Cinema Essential Films Lists

The Best Films of 2008

Best films of 2008 mosaic

As in previous years this list of the best films of the year is presented in alphabetical order. (2007 titles which got a UK release during 2008 can be found in last year’s updated list).


che-1Che (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

This long gestating biopic of Che Guevara from director Steven Soderbergh got a mixed reaction after it premiered at Cannes in May.

Some were put off by the four hour running time and the whole question of whether or not it was actually two films. It would probably be most accurate to describe it as two films merged together as one: The Argentine deals with the Cuban revolution in 1959 whilst Guerrilla explores his final years in Bolivia.

In the UK they will be released as Che: Part One and Che: Part Two, with some special double-bill screenings at certain cinemas. However you see it though, be sure to experience it on a big screen, as this an audacious and thrilling piece of cinema.

In the first part we see¬†the Cuban Revolution inter-cut with Guevara’s 1964 trip to the United Nation and refreshingly¬†Soderbergh eschews the narrative cliches of many historical biopics. Instead of ponderous meditations on his motives or background we are¬†plunged into the raw action of the revolutionary’s life.

Some viewers may find this off putting but as the film progresses the production design, costume, acting and cinematography get ever more hypnotic, drawing us into this world.

Soderbergh has always been a gifted technical filmmaker interested in pushing the boundaries of mainstream cinema and here he has crafted one of his most interesting and accomplished films with the help of a revolutionary digital camera (appropriately called the RED One) that has allowed him to make an epic using guerrilla film-making techniques.

The spiritual core of the film is an outstanding performance from Benicio del Toro, who captures the physical and vocal mannerisms of Che so well that he manages to make you forget about the face that spawned so many t-shirts and posters.

[Che Part One is released in the UK on January 1st and Part Two on February 20th]


Frost Nixon UK posterFrost/Nixon (Dir. Ron Howard)

When I first saw Peter Morgan’s stage play about David Frost’s famous interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977, I remember wondering what a film adaptation might look like.¬†

Although the hiring of Ron Howard to direct might have raised some eyebrows, to his credit he not only kept the two lead actors from the production (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) but also managed preserve the essential drama at the heart of the story and keep as faithful to it as possible.

For those of you unfamiliar with the background, Peter Morgan (who has become an expert in dramatising modern history scripting¬†The Queen¬†and¬†The Last King of Scotland) created a play which explored the tensions behind Frost pursuing and then conducting Nixon’s first TV interviews since resigning in disgrace over the Watergate scandal.

What makes it so absorbing is the clash of two very different characters who for different reasons had a lot at stake: Frost was desperate to re-establish himself in America, whilst Nixon was keen to rebuild his shattered political reputation.

Technically, both lead performances are superb and after two years on stage together the chemistry between Sheen and Langella is magnetic.

The supporting cast is very solid with Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell all making fine contributions in key roles.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is how it manages to be both a fascinating slice of history garnished with some fine period design yet also finds a way of commenting on the current concerns about US politics.

It also poses a fascinating question: will President Bush ever come out with the same anguished mea culpa that Nixon delivered in these interviews?

[Frost/Nixon is released in the UK on January 25th]


Gomorrah UKGomorrah (Dir. Matteo Garrone)

One of the darkest and most disturbing films of the year was this searing examination of crime in modern Italy. It didn’t just upend many of the traditional tropes of the Mafia in pop culture – it exploded them.

The narrrative was based on true life stories from¬†Roberto Saviano‘s bestselling book about¬†the Comorrah, a criminal organisation centred around southern Italy (especially¬†Naples¬†and¬†Caserta).

There is a 13-year-old boy (Salvatore Abruzzese) who falls in with a criminal gang; a messenger (Gianfelice Imparato) who pays the families of prisoners; a young graduate (Carmine Paternoster) who gets involved in toxic waste management; a tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) who wants to break free of local suppliers and two wannabe gangsters (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) who find a stash of weapons and want to act like Scarface.

Director Matteo Garrone cast the film impeccably and the ensemble acting was terrific but he also created a hellishly believable modern landscape far removed from that of mob movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas or The Sopranos.

This was a world riddled with poverty, tension and despair where crime infects everyone like a rampant virus. It paints a devastating picture not only of regions in modern Italy, but the tentacles of the Comorrah spread out to the wider world.

The film scooped the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, where it deservedly screened to critical acclaim.

Although at times it was an uncomfortable and brutal film to watch, it remains one of the most powerful and haunting crime films of the last decade.

* Listen to our interview with Matteo Garrone about Gomorrah *

[Gomorrah is available on DVD on February 9th)


Hunger UK posterHunger (Dir. Steve McQueen)

Every year there are a handful of films that know will end up in your ‘best of the year’ list as the credits roll and this¬†stunning drama about¬†the¬†1981 IRA hunger strike¬†was just such a film.

A stark and harrowing look at one of the key episodes of The Troubles was about a group of IRA prisoners in the Maze led by Bobby Sands (a mesmerising performance from Michael Fassbender) went on a protracted hunger strike.

Their aim was to apply pressure against the British government, so that they could be classed as political prisoners and it marked a significant escalation in the conflict.

What the film managed to capture so well was the bitter brutality of life inside the prison Рa world in which inmates refused to wear clothes, smeared excrement over their walls and were savagely beaten.

But at the same time this was no apologist for the IRA and perhaps the most shocking scene in the film explored the constant danger the prison guards lived under, where reprisals could lurk anywhere and at any time.

This is not a film that ‚Äėtakes sides‚Äô, but rather it explores the full human horror of The Troubles through the lens of the hunger strike – the physical brutality and sheer squalor point to the entrenched hatreds that ensnared all of those caught up in it. Echoes of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are never far away.

The sounds and visuals were breathtaking with McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt showing a remarkable attention to detail whether it was a snowflake landing on the bloodied fist of a guard or urine gradually seeping out from beneath the cell doors before being gradually swept back in. 

One lengthy sequence involving Fassbender and Liam Cunningham (who played Sands’ priest) was perhaps one of the most riveting and daring pieces of cinema I’ve seen in years.

This was an astonishing directorial debut for Steve McQueen, who has been best known until now as an acclaimed visual artist, but this holds the promise of a hugely successful career in feature films.

* Listen to our interview with Liam Cunningham about Hunger *

[Hunger is out on DVD on February 23rd]


In Bruges UK posterIn Bruges (Dir. Martin McDonagh)

Perhaps the funniest film of the year was the directorial debut of the playwright Martin McDonagh, a brilliantly executed tale of two Irish hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who have been sent to lie low in the Belgian city of Bruges.

Not only does it contain several memorable sequences, but it contained the sort of ballsy, politically incorrect humour absent from a lot of mainstream comedy movies.

It also features some excellent performances, most notably from the two leads. Gleeson is his usual dependable self whilst Farrell shows what a good actor he can be when released from the constraints of big budget Hollywood productions.

Ralph Fiennes also made a startling impression in a menacing supporting role that owes more to his turn in Schindler’s List than some of his more recent performances.

If you are familiar with the sensibility of McDonagh’s plays, such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, you will find much to feast on here Рit feels like Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter remade by Quentin Tarantino.

Despite a warm critical reaction, it didn’t really get the attention it deserved, which may have been down to bad marketing (the US one sheet poster was horrible and the UK one not much better) or the fact that the title confused people.

One sequence in a hotel room involving drugs, a hooker and a dwarf was one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year and is worth the price of admission. ¬†¬†

[In Bruges is out now on DVD]


I've Loved You So LongI’ve Loved You So Long (Dir. Philippe Claudel)

An intelligent and beautifully crafted portrayal of family love which revolved around two sisters named Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lea (Elsa Zylberstein), who reconnected with one another after a prolonged absence. 

To say too much about the plot would spoil the cleverly constructed narrative which gradually reveals their past and the reasons as to why they have been separated for so long. 

Writer and director Philippe Claudel was better known as a novelist in his native France and this also shares many of the pleasures of well written fiction: nuanced characters, slow burning emotions and a real sense of the complexities of human relationships. 

This is a film in which a lot of characters spend a lot of time in rooms talking about themselves, but at the same time manages to burrow deeply into the tangled emotions of it’s protagonist. 

Much of the power comes from two marvellous central performances and Scott Thomas proved what a captivating screen presence in what is arguably the performance of her career so far.

Her work on stage Рnotably in Chekhov productions like Three Sisters and The Seagull Рdemonstrated that she had much more range and ability than some of her screen performances suggested, so it was gratifying to see her grapple with such a juicy part and take it to another level. 

Credit must also go to Claudel for the way in which he has captured the small but subtle details that gradually reveal her character: the silence as she sits alone in a cafe, the wetness of her hair or even the way she smokes a cigarette. 

Since screening at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals a few weeks ago, this film has had a good deal of awards buzz and deserves recognition for the sheer excellence of the writing and acting.

[I’ve Loved You So Long is released on DVD on February 9th]


Man on Wire DVD coverMan on Wire (Dir. James Marsh)

British director James Marsh crafted a superb documentary about Frenchman Philippe Petit, who on August 7th 1974 gave an incredible high-wire performance by walking between between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center eight times in one hour.

The act itself almost defies belief but what the film does brilliantly is capture the tension, beauty and brilliance of Petit’s highly illegal operation. 

Born out of a dream and an idea, Petit and his team of accomplices spent eight months planning the execution of their ‚Äėcoup‚Äô down to the most intricate detail.

Like a team of bank robbers planning their most ambitious heist, the tasks they faced seemed virtually impossible: they would have to bypass the WTC‚Äôs security; smuggle the wire and rigging equipment into the towers; suspend the wire between the towers; secure the wire at the correct tension to withstand the winds and the swaying of the buildings; to rig it secretly by night ‚Äď all without being caught.

The film is also an emotional experience Рalthough it never mentions or shows footage from the 9/11 attacks, the Twin Towers are a haunting presence in the stock photos and footage from the time.   

But the ultimate message of the film is a positive one as it reminds us that the joy and magic Petit created on the Twin Towers is still there, even though the actual building is not. 

* Listen to our interview with Philippe Petit about Man on Wire *

[Man on Wire is out now on DVD] 


Milk posterMilk (Dir. Gus Van Sant)

Sean Penn is often regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation and his portrayal of Harvey Milk in this biopic was one of his very best.

Milk was a gay rights activist who in the 1970s became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The film opens with opens with archive footage of police raiding gay bars during the 1950s and 1960s, followed by the announcement in November, 1978 that Milk and Mayor George Moscone have been assassinated.

What follows is an inspiring and moving tale of political courage and hope with many fine performances across the board from Emile Hirsch, James Franco and Josh Brolin. 

Directed by Gus Van Sant¬†from a script by¬†Dustin Lance Black, it skilfully juxtaposed the drama of Milk’s political battles against the inner conflicts of his private life.

It was also a nice change to see Penn play a warm and inspirational protagonist, an added dimension to the film which gave it an extra lift.

Watching the film unfold just a couple of weeks after the election of Barack Obama it was hard not to see the parallels: both were political outsiders who thrived on changing the status quo through a combination of hope and grass roots activism.

Sadly, Milk’s legacy was not enough to prevent the passing of Prop 8 – a¬†California ballot proposition¬†that changed the laws of the state to ban same sex marriage.

But this film will almost certainly become a lasting testament to his political and moral courage.   

[Milk is out at UK cinemas on Friday 23rd January]


Slumdog Millionaire US posterSlumdog Millionaire (Dir. Danny Boyle)

In the spring of 2007 director Danny Boyle told me that his next film would be set in Mumbai and was the story of a young man on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

But it was only afterwards that I started to wonder. Would the film be made in English? Would it be a Bollywood film? Comedy? Drama?

It is a testament to the final film that Slumdog Millionaire is so many different things – a vibrant and rich journey through modern India through the lens of a Dickensian tale of love and redemption.

Adapted by Simon Beaufoy from the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, it deservedly received a lot of buzz and acclaim at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

What’s interesting is that the narrative plays a little like The Usual Suspects, as we learn how the central character Jamal (Dev Patel) came to be on the game show.

It then flashes back to periods of his life growing up as a kid from the slums (or ’slumdog’ as some less than charitable characters in the film put it) and his desire to find the true love of his life (Frieda Pinto).

Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle don’t shy away from the poverty of the slums in the film but also capture the live wire energy of Mumbai with some inventive use of digital cameras and a cracking soundtrack.

Whilst some audiences might be a bit taken aback by some of the darker sequences, they are necesssary counterweights for others aspects of the story to really work.

A huge amount of credit must go to Beaufoy who has constructed a jigsaw puzzle narrative that somehow manages to hold everything together in a way that is exciting, clever and moving.   

Another clever touch is the realistic portrayal of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire show, complete with the right music and graphics which are expertly woven into the film and play a key part in how the story unfolds.

The cheesy tension of the TV show somehow has a new life here, with added meaning on the tense pauses and multiple choice questions. 

It is currently regarded as the front runner for Best Picture at the Oscars and deservedly so as it mixes serious social commentary with a classical tale of lost love into something truly special. 

[Slumdog Millionaire is out at UK cinemas on Friday 9th January]


Synechdoche New YorkSynecdoche, New York (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)

In the last decade Charlie Kaufman has become one of those rare screenwriters whose work has even overshadowed the directors he has worked with.

This is quite a feat given that he has collaborated with Spike Jonze (on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). 

However, it is fair to say that all those films bear certain recognisable tropes: ingenious narratives, surreal images and a tragi-comic view of human affairs.

It would have also been a reasonable assumption to think his directorial debut would be similar, but¬†Synecdoche, New York¬†(pronounced ‚ÄúSyn-ECK-duh-kee‚ÄĚ) does not just bear token similarities to his previous scripts.¬†

In fact it is so Kaufman-esque that it takes his ideas to another level of strangeness, which is quite something if you bear in mind what has come before.

The story centres around a theatre director named Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who starts to re-evaluate life after his health and marriage start to break down. 

He receives a grant to do something artistically adventurous and decides to stage an enormously ambitious production inside a giant warehouse.

What follows is a strange and often baffling movie, complete with the kind of motifs that are peppered throughout Kaufman’s scripts: someone lives in a house oblivious to the fact that it is permanently on fire; a theatrical venue the size of several aircraft hangars is casually described as a place where Shakespeare is performed; and visitors to an art gallery view microscopic paintings with special goggles. 

But despite the oddities and the Chinese-box narrative, this is a film overflowing with invention and ideas. 

It explores the big issues of life and death but also examines the nature of art and performance Рa lot of the film, once it goes inside the warehouse, is a mind-boggling meditation on our lives as a performance. 

Imagine¬†The Truman Show¬†rewritten by¬†Samuel Beckett¬†and directed by¬†Luis Bu√Īuel¬†and you‚Äôll get some idea of what Kaufman is aiming for here.¬†

I found a lot of the humour very funny, but the comic sensibility behind the jokes is dry and something of an acquired taste.

Much of the film hinges on Seymour Hoffman’s outstanding central performance in which he conveys the vulnerability and determination of a man obsessed with doing something worthwhile before he dies. 

The makeup for the characters supervised by Mike Marino is also first rate, creating a believable ageing process whilst the sets are also excellent, even if some of the CGI isn’t always 100% convincing. 

The supporting cast was also impressive: Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan and Dianne Weist all contribute fine performances and fit nicely into the overall tone of the piece. 

Although the world Kaufman creates will alienate some viewers, it slowly becomes a haunting meditation on how humans age and die.

As the film moves towards resolution it becomes surprisingly moving with some of the deeper themes slowly, but powerfully, rising to the surface.

This means that although it will have it’s admirers (of which I certainly include myself) it is likely to prove too esoteric for mass consumption as it has a downbeat tone despite the comic touches.

Having seen it only once, this is a film I instantly wanted to revisit, so dense are the layers and concepts contained within it.

On first viewing it became a bit too rich at times for it‚Äôs own good but on reflection I don’t think I’ve seen a more ambitious or challenging film this year.

[Synechdoche, New York is out at UK cinemas on Friday 15th May]


The Class posterThe Class (Dir. Laurent Cantet)

The surprise winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival was this deceptively simple tale of a French teacher (François Bégaudeau) at a state school in Paris.

The actual French title is ‘Entre Les Murs’ – which translates as ‚ÄėBetween the walls‚Äô – which is apt as the film never (apart from one shot at the beginning) strays outside the confines of the school.

Adapted from the 2006 novel of the same name by Bégaudeau, which in turn was based on his own real life experiences teaching in a Paris school, it is a rich and deeply satisfying film.

Not only did it scrupulously avoid the cliches that can plaue films set inside schools, but also managed to offer a plausible snapshot of modern French society by focusing tightly on a class of pupils and their teachers.

Although it is shot in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35, the camera hangs tight on each character and never really gives us a look at the French city landscape.

This might sound claustrophobic, but makes the lessons and world inside of the school (the staff room, the corridors, the playground) all come alive in an unexpectedly thrilling way.

Performances Рespecially from Bégaudeau and a very special cast of non-professional teenagers Рwere outstanding but the film also had a tremendous sense of humanity to it without ever slipping into cheap sentiment.

An example of a rare film that touches the heart whilst engaging the brain, The Class is a gem that I would urge anyone to go and see when it gets released in the UK in February.

[The Class is out at UK cinemas on Friday 27th February]


The Dark Knight posterThe Dark Knight (Dir. Christopher Nolan)

The most commercially successful film of the year (globally at least) was also one of the best, as this Batman sequel transcended its comic book origins to become one of the most ambitious blockbusters in years.

When Batman Begins came out in 2005, it was an impressive reinvention of the DC Comics character but I wasn’t as blown away as some were. But props to the suits at Burbank for recruiting a director like Christopher Nolan who had already made his mark with Memento in 2000.

The realistic approach to the Bruce Wayne character and Gotham City worked well and reaped dividends with this sequel, which built on the first film but also made for a richer experience.

Managing to transcend the usual limitations of the comic book genre, its ambitious approach owes more to crime epics like Heat and The Godfather than the usual summer comic book adaptation.

The story, set in a Gotham City soaked in crime, violence and corruption, revolved around three central characters: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), a billionaire vigilante dishing out justice at night time; Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the District Attorney boldly taking on organised crime; and The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious psychopathic criminal wreaking havoc on the city.

Nolan and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (with story credit by David S Goyer) crafted a spectacularly ambitious summer blockbuster with the different narrative strands developed in engrossing and genuinely surprising ways Рat times it was so layered that key sequences often had parallel consequences.

As for the action, it follows the script in being similarly dense, and some of the big set pieces Рespecially two key sequences Рhave an unpredictable and chaotic quality to them, which is refreshing for this kind of genre.

The performances too were a revelation for a genre movie: Bale continues his solid work from the first film but Ledger and Eckhart brought much more to their roles than some might have expected.

As The Joker, Ledger managed to completely reinvent an iconic character as a wildly unpredictable psychopath who brings Gotham to it’s knees. Although Рdue to his tragically early death Рthere was always going to be added interest in his performance, he really was outstanding in creating a villain who is scary, funny and unpredictable.

Overall the technical contributions were outstanding Рof particular note were Wally Pfister’s cinematography, Nathan Crowley’s production design and Lee Smith’s editing.

Special mention must also go to the diverting score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, which thankfully will be up for Oscar consideration after initially being barred due to a technicality.

Many aspects of the film raised interesting questions and parallels. Can we see Batman Рa sophisticated force for good caught up in a moral dilemma Рas a metaphor for the US military? Could The Joker Рa psychopathic enigma wreaking terror on society Рbe a twisted version of Osama Bin Laden?

The fact that a comic book adaptation subtly provoked these points was daring and clever but also true to the darker comic books¬†–¬†especially¬†The Killing Joke¬†– that influenced on the film.

Although Ledger is almost a forgone conclusion for Best Supporting Actor – for both valid and sentimental reasons – the film itself might find more nominations in the major categories, which when you think about it speaks volumes to its quality.

[The Dark Knight is out now on DVD] 


The Visitor posterThe Visitor (Dir. Thomas McCarthy)

Tom McCarthy made one of the best films of 2003 with The Station Agent and his second film was just as good.

The story involved a college professor (Richard Jenkins) who finds a young immigrant couple living in his New York apartment and then follows the characters as they connect with one another in unexpected ways.

Like his previous work, it is thoughtful, beautifully observed and features rounded characters who feel like people you might actually meet in real life.

Jenkins is a character actor you might recognise Рhe’s probably best known for his fine work as Nathaniel Fisher in Six Feet Under or as the FBI agent in Flirting with Disaster.

Here he is finally given a lead role that allows him demonstrate his considerable acting skills and there is fine support too from Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira and Hiam Abbass.

But what really made this stand out is the way it managed to tackle some really big themes with intelligence and grace: immigration, loss and love are just a few of the issues dealt with here but the approach was never stodgy or patronising.

Instead, it managed to take us deep into the hearts and minds of people caught up in the chilly climate of a post-9/11 world.

A rare film that manages to engage both the heart and brain, but does so with the subtle skill of a gifted director.

* Listen to our interviews with Richard Jenkins and Tom McCarthy about The Visitor * 

[The Visitor is released on DVD in the UK on February 9th]


The WrestlerThe Wrestler (Dir. Darren Aronofsky)

When I first heard about Mickey Rourke playing a has-been wrestler in a film directed by Darren Aronofsky I was intrigued. 

Would it be similar to the director’s previous films like¬†ŌĬ†and¬†Requiem for a Dream? And what would Mickey Rourke be like in his first proper leading role for many years?

For Aronofksy it is a major – but welcome – departure in that it eschews many of the stylistic devices of his earlier work in favour of a raw, stripped down approach.

For Rourke it is nothing less than a triumphant comeback: a dream role that proves not only what a fine screen actor he can be, but also atones for the chaos of his professional career over the last 20 years.

The film itself is the story of a big time wrestler from the 1980s called¬†Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, who has fallen on hard times and¬†wrestles on the weekends in independent and semi-pro matches for extra money.

Health problems force him to re-evaluate his life which includes working in a deli, a possible relationship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei) and an attempted reconciliation with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

The parallels between Rourke’s own career and that of his character are there for anyone to see but there is more to the film than just brave casting: it paints a moving yet unsentimental view of outsiders struggling to make it in modern America.

The world of semi-pro wrestling is also brought to life with remarkable authenticity. Although the theatricality and hype of the WWF dominates the public perception of wrestlers, the realism on display in this story creates a much more authentic and poignant world.

A lot of the film’s charm rests on Rourke and Tomei, who play two contrasting characters who actually have much in common: both are performers who use their bodies and have problems reconciling their double lives.¬†

Rourke is already being talked of as one of the frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar and there is no doubt that he deserves recognition for what is one of the most memorable screen performances of the year.  

[The Wrestler is out at UK cinemas on Friday 16th January]


WALL-E posterWALL-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton)

Pixar continued their incredible run of form this year with yet another landmark animated film.

Set in a dystopian future circa 2815, it was about a waste disposal robot named WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) who meets another robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) and gets involved in an unlikely romance, as well as the future of the human race.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, it is probably the most visually impressive work Pixar have yet committed to film (and that is saying a lot) but it also resonated as a surprisingly moving love story.

Robots haven’t been this endearing since Silent Running and the two central characters are joy to watch Рthe boxy old school charm of WALL-E contrasting beautifully with the cool, sleek beauty of EVE.

Although I would never thought I would ever compare a Pixar movie to There Will Be Blood Рboth have startling opening sequences with little or no dialogue.

One of the clever aspects of the film is the casting of sound designer Ben Burtt as the central character Рfor those unfamilar with his work he was the pioneering sound editor on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films.

Along with the animators, Burtt has helped create a character who is extremely expressive without using conventional language.

The same is true for EVE, so it is even more impressive that the filmmakers have managed to craft a compelling relationship between them.

The landcaspes were equally impressive, full of rich detail and nods to other sci-fi films.

* Listen to our interview with Angus MacLane, the directing animator of WALL-E *

[WALL-E is out now on DVD]


Waltz With Bashir posterWaltz With Bashir (Dir. Ari Folman)

One of the most daring and original films was this astonoshing animated film about the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre and the memory of the Israeli soldiers involved in the invasion of Lebanon at the time. 

Directed by Ari Folman, it examines his own experiences on that mission and the struggle to remember what happened when he interviews various army colleagues from the time.

The strange title is taken from a scene with one of Folman‚Äôs interviewees, who remembers taking a machine gun and dancing an ‚Äėinsane waltz‚Äô amid enemy fire, with posters of¬†Bashir Gemayel¬†lining the walls behind him. (Gemayel¬†was the Lebanese president who whose¬†assassination¬†helped trigger the massacre.)

Animation isn’t normally associated with historical and political films, but here it worked brilliantly creating some haunting and indelible images.¬†

A hugely ambitious project, it took four years to complete and is and international co-production between Israel, Germany and France.

Another aspect which makes this story so intrguing is that the Israeli troops were not guilty of the massacre itself but of standing by and letting Lebanese miltia murder Palestinian refugees. 

It is the memory of, or rather the inability to remember, this event that lies at the core of the story. Has Folman unconsciously blocked out the memory? Does guilt cloud any rational perspective? 

The raw power of the source material is enhanced by some extraordinary imagery, with a remarkable and inventive use of colour for certain sections, especially those involving the sea.

Added to this is Folman’s narration which has an almost hypnotic effect when set alongside the visuals, almost as if the audience is experiencing a dream whilst watching the film itself. 

Back in May it premiered to huge acclaim at Cannes and was one of the front runners to win the Palme d’Or. The film also won 6 Israeli Film Academy awards (including Best Picture) and looks likely to be a strong contender for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

Much of that praise is richly deserved because this is an arresting and highly original film that deserves special credit for taking a highly politicised and contentious event and yet somehow makes a wider point about the futility of war.

The recent events in the Gaza strip only reinforce what a timely film this is but the central message about the horrors and futility of war has a relevance not just confined to the cauldron of the Middle East.

* Listen to our interview with Ari Folman about Waltz with Bashir *

[Waltz with Bashir is out on DVD in the UK on March 30th]



[Rec] (Dir.  Jaume Balagueró)

Appaloosa (Dir. Ed Harris)

Battle For Haditha (Dir. Nick Broomfield)

Blindness (Dir. Fernando Meirelles)

Burn After Reading (Dir. The Coen Brothers)

Changeling (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

Flight Of The Red Balloon (Dir. Hsiao-hsien Hou)

Funny Games US (Dir. Michael Haneke)

Gran Torino (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Dir. Mike Leigh)

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (Dir. Guillermo Del Toro)

Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Dir.¬†Peter Sollett)

Religulous (Dir. Larry Charles)

Revolutionary Road (Dir. Sam Mendes)

Sugar (Dir. Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dir. David Fincher)

The Reader (Dir. Stephen Daldry)

W. (Dir. Oliver Stone)

N.B. Have a look at my list of the best films from 2007 which has now been updated to include those that got a UK release in 2008. (They were Gone Baby Gone, Persepolis, The Orphanage, In Search Of A Midnight Kiss, Joy Division, My Winnipeg, Savage Grace, Shotgun Stories, Son Of Rambow, The Band’s Visit and The Mist).

What about you? Leave your favourites from this year in the comments below.

> Find out more about the films of 2008 at Wikipedia
> Check out more end of year lists at Metacritic
> Have a look at the Movie City News end of year critics chart
> Check out our best DVDs of 2008

News Thoughts

David Cox of The Guardian loses the plot over Hunger

I have to admit that I missed David Cox’s article about Hunger on the Guardian’s film blog, which was published on November 3rd, and only discovered it retrospectively after seeing the reader’s editor piece on it.

For those not familiar with the film, it deals with the 1981 IRA hunger strikes inside the Maze prison.

It¬†premiered to¬†great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival¬†back in May and it also garnered similar reviews on it’s UK release.

Despite some early articles predicting ‘controversy’, it hasn’t really materialised, mainly because the film doesn’t seek to be a political polemic, but rather an exploration of the reasons and realities of life inside the prison.

One of the actors in the film (Liam Cunningham) recently told me that when it was screened in Belfast last month, the reception from both sides of the political divide was positive because it took a human look at this dark chapter of The Troubles.

So it is extremely disappointing to read Cox’s silly and offensive rant about the film, which possibly qualifies as one of the worst articles I’ve ever read in a paper I generally admire and respect.

I would encourage you to read it for yourself but there are some sentences worth highlighting.

On the conditions in the prison, as depicted in the film, he says: 

Far from being shocked at seeing the inmates roughed up a bit, I found myself wishing they’d been properly tortured, preferably savagely, imaginatively and continuously.¬†¬†

So, a Guardian journalist advocates torture. I realise we have had an historic week for other reasons but I really never thought I would see the day.  

I assume he is making a feeble attempt at a joke but given the appalling¬†torture scandals in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, you’ll have to excuse me for finding this both trite and disgusting.

But I don’t need to tell you that as even Cox admits that what he is writing is ‘immoderate’ and ‘reprehensible’:

I appreciate that my responses to this beautifully made film are uncharitable, immoderate and indeed reprehensible.

Yet, the men heroised in Hunger chose to murder my fellow citizens, on their own island and mine, indiscriminately and brutally, in pursuit of a cause I consider unimpressive. What do you expect me to feel?  

Well, you can feel what you like, but before putting your thoughts down for a serious newspaper, I would suggest you think a bit more deeply about not only the long and complex history between England and Ireland, but also about a film which is clearly operating on a level far above your shameful ramblings.

For good measure he even chucks in an offensive term for Catholics when discussing the nationality of the director Steve McQueen:

Admittedly, some of my compatriots seem better able to contain their rancour.

Hunger’s writer/director,¬†Steve McQueen, isn’t some baleful, unreconstructed Fenian, but a Londoner sporting an OBE.

Given that the term ‘Fenian’ has often been used as a derogatory slur against Catholics, I would suggest this was unwise at best and more to the point, what has McQueen’s nationality got to do with anything?

Clearly this is something of a pet peeve, as he goes on to question why British directors like Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass should have the gall to use British money in order to make films about one of the most important historical episodes in our recent history:

His film was funded not by Libya Movies or the Boston Irish Benevolent Society but by Film Four, the Wales Creative IP Fund and the UK Film Council.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but there still seems something a little odd here. Wasn’t the United Kingdom the entity that the IRA was created to destroy? Would Israel subsidise an admiring biopic about Leila Khaled?

Yet, Hunger isn’t alone. The UK Film Council also found cash for¬†The Wind that Shakes the Barley, whose sturdily English¬†director¬†hails from Nuneaton. Granada had a hand in¬†Bloody Sunday, and that film’s¬†director¬†was born in Cheam.¬†

Cox seems to be implying that there is some kind of irony in British directors making films that ‘glorify’ an enemy bent on ‘destroying’ the UK.¬†

If you actually watch The Wind That Shakes The Barley or Bloody Sunday (preferably with brain switched on) you might realise that Cox is talking utter bollocks. 

Neither film glorifies terrorism or indeed the Republican cause, so what exactly is his point?

Furthermore, if the UK Film Council were to go insane and select directors for subjects based on their nationality, then surely this is the kind of prejudice and narrow minded thinking that leads to division and conflict?  

But clearly levelheaded tolerance is in short supply on this corner of the Guardian’s film blog:

Doesn’t it ever occur to the British film industry’s luminaries that Britain’s role in The Troubles could also be celebrated, at least occasionally?

It was, after all, shaped by the call of duty, rather than misplaced nationalist fervour.

What kind of film is he talking about here? 

A possible subject comes to mind. Captain¬†Robert Nairac, a maverick undercover agent, was abducted, savagely tortured and killed by the IRA. His assassin subsequently¬†said, “Nairac was the bravest man I ever met. He told us nothing”.

Yet Nairac was a Catholic. His¬†last words¬†were “Bless me Father, for I have sinned”. All of this seems to me to make him a more interesting as well as a more heroic character than Bobby Sands.¬†

Is Hunger making Sands out to be a hero? I don’t think so, but to go down the road of making films celebrating either the Unionist or Republican position on the Troubles strikes me as a very slippery one indeed.

Do the UK Film Council fund a film about an IRA atrocity like Enniskillen, followed by one involving the alleged shoot-to-kill policy of the SAS?

Surely this is nonsensical – it is best to just let artists and writers bring their vision to the screen and judge them on the final result.

If you read through the comments on the post (currently 848 as I write this) you’ll find that many have taken offence and complained at the lowering of standards at The Guardian.

The reader’s editor¬†¬†posted her own piece about this, saying:

More than 700 comments were posted to it, but let’s not confuse that with popularity: “grossly antagonistic”, “hysterical”, “uninformed view of Irish history”, “rabble-rousing”, “anti-Irish”, “bigoted” and “a spittle-flecked BNP-style rant” were just some of the objections to it.

How did Cox offend readers? Let me count the ways. Talking about scenes in the film that showed the brutal treatment of republican prisoners at the Maze he said: “Far from being shocked at seeing the inmates roughed up a bit, I found myself wishing they’d been properly tortured, preferably savagely, imaginatively and continuously.”

Many commenters and nearly all of the 21 people who complained to me objected to that statement, which appeared to advocate torture, being published by the Guardian.

It’s obvious that the Guardian doesn’t endorse all of the frequently diverging views in all the comment pieces it publishes, and other articles about Hunger had a different slant. However, fragmentation of web content means that readers of Cox’s blog may not have seen them.¬†

It’s not that a dissenting view on Hunger is a bad thing, it is more that a bone-headed and offensive pile of rubbish was spewed all over a normally respectable and intelligent part of the web.

But Siobhain goes on to get Cox’s reply and that of the film site’s editor, which is revealing to say the least:

Cox went on: “You see, what kept coming into my mind (although not into the film) was the treatment that these same victims of the shovings and beatings had meted out to the victims of their own bullets and bombs.”

What on earth this has to do in a serious discussion of the film (as distinct from the actual horrors of the Troubles) is beyond me, but anyway let’s continue:

He told me that it was a misrepresentation to suggest that he was actually advocating torture and the film site’s editor said that his blog was a gut response to Hunger.

Well, it isn’t a ‘misrepresentation’ if he actually wrote a sentence advocating torture is it?¬†And if he is making an attempt at satire, then I would humbly suggest that it has failed miserably.

Just because scenes in Hunger made him think of the victims of the IRA doesn’t really mean anything unless he forms that ‘gut reaction’ into a sensible point about the film.

I bring this up because one of the most shocking scenes Рwhich he neglects to mention Рis actually a brutal and callous murder by an IRA gunman.

The site’s editor says:

“Film-makers provoke a reaction and the film blog is a forum for discussing reactions to films,” she told me.

Well, that’s all fine except I think this particular comment piece crossed several lines.

Can you imagine what the Guardian’s reaction would be had this piece been published by right-leaning papers like The Daily Mail or The Telegraph?

Furthermore, it annoys me that some editors on newspapers appear to think that tendentious crap can be passed off as colourful comment simply because ‘its on a blog’.

Whether it is in print, online or on a podcast I expect there to be some quality and consistency from a news organisation like The Guardian.

To be fair, the reader’s editor does admit:

It was an extremely provocative blog that deliberately treated a sensitive subject insensitively. 

…As more than one objector said, it was “incendiary”, but in the end Cox appeared to be hoist by his own petard.

There was limited support for his diatribe and, while his approach to the subject matter was a recipe for a polarised and nasty debate, there is evidence that many commenters resisted the urge to match Cox’s intemperate tone.

Generally, they raised the level of debate and the discussion was, in many places, markedly courteous.

Which is more than can be said of Cox, who is fairly unrepentant in his final reply:

Cox has no regrets about causing offence.

“There is a strong tradition in English journalism, dating back to Swift … of robust expression on matters of great sensitivity,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s true that we can debate just as effectively if we all express ourselves in as genteel fashion as Victorian maiden aunts might have done.”

I’m all for robust debate but I want intelligence and facts too, which is ironic because as this¬†one perceptive comment points out:

Swift was Irish, you ignorant pillock

Former Guardian editor C.P Scott¬†once said:¬†‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred‘, but in this case I think he would agree the above comment by user ‘Setanta‘ has a certain divine quality to it.

> Read the original post by David Cox at The Guardian
> The reader’s editor responds¬†
> Listen to actor Liam Cunningham discuss Hunger

Cinema Interviews Podcast

Interview: Liam Cunningham on Hunger

Liam Cunningham is one of the actors in the new film Hunger, which deals with the 1981 IRA hunger strike and marks the feature film debut for director Steve McQueen.

Although he only appears in one scene, it is an extraordinary unbroken sequence in which plays a priest who questions Sands about the wisdom of his actions.

The film premiered to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and recently screened at the London Film Festival, which was when I spoke to Liam.

You can listen to it here:


Download it as a podcast via iTunes by clicking here.

Hunger opens at selected UK cinemas on Friday 31st October

> Download the interview as an MP3 file
> Official UK site for Hunger
> Liam Cunningham at the IMDb
> Read our recent LFF piece on Hunger and a longer review from last month
> Green Cine Daily with the reactions to Hunger at Cannes earlier this year
> Find out more about the 1981 Hunger Strike at Wikipedia

Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 7

LFF Delegate Centre

Today was one of those days when you realise you can’t be everywhere at once.¬†

With so many films on, you have to choose between making a screening, doing an interview or just catching up with stuff.

So instead of going the press show of Michael Winterbottom‘s new film¬†Genova, I spoke with actor Liam Cunningham about Hunger, the new drama about Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger stike¬†of 1981.

Directed by Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen it is one of the highlights of this festival and the most arresting debut I’ve seen in a long time.

Liam plays Father Moran, the priest who tries to talk Sands (Michael Fassbender) out of his hunger strikeand although he only appears in one scene, it is an extraordinary 17 minute sequence all done in once take.

We spoke about how they filmed this and other aspects of the movie such as its recent premiere in Belfast. 

Apparently it holds the world record for the longest single take for a single scene (although I’m not sure how this compares to Russian Ark in which the whole film was one take).

I’ll put the interview up next week when the film gets it’s UK release. Although a tough film to watch, it contains some of the most accomplished film-making you’re likely to see this year.

In the afternoon I headed over to the Delegate Centre at the BFI Southbank, which is where accredited journalists, filmmakers and industry folk go to catch up on things.

Aside from catching up on the latest issues of Variety and Screen International you can meet other people there and even watch a selected list of the films showing at the festival on DVD.

Just a reminder, if you are at the festival or are interested in any of the films or events going on, then drop me an email and I can write a post about it.

> Previous posts about Hunger
> Liam Cunningham at the IMDb
> Article in The Times about the 17 minute sequence in Hunger
> BFI Southbank

Cinema Festivals London Film Festival

LFF 2008: Day 5

Today there was a Time Out¬†gala screening of Hunger¬†which is one of the highlights of this year’s London Film Festival.¬†

It is the debut feature film of artist Steve McQueen and explores the 1981 IRA hunger strike, one of the key episodes of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

This involved a group of IRA prisoners in the Maze led by Bobby Sands go on a protracted hunger strike in order to pressurize the British government to recognise them as political prisoners.

What is interesting is the way the film explores the hellish physical and mental toll this took on the prisoners and guards at the Maze prison.

I didn’t feel I was being lectured to about the wider politics of the Troubles, but rather being forced to confront the sharp end of the conflict as well as the lengths humans will go to in extreme situations.

There are some remarkable performances: Michael Fassbender¬†as the stubborn and ¬†obsessive Sands, Liam Cunningham¬†as the priest who questions the strike and Stuart Graham as a prison guard are just some of the excellent performers who don’t sound a single false note.

Although when it screened at Cannes earlier this year, there were the usual dumb headlines about a ‘controversial’ film about the IRA, but you shouldn’t be put off by the historical context.

Although the modern history of Northern Ireland has inspired some woefully misguided films (A Prayer for the Dying¬†and¬†The Devil‚Äôs Own¬†spring to mind), what’s interesting is that McQueen manages to takes inside the insane brutality of the conflict by focusing on the particular situation and environment inside the Maze.

Some sequences are tough to watch: the prison guards getting rough with inmates, the prisoners smearing their walls with excrement or two people simply debating the reasons for the hunger strike, but all are handled with an incredible amount of finesse and skill.

One scene in particular is stomach turning, but somehow all the more effective for showing the depths to which some sank during this period. 

It is not a partisan film, although it is fair to say that the focus is more on Sands, particularly the coda of the film which I think some have misread.

Within the confines of the prison Рand some sequences outside Рthe chilling atmosphere of the time is brilliantly evoked through some superb widescreen lensing by Sean Bobbit.

The sound too is well crafted, with little in the way of a conventional score and a lot of effects coming from the prisoners themselves, particularly the banging from inside the cells which at certain points is overwhelming.

Despite the potential pitfalls that surround any film about The Troubles, this is an audacious work more in the tradition of Alan Clarke’s¬†Elephant¬†or Paul Greengrass’¬†Bloody Sunday¬†– boldly intelligent examinations of a dark and complex conflict. ¬†

I wrote about Hunger in greater detail after I saw it last month and since then I have heard McQueen express his sense of being an outsider coming into the British film industry from the art world.

On The Guardian’s Film Weekly podcast recently he told Jason Solomons:

I just wish there was more …passion with the film world here.¬†

Maybe people are too inhibited.

Maybe because I’m an outsider who came inside and I see how the house is operating and I think ‘bloody hell’. ¬†

On the evidence of this film we need more passionate outsiders like Steve McQueen, because this is a stunning piece of work that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

Check out the trailer here:


Hunger opens in UK cinemas on October 31st

> Hunger at the LFF
> Official UK site for Hunger
> Steve McQueen at the IMDb

Cinema Thoughts

Hunger: A riveting look at the IRA hunger strike

Hunger is a riveting look at the 1981 IRA hunger strike and marks an astonishing directorial debut for Steve McQueen.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland represents one of the darkest chapters in recent British history. On screen it has been treated with varying degrees of success, ranging from misguided Hollywood nonsense such as A Prayer for the Dying (1987) and The Devil’s Own (1997), to much more substantial work like Elephant (1989) and Bloody Sunday (2002).

This film is a stark and disturbing look at one of the key episodes of the period when a group of IRA prisoners in the Maze led by Bobby Sands went on a protracted hunger strike. Their aim was to apply pressure against the British government, so that they could be classed as political prisoners.

It opens with some startling facts about the human cost of the Troubles before plunging us into bitter brutality of life inside the prison.

This is a world in which prisoners refuse to wear clothes, smear excrement all over their walls, have cavity searches, are forced to bathe and savagely beaten but also where prison guards live in daily fear of reprisals and where animalistic anger explodes at regular intervals.

Wisely, McQueen has avoided making a some kind of polemic for either side of the conflict and instead has created what is essentially a suffocating war movie that just happens to be inside the walls of a prison.

What makes it so absorbing is the meticulous attention to detail and the indelible images McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt have created here: a snowflake slowly lands on a bloodied fist of a guard; a fly slowly crawls around the hands of a prisoner; urine gradually seeps out from beneath the cell doors before being gradually swept back in.

All this might sound a little odd, but part of the success of Hunger is the way in which it uses abstract methods in order to present a well-known conflict in a radically different way – instead of bombs and unlikely shootouts, we have a startling examination of hatred and anger fuelling an intractable conflict.

In the role of Sands Michael Fassbender is utterly convincing and his physical transformation into an emaciated hunger striker is remarkable.

One mesmerising sequence with his priest (Liam Cunningham) is shot in a 17 minute unbroken take. It shows Fassbender’s tremendous ability to maintain character whilst also conveying the ideas and thoughts behind the prisoner’s actions.

The supporting cast, costume and period detail is all first rate but there are some clever touches that add to the oppressive sense of reality – most notably the real life audio of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the soundtrack. We never see her, but her intransigent presence is felt throughout.

Although some might feel the balance of the film is too focused towards Sands and the IRA perspective, I think McQueen has gone for a more visual style of storytelling with a script (co-written by Enda Walsh) that wisely eschews the need for clunky expository dialogue or token ‘positions’.

This is not a film that ‘takes sides’, rather it explores the full human horror of The Troubles through the lens of the hunger strike – the physical brutality and sheer squalor point to the entrenched hatreds that ensnared all of those caught up in it.

Perhaps the most shocking scene is one that actually takes place outside the prison – it has the impact of a sledgehammer and the audience is forced to examine a truly disturbing image on the screen. In many ways it encapsulates the audacious approach of the film.

Steve McQueen has been best known until now as an acclaimed visual artist, but this could well mark the beginning of a hugely promising career in feature films.

Hunger opens in the UK on October 31st

> Hunger at the IMDb
> Green Cine Daily with the reactions to Hunger at Cannes earlier this year
> Find out more about the 1981 Hunger Strike at Wikipedia