Nicholas Barber: It's a dysfunctional family affair

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The Independent Culture

This has been one of those years - and there have been a lot of them lately - when Hollywood didn't really know what it was doing. The films which were intended to be weighty, award-hogging hits, such as Little Children and All The King's Men (sorry, Kate Winslet), were received with a resounding shrug, while the movies which should have been guaranteed crowdpleasers - Cars, The Da Vinci Code, Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible III, Pirates of The Caribbean 2 - may have drawn the crowds, but they didn't exactly please them. Even the formerly reliable comedians of the so-called Frat Pack - Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Jack Black - assumed, wrongly, that they'd have us rolling in the aisles just by standing in front of a camera.

Only a couple of the big studios' big guns hit their targets. Superman Returns delivered as a tender love letter to the character and the legend. Martin Scorsese's undercover crime thriller, The Departed, may not have been the vaunted Return To Form, but it was damn good fun, with Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson competing to see who could say the most offensive lines. Casino Royale was a critical and commercial hit, on balance, although for me it was nice Bond, shame about the movie.

The year's best films, then, were the ones which didn't have huge stars or huge franchises to prop them up or drag them down. It's rumoured that Clive Owen refused the role of James Bond, and if so, he may have made the right decision. He was admirable in Spike Lee's crafty heist drama, Inside Man, and he was a suitably harried hero in my favourite film of the year, the issue-driven yet action-packed adventure, Children of Men. Alfonso Cuarón's frightening, funny, humane snapshot of the near future was brilliant from its explosive beginning to its Jarvis Cocker-soundtracked end. If 007's producers want a film worthy of their new leading man, Cuarón could be the man for the job.

Children of Men might have been set in a world without childbirth, but the thread which linked most of this year's finest films was dysfunctional families. My second favourite release was The Squid and The Whale, a bleak yet hilarious autobiographical comedy about a New York couple's divorce in the 1980s, as witnessed by their two sons. Jeff Daniels was magnificently straight-faced as the frustrated academic who couldn't bear to lose a game of table tennis and who dismissed Kafka as "one of my predecessors".

Almost as good was Transamerica, a road movie which showcased Felicity Huffman's stunning performance as a transsexual. At times it left you genuinely disorientated about whether the star should be nominated for a Best Actress or Best Actor prize, which may well be why Huffman made a point of wearing such glamorous dresses on every red carpet. Little Miss Sunshine went on the road with another enjoyably screwed-up family. A sweet, if slightly over-rated indie comedy, it featured revelatory turns from Steve Carell and Abigail Breslin (a 10-year-old also seen in Keane and, er, The Santa Clause 3). There were more irate relatives in Junebug, which was much wiser and more poignant than most films about metropolitan sophisticates returning to their country homesteads.

And I can even shoehorn Lady Vengeance into this category, given that its furious heroine's bloody mission was sidetracked by a reunion with her daughter. Chan-wook Park concluded his revenge trilogy with typically obsessive panache, demanding that every camera angle, every colour, every moment has something to surprise or admire.

One more essential film about a dysfunctional family: The Queen. It was a TV drama more than a big-screen movie, but it had two glittering lead performances, and a prickly script by Peter Morgan. Also, in a thin year for relationship movies, the romance between Tony and Elizabeth was the one which twanged the heart strings.

The Queen wasn't the only spark of hope for the British film industry, either. The year's most exciting development on these shores was the emergence of a mini-genre of drain-dark urban thrillers seen from a female perspective. The brooding Red Road was terrific, and the white-knuckle London to Brighton wasn't far behind. Both were directorial debuts, both were unforgettable.

Borat may not quite count as a British film, but there was a lot of British talent behind it. It was also the comedy of the year, not because it was controversial or because its leading man risked a lynching in every scene, but simply because nothing made audiences laugh more, or cringe more. Another UK triumph was the delightful, and unfairly overlooked cartoon, Flushed Away (well done, Kate Winslet). If the American studios, Pixar included, had forgotten how to make a decent computer animation this year, then good old Aardman was there to remind them.

As for the films which should be flushed away next year, I'd pick any remake of a 1970s horror cult classic. When Hollywood was as flummoxed as it was this year, chucking a few dollars at those old scripts probably seemed like a safe investment. But the producers of The Wicker Man, The Omen, The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning need to be told that most of us own DVD players, so it's easy to find out how much better told those stories were the first time round.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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