Michael Apted gathered a group of 7-year-old children from an array of backgrounds and social classes, and interviewed them about their lives, hopes and expectations for the future. In Seven Up we see them as sweet, funny kids with wild imaginations, and get an insight into how planned out the lives of certain classes actually are. What happens next is remarkable. Every seven years that follow, they are brought back together to find out how their lives have changed (7 Up and 28 Up were released together cinematically, hence the inclusion in the book). 7 - 14 - 21 - 28 - 35 - 42 - 49 - 56. Imagine being fifty-six years old and being able to look back at how you grew through your entire life. That's what the folk in these films can do now. I got hooked on their stories very quickly and had to keep watching, eager to find out what happens to them next, it's such a unique experiment and makes for fascinating viewing. Some become everything they said they would be, eerily accurate in fact, others go in an entirely different direction, not always a happy one. That aspect of it is so deflating to see, because even though you know it's already happened, you can't help but root for them. If documentary films are about capturing people's lives, telling their stories, then there's an argument for saying that the Up series does this better than any other documentary ever made. Roger Ebert reportedly said he'd put the series collectively in his top 10 films of all time, and I'd certainly go along with that. But what beat it to top spot?…

And the winner is…
1000 films ticked off, and it came time to pick my favourite. I could quite happily have selected almost any of the above films in top spot, but it came down to this: what film had the biggest emotional impact on me by the time the credits rolled? What film would I most want to watch again if I could only pick one out of my top 40? And that film is… 



1. The Straight Story
David Lynch made a normal film! And it’s exceptional! Who knew? We’re back in old person road trip territory again, something the New York Times seems just as keen on as I am, and this is my standout selection. A scruffy old man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) receives news that his brother, who he hasn’t spoken to for years, is seriously ill. He decides to bury the hatchet and travel to visit him, hundreds of miles away. Yet without a driving license to his name, there is only one obvious solution: go the whole way on a lawnmower. It is indeed a David Lynch film, but you’d never know - it's poetic, melancholic, funny, deeply touching, and doesn't feature any dwarves talking backwards. It’s such a simple tale, and the riding a lawnmower thing would suggest it’s going for quirk over substance, but it’s quite the opposite - I would challenge anyone not to be moved by it. The looping music by Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch’s regular music collaborator, also fits the pace and tone of the story down to a tee, surprising when they’re usually soundtracking horror weirdness. 

"There's no one knows your life better than a brother that's near your age. He knows who you are and what you are better than anyone on earth. My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but, I'm trying to put that behind me... And this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I'm not too late... A brother's a brother."

The characters have real depth and wonderful dialogue, screenwriters Mary Shelley and John Roach deserve the credit for that, particularly in the scenes where Alvin ruminates on life, his brother and his days in the war. Lynch brings all this together perfectly, showing a level of restraint that has never been hinted at in any of his other work. It's a film that has you thinking about getting old, and what you'll be like at that time of life. If, when the time comes, I have the opportunity to decide what will be the last film I see in my life, there’s a very strong chance that The Straight Story will be in the running. It's as good as that.

- You don't think about getting old when you're young... You shouldn't.
- Must be something good about gettin' old?
- Well I can't imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time but, still at my age I've seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away.
- So, uh, what's the worst part about being old, Alvin?
- Well, the worst part of being old is rememberin' when you was young.

The other thing I must mention is what these old folk road trip movies, which I only discovered by way of the NY Times book, have done for my own life. As I was watching them, I began to wonder... could I do that? I mean, could I write a movie? And if I could, would it be any good? So that is where my movie-watching obsession over the last few years has now taken me. This summer I attended a 5-day screenwriting course, in which I was introduced to how films are actually written, and was challenged to write a 10-page short film by the end of the week. I did achieve it, and it wasn’t bad for a beginner's attempt I think, but there’s so much to learn. I had no idea how difficult it is to write a film, with so much plotting, characters and dialogue to invent, so much planning and research to do, and so many script formatting rules that absolutely must be adhered to. It’s a fascinating thing to try though, and I’ve now moved on to do a full-year weekly screenwriting class, with the aim of writing a feature film. Unsurprisingly, my first attempt involves an old folk road trip. By next summer I might have written a masterpiece. It’s unlikely, but you never know until you try, and I’m having a lot of fun learning the process.

With that in mind, I think this is a good time to call a halt to my film blogging days, at least for now. Rather than write about other people’s movies, I now feel like I want to write my own. Who knows, maybe one day bloggers will be tearing to shreds a 1-star rated film that I’ve written? We can but dream.

Thanks for reading the blog, I’ve rather enjoyed writing it. Perhaps one day I’ll get the urge to start again.

Until then, cheers.
Donald.

"It's been a genuine pleasure having you here, Alvin. Write to us sometime."

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Best Films of the Year 2016 (January-June)


"If you only see one film about Icelandic sheep farmers this year, make it this one..."
And so we cross over the half way-point of our movie watching year. Thus far, a rather good year for film it's been too. Throughout the last month I've been catching up on all of the new releases I wanted to see from the first half of the year, and below is a rundown of my favourites (grouped by rating, but otherwise just in alphabetical order). As I consume my movies almost exclusively at home these days, I go by the DVD release schedule, so all of these were released on disc in the UK between January and June 2016. To make sure I didn't miss anything, I went through the Film Distributors' Association's entire cinema release calendar, then checked on Amazon when everything reached DVD. Too much work for something this unnecessary. In late December, after the latest update to my giant Christmas movie list extravaganza, I'll do it all over again for the second half of the year. Then the best titles from both lists will go head-to-head for my overall film of the year award. Someone needs to tell me to stop with the lists already.




Hitchcock Truffaut
Two of the world's leading directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, got together to record hours of interviews exploring Hitchcock's work. It resulted in a book that transformed the way people viewed Hitchcock and his films, and this film uses the audio recordings alongside photos and input from people like Martin Scorsese and David Fincher to relay the story of perhaps the most influential book ever written about cinema. Essential viewing for film buffs and fans of either director.

In the Heart of the Sea
A surprisingly engaging story from Ron Howard about the original events that inspired the tale of Moby Dick. Liam Hemsworth takes charge of a sea voyage that runs into trouble when it's attacked by a monster-sized whale, and is told in flashback to Herman Melville as if he is researching the story for his novel. Fantastic special effects steal the film, and I found it more entertaining than expected.

The Lady in the Van
A very English style of comedy now, the true story of playwright/actor Alan Bennett and his curious relationship with a homeless woman who lived for many years in a van in his driveway. It goes on a little too long, but is very funny in the early parts, and Maggie Smith is wonderful as the old lady. The directorial style of having Bennett talk to himself, with two of him in the room, was a little misguided for me though.

Our Brand is Crisis
Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton are political strategists who go to war as rival campaign managers in a fiercely contested Bolivian election. Strange film this, part comedy and part political statement, the combination doesn't sit well together and would have been better just one way or the other. The two leads are very good though, I almost always enjoy their performances, and they're the only reason this is worth your time.

Mississippi Grind
Two poker players, Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds, go on a high stakes gambling tour. The setup is like The Sting or it's sequel The Colour of Money, but goes in a very different direction, a lot more downbeat and sobering than you might expect. Strangely I would have liked a few more genre cliches thrown in just to lighten the mood a touch, the experiences of the characters and tone of the film made me feel a little flat, but I can also appreciate why they chose it to be that way.

Partisan
Vincent Cassell runs a commune that cares for and protects women and children. Sounds admirable and quite everyday. Only there's much going on behind closed doors, not least in that he's training children to be assassins. Really. Cassell is so good, his torment and fury when any of the children rebel or speak out against his instructions is a sight to see. It has a subtlety and originality that I think would take several views to get to grips with, I would like to see it again at some point.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I finally enjoyed a Star Wars movie! Having only seen the originals for the first time a couple of years ago, I have no nostalgia for the series, and wasn't overly fussed once I had seen them. Even though this is very similar, the new characters were good and showed a promising future for the series. I'd now place it alongside other fantasy series like Harry Potter and The Hobbit, which is quite a leap from where I would have had it previously. Still not sure what that "Chewy" weird-noise bear thing is all about though.

A Walk in the Woods
Based on Bill Bryson's book about two old and unfit men (Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) who attempt to walk the entire 2000 miles of America's Appalachian Trail. With emphasis on the word attempt, it's to the film's benefit that grumpy Nick Nolte isn't exactly gifted with the body of an athlete. A gentle and easy to watch mixture of comedy and profundity, not essential viewing but perhaps a good one for the end of a long day.

Welcome to Leith
The best new documentary I saw in the first half of the year, and a story that is uniquely American. A tiny town in the middle of nowhere is overtaken by a white supremacist who intends to radicalise the town and make it the home of Nazi sympathisers and extremists. Shocking, bizarre, and an insight into just how deluded and pathetic humans can allow themselves to become.





45 Years
In the first half of this year I have seen four outstanding British films with one thing in common: they’re all led by Tom Courteney. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, King and Country, Billy Liar, and now 45 Years. If you haven’t seen them, they’re all highly acclaimed and worth checking out. In this one, he plays a man whose marriage hits the rocks when he reveals a surprising discovery about his past. Charlotte Rampling plays the wife, and together they form a believable relationship going through an entirely believable sequence of emotions, in the lead-up to their 45th wedding anniversary. Subtle, intelligent and mature filmmaking of a very high order.

99 Homes
This drama-thriller focusses on the impact on people losing their homes as a result of the major financial crash a few years back. Michael Shannon is excellent in the role of a cold-hearted realtor who goes around evicting people whose homes have been repossessed, with a story that centres on his dealings with one particular evictee (a fine performance from Andrew Garfield). By 15 minutes in I was sure I knew where the plot was going, but it’s far from predictable, and I was totally engaged throughout. If you’ve seen The Big Short (which I’ll come to in a moment), this is the perfect companion to that, highlighting the disastrous consequences for real people as a result of the scandalous behaviour by Wall Street bankers.

The Big Short
Turning a film about the financial crash that left so many people jobless and homeless into a comedy was a risky move, but it really worked for me. Christian Bale plays the guy who predicted the housing market crash and bet on it happening when no-one else would listen, and there's smart turns from Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt as the few who made a fortune following his lead. What's so clever is that it deliberately patronises the audience by having characters explain directly to camera what's going on, and makes it funny and entertaining (whilst still making a serious point) even when you know you're not really understanding what's happening. As I said, watch this as a double-bill with 99 Homes, it’s a fascinating way to see both sides of the coin.

Brooklyn
Saoirse Ronan plays a girl from Ireland who moves away from her family to start a new life in New York, as so many Irish people did in the 50's, until events force her to choose between her new and old life. Ronan's performance is all that matters here, she's amazing - quiet, withdrawn, emotional, understated. So often actors go overboard in their quest for an Oscars performance, and end up just going "look how well I can act", but she's different here because she comes across as a convincingly normal, homesick Irish girl. It's a beautiful film.

Carol
So that's my first Christmas movie of the year ticked off. In June. Director Todd Hayes' films have a very distinctive look to them, with a saturated colour palate and lots of old fashioned period detail. It's a little like watching Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music, only with lesbianism, and no singing, and everyone's miserable. A curiously satisfying experience. Most Christmassy moment: when Blanchett goes festive shopping and buys a wooden train set from shop assistant Mara, without even seeing it, thereby basing her purchase solely on the shop assistant's description. All Christmas shopping should be done this way, much more fun and if you also get them to wrap and deliver it unseen, it's a bit of festive Russian Roulette on Christmas morning for you and your ungrateful children.

Creed
When I first heard they were giving the Rocky franchise a comeback, I thought it would be little more than an lazy cash-in. Not so, and in fact writer/director Ryan Coogler deserves a lot of credit for carving out an engaging new story whilst maintaining a strong connection to the classic originals. In a neat twist, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) becomes the coach of the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky's great rival in the old films. The fights are impressively believable, they always are in boxing movies, and I was pleased Stallone got a meaty role rather than a token gesture. The other success here is that you could watch it without having seen the originals, and then see those as if a flashback. Hopefully there will be more films to follow, there's enough substance to warrant that, and it sets itself up nicely for the next chapter.

The Dressmaker
Genre-defyingly bonkers. That's the only way to describe this. Kate Winslet plays a woman who returns to a remote Australian town years after being accused of a murder. What's on her mind is revenge, Chris Hemsworth's underpants, and dressmaking. The film's marketing makes it seem conventional, but it's actually one of the most inexplicably mad films I've ever seen, with about a dozen genres smushed together and a dizzying number of unexpected plot directions. I don't know how to explain it, and it’s all the better for the fact that I can't. Some will love it, some will hate it, but if there's any justice, this is going to become a cult classic.

The Finest Hours
In 1952, off the coast of Cape Cod, a ship ventured into a storm so powerful that it split the ship in half. Stranded at sea and sinking fast, a coastguard crew risked their lives to save the stricken men. Chris Pine and Casey Affleck take the lead roles, and I enjoyed both of their performances in what is a charmingly old-fashioned disaster movie. What’s not so old-fashioned are the special effects, this is a substantial leap forward from films like The Perfect Storm, it all looks very realistic. The sections of the film set at sea are fantastic, I really did get engrossed in the rescue attempt, but what lets it down a little are the scenes back on land - it’s the usual worried wife type stuff and only halts the momentum of an otherwise enjoyable true story.

Macbeth
As with most Shakespeare plays, I got quite lost with the language almost as soon as it started. Unlike most Shakespeare plays, I quite enjoyed it anyway. This would be down to the seriously impressive staging, there cannot be a Shakespeare adaptation that looks better than this, and the astonishing display of acting from Michael Fassbender. Being Scottish, I've always wanted to appreciate this story more, and move beyond the memories of being forced to read it at school in endlessly tedious English classes. I think I finally have. Fassbender, I raiseth mine cap to thee, innit.

The Martian
Matt Damon is trapped on Mars with almost no chance of survival, and nothing but an in-depth knowledge of how to grow crops on an uninhabitable planet. Which is handy. I love space films like this, and it's an especially good example of the genre, giving the impression of being intelligent without being condescending or boring. I also thought it was very funny, Matt Damon's screen presence and likability made him perfect for the role. I cannot wait to see the next Bourne film now.

Rams
If you only see one film about Icelandic sheep farmers this year, make it this one. A very low key tale about two brothers who live next door to each other but haven't spoken for years, who are forced to confront their differences when disease threatens their flock. Bleak comedy would be the best way to describe it. In some ways it's a marvel that films like this get made at all, never mind that they get worldwide distribution, but I love quirky films like this that appear out of the blue. Oddly moving too.

Sicario
Director Denis Villeneuve came onto my radar this year after I saw Incendies, an extraordinary film that's a contender for my not-new film of the year. This isn't at the same level but is still riveting stuff, following a secretive government unit in the hunt for a major drug cartel near the US-Mexico border. There's a particularly striking sequence filmed in silhouette night vision by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also shot Villeneuve's previous film Prisoners. For me, Emily Blunt delivers one of the best performances of the year, holding her ground in some gripping action sequences whilst surrounded by an otherwise male-dominated cast. Also has the best traffic jam scene of the year.

Spectre
The only film on the list I actually ventured out to the cinema to see, what with me being a massive Bond fan and all. I managed to avoid every preview, review, trailer, and even the theme song and so went in knowing nothing other than Christoph Waltz was in it. It's definitely not Skyfall or Casino Royale, those went their own way and were better for being more original, Spectre mostly retreads old ground. I did enjoy it a lot through, some of the stunts were of a spectacular "how on earth did they do that?" standard, and I very much hope Waltz becomes a series regular. If this is how Daniel Craig's era ends, he's going out on much more of a high than any other Bond managed. Idris Elba for me next please.

Steve Jobs
The story of the guy who invented Apple computers. Or at least the guy who took another person's invention and turned it into one of the world's most successful and influential companies. I knew little about Jobs the person, certainly not how ruthless, manipulative and difficult a character he was, so this was quite enlightening. Aaron Sorkin's script divides the story into three chapters, each set backstage in the lead up to a product launch, which I thought was a clever and original structure. Michael Fassbender is once again brilliant in the lead role, and he's in every scene of this dialogue-heavy film. How does he remember all those words?

Straight Outta Compton
A huge surprise this turned out to be, not least because I thought it was going to be a documentary. Instead it's a dramatisation of the story behind a group of young disenfranchised youths who break out of a life on the streets of Compton and rise to become the biggest names in the US hip-hop music scene; Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dog etc. The biggest compliment I can give the film is that I really enjoyed it even without having any particular affection for this type of music, because it's a compelling account of how they went from ordinary neighbourhood youths to superstars who revolutionised American music and black culture. Don't be put off if you don't think you like this kind of music or what you think this film will be, it really is a lot better than I'm making it sound.

Sunset Song
Based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic novel, deemed by many (including my Dad) to be the greatest Scottish novel ever written. He likes the book so much that he refuses to watch the film because it'll never match it. Can't argue with that kind of logic! I've not read the book but I can say I enjoyed most of the film, it looks dreamy (even if it was filmed in New Zealand for some reason, so the landscape is not really the Scotland I know) and the director clearly has a love of the source material. It's a lot darker than I thought it would be, dealing with love and loss and the impact of war on Scottish communities, and there are several narration passages that are heart-meltingly poetic. It's worth seeing just for those alone.

A War
This story centres on a Danish army unit and their engagement in an attack on a building in war-torn Afghanistan. For the first half hour it seems a fairly standard war film, but it's only the consequences of that attack that explain why the film became so highly regarded. I won't say much more, other than it becomes a courtroom drama, one that is tense and engrossing, with the Danish court setting giving it a very different feel to most courtroom films. After The Hunt, it's probably the second best Danish film I've seen.

Youth
I love Paolo Sorrentino’s movies. The Great Beauty is his best work, one of the great masterpieces of Italian cinema, elegant and beautiful and so moving. Although not in the same league, there are still an awful lot of things I liked about this. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are at a retreat in the mountains of Switzerland, and for the most part just sit around ruminating on life and love and the naked Miss Universe in the swimming pool. An enormously overweight Diego Maradona also pops up from time to time, it’s never explained why. This is what Sorrentino does, planting unexpected characters, behaviours and events to turn a relatively normal situation into something strange and yet with a graceful beauty to that strangeness. The music is wonderful, Caine (playing a retired orchestra conductor) is as good as he’s been in a long time, and I think it’s one of the most underrated films of the year. I have a box set of Sorrentino’s films that I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while, I really must get onto that now, he’s fast becoming one of my favourite directors.





The Assassin
If you love pretty pictures, you’ll love The Assassin. The cinematography is to die for, easily the best looking film of it’s type I’ve seen since Hero, which was over a decade ago. If you love action-packed movies, you probably won’t love it so much. Even though it’s obviously about a trained killer, for most of the running time nothing much happens, with veeeeery long shots of scenery interspersed with the slowest fight scenes of all time. They’re not even fights really, the assassin lady gracefully breezes through them with the most minimal of effort, in a way that is just ridiculously cool. For once I agree with the snooty critics, this film is kind of magical.

Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg is back with another film for the grown-ups, he does seem to be doing more of this kind of film these days rather than the popcorn blockbusters. Mark Rylance, a name I wasn't familiar with before, gives an impossibly calm, quiet performance as a softly spoken Scottish man accused of being a Russian spy. Tom Hanks, an actor who can do no wrong in my book, is the lawyer pushed into defending him when no-one else will, drawing accusations that he too is a traitor. I have a taste for Cold war spy films so was easily swayed by this one, it's a film that rewards patience and an appreciation for films that don't shout their message from the rooftops. Is Spielberg the greatest director of all-time? Well just imagine how different cinema would be without his movies. There's your answer.

The Hateful Eight
I had to watch Quentin Tarantino's latest work twice in the space of a few days, mainly because I didn't really know what to make of it first time around. There's so much to take in, so many chapters to absorb and character motives to work out. On second viewing it clicked, I settled into it and by the end was once again in awe of his unique capacity for storytelling. Playing out like a whodunnit set in a remote lodge, the story revolves around a crazed woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who bounty hunter Kurt Russell is intent on delivering to the hangman for a reward. Forced to stop off at the lodge due to a snowstorm at Christmastime, things don't exactly go to plan, and in some respects it becomes more of a horror than a western (it even uses music from The Exorcist 2). Like all his films, the violence is violent and the blood is bloody. It's quite the ensemble cast too, with Samuel L. Jackson the standout, though Leigh does a fantastically demented turn in the lead role. Seemingly quite a divisive film, and I can see why, but by the time we reach the credits it felt to me like I'd spent a really good night at the theatre, sat in the front row and splattered in red.

Room
A little boy and his mum are trapped in a room. They have been held there for years, and the boy has never seen the outside world. He just calls it Room, and to him it is the world. Much of the film is cramped into this tiny space, before becoming something else that I won't expand on. To write such a film, you would have to turn your mind into that of a child's. To see the world as a child would. I'll admit to welling up just a teeny little bit for a fraction of a second, and no more than that because obviously I'm a fully grown adult male with a reputation to keep. It has a visual and vocal poetry that is so rare in movies these days, is moving and uplifting, and shows that cinema is in a very decent place right now.

The Revenant
Leonardo Di Caprio finally bags an Oscar, for a film that is less about him than most of his work. He is exhaustingly impressive of course, performing a loosely true tale of a man fighting for survival after a bear attack in the wilderness. Yet this is a film that's not so much about the story but the way in which that story is told. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the real star, with some stunning shooting techniques and individual shots that film students will be studying for years to come. The heavily trailered horseback over a cliff scene, which then hovers in the air looking down, is one of the many reasons why I think he is now the best cinematographer in the business (having previously shot the likes of Gravity, Birdman, The Tree of Life, and Children of Men). He has such an imaginative vision for how to shoot a scene, and it's right to credit him the most because it's usually the director that takes the plaudits for such things, even when it's success is really down to the person controlling the camera. There's a wonderful flow to the film, it's one you have to watch on a big screen in a darkened room without interruption to get the full effect, and what an effect that is. Will be a major contender for my film of the year.

Spotlight
This year's winner of best film at the Oscars, but was it deserved? For me there have been better films out this year, but that particular awards ceremony is so politicised (and in no way influenced by lovely gifts to Academy voters) that it scarcely matters which film they pick. It is an important film though, following the Boston Globe journalists who exposed the Catholic church's outrageous child abuse scandal and cover-up. Director Tom McCarthy does the story justice by limiting the film to a straightforward procedural investigation, funnily enough he played a newspaper journalist in the final series of The Wire (the best TV show ever made) and I wonder how much that influenced his direction. He also wisely ensures that the ensemble cast all downplay their performances, no-one is screaming for attention, which is important because it then puts all the focus on the appalling truths the real journalists uncovered. It may not be All The President's Men, not even close, but it is still an excellent piece of filmmaking.

Time Out of Mind
The last two selections in the list are my top under-the-radar films of the year so far. In this one, Richard Gere plays a homeless man simply trying to make it through each day on the streets of New York. Even though it's fiction, I found it an eye-opening insight into the realities of homelessness, and there's one scene that perfectly captures that. Richard Gere, one of the most famous actors in the world, stands on the street begging real passers-by for spare change. No-one even acknowledges he is there. Without any grand speeches, lecturing or melodrama, director and actor show exactly what homeless people are faced with, how they are judged, and how difficult the system makes it to get back on their feet. It's not a preachy film, just a simple plot and simply told, that I found affecting and quite moving. I saw Gere mention that because this was a very personal film for him, he couldn't regard it's success in terms of critics' reviews or box office figures; instead the success would be that he and director Oren Moverman made exactly the film they wanted to make. A lot of the film is shot through closed windows, either looking in or looking out at him, and after a while you realise what it is they're getting at. I thought it had real substance behind the subtlety, it changed my perception of homelessness, and whilst I can get why it won't work for everyone, I would urge anyone reading to watch it and make up their own mind.

Victoria
Finally, an audacious, groundbreaking cinematic achievement. A film told over the course of a single night, in real time, in one long continuous take. No cuts. Think about that for a moment: the director says action, then over 2 hours later says cut, and everything in-between is down to the actors and cinematographer being perfectly in synch and getting it all exactly right. Birdman gained plaudits and awards for giving the impression of being one fluid take - this film actually does it. Imagine the planning that went into pulling this off, if I hadn't seen it I would have said it was impossible. Most studios passed on it because they thought it couldn't be done. It's no gimmick though, with a story that creeps from a small and uneventful start into an astonishing, thrilling experience that for the last third genuinely had my heart pounding. I haven't even said what it's about yet. We kick off with a young girl, Victoria, in a nightclub. On the way out she meets a group of guys, they hang out for a while, we get to know her and she gets to know them. Things snowball from there, and I'll leave the rest a surprise because the less you know, the better the film is. The performances are remarkable (especially from Laia Costa in the lead role) given the lack of room for error and the story they have to deliver, and the whole thing is elevated further by a perfectly judged score by Nils Frahm. If you've ever thought there's no originality or ambition left in cinema, see this. If you've ever thought that actors have it easy, see this. If you've ever thought that cinema can't be breathtakingly gripping, see this. If you want to know why I love movies, see this.

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I've also put this list on Letterboxd for your box-ticking pleasure. Check back at the end of December for part 2.

Monday, 6 June 2016

A Few Good Movies... about television network news & TV reporters



In 5, 4, 3, 2... Good evening and welcome to Cuemarks Broadcast News, I'm Don Cameron. The main headline tonight... riots have broken out in my head after I successfully finished watching twenty one movies and a three series TV show about television news, all in the space of a month. We do not have confirmed reports of any casualties at this time, however an uncorroborated source is suggesting that the right side of my brain may now be dead, and the left side is pleading never to see another movie about the news ever again. We go over now to our light entertainment reporter live at the scene, for biased and opinionated comments on whether any of these movies were actually worth seeing...

"This might just do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse, a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous ideas. But the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire if not my duty to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television, and if what I say is responsible, I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes of one week of all three networks, they will there find, recorded in black and white and in color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information - our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses, and recognize that television, in the main, is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture, too late."  (David Strathairn, as Edward R. Murrow, in George Clooney's 'Good Night, and Good Luck')

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The Newsroom (2012-2014)
For the first time on this blog I'm going to write about a TV series. And what a series it is. From the pen of Aaron Sorkin comes this deeply involving drama about a team running the flagship news programme on a US major cable network, headed by presenter Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels). The concept of the drama centres around the US TV news establishment's obsession with ratings and advertising revenues, which of course leads to the airways being filled with celebrity gossip and fluff pieces, and asks the question of what would happen if a major primetime news show abandoned this philosophy and instead focussed on seriously investigating and reporting actual news?

I've been a fan of Sorkin's writing for a few years, with consistently strong scripts for the likes of The West Wing, The Social Network, A Few Good Men, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. Having now finished the last of The Newsroom's three seasons, for me this is right up there with his best work. Jeff Daniels is in his element as the big name anchorman who rips up his old 'safe news' routine and starts making waves with a fearless approach to news reporting and holding feature guests to account. He's never been better than this. Emily Mortimer matches that though with her career best performance as his producer, and to make matters more complicated, former partner. The way she handles her team of reporters and journalists is at times a marvel to watch, with an especially fantastic scene in the broadcast control room that kicks off one of the series. Events in that scene flow at such speed that it's difficult to comprehend how much rehearsal must have gone into something that ambitious and as impressively choreographed as any high-end dance sequence. The two leads were the only faces I was familiar with, but it’s Olivia Munn (as Sloan Sabbath) who almost steals the show from under them, a quirkily funny and smart actor who feels like she would have been perfect casting in something like Ally McBeal. As for the rest of the scripts' characterisation, I could have done with less of the office love triangles, it starts to grate after a while and detracts from the show's strong storylines (many of which are based on real events like 9/11). Aside from a few quibbles though, the dialogue, storylines and acting get better with every series, in fact the six-part final series is so good that I watched the entire six hours of it in a single day. As much as I love movies, if you handed me a six hour film my enthusiasm for seeing it all in one go would have dropped to nil. Thoroughly recommended. Now onto the movies.

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Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Will Ferrell plays a clueless, offensive, misogynistic news presenter from the dark ages, who surrounds himself with other clueless, offensive, misogynistic news presenters from the dark ages. He, and they, are horrified to discover that an actual real-life woman has been appointed news anchor on his beloved news show, and thus we reach the end of plot development. Now I know this has quite a cult following, but having seen it twice I'm still struggling to get it. I like Ferrell too, especially in Elf which will always be a Christmas classic, but I don't think he gets nearly enough to work with here. There are plenty of things I could say about why I didn't much like it, but ultimately it comes down to just not being funny enough. For a comedy that's a bit of a problem. Steve Carrell is the film's saving grace though, his role is likeable and absurd for all the right reasons, he's a brilliant comic actor who deserved more than the minor role he got here.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)
Having said that about the first one, I did find this funnier, for a while at least. I don't know if it was just the mood I was in, but the first half hour is hilarious, dominated by an increased role for Carrell. The moments like him attending and weeping at his own funeral, and the bus scene, had me in stitches. Equally his bizarre relationship with Kristen Wiig is magnificently ridiculous. It falls away after that though, they run out of ideas and jokes, and Ferrell's character development literally jumps the shark - even with the leeway a silly comedy can allow itself, his story makes no sense and is desperately lacking in laughs. There's a running gag centred around racism that is just cringeworthy, and once you start ramming in the cameos you know it's a franchise already running on empty. Someone give Carrell his own spin-off though, I'd quite happily watch that.

Broadcast News (1987)
I've now seen this film twice, and on both occasions have come away from it thinking I enjoyed it, but probably not as much as I should have. The subject interests me, I like the actors involved, the performances are good, so what's stopping it being one of the greats? The script, about a man (William Hurt) making his way from sports journalist to big-shot news anchorman, is solid enough yet a little plodding at times. This is actually an issue I've had with a few James L. Brooks films, there's something unquantifiable missing from them. Holly Hunter plays his producer/romantic sidekick, and Albert Brooks completes an unlikely triangle of love. I think I've just realised that what it's lacking is enough in the way of dramatic news events - there are one or two, but for me there's far too much focus on the personal lives and emotions of the characters. It doesn't capture enough of the buzz of the control room, it's there in the opening section but after that there's nothing to compare to The Newsroom's excitement and drama when the team has to pull together a major breaking story. Having said all that, William Hurt is an actor I've 'clicked' with now, his performances are often so subtle and calm that it has taken me a number of his films to realise why he's been so highly regarded over the years. He's by far the best thing about this. As for the rest of the film, it's watchable, just personally I found it a little soppy and not of the calibre that many critics claim it to be.

Bruce Almighty (2003)
Jim Carrey goes into full-on hyper mode in the role of a lowly news reporter who misses out on his dream anchor role (to a young Steve Carrell in fact), and as we all do in such situations, blames God for his troubles. Morgan Freeman, who is actually God in real life, plays himself. It would seem God works in an empty industrial warehouse with whitewashed walls, where he hands Carrey the keys to the kingdom and basically goes "see if you can do any better then". Cue predictable character arc. Jim Carrey has an amazing energy and exuberance that I don't think anyone in Hollywood has ever matched, but it's so exhausting to watch an entire film of it. He's really at his best when he reins it in, but there's not much of that here. In terms of this theme the newsreader element is irrelevant, he could have had any job, and the rest just amounts to a clever idea that didn't really flesh out into anything worth seeing. Except if Morgan Freeman is actually God, then upgrade this to a 5 just in case I’ve upset him.

The China Syndrome (1979)
Now this was a real surprise, a film I'd heard nothing about that really deserves more attention. Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas play a reporter and cameraman producing a bland information piece about a nuclear power plant for the evening news. An event occurs whilst they are on site, which Douglas secretly films, and the rest of the story surrounds their battle to broadcast their exclusive in spite of an attempted cover-up by the nuclear company. It's a convincing event too, well staged and a believable insight into the potential dangers of nuclear power, as well as highlighting the extent to which the public are reliant on the media to report important stories and not become complicit in hiding what big organisations don't want people to know. Jack Lemmon appears as the plant supervisor who also gets involved in fighting the cover-up, and actually I think he shows here that he's better as a dramatic actor than in his more famous comedy roles. Some of the sets seem a little dated now, and there's clearly an anti-nuclear agenda going on, but it holds up because it's tense, well scripted and very well acted. One worth checking out.

Frost/Nixon (2008)
I was really looking forward to seeing this. What had captured my imagination was the idea of viewing it as a sort-of sequel to the magnificent All The President's Men, the political thriller about the Watergate scandal that lead to Richard Nixon becoming the first US President ever to resign from office. Frost/Nixon, directed by Ron Howard, takes up the story further down the line, with the infamous television interview Nixon agreed to hold with British TV host David Frost. There are almost two films going on here, the first half presenting the build-up, and the second half consisting of the interview itself. For me that's the big flaw, because it takes far too long to get to the bit you want to see, and only in the last 20 minutes does the revelatory part of the interview unfold. Both leads, Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon, are fantastically convincing. That final section is riveting filmmaking, and if that had been greatly extended at the expense of some of the flim-flammery that comes before, I would be hailing it as a masterpiece. I'm a little unconvinced about some of what happens outwith the interview, Frost is portrayed as a fairly clueless talk show host for most of the time, and there were several events that I can't possibly believe could have taken place they way the film suggests. Yet I'm wondering that if that is the case, why they would have felt the need to change and fictionalise an already remarkable story. Frustratingly good is how I'd describe this.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
As far as I'm concerned, Good Night and and Good Luck is one of the modern greats, a stunningly articulate, thoughtful and intelligent examination of the battle between government and media. Shot in a striking contrasty black and white, it's also one of the best looking films I've ever seen. Directed by George Clooney, the film tells the true story of Edward R. Murrow, a high profile broadcast journalist in the 1950's who decided to publicly expose the truth about controversial US Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was an era when fear of Communism and it's consequences was rife across the United States, a state of affairs that McCarthy's political agenda was contributing to. Even with such risk to his reputation, the jobs of everyone involved, and the future of the CBS news division, Murrow persists with extraordinary conviction to reveal this agenda to his audience. David Strathairn is remarkable in the lead role, an actor who I'm always impressed by, and this is his defining performance. Sitting upright in his chair, authoritatively talking to camera, cigarette propped up in one hand - it's one of the most memorable and iconic images cinema has ever produced. Every single detail of the period is spot on, from the sets to the clothes to the dialogue, and the carefree smoking and drinking (and by association the tobacco and alcohol companies funding and therefore controlling these shows through advertising). Clooney's direction creates a real feeling of authenticity, the way he weaves in the actual recordings of McCarthy's responses to these accusations is brilliantly done. The stillness of the camera and focus entirely on the newsreader during recordings again dates it perfectly, a distinct contrast to the modern news obsession with giant screens, iPads and studio producers believing that the thoughts of a random person on Twitter count as insight. What Clooney seemed to understand most of all though is that it's all about Strathairn's performance, so gets all of this detail right and then withdraws it into the background. It's why it works so well, is so convincing, and results in something very close to a masterpiece.

Groundhog Day (1993)
"This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather". One of the many timeless lines from Harold Ramis' classic about a TV weatherman (Bill Murray) who is sent every year by his news studio to report on the Groundhog Day celebrations. Which he loathes. It's such an iconic film that surely everyone must have seen, but just in case, he gets stuck in a time loop and has to repeat the same miserable day over and over. In the wrong hands the joke would wear thin very quickly, but the endlessly creative narrative and perfect casting make it a joy to watch. Murray was born to play this role, his droll humour and bored-teenager demeanour couldn't have been bettered by any other actor. When he cynically starts using the repeating days to learn everything about a woman he wants to woo, Andie MacDowall stands up to the challenge with a totally charming performance that requires her to unwittingly keep falling for him every day. This is the film that proved that with a little wit and a lot of imagination, romantic comedies don't have to stick with the tried and trusted formula. Over 20 years later and there's still no other film of it's type that comes close.

The Insider (1999)
Paranoia and cover-ups are at the centre of this riveting story about a former tobacco industry employee who is threatening to expose the truth about the health risks involved in smoking, in defiance of an industry that has mislead the public and hidden the evidence for years. Al Pacino gets involved as a major TV news reporter trying to convince Crowe to go public, and the inevitable battle with a lawsuit-fearing CBS network to get the story on the air. There is a thriller angle to all this which I won't go into, but the direction is superbly handled by Michael Mann, and he sustains an engrossing intensity throughout. I think this is one of Crowe's best performances, you can see the fear in his eyes and can believe in what he forces himself to go through, even knowing the potential consequences for him and his family. One of the best investigative TV journalism films around.

Mad City (1997)
First of all, the title isn't great. Second of all, the film is worse. You'd assume the involvement of Dustin Hoffman and Alan Alda would lead to a film of some gravitas, but evidently they must have signed up without reading the script. John Travolta has just lost his job at a museum, and decides the best way to get reinstated is to turn up at the museum with a shotgun and bag of dynamite. Hoffman plays a reporter who gets caught up in the story, along with a bunch of school kids who don't seem remotely bothered about being hostages. In fact they're quite enjoying it by the looks of things. This goes on for over three days with minimal attempts at negotiation from the police, and a SWAT team who must have been late back from their holidays given their lack of urgency in making an appearance. Hoffman can wander in and out of the museum at will to deliver his news reports, the entire media is portrayed as a bunch of ruthlessly manipulative hacks, and Travolta is coasting it as a simpleton who ends up as cinema's least convincing hostage taker of all time. Just writing the character as stupid doesn't mean he can behave in such an illogical fashion, and the ending is so nonsensical that the writers must have assumed they'd get away with it since no-one would be left in the cinema by this point anyway. It's a shame too, because the general idea is a good one and some of the points it was trying to make about jobs and the media could have led to something quite interesting. It didn't.

Medium Cool (1969)
The unusually named Haskell Wexler was up there with the greatest of Hollywood's cinematographers, responsible for shooting films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and In the Heat of the Night. He also ventured into the director's chair on occasion, and Medium Cool is the best of those that I've seen. The title comes from someone describing television as a "cool medium" for news, and it's about a news reporter who finds himself in the middle of protests that erupt into violence at a political convention. Robert Forster, who I mainly knew from his brilliant role as the bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, gives a quietly impressive performance, especially considering the improvised acting he has to produce in the latter part of the story. This was down to them sending the actors into the actual real-life National Democratic Convention protests as they were happening, filming it and just seeing what happens. It's pretty groundbreaking stuff for it's time, and you can bet insurance and health & safety people would prevent anything like that being tried now. Like Good Night and Good Luck, it explores the relationship between government and television, and what it’s like for the underpaid and under-appreciated news staff working at the heart of this. The ending is fascinating too, a real head-scratcher that adds greatly to the intrigue. One I will be revisiting again in future.

Money Monster (2016)
The newest film on the list, so new in fact that I actually went to the cinema to see it (a real rarity for me these days), luckily it came out just in time for this theme. It was worth the trip too. George Clooney is a news personality delivering a preposterously over-the-top show designed to jazz up the dull and complicated world of the stock market. In the middle of one of these shows, a man with a particular axe to grind wanders onto the set with a gun and bomb vest, and takes Clooney hostage. The story that unfolds is actually intense for the majority of the running time, and Julia Roberts does a brilliant job as the producer trying to control the situation. It's great to see her taking up interesting dramatic roles again. As the gunman, Jack O'Connell is on his way to being the next Tom Hardy, he's fantastic here and in fact has been in every role I've seen him play. American actors must be getting a little miffed with all these British actors landing US speaking roles. I didn't realise until the end credits that it was directed by Jodie Foster, she rarely takes up directing duties and I thought she did an excellent job. The only major flaw, and this is probably more to do with me, is that I didn't understand the financial gubbins that explain what was behind all of this. It would have helped greatly if the last section had been a little less convoluted, maybe I'll get it more on repeat viewing. I can however confirm that something financial happened, it didn't work out well, and it probably wasn't legal. You probably don't need to understand much more than that to enjoy it though.

Morning Glory (2010)
Harrison Ford is a grumpy old news reporter with a string of awards and a disdain for the state of modern news programming. Amy McAdams is a socially awkward, work-obsessed producer who lands a big career break producing an ailing morning news show. She forces Ford to join Diane Keaton on the couch as the new breakfast co-anchor. And by God does he make them regret that, making his utter contempt for the stories they're covering plain for all to see, even when on the air. I actually found this a lot funnier and more entertaining than I'd expected, which is not to say it's a work of genius, just that I liked Ford's comical grumpiness and there's great chemistry between the leads. And let's talk about McAdams. Even though I know the film is shamelessly manipulating the emotions of every male viewer, it is impossible not to be going *swoon* every time she's on screen. Her character's goofy, warm, root-for-me personality combined with puppy-level adorability make it impossible not to. Actually, it's almost certain that even puppies themselves weep tears of joy and go awwww when they reach the predictable yet somehow satisfying conclusion.

One PM Central Standard Time (2013)
As I was watching my way through all of these films, there was one name that characters kept referring to as the standard bearer for TV news reporting: Walter Cronkite. I was vaguely aware of the name, but not knowing anything about him, I wanted to see if any films told his story. One PM Central Standard Time is the most appropriate one I could find, a PBS documentary about how he (as lead CBS News reporter) became the face of the nation on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Narrated by George Clooney, it's a really interesting documentary about the events of that day, and how one man became the most trusted voice on television by waiting to report only the facts and refusing to follow the speculative lead of other networks. Clooney's voice is so well suited to the material, authoritative and trustworthy, he would have made an excellent news anchor himself. We learn that the term "anchor" was in fact first coined for Cronkite, and so all the other films on this list basically exist because of him and the rest of the heavyweight network news presenters he influenced.

Network (1976)
"I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!"  Probably the most famous and successful film about the news, and deservedly so. Sidney Lumet brilliantly directs a fantastical yet still believable tale about a presenter, Howard Beale, who is fired for poor ratings. His resulting live-on-air breakdown becomes a ratings hit, and the studio cynically reverse their decision and turn him into a star who gets increasingly out of control. Beale's long rants about the state of the world and the dissatisfaction people have with their lives is stunning, right up there with cinema's other legendary rants in the likes of Fight Club and Trainspotting and 25th Hour. It's one of those films where I had to wait right to the end of the credits to find out if it was a true story or not, what unfolds is bizarre and surprising enough to convince either way. In terms of weaknesses, the only part I could have done without is the romance side-story between two of the leads, too often Hollywood feels obliged to do this even when it actually detracts from the main story. Even with that though, the performances of everyone involved are superb, especially Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Peter Finch and William Holden. None of their characters come out of this at all well, and it makes you wonder if it's really as bad an industry as it seems, because the people who write stories about the media don't often portray it in a positive light. Lumet is such a good director, I can't think of of anything he's done that I haven't liked, and after I'm done with Scorsese he could be a good next choice for my directors series.

Nightcrawler (2014)
A modern classic, and easily my favourite film on this list. I placed it 3rd in my best films of last year list, and I'm now of the opinion that it should have been top of the pile. The fact that it wasn't even nominated for the Oscars shows how out of touch those awards are. As I've already written about it twice before on this blog, if you'll forgive the indulgence I'm just going to quote myself: Jake Gyllenhall is Lou Bloom, an intense, creepy weirdo who gets himself into the business of filming the aftermath of horrific nighttime tragedies for television news. "If it bleeds it leads". So he and a hired assistant go fleeing around the city hunting for car crash and murder victims to film for money, getting more and more obsessed by obtaining footage that no-one else has. A proper thriller, totally original, and proves that no other actor these days does deranged outsiders as well as Gyllenhall. It also shows how different American culture is - in the UK our breakfast news is usually along the lines of; a boring politician saying something boring, a visit to a cheese factory (cheese sales are up 1%) and a heartwarming story about some fluffy kittens. You have to see this movie, it's everything that modern filmmaking should be.

S.F.W. (1994)
Well, these were an unpleasant bunch of people to spend time with. Moreso than in most bad films I've seen. To see Reece Witherspoon, an actor so consistently enjoyable to watch, appear in this is too depressing for words. It goes like this: some people get held hostage in a convenience store, one person is recording it all on camera, and they unknowingly become stars as the whole thing is broadcast live on the news. Don't waste your time thinking this sounds promising, because the script is terrible and horribly contrived, the acting is universally awful, the direction is brash and unpleasant (including the maddeningly ear-screeching "music"), and it really is one of the least enjoyable movie experiences I've ever had. Why on earth does this exist?

Switching Channels (1988)
And what a very odd film this turned out to be, yet another clunker unfortunately. On the one hand it's going for a flippant, lightweight comedy in which news producer Burt Reynolds gets to exchange zingy banter with his news presenter ex-wife (Kathleen Turner). On the other hand it's trying to semi-seriously explore the issue of capital punishment, the saving of an innocent man from execution, and an interesting idea about how television could get involved in the process. Except it doesn't commit to this like it should have. She is a bizarrely inconsistent character who one minute is delivering a passionate anti-death penalty rant live on air, and the next she's retreated backstage for some jolly laughs with Burt. It makes no sense, tonally or logically. When the highlight of the story is a vertigo-suffering Christopher Reeve getting stuck in a glass elevator (and this is purely for creating the idea in my head of Superman being trapped in a rectangular glass box, perhaps during a costume change), you know this is one film that should never have made it past the first script reading. And there’s still another lowest-possible-rating film to come, what joy.

To Die For (1995)
There's this woman who really really wants to present the weather on TV. Except that's not enough, she wants to go all the way to the top of the TV news business, and will do whatever it takes to get there. In the hands of eccentric filmmaker Gus van Sant this run of the mill idea becomes anything but, twisting stereotypes like the ditzy blonde weather girl into a borderline psychopath who knows what she wants and will go to farcically dark lengths in the quest for fame. Nicole Kidman is that woman, and it turned out to be one of her very best roles, eerily reminiscent of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. She knows exactly how to play the comedic ruthlessness of the character, obsessed with television to the point of delusional madness, and she clearly should have had more of this type of role in her career. Matt Dillon plays the put-upon husband to great effect, Casey Affleck appears in a small part, and Joaquin Phoenix turns up as her inappropriately young love interest. Van Sant is merciless in how he deals with all of these characters, and you end up feeling sorry for them no matter how pathetic or dislikable they are. What stops me giving it a higher rating is purely because of van Sant's directing style, his brand of quirkiness is difficult to warm to and has so far stopped me truly loving any of his films, even if I usually find them watchable. In this case I enjoyed it enough to watch once but wouldn't be in a rush to revisit.

Up Close and Personal (1996)
There's this woman who really really wants to present the weather on TV. Except that's not enough, she wants to go all the way to the top of the TV news business, and will do whatever it takes to get there. Wait, this is sounding awfully familiar. Yip, same basic idea, very different outcome. This one's a much more traditional romance drama between two big name leads, Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer (a name that's impossible to spell without looking it up). When she turns up for her new low-level job in a news studio, producer man Redford sees a sparkle in her eye and makes her the new weather lady. Of course they fall in love, she starts climbing the ranks, and they do the coupley things that couples do. If it all sounds quite formulaic, it does seem to be that way until the story gets considerably more interesting in the final third. Setting them both up as news people allows them to get personally involved in a couple of major stories, and it goes in directions that I really hadn't expected such a film to go. I'm not suggesting they get abducted by aliens, it's nothing radical like that, but is at least a break from the Hollywood formula. I suspect that's why Redford was attracted to the script, and he's certainly one of the main reasons why it works, he's the best thing about almost every film he's ever been in. Solid filmmaking, unspectacular, but certainly more to recommend than I'd anticipated.

Wrong is Right (1982)
The name's Wrong, Just Wrong. License to be cast in stupid films once my Bond career's over and there's still bills to be paid. Yes, many people's favourite Bond took a gigantic career misstep in this pretty woeful attempt at portraying the exciting life of a travelling news reporter, by basically pretending he's the James Bond of news. So we get whisked around the world at breakneck speed as he tries to prevent a megalomanic from setting off a bomb that will destroy the world. Except he's not James Bond, just a guy with a camera, and can do nothing other than tell people about it on the tele. To help him along, he conveniently remembers that he's best friends with the President of the United States, so gets to hang out at the White House and discuss how together they can stop this madman. And the President is always in a tracksuit, having just come from the gym, even though one look at him proves that he's clearly not someone who ever does that. Who writes this stuff? It's just the pits. They even cast Leslie Nielsen in a straight role, but he's still behaving like he's making another Airplane, just without any jokes. At least the Bond films knew they were being silly, this film is actually trying to make a serious point about terrorism and the power of the media, but is clearly so starstruck at having the actual real life Sean Connery on set that they must have abandoned the serious story and just told him to do whatever he did in the Bond films. Utter utter utter drivel, if I knowingly had enemies I would definitely be recommending this to them as a matter of some urgency.

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IMDb
All of these films and my reviews are also available in a list over at IMDb

Coming Up Next
And so that concludes my trawl through the TV news films. If there are any more, I don't know of them, and don't really want to. Next up I'm going to do a rundown of my favourite new films of the year so far, from January to June, so for the rest of the month I'll be catching up with those I've missed. Until then, good night, and good luck.