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The good, the bad and the ugly

Alex Deleon offers his choice of ten best and worst films of the past year.

Well, it's that time again when many film reviewers and critics compile their lists of Best (and Worst) of the flicks they were exposed to in the preceding year. Given that one can no more tell people which films they "should" like and which they shouldn't, anymore than you can expect everybody to agree with you on the taste of tripe soup or boiled tongue-- or even honey, for that matter -- it should be obvious to any person capable of having his (or her) own opinions, that critics are not heaven ordained Arbiters of Taste -- they are just frequent film fliers who, because they see so many and habitually express their opinions in writing, are maybe just a wee bit better equipped to conjure up cogent reasons for their own likes and dislikes, prejudices and predilections-- but not necessarily.

I personally see the main role of the critical reviewer as trying to turn people on to especially good films that are off the mainstream, which are likely to be overlooked because they receive little or no promotional hype, and also trying to alert readers to the shortcomings and defects of major films which have such a barrage of high paid hype behind them, that many people will be taken in by the promo and waste hard earned dollars to catch them at the plexes, then are hardly able to admit even to themselves that they were disappointed because they don't want to feel like dumb suckers.

People sucked in by the fact that films which have won Oscars or have gathered up other awards, are blissfully unaware that the "bests" that come with these awards are largely the work of politicking behind the scenes or the opinions of established critics who are basically paid for having the "right opinions". and know which side their opinion making bread is buttered on.

To take just one example from 2008, the big Hollywood production "There Will Be Blood" was declared best-this and best-that by panels of critics and buttered up juries all over the world. I missed it when it was premiered last year in Berlin at an early prestige gala and only saw it some months later. Lead actor Daniel Day Lewis was treated like film royalty when he appeared in Berlin to promote the film and the press was full of raves although there were a few dissenting opinions on the back pages. Day Lewis was declared Best actor of the year at the Oscars and the film was on nearly every "Best Ten List" in sight, at or near the top. When I finally caught up with "Blood" at a cineplex I was taken in myself by the gloss for the first fifteen minutes (I didn't want to feel like a sucker for paying the full price), but then gradually began to realize that this was an overblown piece of crap telling a story of less intrinsic interest than a Donald Duck comic strip.

Sure, Daniel Day is a highly accomplished actor but his character in this film was a very big Zero
and a total turn-off -- a waste of talent, to put it mildly. The award he should have gotten was one for Celluloid Heroism, for allowing himself to be cast as a totally off-turning character in a totally meaningless, dumb super-production, selling itself as heavy meaningful historical American drama.
I would have ankled it long before the end, but I felt obligated to see it through since so many revered critics had praised it to high heaven -- just to see what the hulabaloo was all about. The Bottom Line -- terrible --P.O.C. = Piece of Crap, and WOA = Waste of Money. I would recommend this film only to Masochists or delusionoids who don't know what they like, but know what they are SUPPOSED to like. It tops my Worst Ten list although I saw even worse films during the year because it is a prime example of how to pull the wool over the public's eyes and of the questionable taste of some of the top reviewers, some of whom maybe really thought it was great. The moral: Don't go by the opinions of the critics (not even Yours Truly) -- word of mouth of friends is far more reliable.
To close these remarks, let me mention an interview I did not too long ago with pre-emminent American film reviewer, Roger Ebert, when he was on the Jury at Karlovy Vary a few years back. I asked Ebert, since he has to see so many movies in his line of work among which there must be many bad ones, if he ever walked out of any. To this Roger replied, "Nope -- hardly ever. The worse the film is the more ammunition it gives me to write a scathing review" ... and we all know how much review readers like sarcastic, funny, scathing reviews!

Most of these films were seen --(or walked out of in disgust) --at festivals or national film weeks --some at ordinary commercial screenings.

1. IN BRUGES --TITANIC festival, Budapest --Colorful violent comedy about a couple of Irish hitmen on X-mas vacation in the beautiful Belgian city. A sleeper and an eye-opener with some outrageously politically incorrent comedy and most beautifully mounted. Breath-taking. Really leaves you breath-less.

2. UNE JOURNEE --(One Day) - French Swiss -suspense drama --A day in the life of a successful but philandering TV newscaster who runs somebody down on the street on the way to work one day and leaves the scene unnoticed, but eventually his conscience gets the best of him. Extremely sexy mistress is played by Noemie Kochner who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Jacob Berger. The kind of story you've maybe seen before, but better done here with some unusual Swiss twists and directorial verve. (Eskishehir festival, Turkey)

3. DEVDAS -- Glorious Bollywood drama, love story, spectacle with other worldly beauty of Aishwarya Rai, and a classy serious performance by Shah Rukh Khan, the king of Bollywood. Dance duet number featuring Rai and equally beautiful Madhura Dixit is alone worthy of the "Best" appelation. On the scale of Gone With the Wind. Truly magnificent. (Indian film week, Budapest)

4. CAFE TRANSIT -- Iranian film about a country women who rebels against the local customs and opens a truckers cafe on the highway near the Turkish border. Eventually she is forced to close down and conform to the system, but her dignity is unshakable. Remarkable performance by actress Fereshte Sadre Orafaiy, who is the wife of director Kambuzia Partovi and, generally, way off the beaten track for a Persian movie.

5. BATHORY. The biggest production in Czecho-Slovak film history directed by veteran maverick Slovak director, Juraj Jakubisko. This the sweeping story of legendary Hungarian aristocratic, Elizabeth Bathory, a beautiful strong-minded woman who is said to have bathed in the blood of young virgins to preserve her youth. Spectacular, off-beat, and bloody good all the way with excellent performances all around, especially the lead role by English actress Anna Friel in the title role. This was the altar piece at Karlovy Vary.

6. HAVEL. Prague, July. Feature length documentary following former Czech president and writer Waclaw Havel around his daily chores over a period of ten years, The film reveals Havel to be a colorful, humorous man, who had greatness more or less thrust upon him when as an opposition leader against the Communists he suddenly found himself in the president seat. In addition this is a primer of recent Csech politics showing many of the people around President Havel, such as his attractive first and second wives, with a certain depth. I found this treatment of a political figure so rich and well done as a doc, and Waclaw himself such a captivating figure, that I went to see it three times in one week.

7. SCORCESE'S STONES CONCERT --"Let there be light" was the surprise opener at Berlin last year with the Stones there, in person. Normally, Rock Docs are not not my cup of tea and I think Scorcese has seen his better days, but what I liked about this was that Scorces just lets the Stones roll and what emerges, among other things, is a remarkable portrait of a super energetic Mick Jagger on stage still prancing mightily at 65, and, in general a very interestING portrait of a group of geriatric musicians who, by all chronological standards should be out to pasture by now, but continue to defy gravity. Inspiring on those grounds alone, and lots of terrific rock music. A most unusual documentary, precisely because it is so undocumentarian!

8. "Karakkaze Yaro" (Afraid to Die). a 1960 gangster film by little known Japanese master of arty off-beat action dramas, Yasuzo Masumura, in the series "Japanese Film Noir" at San Sebastian. This film is especially remarkable for the one full-on leading role performance by famous and infamous Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, playing a gangster-yakuza opposite Wakao Ayako, one of the most beautiful and popular Japanese leading ladies of all time. Mishima isn't much of an actor, but just seeing this Nobel Prize level writer playing a tough talking gangster is enough. The film ends with a bravura sequence -- one of the most famous in Japanese cinema -- of Mishima. stabbed by a hit man from a rival gang, dying on the up escalator of a Japanese department store during the Christmas rush. This is one I have been waiting years to catch up with, and when it surfaced at San Sebastian in September, I was not disappointed.

9. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN -- or was that Last year??

10. Open to suggestions ---

NOTE: I am indebted to Prague-based critic Tom Dirlis for the extremely useful term "FLUSH BEFORE USING" which he uses to describe the ineptness of the film "Burn After Using".

!. THERE WILL BLOOD --supposedly the story of an early American Oil Tycoon and his rutlessness -- but who cares. Dull, badly cast, ill conceived, misgegotten, misguided missile with Oscar Winning performance by Daniel Day Lewis, wasted on a seriously bad movie. Verdict: FLUSH WITHOUT USING

2. BIG THUNDER -- Ben Stiller, director, actor, and chief perpetrator of this large scale abortion. After a risible opening sequence promising a hilarious send up of war movies, this falls very quickly flat on it's heavy-handed violently stupid unfunny face. Yeeekh ... Flush without using.

3. I'M NOT THERE -- Variations on the theme of Bob Dylan with hoaky cross-dresser role by Cate Blanchett, doing Dylan in Drag. High profile at many festivals --six different actors play Bob Dylan to no real avail --an excercise in experimental acting, but who wants to watch an acting workshop? No real relevance to the real Bob -- Phony Baloney all the way -- Director Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven", 2002, was a minor masterpiece but there's nobody there in this one. Producer Harvey Weinstein said "I'll put a bullet through my brain if she doesn't get the Academy Award" -- She didn't get Jack Feces and I'm still waiting ...

4. HAPPY GO LUCKY -- Mike Leigh, UK, Berlin, San Sebastian, etc.
Pathetically unfunny, sick comedy (if that's what it was meant to be) centering on a dizzy dame in grubby North London with a Pollyanna upbeat outlook on life, while everyone around her is depressed out of their minds. Critics for whom Mike Leigh can do no wrong, loved it. I found it both boring and depressing, with the only "bright spot", the pathetic sociopathic driving teacher who finally freaks out -- Rating: "USE AND FLUSH"--

5. ZENIP'S TEN DAYS-- (Turkey) -- unbelievably boring flick about a pretty single young woman trapped in a meaningless life in a faceless modern high rise and a dead end job. She comes on like a robot all through the pic, and that is apparently the point --modern high rise life in Turkey turns people into robots, but this one just doesn't work. Pathetic attempt at a meaningful social statement. However, the main actress in the title role, Fadik Atasoy, was a discovery in this and other flicks as well, and what a personality!

6. WOODY ALLEN, V.C, BARCELONA --Opener at San Seb and high profile everywhere else.
Totally overrated and overblown, second-rate Allen with especially flat Scarlett Johansson and out-of-his depth (in English) Javier Badem. Nice looking but empty portrait of Spain. Verdict: USE AND FLUSH

6. THE KARAMAZOVS --Pretentious intello Czech film set in an abandoned Polish factory where a group of actors are rehearsing a play based on Dostoyevsky -- A talkative piece of nonsense based on an underground succes d'estime play in Prague --Really dull -- not a sleeper but a Put-to-sleeper, but it got high grades from Russian literature buffs and people who like dark talky films dressed in rags -- FLUSH BEFORE USING (unless you're a Dostoyevsky freak --in which case, USE BEFORE FLUSHING)

7 -- more to come if I think of them.


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