Saturday, 31 December 2011

From the archive: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a rare example of B-movie as historical document, and one of the great, endlessly recyclable premises of sci-fi cinema. Doctor Kevin McCarthy returns home after a weekend conference to witness an outbreak of what his blase colleague describes as "mass hysteria": crystallised in the appointment book full of patients convinced their loved ones have been replaced by clones who, though they look the same outwardly, display no signs of an inner life. After encountering a corpse with no fingerprints, the doctor attempts to work out what's happening while continuing to flirt with his college sweetheart; what's going on, of course, is that a generation of alien pod people, blank-eyed conformists who might represent fascists, Communists or (Joseph) McCarthyites, are being cultivated to replace actual humans as they sleep at night.

The allegorical content is made explicit in a speech the hero has about the way people "harden in their hearts" and lose just exactly what it is to be human, but the film is still there to be enjoyed for the manner in which its form and content mesh perfectly: it makes sense that the hollow, emotionless clones should be portrayed by actors in a 50s B-movie, though the main performers are all rather good, and the script - by Daniel Mainwaring, from the Jack Finney magazine serial - is lucid and economical. That premise has been updated at least three times, each at a particular bleak moment in American history - in 1978, by Philip Kaufman, for the post-Nixon/Vietnam era; in 1993, by Abel Ferrara, for the First Gulf War; and, somewhat fumblingly, in 2007, by Oliver Hirschbiegel for Gulf War II - but this original, tautly handled by Don Siegel in an early directorial assignment and closest to the source of its paranoia and nightmares, remains the most effective caution against social and political complacency, and the dangers of received wisdom. Remember: they get you while you sleep.

(September 2008)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.10am.

Friday, 30 December 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 23-25, 2011:

1 (3) Arthur Christmas (U) ***
2 (1) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12A) *
3 (2) Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (U)
4 (4) Puss in Boots (U)
5 (5) New Year's Eve (12A) **
6 (new) Don 2 (12A) ***
7 (6) Hugo (PG) ***
8 (7) Happy Feet Two (U)
9 (8) Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (12A) ***
10 (12) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Meet Me in St. Louis
2. The Artist
3. Zelig
4. Dreams of a Life
5. Hannah and Her Sisters [above]

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (3) Horrible Bosses (15) **
2 (2) Super 8 (12) ***
3 (1) The Inbetweeners (15) **
4 (7) Bad Teacher (15) **
5 (5) X-Men: First Class (12) ***
6 (new) Cowboys and Aliens (12) **
7 (4) Captain America: The First Avenger (12) *
8 (6) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (12)
9 (8) Water for Elephants (12)
10 (re) Unknown (12) **


My top five:
1. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. A Separation
4. We Were Here
5. Kill List

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Wizard of Oz (New Year's Day, five, 2.50pm)
2. Casablanca (Tuesday, C4, 1.55pm)
3. Point Break (Holiday Monday, BBC1, 11.30pm)
4. Deliverance (Friday, ITV1, 2.30am)
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (New Year's Eve, C4, 1.10am)

Silent rapture: "The Artist", "The Lady", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "MI4" (ST 01/01/12)

The Artist (PG) 100 mins ****
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (18) 157 mins **

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (12A) 133 mins ***

The Lady (12A) 132 mins ***

In the year Messrs. Scorsese and Spielberg signed up for the digital 3D revolution, it seems perversely fitting the Best Picture Oscar may yet go to the kind of black-and-white confection that eased audiences through the last Depression. The Artist is hardly revolutionary. Its conceit – presenting modern viewers with an example of the silent cinema revered in picture palaces of yore – has been done before, by Mel Brooks, in 1976’s Silent Movie; its story arc – troubled figure finds renewed form of communication with his public – last played out in a little film called The King’s Speech, and we know what happened there.

Its key references date back further still, to Singin’ in the Rain and A Star is Born. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a matinee idol in 1920s Hollywood, finds his star heading south with the advent of sound, and eventually eclipsed by sometime sweetheart Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), introduced as a pretty face in the crowd at one of his premieres. Art Deco staircases serve to illustrate the vagaries of the showbiz ladder: Peppy’s name, misspelt on her early films’ credits, soon gravitates to everybody’s lips, save those of the insistently mute Valentin – the lover without the climactic “o”, and a man who cannot speak his affections.

Because, for the most part, The Artist really is a silent movie: Valentin’s opening line (“I will not talk!”) appears on a title card as he undergoes torture in the context of his latest spy adventure, and in this, he proves as good as his transcribed word. French director Michel Hazanavicius makes clever use of both the ensuing silence and what few effects there are, notably in a Twilight Zone-like nightmare wherein Valentin realises everything in his world (a whisky glass, passing traffic, his prototypically faithful dog) is capable of emitting a noise, save his own larynx. 

Both leads do sterling work to sustain the conceit. Dujardin’s expert pantomiming is topped by a born crowdpleaser’s smile that remains on just the right side of fromage, while Bejo is radiant and spirited in a way actresses stuck with today’s more complex assignments are rarely permitted to be. The Artist’s desire to transcend mere retro-gimmickry becomes apparent when her Peppy visits a hospitalised George, and unrolls the film he’s rescued from a house fire: the footage shows the first scene the pair shot together before their career trajectories diverged.

Somewhere within The Artist’s more generalised nostalgia, there resides a romantic idea about celluloid as memory: as we prepare to enter a digital age characterised by pixels and noise, Hazanavicius reminds us there might be elements of the past worth preserving, pockets of resonant silence which speak louder than all the words uttered since. Perhaps it’s indicative of the decline in Hollywood standards that a skilfully assembled entertainment – no more, no less – should be receiving such wild acclaim. Skilful The Artist is, though, and undeniably entertaining: living, if not quite talking, proof the movies are still capable of innocence, and joy. 

The holiday’s other releases require a certain indulgence: they’re best watched dozy, and with a selection box to hand. David Fincher’s Gothy cover version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo proves superficially more cinematic than its Swedish predecessor, but suffers from Rooney Mara’s Ryvita-thin reading of Lisbeth Salander – all clip-on piercings, stick-on tattoos – and a nagging sense the director’s heart wasn’t in such pulp. Damningly, this version contrives to be six minutes draggier than the already boxy original; one need only compare it to this director’s probing two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece Zodiac to see how barely engaged Fincher is here. 

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol fares slightly better: The Incredibles’ Brad Bird treats the franchise’s fourth instalment as a live-action cartoon, redoubling its scale with every set-piece. The in-every-sense highpoint finds Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt scaling Dubai’s 2,700-ft Burj Khalifa single-handed, one of recent cinema’s foremost “rather you than me, mate” moments. Elsewhere, the quality control fluctuates, resulting in less a coherent film than a flicker-book compilation of physically unfeasible, amusingly absurd images: yes, it’s the kind of movie where Tom Cruise – arms pumping, teeth gritted – tries to outrun a sandstorm.

With The Lady, Luc Besson seeks karmic equilibrium for producing those films in which Liam Neeson stomped about Europe kicking foreigners in the face. A reverent biopic of Burmese resistance icon Aung San Suu Kyi (here, a dignified Michelle Yeoh), it functions as a wide-eyed primer, equating democracy with domesticity, and its heroine’s return home to care for an ailing mother with her attempts to cure the wider sickness plaguing her motherland. Eccentric diversions from the Big Biopic norm include a cherishably mundane episode which sees Suu Kyi’s Oxford don hubby (David Thewlis) popping into Mace for some Whitworths Dried Fruit: this, too, we gather, is a freedom, of some kind.

The Artist opens in London today, and nationwide next Friday; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Lady are in cinemas nationwide.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Fade in: "Zelig"

Never had the boundaries between Woody Allen's screen comedies and his high-concept New Yorker pieces appeared so thin as in 1983's Zelig - and so he compensated by turning in one of his most formally inventive and dazzling works. This was Allen's tremendously convincing mock-documentary/satire on the myth of American individualism: its subject, Leonard "The Human Chameleon" Zelig (Allen himself in mocked-up photos and newsreel), achieves wild success in the first half of the 20th century by fitting in at all points, physically shifting to resemble those around him; it's only when he finally attempts to settle down with the psychiatrist seeking a cure for his condition (Mia Farrow) that his quirks - multiple wives, just one consequence of these multiple personalities - come to light and set in motion his downfall.

Allen, for his part, was approaching the peak of his creativity, here not only crafting the film's dryly ironic narration, but also the songs ("You May Be Six People, But I Love You") and films (such as The Changing Man, a spoof Warners melodrama of 1935) inspired by Zelig's life; the doctored clips and pics predate Photoshop technology, and Allen calls as witnesses some of his higher-browed buddies (Sontag, Mailer, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim) to lend the whole tall tale an extra credibility. It fits neatly into the director's run of fine showbiz stories - falling somewhere between Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo - in detailing Zelig's growing celebrity, but the historical angle makes this the Forrest Gump people can't look down upon: having Zelig there or thereabouts, doing as little as possible to stand out or effectuate change in others, pays off in a resonant gag when the Forties come around and our Jewish hero finds himself on the dais behind Hitler at a Nazi rally. (In this respect, the film provides the missing link between Allen and Chaplin in The Great Dictator.)

The whole is perhaps more clever than funny, but this is one of those ideas simple enough to seem both personal and universal at the same time, at once an extension of the filmmaker's self-deprecation (Zelig as the ultimate mediocrity), an expression of his inability to cope with the attention that came his way in the wake of Annie Hall and Manhattan, and of baffled amusement that the world should have bestowed such fame on such a non-entity - not to mention that it should also look so harshly upon idiosyncracy whenever and wherever it becomes apparent: as Zelig himself sums up his success, "it just shows what you can do if you're a total psychotic". The powers-that-be could have revived it ten years on from its first run, at the height of the Soon-Yi controversy, and it would have appeared no less relevant; as it is, with the everyday banalities of Big Brother having been surpassed by the outright fakery of Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex, it doesn't exactly seem out of place at the back end of 2011, either.

Zelig is re-released this Friday as part of the BFI Southbank's Woody Allen retrospective, details of which can be found here.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The 10 Best Direct-to-DVD Releases of 2011

It's tricky, as a cinema critic, to keep up to date with the great morass of titles released direct to DVD each week - some unlucky not to get a theatrical outing, some obviously lucky to be getting any kind of release at all, many sequels to films we weren't hugely fussed about first time round. With the apparent demise of the high-street video shop, the pleasures of browsing the lower racks for those dusty, generally unloved features starring Gary Busey or Olivier Gruner have been taken from us - you kind of have to know what you're looking for when logging on to online rental and streaming sites. Nevertheless, with the aid of a few reliable guides (Kim Newman's Video Dungeon, in the back pages of each month's Empire magazine, has become an increasingly invaluable touchstone), I've somehow managed to stumble across the odd gem - so, in the holiday spirit, here are the ten best direct-to-DVD titles I saw over the past 12 months. (No Busey or Gruner, alas. Not even a Jake Busey.)

10. The Tunnel/Der Tunnel

Finally emerging in the UK ten years after its original airing, this feature-length cut of a TV miniseries bequeathed several of its actors to those excavations of Germany's past that followed (Downfall, Sophie Scholl, The Lives of Others). Yet the excavation here is literal: it's the true story of Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), a champion swimmer who - in 1961, as the Berlin Wall was going up - defected from East to West Germany, and spent the next few years digging a tunnel under the border with the intention of bringing his loved ones across. Solidly acted and very handsomely mounted, it comes with its own in-built, to some degree conventional tensions (fans of cinematic engineering will cheer when Sebastian Koch finally gets his hands on a Bosch sledgehammer), but digs up its fair share of leftfield, you-couldn't-make-it-up twists along the way to its great escape: amazingly, Hollywood executives began to circle around Melchior's story even as the tunnel was being hollowed out.

9. Prey/Proie

The year's foremost killer pig movie. With The Artist's Berenice Bejo and Gregoire Colin, unusually effective as the beta-male forced to pick up his rifle when his industrialist hosts wig out (or expire).

8. Beneath Hill 60

More true-life tunnelling, this time the work of Australian mining engineers recruited by the Allies during World War I to dig under key locations, so as to facilitate troop movements or the laying of explosives under key enemy locations. Though the set-up gives rise to old-school set-pieces - like a tense crawl through no-man's-land to rig the cellar of a farmhouse with TNT - the drama is driven chiefly by the neuroses of the modern combat movie: the desperate wait for rookies who've become separated from the rest of their patrol, the inevitable push towards Ypres (or "Wipers", as the Aussies pronounce it), on which we're offered a new, subterranean perspective, as the miners are asked to dig below sea level, and to keep their heads above water without getting them blown off. Flashbacks to the hero's courtship in bright, wide-open Queensland pierce the gloom from time to time, but Jeremy Sams's handsome, decent film is at its most effective evoking stalemate, showing us individuals who aren't getting anywhere, lying scrambling or trapped: there's a reason it opens in 1916, slapbang in the middle of this protracted conflict, and works slowly, assiduously towards the light.

7. Balibo

A London Film Festival pick back in 2009, and source of a John Pilger polemic, Robert Connolly's film is a complex equation, seeking to filter the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 through the eyes and experiences of six white Australian journalists: the five TV newsmen who went missing as the troops first moved in, and then Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), the veteran print hack recruited only a matter of months after his colleagues' disappearance to find out what exactly happened. It at least has the self-awareness to address the issue it raises - the sensation that, once again, the tragedies of a people East refers to as "brown folk" are being translated in terms white folk might more easily understand - in a scene where the journalist and his guide (Oscar Isaac, in the Haing S. Ngor role) debate what the former is actually in town for, and LaPaglia's battered, bracing humanity continually cuts against the worthiness inherent in the material.

6. Connected

Standard Hollywood operating practice is to take a great film made in a foreign language and then make it over in the most turgid fashion imaginable. This Cantonese thriller is on exactly the right lines in taking screenwriter Larry Cohen's superlative premise, let down by shoddy handling in 2004's Chris Evans/Kim Basinger vehicle Cellular, and improving upon it by several notches. The set-up's identical - a kidnapped woman manages to place a call to the mobile of a complete stranger, obliging him to investigate the crime - but Connected gains a dimension from the off by making the stranger in question not a bland hunk on board to pull in a particular demographic, but a fully-grown, frazzled debt collector (Louis Koo) busy enough trying to get across town to see a son from whom he's become estranged. (And in a succession of hilariously mid-range cars, at that.) The action - some tremendous stunt driving sequences, worth the rental price on their own, build to a last-reel forklift truck rampage (!) - is all director Benny Chan's own, but the framing brings it closer than anyone could have expected to the version of Cellular that Hitchcock would have made.

5. 14-18: The Noise and the Fury/14-18: Le Bruit et La Fureur

This really shouldn't work: a patchwork of archive footage, some of it (ugh) colourised, some of it restaged for the cameras, that aims to give a chronological sense of the still underdocumented First World War - a patchwork, furthermore, overlaid with the recollections of a fictional French soldier, talking us through each battle, victory and defeat. Yet it's assembled with the kind of sheer, unarguable Gallic seriousness - to honour history, and the fallen - that makes it powerful and moving viewing. Distinct grains of celluloid sit alongside one another: a Chaplin short deployed to entertain the troops falls between an excerpt from a later Francesco Rosi feature, and German and Allied propaganda newsreels, and it all goes towards telling (and reinforcing) the same grim story. A brilliant work of extrapolation, liberating these mute, sometimes spectral images from the vaults, threading them together, and wondering how best they might speak to us, almost a century on in time.

4. 5150 Elm's Way/5150 Rue des Ormes

This French-Canadian entry in the captivity cycle immediately breaks new ground by having its film student protagonist (Marc-André Grondin, the kid from C.R.A.Z.Y.) stumble into a suburban residence that appears the very model of domesticity: the devoutly Christian family that lives there run their dungeon like a spare room in a B&B, bringing their prisoner breakfast every morning, and apologising when their headstrong eldest daughter takes a baseball bat to his legs. Eric Tessier's film would appear to be influenced less by Eli Roth or the Saw series than by all those news stories about so-called quiet folk (usually Austrian or Belgian) keeping others locked away for years without anybody knowing; its smarts are evident in the characterisation of the patriarch as a chess master who obliges his prisoners (who may or may not include his own family) to test his defences for weak spots. Gorehounds should be assuaged by what's going on in the basement, yet even the carnage lined up there has a striking ambition; the normality the film sucks us into is creepy enough besides. A weird and distinctive escapee from a cinema that - flatulent awards bait like Incendies and The Barbarian Invasions aside - we still don't see enough of.

3. Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape

Jake West's documentary, the most comprehensive work I've yet encountered on the "Video Nasty" storm, opens with a mash-up of selected highlights from the 72 horror films singled out as obscene by the Department of Public Prosecutions at the beginning of the 1980s: morbid carnivals of blood and nipples, these films - even the ones you just know would be rubbish over 85 minutes - all look marvellous. (Marvellous enough to send one compiling a counter-list of 72 "respectable" films of the period - Chariots of Fire? On Golden Pond? - that deserved prosecution for featuring neither blood nor nipples, and being obscenely boring.) The critics, directors and experts assembled here to refute the nasties' censorship are smart enough to discern the ambitious and lively (The Evil Dead, The Last House on the Left) from the dull and drossy (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Anthropophagus: The Beast), while the narrative hones in on key martyrs and heroes (such as jailed distributor David Hamilton-Grant, and Martin Barker, the academic who made the first public defence of these works) from an otherwise especially depressing period of recent British social history. One of the best DVD sets released this year, too: bonus features range from trailers for each of the 72 films on the DPP list to the twinkle in Derek Malcolm's eyes as he describes the absurdity of one of the court cases he found himself caught up in.

2. Ip Man 2

For my money, this is the best martial arts franchise out there right now: a loving, sincere recreation of the life and career of Master Ip (Donnie Yen), driving force behind the Wing Chun school at a time of extraordinary upheaval in mainland China, and eventually tutor to Bruce Lee. Two features distinguish these films. The action, superbly choreographed by co-star Sammo Hung, is shot to ensure the cleanest, most efficient of lines (ct. Sherlock Holmes), always pinning down the one or two details in any given set-up that gives the whole that extra zing (here, a table top that hasn't been properly nailed to its legs, or Ip's superlative use of a fish-market loading pallet). The other mini-miracle is Yen's quietly expressive and moving central performance: one of the few modern action stars capable of projecting thought, and to be as compelling a presence in repose as he is in attack, he invests Ip with a touching gentility and civility in the face of all kinds of beastliness and corruption. The sequel adds a dash of Lagaan-like spice, as Ip faces up to British colonial rule while exiled in Hong Kong: it builds to a rousing finale and a lovely closing gag, and along the way even manages some choice Zen advice on what to do in times of economic recession ("Just treat this as a diet, and lose some weight").

1. Last Train Home

Lixin Fan's extraordinary documentary gets so close to its chosen truth that it contains sequences I found damn near unwatchable, as they would be in any non-cinematic context. Fan's subject is the world's largest human migration: the annual return of 130 million Chinese labourers to the families they've left behind in what are often very poor, outlying villages. In the opening moments, we watch a crowd of thousands breaking through a police cordon to charge along a railway platform before - sweaty-faced, beneath their own self-shepherded luggage - haphazardly cramming themselves, with scant regard for health or safety, on already overcrowded trains heading out of the city; watching it - even as I did, through my fingers - those bores who habitually write to the Evening Standard bemoaning the service on South West Trains might want to reconsider their tone, if not their entire position.

Fan begins down whittle down this mass of humanity, the better to follow the progress of one family over the course of two years, as its constituent members lie awake in their temporary lodgings and try to put together a plan for economic survival. Having parents who leave home to work elsewhere clearly obliges the offspring to become more independent in turn - so that they, too, will eventually be able to fulfil their obligations to their own children; Fan shows how this process of adaptation has, in contemporary China, become a rite, however heartbreaking the sacrifice and separation that results. The film is quietly brilliant on capitalism as a system that splits up families, and then rewards each party, not always handsomely, for their unhappiness: this is the model you sense certain Tory MPs were getting at when they suggested, sincerely or not, that anyone out of work in the north of England should relocate south in order to find themselves employment - indirectly showing up the sham the party's family-first policies have become.

Miraculously, in the middle of its heaving establishing shots, Fan finds a distinct personality for each one of her principals: the apparently matter-of-fact dad, who blithely walks through police lines, yet explodes when his daughter dares to use the F-word in front of him - and who ultimately seems to be suffering most for this need to save face and make ends meet; his loving wife, supremely dignified even as she crumples in tears; their young son, insistently underlining his number five position in class, where he remains at the film's end (he's not going anywhere, you sense); and their daughter, who moves from smiles and cheeky asides to sulky resentment at her situation, and must, surely, be left to go her own way as the credits roll. At all points, the family's work ethic, their dedication and commitment, is both a marvel and somehow tragic, unthinkable in the West; this, we must conclude, is the reason China's is the biggest economy in the world, and why the rest of us, who may or may not know better, probably won't have any jobs left to travel to or from by the time our own New Year comes around.

All the above titles are currently available to rent, buy or view online.

Friday, 23 December 2011

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office
for the weekend of December 16-18, 2011:

1 (new) Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (12A) *
2 (new) Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (U)
3 (2) Arthur Christmas (U) ***
4 (1) Puss in Boots (U)
5 (3) New Year's Eve (12) **
6 (4) Hugo (PG) ***
7 (5) Happy Feet Two (U)
8 (6) Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (12A) ***
9 (8) A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (18) ***
10 (7) My Week with Marilyn (15) ***

(source: UK Film Council)

My top five:
1. Meet Me in St. Louis
2. Take Shelter
3. Dreams of a Life
4. Moneyball
5. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Top Ten DVD rentals

1 (1) The Inbetweeners (15) **
2 (4) Super 8 (12) ***
3 (new) Horrible Bosses (15) **
4 (2) Captain America: The First Avenger (12) *
5 (3) X-Men: First Class (12) ***
6 (5) Transformers: Dark of the Moon (12)
7 (6) Bad Teacher (15) **
8 (9) Water for Elephants (12)
9 (7) Thor (12) **
10 (8) Green Lantern (12) *


My top five:
1. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. A Separation
4. We Were Here
5. Kill List

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:

1. The Wizard of Oz [above] (five, Boxing Day, 5.10pm)
2. King Kong (Bank Holiday Tuesday, ITV1, 10.30pm)
3. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (ITV1, Christmas Eve, 3.35pm)
4. The Godfather (Channel 4, Boxing Day, 1am)
5. The Muppet Christmas Carol (Channel 4, Christmas Eve, 12noon)

The ups and downs: "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol"

The universe of the blockbuster rotates dizzingly quickly, and the Mission: Impossible brand name - which originated in the 1960s, after all - risked falling out of currency with its target audience in the five years that have passed since 2006's brisk, efficient third instalment; it's what the studios bring on themselves, in issuing new and ever more expensive toys for us to coo at every summer and Christmas. (You fear for Sony's 2012 release Men in Black 3, emerging a decade after MiB2.) Paramount have very wisely hired Brad Bird, the man behind Pixar's dynamic, expansive animated action movie The Incredibles, for MI4, and he's more or less delivered what the franchise required at this moment in time: Ghost Protocol is, in effect, a live-action cartoon that doubles its scale exponentially with each passing set-piece.

No sooner has Tom Cruise's superspy Ethan Hunt busted his shower buddy out of a Russian jail (very "Jailhouse Rock", this), then he and his team are busting into the Kremlin; once the Soviet centre of administration has been mined for the necessary thrills, the film simply blows it up and moves on with scant regard for any casualties, instead dispatching its star to climb the world's tallest structure (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) first one-handed (after one of his adhesive gloves blows away), then with no hands at all. This becomes, in every sense, the film's highpoint, from the crane over Cruise's shoulder as he first stands on his windowledge (recent cinema's foremost "rather you than me, mate" moment) to the high-suspense pay-off as our man cuts his rope and attempts to jump back into his hotel room from 2,500 feet up.

Bird's prodigious narrative skill is barely exercised - it's Cruise and cohorts (makeweight glamourpuss Paula Patton, geekily funny Simon Pegg) going after another Euro baddie with nuclear capabilities (Michael Nyquist, Blomkvist in the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) - but the director knows how to keep things moving, which is important in a film such as this, and he excels in flinging them across the frame. The whole film has a rubbery, amorphous quality, and so only upon exiting the cinema do we come to wonder why an intelligence organisation given to such secrecy (eyeball scanners, self-destructing messages) unquestioningly allows Washington analyst Jeremy Renner to tagalong with them, or why the latter, notionally a desk jockey, demonstrates the same fighting style as Cruise's Hunt, or indeed Bruce Lee circa 1972.

These vehicles are no longer conceived as coherent wholes, of course, rather travelling circuses writing and rewriting themselves wherever they find themselves, so it's perhaps inevitable Ghost Protocol should zip up and down in the logic-scrambling fashion it does: the quality notably dips when it brings on the dancing girls - and the reliably awful Anil Kapoor as a white-tuxedoed playboy - during a layover in Mumbai. Still, by then, you may feel as though you've had your money's worth, even if the whole resembles less a film than a flickerbook of physically unfeasible, comically absurd images. Tom Cruise jogging around the outside of a building, like a horse in a training circle! Tom Cruise driving a car a hundred metres off a parking structure just to get to the ground floor a little quicker! A particular favourite: Tom Cruise - teeth gritted, arms pumping - trying to outrun a sandstorm! Is there really nothing this fellow cannot do?

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol opens in cinemas nationwide from Boxing Day.

Lisbeth's accessories: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

When Howard Hawks determined to make a star of the then-nineteen year old Lauren Bacall for 1944's To Have and Have Not, he did so by lending her character his wife's soubriquet (Slim) and by having her teach her co-star how to whistle. For his screen version of the Stieg Larsson bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher attempts to make a star of young Rooney Mara by covering her body in disfiguring ink, giving her a pierced nipple or two, and fitting her with, by all accounts, a ginger pubic wig (though the scenes in which it appears are so underlit one can scarcely tell), then having her manacled to a bed and anally raped. In the unlikely circumstance that I found myself an up-and-coming starlet, I think I'd probably be happier on the Hollywood D-list, all told.

Times change, and tastes: the difference between these acts of Svengalism may lie in an awareness of just what it takes to rouse a jaded, image-saturated audience these days. Mara was quietly impressive in a handful of scenes in Fincher's previous The Social Network, lending a critical dimension to the boyish activity that went into the creation of Facebook, but here's she competing against Noomi Rapace's almost certainly definitive screen reading of the role of Lisbeth Salander, kick-ass computer hacker, in Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 version. Where Rapace employed sharp eyes and sharper cheekbones to cut through the abuses Larsson piled on the character, Mara remains a thin slip of a thing, acting tough in a bid to shrug off the easily explicable daddy issues Steven Zaillian's adaptation has saddled this Lisbeth with. (In a too-cute Scandinavian touch, Fincher has her munch self-consciously on a Ryvita for one scene.)

For most of the first hour of this Dragon Tattoo, Mara's Salander is also something of an irrelevance, and watching this narrative unfold on screen for a second time, I was struck by its peculiar shape. It takes ninety minutes - or the comparable number of pages - for the leads to meet, and it may be that this project's numerous male authors felt their heroine has to take one in the keester to lend their sputtering material a jeopardy otherwise lacking in the other strand, where journalist Mikael Blomkvist (here, Daniel Craig, allowed to keep his English accent, where everybody else has to impersonate the chef from The Muppet Show), hired to investigate a past disappearance, is mostly exercised with shuffling some paper around and taking meetings with bullish character actors (Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Donald Sumpter).

Oplev's version had the boxy yet functional dimensions of a Sunday night TV procedural (its two sequels were TV movies in all but medium); Fincher, as expected, makes Larsson's words and plotting more cinematic to look at, but he does so by going full Goth, to borrow a phrase from Tropic Thunder, reducing the film's colour palette to the barest of monochrome minimums, as signalled by some frankly horrible opening credits that appear a tacky flashback to this director's grounding in advertising and pop promos. Well, maybe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was always supposed to be tacky and distasteful and mass-market, a two-fingered rejoinder to the kind of good Scandinavian taste that leads to the abuses and hypocrisies Blomkvist and Salander uncover in the course of their inquiries. (The material chimes with the various Wallanders, which poke over the legacy of Sweden's traditionally liberal governance.)

There are surely elements of Gothic melodrama in the story of a waifling heroine at the mercy of the men around her: Lisbeth Salander may be the most prominent ward outside of Dickens to suffer at the hands of a brutish guardian. The problem with Fincher's film may be one of limitation: that no-one can make of Larsson's readable yet less than profound prose anything more than rattling pulp. The disappointment is Fincher struggles to make even that, despite the considerable advantages at his disposal. If Oplev's film was a Volvo, shuttling us unfussily between points A and B, Fincher's is a Volvo resprayed Lamborghini black. The journey time is practically identical - 152 minutes for Oplev, as opposed to 157 for Fincher - but the latter keeps taking short cuts that give the illusion of speed.

An example: this Lisbeth's ward (Yorick van Wageningen) is notably more corpulent than his Swedish counterpart, his desk laden with hypocrisy-asserting familial tchotchkes (a "Daddy" mug, a photo of him with his wife and child), a spot of blunt point-making that tips the film back towards the multiplex grotesquerie of Fincher's earlier Se7en. He's a pig: we get it, even before this Lisbeth tattoos words to that effect on his chest. Similarly, the film's signature item of clothing (it gets a chuckle) isn't the heroine's leather gear, but a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck". (She's a rebel: again, we've got it.) While infinitely more sophisticated on a technical level, Fincher's film isn't much more refined or, really, stirring than Oplev's, and it's actually far less subtle in the way it goes about describing its characters.

There are isolated pockets of interest, granted. Fincher directs the ham out of Steven Berkoff, and he's found a novel means of employing Julian Sands, by confining him to flashbacks and having somebody else talk all over his dialogue. Penned up in Harvard last year, the filmmaker takes a renewed joy in light and architecture, dwelling over the kind of starkly modernist interiors one finds in the BBC's Wallander remakes; he reserves a particular fascination for the island of houses whose residents cannot bear to speak to one another - an anti-social network, if ever there was. Yet elsewhere the all-new Dragon Tattoo is shot through with tell-tale signs Fincher's heart really wasn't in this, or - worse - that his overriding interest lay in wringing the material for a few lowest-denominator yaks and yuks. He gets a laugh when the psycho reveals his preferred choice of torture chamber listening, but it's hard not to feel Oplev made the better choice in refusing to let out any tension at this crucial stage in proceedings.

Fincher has a famously dysfunctional relationship with his own films, including talking down The Social Network at a point when he (and his film's Oscar chances) might have been better served by an acknowledgement it was among the best damn pictures of last year; this, far more so than its predecessor, feels like the work-for-hire its director regarded the earlier film as, an attempt to give the audience what they want, even if what they want is anal rape and ginger merkins. As such, it's difficult not to see it as a slackening off, at a moment we thought Fincher might have stepped up to assume the mantle of America's Greatest Living Director. Compare TGWTDT to the genuinely probing two hours and forty minutes of 2007's Zodiac, and you can see how barely engaged he is here: vast swathes of the new film - including a pointlessly attenuated epilogue Oplev tied up in a matter of shots - feel unremarkable, bordering on the indifferent, and you may simply be better off renting the original, which at least avoided the problem of those Muppety accents.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens in cinemas nationwide from Boxing Day.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

From the archive: "Don"

Shah Rukh Khan reprises his Paheli trick of attempting two roles in the convoluted gangster thriller Don, one of Bollywood's biggest hits of 2006, playing first the baddest cocaine runner in all Asia, and then his doppleganger, a provincial clown recruited by a rogue police inspector to bring down "the Don"'s empire. As a way for Khan to stretch himself within safe parameters, Don is carefully calibrated: he establishes the Don's villainous credentials by killing off one of his female co-stars surprisingly early, before spending the rest of the film as the devout, devoted father figure audiences might still easily root for. The film picks up in its third hour when the actor's usual romantic-heroic personality is finally allowed to impose itself on what's essentially a great big tangle of a plot, with a nice comic sequence at a wedding the double and his sidekick (Priyanka Chopra) gatecrash while on the lam.

Director Farhad Akhtar ploughs through a number of spectacular locations, from Paris to Kuala Lumpur, keeping up a rate of one car or foot chase every ten minutes, and delivering one terrific mid-air fight over a parachute, but there's a tiredness to the way everything comes down to a squabble over a computer disc containing the smuggling ring's secrets, and it ends with a very silly twist that takes almost half an hour to explain. In the end, it feels more like a mishmash of higher-profile films the filmmakers have enjoyed - elements are lifted from Scarface, Infernal Affairs, True Identity, The Vanishing, Swordfish and Con Air - than it does a film in its own right.

(January 2007)

Don 2 opens in cinemas nationwide today. In other news, I think you should always be wary when a review suggests "the film picks up in its third hour".

A Guy thing: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

2009's Sherlock Holmes was not much better or worse than Guy Ritchie's other Noughties efforts (consider the list: Swept Away, 2002; Revolver, 2005; Rock 'n' Rolla, 2008), but for some reason - either brand recognition, or the lowered expectations of the multiplex crowd - it struck a chord and made off with a considerable amount of money worldwide. A Game of Shadows, or: The Inevitable Sequel - rendered doubly pointless by the BBC's successful 2010 "modern" Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman - throws more cash and energy at everything but its narrative, ranging beyond Victorian London to arrive at a late-19th century Europe where anarchists are on the loose. It would, of course, be too much to expect a major studio's notional Christmas blockbuster to explore the political dimensions of this; the film instead elects to pack its Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) off to a gypsy camp - a clear Ritchie fetish, after Snatch, and one of several by-ways and diversions along the way to a Reichenbach Falls where Moriarty (Jared Harris, channeling Robin Cook) is lying in wait.

Tagging along this time round is new addition Noomi Rapace, so terrific as Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, yet here squandered in the way only a Hollywood franchise movie can do with a hot European actress. Held over is Ritchie's usual sense women are only around to get in the way of the more important business between men; it's no surprise the director should only have gained traction in L.A. circles at a moment when the bromance is in the cinematic ascendant. First film love interest Rachel McAdams is killed off in the prologue, at least sparing the actress the indignity of having to strut around in streetwalker chic all over again, though the hero seems barely to notice, much less to care; Watson's new missus Kelly Reilly, an actress who seems destined never to find the breakout role she deserves, is for her part upstaged by a naked Stephen Fry, then by Sherlock in a dress. Only in Ritchieworld (and perhaps pantomime, which perhaps these movies are intended to be taken as) would a man in drag be considered more worthy of interest than an actual woman, and the sequence permits the film all manner of public-schoolboy sniggering.

At any rate, whether in trousers or stockings, Downey Jr.'s Sherlock remains clenched and twitchy and simply very hard to like, his eyes continually on alert for the next bit of smart-aleckry that might make it into the trailer. Prolonged exposure to the character reveals his DNA contains less Conan Doyle or Tony Stark (a role into which this actor at least appeared to relax some) than it does Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow: another loose collection of under-directed, performer-indulged tics coasting lazily by on banked audience goodwill. To be fair, Downey Jr. isn't entirely culpable. The piecemeal, incoherent fashion in which the Sherlocks have been conceived betrays this character at a basic level: the absence of clear narrative lines in these things would make it impossible for any actor to convincingly show deduction - or indeed much in the way of thought at all. This Sherlock operates as though a team of writers is standing off-camera, tossing him funny or bright ideas as they see fit, often with little concern for what's gone before, or what's to come. Those postmodernists who say it's not essential for a 21st century Holmes to heed the books are either blind to or apologists for the sloppiness and contempt at work here: getting the hero to Reichenbach and then tossing everything else Conan Doyle wrote over the top is a bit like announcing a film called Jesus Christ, using Golgotha and the Sermon of the Mount as reference points, then styling your protagonist after Joe Pasquale for shits and giggles.

Again, Ritchie reserves his energies for the fight scenes, suggesting his dream directorial assignment would have been a direct-to-video Kickboxer sequel circa 1991. These he invests with his own identifiable tics and hang-ups: the slow motion, the skipped frames, the sub-Edgar Wright editing that, taken collectively, comes to look quite astonishingly artless and lame. In the ongoing rewrite of not just the character, but the very rules of the franchise, Sherlock now apparently has ESP, and can thus predict how each ruckus is going to play out - which is handy for our Guy, because it allows him two or three passes at shooting action he cannot ever seem to get right. As holiday entertainments go, Game of Shadows is charmless, noisome, and grindingly, terminally mediocre, lacking even the flailing idiosyncrasies that mitigated against the failures of Revolver and Rock 'n' Rolla. All we can deduce from it is that Guy Ritchie still can't direct, though now he gets to prove this fact on a bigger budget, and to an audience schooled to be indifferent about such things.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is on nationwide release.

For what it's worth: 2011 awards special - part two

Best British Actor
1. Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
I remain mixed on the merits of John Michael McDonagh's comedy, which identifies a comic formula early on and persists without too much variation, but its best quality - a wry scepticism - is embodied in Gleeson's towering central performance. Few actors this year have been able to accomplish so much, suggest so much battered humanity, by apparently doing so little: Gleeson gets big laughs simply from standing stock still in the drizzle, and looking mildly, understandably pissed off.

2. Peter Mullan, Tyrannosaur
Another of this actor's increasingly skilful, thoughtful variations on the hard man theme (previously observed back in January's NEDs): Mullan's Joseph begins and ends the film beating poor, defenceless dogs to death, and in between does something almost unimaginable - winning the audience's sympathies, without taking any obvious shortcuts.

3. Tom Hardy, Warrior
That the "British Brando" tag didn't sound entirely laughable, in this instance, was down to the sheer physical heft of Hardy's performance - one in which every flinch, every twitch of every muscle, appeared properly considered and worked through. After Jean Dujardin in The Artist, the year's second great performance without words.

4. Neil Maskell, Kill List
5. Michael Smiley, Kill List
They came as a pair (as did Tom Cullen and Chris New in Weekend, which these boys just edged out, finally - all entendres, single and multiple, only partly intended): Maskell, erstwhile fatboy and comic relief in the likes of The Football Factory, very nearly as great a revelation as Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur (see below), the agonies of the plot writ large upon his newly slimline features; Smiley the joker in the pack, injecting whatever levity Ben Wheatley's film could spare us in sly, scene-stealing dispatches.

Best British Actress
1. Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
For turning Peep Show's Sophie into Aileen Wuornos, and never letting us see the joins.

2. Samantha Morton, The Messenger
An actors' film, in part because of the fine screenwriting made available to them: I wanted to get Woody Harrelson and the increasingly essential Ben Foster into the Best Actor list, but the competition was too great. Foster's performance, in particular, depends on the heart-to-hearts he shares with Morton, who plays grief in ways we haven't really seen on screen before: quietly, spacily, not quite in the room. Fascinating work, as ever from this actress.

3. Juno Temple, Kaboom
A sexual sherbet fountain, thus combining two of my very favourite things in the world. (And a demonstration of how the uptight British cinema routinely squanders the effervescent sensuality of its younger actresses in sniggering nonsense like the
St. Trinian's films.)

4. Carey Mulligan, Shame
Speaking of which... As may have become apparent from my comments elsewhere, I'm firmly mixed on the film itself, which I find alienating beyond its initial remit, but it's true that it starts to make most sense when Mulligan bursts into the picture, and there's finally something at stake other than whether or not its protagonist is going to get his end away. Her openness actively challenges Fassbender's more autistic acting choices, and results in three or four of
Shame's sharpest, best defined scenes.

5. Felicity Jones, Chalet Girl
Because the British film industry has a genuine star on its hands, not that it quite realises it yet.

Best Screenwriter
1. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball
The real achievement is not that they make baseball statistics comprehensible, but that they can get us to care - and the collaborative aspect is fascinating: you get the smart, pacy scenes of Sorkinese confrontation (Pitt withholding from Hoffman that one of his players has been transferred out, and won't be playing), but Zaillian - and the director, Bennett Miller - give the film the context, the considered pauses, within which such sequences become doubly effective. The result is a film that feels less showy than The Social Network, while communicating much the same high level of information on its given subject.

David Michôd, Animal Kingdom
I'd describe it as textbook dramatic screenwriting, if that didn't sound so tedious:
Michôd writes scenes that somehow puts each character in the middle of the room, before offering them four different ways out - some of them, in this criminal context, clearly ways out forever. Yet the script's surest of structures shouldn't overshadow his ear for low-key menace, brilliantly expressed here in the family's living-room banter.

3. Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger
Not surprising that a pair of writers should, collectively, have arrived at some of the best two-sided conversations of the year: the blokey, funny in-car badinage between Foster and Harrelson was perhaps a given, but those scenes in which these men break news of deaths overseas to variously numbed, distraught and furious Army parents were penned with tremendous skill and care. More surprising and accomplished yet was the perceptive nature of those heart-to-hearts between these men and the women in their lives.

4. Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret
No denying that the writing here marks an improvement on the already considerable accomplishments of Lonergan's directorial 2000 debut You Can Count on Me: more expansive, ambitious, explosive, even. He really does write terrific confrontations: everyone in the film is pissed off at something, whether they're in a classroom, trying to talk on the phone while their brother is tunelessly bashing at a piano, or at the scene of a horrific road traffic accident. The latter - a verbal 360-degree pan around not just this out-of-the-blue tragedy, but seemingly all of Manhattan at its most jittery - yields one of the most gripping stretches of cinema I've seen all year, while giving Allison Janney (in what's almost literally a walk-on part) an outside shot at Supporting Actress prizes. The script contains almost everything that's great about Margaret; again, as I've stated elsewhere, I just wish Lonergan had been allowed back in the editing room to finish the film.

5. Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
I think Farhadi's direction is what finally makes the film (see below), but his screenwriting has, surely, to have contributed to the sense of a domestic spiralling rapidly out of control - I like the unusual avenues he opens up for himself and his actors to explore, the way things don't quite implode or explode in quite the way one would expect. If nothing else, he deserves major respect for proposing, with all seriousness, the most symbolic use of a black plastic bin bag in all cinema.

Best Director
1. Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
The film couldn't be shot any less like social realism; even while inhabiting its interior spaces, it's closer to watching a live News 24 feed from a warzone. We sense anything within the frame can blow up - and when it does, Farhadi is on the spot to show us the consequences.

2. Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter
Malick begat David Gordon Green, who begat Jeff Nichols. And lo, the student proved as interested in what's going on on the ground, between his very human, very fragile characters, as he was in filling the screen with vast, brooding, ominous skies; and as interested in what was going on in effects work and the contemporary horror movie as he was in making a big-canvas American art movie. A fresh pair of relentlessly open eyes.

3. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
No denying the vision underpinning Lars's latest: bleak, yes, but simultaneously grandiose, operatic, painterly in its opening and closing stretches - like an unlikely mindmeld of Millais and Michael Bay. The wedding scenes, full of monodimensional caricatures, probably wouldn't work without the Trier sense of mischief to guide us through to the more serious business - and, for once, around the Dunst character and her mental turmoil, you really do sense he's being serious. (Which is presumably why, defensive as ever, he felt the need to josh his way through the Cannes press conference, with such disastrous results.)

4. Gavin O'Connor, Warrior
Old-school showbusiness clout: he makes it work. And incidentally made me forget the film was 140 minutes long.

5. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Yes, there's still some of the hippy-dippy, hello-sunshine-hello-clouds windiness of The Thin Red Line and The New World in there, but when it clicks, it really is transcendent, or close to it. And no-one else would have been able to get Rupert Murdoch to shell out for a film taking us from The Beginning to the afterlife via apologetic dinosaurs and levitating redheads, then got him (or his minions) to put the result into multiplexes, to dazzle and baffle in equal measure. Direction that states: this is what the cinema is capable of.

Lists of the twenty best (and ten worst) movies of 2011 will run on this site in the first week of the New Year.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

For what it's worth: 2011 Awards special - part one

Best Actor
1. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter
Alongside Anna Paquin in Margaret (see below), the most three-dimensional performance of the year, both grounding and developing the representations of mental illness this actor attempted in Bug and Revolutionary Road. If you want to get me especially cranky, put Michael Fassbender (or even Gary Oldman's impersonation of a dusty old armchair) ahead of Shannon on your awards season ballot: Fassbender plays the effects, but not the causes, of his character's affliction, which is one of the reasons Shame lapses into privileged boo-hooing, and why that character ultimately makes next to no sense. Shannon keeps his trousers on, mercifully, but his performance is by far the more revealing about who we are, and what we're struggling through right now.

2. Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life and Moneyball
He always was a movie star; this year, the boy proved he could create characters, too - tough and tender as the father figure in the Malick movie, pensive and supremely articulate as the former sportsman in Moneyball. With its hyper-verbose screenplay, the latter is all about the Brad Pitt jaw: among his many other accomplishments, he may also be the best snacker in the movies right now.

3. Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom
A good year for Australian psychopaths: I could just as easily have included Daniel Henshall's blokish killer from Snowtown on this list, but Mendelsohn - as a bloodhound-faced goon in Hawaiian shirts - chilled the blood just that degree further. The writer-director David Michôd deposited all his characters at crossroads, offering them both ways out and back into the immoral maze in which they'd found themselves - but Mendelsohn's choices meant you genuinely didn't know where his Andrew was going to go next, and who he was going to take with him.

4. Joel Edgerton, Warrior
A good year for Australian actors in general. Edgerton had a supporting role as the conscience of the family in Animal Kingdom, but he showed his true class in this underrated MMA drama, playing - as with Shannon - an everyman pushed to extremes by the prevailing conditions. A performer has to be fairly versatile to convince as both a squeezed middle-class teacher and an aspirant cage fighter - which is Edgerton's very real achievement here.

5. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
When Scorsese's Hugo references the past, it does so in terms of nuts and bolts, cogs and wheels, technological achievements that have to be explained in children's terms. (And which risk boring the pants off kids with no real interest in irises and apertures, as the film's humdrum box-office figures only go to show.) The French film The Artist does the same, but with an altogether more sensual (and more immediately pleasurable) emphasis on the human body - there's a reason Dujardin's jaded matinee idol goes under the name Valentin, why he has to rediscover that missing "o", the wow factor that will reconnect him with his audience. (When he does, his first words become this otherwise silent film's motto-by-default.) Deprived of dialogue, Dujardin's performance is all body, all gesture - a technically dazzling display of pantomiming and mimickry, with an innate sense of how to please a crowd. It absolutely deserves our applause, if not a standing ovation.

Best Actress
1. Anna Paquin, Margaret
Amid the chaos of Kenneth Lonergan's unfinished city symphony, Paquin brilliantly nails down what it is to be an adolescent, and - more specific still - what it is to be a privileged adolescent set adrift in contemporary Manhattan
: curious, bolshy, sexually adventurous, resentful, reckless, horribly naive. You may not like the character, but you cannot fail to spot the expertise Paquin brings to the role. In every sense, there's simply much more of her here than there is as Sookie Stackhouse.

2. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia
It's the end of the world... Bring it on. In retrospect, this wasn't one of Lars von Trier's better characterised films - all those wedding guests, competing for the title of Biggest Bitch/Bastard of 2011 - but Dunst's Justine was the exception, channelling the own director's experiences with depression, while allowing the actress to work through various stages of self-abnegation and degradation, and to somehow get us to understand why this variably sympathetic character might well want the planet to burn up. The telltale sign even von Trier recognises he has to get serious around her: the whole film appears to be lit by the dying light in her eyes.

3. Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff and My Week with Marilyn
Her Marilyn, placing this terrific actress front and centre, was a good shot at an impossible role, but for my money, Williams was better still in the earlier Meek's Cutoff, having to work especially hard to distinguish her open-minded frontier heroine from the bleakly striking landscape that film proved so fascinated by.

4. Khomotso Manyake, Life, Above All
Perhaps 2011's toughest heroine of all - a child struggling to hold onto her innocence amid the poverty of the South African townships. I saw the film early in the year, and Manyake's gaze, both tender and fierce, has stayed with me ever since.

5. Liana Liberato, Trust
It was a fine year for young actresses, all told: Liberato, as the suburban girl pursued by an online predator, grew up before our very eyes, playing the assumed maturity of someone desperate to log into the adult world, while never losing touch with the vulnerability of the innocent lured to an airport hotel room.

Best Supporting Actor
1. Raphaël Personnaz, The Princess of Montpensier
A leftfield choice, but his Duc d'Anjou - a 16th century rock star, in effect - counts as just about my favourite character of the year in anything, and typical of the way Tavernier's costume drama privileges spirited, sparky youth over the greying old guard. (Would that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had found room for at least one character like him.)

2. Nick Nolte, Warrior
Almost a parody of Oscar-bait support - channelling countless Burt Youngs and Burgess Merediths - but his bibulous pugilist-pusher, stumbling over half-empty bottles in hotel rooms and reciting Moby Dick in the middle of the night, is infused with just enough wit and worldly experience to count as the most substantial part Nolte has inhabited in some two decades. Love that final shot of him: even the director, Gavin O'Connor, seems to realise how the character might be used as a punchline, or a summing-up.

3. Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Not a radical departure from the Hill norm - there are flickers of reactive, fatboy comedy in his portrayal of the Oakland As' nerdy new statistician - but just different enough in key to catch the eye; his partnership with Brad Pitt is a winning one, and together, they make scenes which really shouldn't work - like the bit of horse-trading over multiple telephones - not just come to life, but fly.

4. Brian Cox, Coriolanus
A film practically made for supporting nods - Gerard Butler is surprisingly good in it, and you'll see my thoughts on Vanessa Redgrave below - yields typically brisk, efficient work from Cox as the kingmaker Menenius, demonstrating a mastery of his particular part of the text.

5. Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Again, demonstrating the kind of expertise Hollywood routinely relies upon in our homegrown actors: a funny little impersonation of Olivier, not profound, exactly, but agreeably true to the tenor of what is, at its best, a funny little film.

Best Supporting Actress
1. Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus
A vivid glimpse of what it must have been like to see this commanding actress on stage forty or fifty years ago. (Probably best to stay away from her Queen Liz in Anonymous, though, if you want to preserve the illusion.)

2. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Sly, leonine film-stealing - lingering in the den while her pride paw and tear at one another, then pouncing in those moments when it counts. Memorably quiet about it, too: I can't remember her character having to raise her voice once. She didn't have to.

3. Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter
2011 was Chastain's year; the rest of us were just passing through it. Even given my natural predilection for redheads, I wasn't entirely convinced by Chastain in The Tree of Life (too floaty, a gorgeous, shimmering idea of something rather than a character), or Coriolanus (where she had a distinctly minor wife role), or Texas Killing Fields (which really was doing nobody any favours), but it all clicked into place here, where her wifely qualities were that much better defined, and added an extra dimension to the drama. You immediately grasp why Michael Shannon's protagonist would seek to protect her from the gathering storm, but if he felt he couldn't turn to this most patient and loving of onscreen partners, then who could he turn to?

4. Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids
If the Antipodean actors on this list teach us anything, it's that their industry teaches them great versatility. Byrne can do city girls and damsels-in-distress (TV's Damages), but she can also do funny, as seen in first Get Him to the Greek, then this runaway summer hit. (Versatility upon versatility: she can even do both - see this year's Insidious.) Somewhat overshadowed by the all-conquering majesty of writer-star Kristen Wiig, Byrne nevertheless marries sharp cheekbones to even sharper comic chops - it's quite the combo.

5. Sarina Farhadi, A Separation
Every performer in her father Asghar's gripping domestic thriller is tremendously good - it wouldn't hold the attention the way it does, otherwise - but a significant percentage of the drama plays out on the younger Farhadi's face: at the risk of sounding ungallant, she's the pet pooch caught between two masters, something the film's tragic denouement - forcing her into making that choice, and setting an injustice down in ink, perhaps forever - recognises entirely.

Awards for British Actor, Actress, Best Screenwriter and Best Director to follow tomorrow.