Continuing on from yesterday:
5. DAYS OF GLORY / INDIGÈNES (Rachid Bouchareb)
Days Of Glory follows a motley group of North African soldiers fighting with the Free French forces during the Second World War. Beginning in North Africa, it charts their progress through to the liberation of France. They not only have to deal with the enemy, but the entrenched racism of their own side and inter-tribal conflicts too. The characters are well drawn and believable. The action sequences are superb, but it is the victimisation from their own side which sticks in the mind – from the haughty resentment of their white colleagues and superiors, to the ignorant fear of some of the civilians that they freed from Nazi rule. It doesn’t hector, or resort to easy stereotyping, and is more the powerful for it. There have been countless movies about the war, but there is a shameful lack of visibility in them of those from the British and French empires who fought for their colonial masters – be they from India, the Caribbean or Africa. Days Of Glory would be an important film for this reason alone – but it’s also a damn exciting movie!
4. MICHAEL CLAYTON (Tony Gilroy)
This is a long way from the (admittedly enjoyable) world of the John Grisham legal thriller. George Clooney’s Michael Clayton is not especially heroic, and the legal ramifications of a class action against a company manufacturing pesticides are not placed centre stage. Rather it’s the psychological effects on people caught up in events that they can no longer control that gets the primary focus. Tilda Swinton’s character is no cartoon villain, but in many ways as much as a victim as the rest. Her ambition and loyalty to the company leads her to make decisions that quickly leave events spiralling out of her control. She is left vulnerable and frightened and fighting for her freedom due to her thoughtless, blind actions. Michael Clayton himself is a troubled loser whose determination to “do the right thing” comes not from some moral imperative, but really from a combination of revenge and self-preservation. The film has been compared with the kind of downbeat, paranoid thrillers (The Conversation, The Parallax View, All The President’s Men etc) that Hollywood did so well in the 1970s. It’s gratifying that a film with this depth and intelligence did so well at the box office.
3. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (Paul Greengrass)
Action movies these days seem to rely on bigger and bigger explosions, made possible through the advent of CGI. Minor points like plot, characterization, script and any sense of tension have gone out the window. The Bourne films mark a return to these old-fashioned concepts, and this third is the best. The basic premise is simple. Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne is an amnesiac black ops CIA operative who wants to discover his real identity. The company see him as a liability and want him dead. It’s not exactly Tolstoy. But if the premise can be dismissed as lightweight, the film-making is of the highest order. Paul Greengrass is an absolute master at creating tension, and then slowly ratchetting it up. The set piece confrontations are all superbly done, but it is the fifteen minute sequence at Waterloo Station that lives longest in the memory. It’s utterly thrilling (which is what thrillers are supposed to be), and I’m sure will go down as one of the truly great sequences in movie history.
2. CONTROL (Anton Corbijn)
Watching this film through the eyes of a massive Joy Division fan, it’s difficult to be objective. How does it play to someone who knows nothing about the band or their music? From my perspective, though, I can think of litle to fault it. It captures the atmosphere (no pun intended) of the times exceptionally well. The decision to have the actors play the music themselves was a brave one, but proved to be absolutely the right thing to do. All of the performances – from Sam Riley and Samantha Morton (she is the best actress of her generation, so I would expect nothing less from her) down to the minor players – are utterly believable. This is no hagiography, either. Ian Curtis comes across as a bit of a dick – but it was more that he didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the band, fatherhood, his catastrophic love life and his worsening illness. The band, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson, his wife – they all wanted to be there for him, but just didn’t know how. It’s a very emotional and sad film, but also has some laugh out loud moments. It’ll be interesting to see what Anton Corbijn does next. The Bono Story? – I hope not!
1. THE LIVES OF OTHERS / DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
I couldn’t really split the top two, to be honest. In some ways, the protagonists of both are similar figures. Both are isolated characters who begin with a strong conviction, but begin to have doubts about what they do. Both films have a sadness about them, lightened by occasional spots of almost absurdist humour. The Lives Of Others follows Ulrich Mühe’s Stasi spy as he is assigned to report on a leading playwright and his actress wife in pre-unification East Germany. The two are both loyal party members, but one of the Central Committee wants them destroyed for reasons no more noble than sexual jealousy. The spy begins to form a kind of surrogate bond with the couple, who remain blissfully unaware of his existence, and starts to question where his own loyalties lie. Some reviewers thought the ending a bit sentimental. I disagree – I think it’s actually very moving. Also, some have dismissed the notion that a Stasi spy could have doubts about his actions as absurd. To me, this dismissal is just as absurd, usually coming from people still fighting an imaginary Cold War. These were people, not robots. The idea that some didn’t have doubts about the morality of what they were doing is ridiculous. Ulrich Mühe died of stomach cancer in July this year, aged just 54. This masterpiece is a fitting tribute to him.