DVDs: a feast of high drama and animation
From teenage vampires to sweary spin doctors, Ben Walsh offers his selection of the best of the year's television and film on disc
Friday 11 December 2009
Duncan "David Bowie's son" Jones's lo-fi sci-fi (right), which features no sex, very little violence or budget, and ostensibly one actor (Sam Rockwell), is a cerebral delight. Sam Bell (Rockwell), like ET, wants to go home; three years working on the dark side of the Moon with only Kevin Spacey's creepy voice, as spaceship computer, Gerty, will do that. Sam's suffering hallucinations and headaches and a near-fatal accident lands him in the infirmary. He awakes to find a younger version of himself stalking his bed. Jones's intelligently constructed, distinctly retro film borrows from the best – Silent Running, Alien, Blade Runner, Solaris, Dark Star and Outland – and is the best kind of paranoia movie, with unfussy dialogue, a heightened sense of isolation and corporate wickedness to the fore. Low-budget sci-fi of the year.
Star Trek (12)
J J Abrams's rollicking take on Star Trek is the most enjoyable since the original 1960s series, foregoing the earnest drivel about "directives" of the latter incarnations. It chronicles the early years in the life of Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones, Uhura et al, all young, brash cadets at Starfleet Academy. The baddie of the piece, Nero (Eric Bana), a deranged Romulan, is secondary to the animosity/love between young Spock and Kirk, with Bones whining in the middle. Huge fun and breathtaking action.
A weary middle-aged man, Hector (Karra Elejalde), follows a naked woman into the woods and ends up being stabbed by a maniac who has bandages wrapped round his head. Hector stumbles into a creepy research facility and bumps into a scientist (Nacho Vigalondo, the film's director), who places him in a tank of white liquid. When Hector emerges he discovers he has gone back in time by an hour. This inventive Spanish mind-twister is that rare thing – an original sci-fi film – so Hollywood is remaking it. The good news is that David Cronenberg is set to direct.
Rachel Getting Married (15)
Anne Hathaway's previous performances – Bride Wars, The Devil Wears Prada – didn't suggest she was this good. The wide-eyed ingénue disentangles herself from the mainstream, giving a barnstorming turn as the damaged, wired and entirely inappropriate Kym in Jonathan Demme's low-budget and partly improvised melodrama. Kym, a recovering junkie, takes a break from rehab to attend her sister's wedding at the family house. She behaves patchily throughout: demanding to be chief bridesmaid, bonking the best man and delivering a crushingly embarrassing toast to the bride. Demme's witty and deeply moving film is an acting masterclass, with Rosemarie DeWitt, as Kym's long-suffering sister, and Debra Winger, as the callous mum, excelling.
The Class (15)
François Bégaudeau, a former teacher, plays M Marin, the kind, beleaguered teacher trying desperately to engage with, not condescend to, and inspire his class of unruly 15-year-olds in Laurent Cantet's formidable drama. Based on Bégaudeau's own bestselling tome, this methodically dissects not only the gruelling task of keeping "order" in an inner-city classroom, but the paralysing bureaucracy that engulfs the teaching profession. Excellent.
I've Loved You So Long (12)
Over here she's typecast as the haughty toff, but in France Kristin Scott Thomas is flourishing, with a series of diverse roles including this meaty turn in Philippe Claudel's measured, cerebral drama. She plays Juliette, who has spent 15 years in prison following the death of her six-year-old son. Her performance is captivating, never soppy and sometimes even amusing.
BEST BOX SETS
True Blood: Season 1 (18)
Alan Ball's gleefully mischievous vampire saga, set in Louisiana, gets off to a perky start with a giant dollop of slayings, sex and saucy dialogue. The plot, which is based on Charlaine Harris's collection of "Southern Vampire" tales, centres on Sookie (Anna Paquin), a goofy telepath who falls for a brooding vampire, Bill (Stephen Moyer, right). So far, so Buffy, but it's the other characters that make this Southern gothic sizzle, particularly Sookie's bimbo brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), and Rutina Wesley's acerbic Tara. One hopes this doesn't go the way of Ball's other HBO delight, Six Feet Under, and become maudlin. It's hugely gripping.
American Dad: Volume 4 (15)
"You're the Adam Sandler of this house and nobody wants Punch Drunk Love, just give us Waterboy." This inspired, caustic and riotous US animated satire has Seth MacFarlane voicing Stan Smith, the deranged, pinko-loathing CIA agent.
The Sopranos: Season 1 on Blu-ray (18)
HBO's finest achievement – The Wire was excellent, this was better – gets the Blu-ray treatment. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), family man/Mafia capo, is experiencing panic attacks and ends up seeing a shrink (Lorraine Bracco); an idea common to Analyze This. Tony's got a lot on his plate: a conniving uncle, a vile mother (the late Nancy Marchand), a wayward cousin, Christopher (the wonderful Michael Imperioli), and the FBI are circling (they have a rather large snitch embedded in Tony's outfit). Tony, in the first series, still has a sort of rakish charm – this diminishes markedly as the series continues – and the black humour is at its most tangy here. Ground-breaking television.
Mad Men: Season 2 (15)
If the first series of this sumptuous Sixties drama belonged to the philandering, back-stabbing, chain-smoking ad-men (Don, Pete, Roger), the second firmly belongs to the elegant, ambitious chain-smoking women (Betty, Peggy, Joan). "Eugene, I'm in the persuasion business, and frankly I'm disappointed by your presentation." Peggy's slick rebuff of a suitor is typical of this series' main theme: female emancipation. It begins on Valentine's Day 1962, two years after the first season ends, and the cagey Don Draper (the excellent Jon Hamm) and his wife, Betty (January Jones comes into her own in this series), are unravelling further, while slimy Pete Campbell starts pining for ambitious, smart Peggy. Witty, cerebral, stylish and moving. Exquisite TV.
Pulling: Series 2 (15)
Pulling is that rare, gorgeous thing, a laugh-out-loud BBC sitcom. But, inevitably, someone in their infinite wisdom decided to pull Sharon Horgan's gem, while the execrable likes of Three Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (already eight series down) and Grownups thrive on BBC3. Horgan, Rebekah Staton and Tanya Franks play three unruly flatmates who flail around London in a sea of booze and excruciating sexual capers. Franks, in particular, excels as the sozzled, potty-mouthed Karen, who's entangled in a toxic relationship with a wretch called Billy (Paul Kaye). Cavan Clerkin is also memorable as the beleaguered Karl, Donna's (Horgan) on-off boyfriend.
Film Noir Classics (12)
"If you ain't got socks you can't pull 'em up, can you?" Insolent dialogue, moral ambiguity, a sultry dame (Googie Withers), a put-upon girlfriend (Gene Tierney) and a bravura performance from the excellent Richard Widmark, as weaselly conman Harry Fabian ("an artist without an art"), are at the heart of Jules Dassin's sensational Night and the City. The 1950 film noir features in an exquisite four-disc collection from the British Film Institute, which includes three Otto Preminger gems. Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) stars Dana Andrews as a roughhouse cop who kills a low-life gambler with a couple of blows, and tries desperately to cover it up; his actions almost have dire consequences. Karl Malden also stars in this coarse, violent morality tale. Andrews also plays the lead in Preminger's stark Fallen Angel (1945), this time as an unruly ("You can't tie me down. Cramps my style."), down-on-his-luck press agent who falls for gorgeous but doomed Stella (Linda Darnell). Lastly, there's Whirlpool (1949), the least-known and weakest of this dazzling quartet, in which Gene Tierney plays a well-heeled wife whose arrest for shoplifting triggers a blackmail plot. Very dark materials indeed.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (PG)
You can see the wicked queen's point. Her chubby-cheeked step-daughter, Snow White, is quite annoying, constantly chuntering away to any small animal within listening distance and obsessively, compulsively cleaning everything. Kevin Lima's Enchanted (2007) did an exquisite job of mocking this classic fairy tale, and we're now used to a more sophisticated and arch type of animation. But Walt Disney's 1937 film, which took three years to make, is still sensational to look at and packs a sinister bite – you never forget the queen's wild-eyed old hag offering the gormless Snow White a poisoned apple or Snow White fleeing into the snarling forest – and "Heigh-Ho" is still the best marching-to-work song there is.
Waltz with Bashir (18)
Ari Folman's unflinching animation charts an ex-Israeli conscript's experiences from the Lebanon war of 1982. He's worried he has no memory of the massacre of Palestinian refugees by Lebanon's Christian Phalangist militia in the camps of Sabra and Shatila. In order to help him recall this traumatic episode, he consults ex-comrades. This cerebral and savage film brims with potent images, from rabid dogs rampaging through the streets to a soldier dodging bullets, waltz-like, under a poster of Bashir Gemayel.
In 1940, Walt Disney made Pinocchio, his second animated feature film (left). It still looks sensational, thanks partly to the work of the abstract artist Oskar Fischinger. This sinister tale follows the gruelling growing pains of Pinocchio, the wood-carved creation of gentle, childless Geppetto. The Blue Fairy offers the little timber chap a chance to become a real boy. In return, he has to learn to be noble and truthful. We all know what happens to his snout if he's not.
The Wackness (15)
"Never trust anyone who doesn't smoke pot or doesn't like Bob Dylan," advises Ben Kingsley's messed-up shrink, Dr Squires, in Jonathan Levine's pitch-perfect rites-of-passage film, set in New York in 1994 to a hip-hop soundtrack. Josh Peck's glum drug dealer sells weed to Squires in return for life advice. Together, they debate loneliness and seek out women. It's a simple premise, but there's a barely a bum note. Olivia Thirlby (right) co-stars.
In the Loop (15)
"Christ on a bendy bus," is one of the more printable remarks from Malcolm Tucker, Peter Capaldi's exquisitely potty-mouthed, snarling spin-doctor. Armando Iannucci's big-screen version of The Thick of It is very much the Capaldi show. The other highlight is the diminutive Tom Hollander, as the hapless Secretary of State who propels the plot. The dunderhead makes a gaffe on radio when he says a war in the Middle East is "unforeseeable".
"The dragon is hungry," jokes Philip Seymour Hoffman's modernising Father Flynn. The charismatic priest is referring to Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius (below), the strict and shrewd school principal of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. The sister "knows people" and her twitchy nose sniffs out Flynn as a child abuser. Suspecting he has an unhealthy interest in a young black pupil, she orders her nuns to keep an eye on him. Sister James (Amy Adams), soon spots something awry. Streep is pretty gamey (and oddly amusing) as the Marple-like nun and Hoffman is, as always, convincing, as the underfire priest in John Patrick Stanley's impeccably detailed, never less than compelling and very theatrical drama.
Jar City (15)
"Don't be a sissy," growls Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson's Erlendur, the cardigan-wearing, chain-smoking detective in Baltasar Kormakur's taut, severe Icelandic crime drama. A pensioner has been bludgeoned to death and Erlendur is assigned to the case. The gruff cop's investigations soon reveal a history of rape, blackmail and violence all linked to the old man. Jar City, beautifully shot by Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson, benefits hugely from Reykjavik's stark and unusually beautiful landscape, from a morbid sense of humour, and from a compelling, layered central turn from Sigurdsson. Also, plot-wise, it knocks Wallander into a cocked hat.
Let the Right One In (15)
"Just so you know I can't be your friend," Eli informs Oskar, after witnessing the 12-year-old boy repeatedly stab a tree, imagining the bark's the school bully. It's their first encounter. On their second, Oskar lends her his Rubik's cube; in return, she resists biting him. On their third, Oskar asks Eli her age. "Twelve... more or less," she explains. It's the start of a beautiful fangship. Tomas Alfredson's beautifully crafted horror romance (left), set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg in 1982, centres on two lonely children falling in love. Oskar, who is being relentlessly bullied at school (they call him "Piggy", Lord of the Flies-style, and whip him after school) has new neighbours, Eli and her "father", a man taken to hanging people upside down in the woods and bleeding them like pigs. They're vampires, of course, and they're slowly wiping out the small band of drunks in this gloomy, snow-covered town. Even if you're suffering from neck-biter fatigue, this is a visually delicious, often quite droll and moving treat. Lina Leandersson is excellent as the pasty Eli and Kare Hedebrant is winning as Oskar. Every frame of this is studied and memorable, but the two standout scenes include a naked Eli creeping into Oskar's bed and letting him know "I'm not a girl", and the exquisite and bloody (of course) ending.
What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to email@example.com) nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.
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