It’s coming to that time of year when the pundits start issuing their lists of the Best of ’09…I thought I’d add to the pile with my own three favourite SFF films of 2009.
Well actually I can’t manage 3 – I have to stretch to 4. And in reverse order:
Number 4) is District 9, a wonderfully funny and also terrifically exciting action SF set in South Africa, in which the hero turns into an alien. Peter Jackson executive produced this gem, and it was directed by Neil Blomkamp and written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell.
Number 3) is Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman. I’ve seen some negative comments about this on the web – on the lines of, it’s ‘just’ a Hollywood blockbuster. But I thought it was fast and furious and funny and very clever. I love the fact that Abrams – with his US TV background – has the courage to mix slapstick humour, like Kirk’s balloon hands, in with moments of intense drama. I watched this in a packed cinema, and the audience oohed and aahed just as audiences ought to…This is space opera and it rocks.
Number 2) is The Watchmen, a faithful (thought purists might say otherwise) version of Alan Moore’s comic book which was visually extraordinary, and morally challenging. Some found it a bit slow-paced and digressive; I thought it was a work of drama that had the courage to take its time. And it was sexy too – great to see a Hollywood movie that isn’t afraid to admit that humans have bare bodies beneath their lycra.
But up there as number 1), my favourite film of the year, as well as being my favourite SFF film, is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Despite the dumb spelling of the title (it’s an in joke that is so “in” only Quentin gets it), this is a serious, intelligent, thought-provoking, exciting, hilarious piece of a work from a film-maker who just gets better and better. (Death Proof worked perfectly, in my view, as a B movie with real characters and great performances; and Kill Bill is kick-ass action rendered into astonishing visual poetry.)
I read quite a lot of hostile reviews of Basterds, taking exception to the fact that a) Brad Pitt’s men keep scalping Nazis, which is not very nice, and didn’t happen in real life and b) the final sequence has an event (I SHAN’T SPOIL IT!) that also didn’t happen in real life. Oh, and lots of reviewers seemed to think that Tarantino had lost his mind, and simply shot random scenes from different films then tried to splice them together in a last minute frenzy.
However, I found it to be a very carefully constructed, rich, and utterly entertaining piece of cinema. And I loved the fact it is based on an alternate history scenario in which the course of the Second World War was changed by a bunch of characters out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. (The fact the film uses alternate history means that – like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle - it most emphatically counts as SF, not just ‘war movie.’)
Basterds begins with a shockingly suspenseful sequence in which a Nazi colonel murders a family of Jews – all bar one, Shosanna, who escapes, and plans a dark revenge. She is the heroine of the movie, and the best thing in the movie; this is a luminous and wonderous performance from Melanie Laurent, who is even better than Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa.
The story of Brad Pitt and his Apache style guerrilla warriors is woven around Shosanna’s story, skilfully and beguilingly. But Tarantino – a master of postmodern genre-mashing – is too smart to make a dumb ‘scalping Nazis’ movie. He makes the dumb scalping Nazis stuff his enjoyable B-movie-style subplot, and THEN builds a structure of complex drama around it.
I adore Brad Pitt for giving such a selflessly comedic performance; he stomps around like Popeye in an Ingmar Bergman movie. He knows it’s silly, and Tarantino knows it too. That’s the gag; diversity of tone and clashing of genres are the things that light Tarantino’s fire.
So here’s to the Basterds! And let’s hope next year brings as many great movies.
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