The films of the year (warning: contains spoilers)

Nicholas Cage starred in The Bad Lieutenant and delivered arguably the year's best performance as the morally duplicitous cop.

N.B. Since I can’t be bothered writing a basic plot synopsis of each film, I’ve included links to all their original trailers to complement my reviews.

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1. According to the late Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace: “Good fiction is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Rarely have I have ever seen Wallace’s sentiment so cogently captured by a film as it is in Gaspar Noé’s aptly-titled Enter the Void.

Following on from Noé’s previous film, the operatic rape-revenge drama Irreversible, released in 2002, in which audience members (and not just any audience members, film festival audience members) reputedly fainted during screenings, cinemagoers could barely conceive of a film that could trump it in terms of intensity levels. And yet somehow, Enter the Void managed to do just that.

And yet despite the endless nudity, despite the clitoris shot, the aborted foetus shot and the scores of horrific images that routinely infiltrate this film, Noé manages to craft a palpable beauty amidst the pessimistic and dogmatic, though inherently moral worldview conveyed onscreen.

After viewing the film, I could not help but recall a similarly controversial work of art, JG Ballard’s X-rated investigation into the connection between sex, death and celebrity, Crash, and one of the accompanying quotes about the book upon its release, which stated: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help” (a criticism that Ballard interpreted as the highest compliment possible).

There is no doubting that Noé is a tortured soul, but a talented one nonetheless. The film is continually thrilling on a visceral level; some of the shots of a neon-lit Tokyo are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen on the big screen. The music which complements the film’s dazzling energy evokes the hallucinatory obfuscation which a drug-fuelled life in Tokyo would inevitably inspire.

Moreover, it has a kind of muffled classical music soundtrack constantly providing an alluring background buzz to proceedings, and one which perfectly mimics the film’s unique sensibility. Specifically, it adheres to a deeply subversive sense of art’s possibilities, serving as it does, as the middle ground between art-house and pornography, between pretension and genius, between compelling and unwatchable, all the while consolidating Noé’s status as the heir to throne of another notorious agent provocateur – Pier Paolo Pasolini. 

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2. The Social Network may have been more of an Aaron Sorkin than a David Fincher film (screenwriters nearly always deserve at least as much credit as directors in my view), it may have borrowed heavily from the Citizen Kane template and its story may have been largely untrue (Zuckerberg has had a steady girlfriend since before he started Facebook, thus making its premise – that he was driven to conceive of Facebook in order to improve his chances with women and secure a long-term girlfriend – false), but with drama this superbly constructed, it hardly matters. Just as Shakespeare did with Richard III and Oliver Stone did with JFK, Sorkin and Fincher have every right to create a fictional tale out of real-life events.

Some critics have argued that the film’s final act lacks the potency of its opening two thirds, but I disagree. The shot of Zuckerberg alone typing away at his computer, reverting to obsessive-compulsive stereotype as he works hard at improving Facebook even whilst faced with an anxiety-ridden situation (namely: a lawsuit), exquisitely captures the loneliness of the Facebook generation writ large.

Jesse Eisenberg excels in his personification of Zuckerberg, as does Justin Timberlake who plays Napster supremo Sean Parker. The latter is perfectly cast as the villainous Parker, and displays his acting chops in particular in the film’s penultimate scene (another late highlight which those aforementioned critics inexplicably ignored) in which he spars with Eduardo, the individual who co-founded Facebook and who was unfairly cut off from the benefits that ensued once it garnered worldwide renown (at least, according to the film’s depiction of events).

All this and I haven’t mentioned the unwitting comedic gold, as provided by the brilliantly-named Winklevoss twins, along with the best trailer of the year replete with one of the best cover versions (of ‘Creep’ by Radiohead) you will ever hear. It was a tough task to make a film about an entity which essentially defined a generation, but with The Social Network, Sorkin and Fincher deserve praise far greater than the somewhat apathetic-seeming ‘like’ button for which the site is known – a 21st century Great Gatsby perhaps?   

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3. Following his descent into relative obscurity owing to financial troubles and a loss of artistic form, Werner Herzog returned with one last engrossing film to remember him by – Grizzly Man. Or so everybody thought, until he followed this work with Rescue Dawn, Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. Suddenly, a last hurrah had become a fully fledged, highly unexpected late golden period, with each film serving as an excellent addition to his already legendary canon.

And unlike many other auteurs that tend to largely stick to one cinematic philosophy, Herzog has demonstrated an ample degree of versatility in his most recent projects. For instance, whereas Encounters, his cinematic love letter to the oddballs and strange sights encompassing life in Alaska was quite serene and elegiac, Bad Lieutenant was, in a word, bonkers.

While certain critics and fans considered Bad Lieutenant as Herzog placing one foot firmly within the cinematic mainstream and thus betraying his original movies’ principles to a degree, this film contained a level of subversion which is rarely seen in Hollywood cinema, while also bearing resemblance to his earlier works in ways that one might anticipate would be impossible with a film which features Nicholas Cage.

In fact, it is Cage’s Klaus Kinski-channelling performance on which this film’s success ultimately lies and most people would surely agree that rarely has an actor captured the level of manic charisma which Cage displays since Jack Nicholson’s demented turn in The Shining

In addition, the film contains the best line of the year in terms of pure wtf-ery – “his soul is still dancing”, the best and most idiosyncratic recurring motif – the intermittent iguana-starring hallucinations – and arguably the year’s most impressive and gorgeous climax to a film in the form of Cage’s morally-depraved/heroic character sitting contentedly with his criminal companion amidst a fish tank backdrop. The film therefore succeeds in matching and arguably surpassing Abel Ferrara’s cult classic of the same name (therein lies the two films’ sole similarity). Kinski would have loved it.

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Best re-release:

What is Jack Nicholson’s greatest performance? Most people would argue either for his aforementioned role as Jack Torrance in The Shining, his Oscar-winning portrayal of Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or his late career blooming period as seen most clearly in Terms of Endearment. A few people might even have the temerity to suggest his performance as the Joker in Batman as his greatest moment. None of these films, though, constitute the correct answer, wonderful as they all are.

Nicholson’s best performance remains one of his earliest onscreen appearances – his turn as a feckless, directionless drifter who has been overly pampered in his youth and continually searches, seemingly in vain, for a raison d’être.

Originally released in 1970, Five Easy Pieces is not only the most entertaining, relentlessly sardonic and innovative film which I’ve seen all year, it is also hugely influential in a manner akin to The Velvet Underground’s debut album in that everyone who came across it appears to have formed a band/made a movie thereafter. The film’s deeply affectionate, staunch love for its protagonist in spite of himself coupled with an underlying, unyielding misanthropy as far as the rest of the human race is concerned, practically invented the Coen brothers, for example (the brothers have often paid homage to the film, most notably with certain scenes in Burn After Reading, while John Malkovich’s character in the film essentially acts as a stand-in for Nicholson’s drifter).  

The film is one of the most bittersweet paeans to a subsection of American society ever produced – a subsection comprising of the country’s aimless, over-privileged yet still somehow searingly disillusioned youth. Nicholson takes on the daunting voice-of-a-generation role and succeeds in evoking America’s inner tragedy with the type of consummate, laconic ease which would eventually become his trademark – mannerisms that would sadly subsequently descend into little more than self-parody in films such as The Bucket List.

And in the grand tradition of actors winning Oscars years later, when they deserved the accolade for earlier films, Nicholson eventually got his award for essentially playing an older version of the exact same character only in an insipid cover version of Bob Rafelson’s masterpiece – James L Brooks’ As Good as it Gets being the guilty party in this instance.

While director/studio maverick Rafelson would never again even come close to recapturing the magic of his debut film – a situation possibly explained by the fact that Carole Eastman, the film’s screenwriter and a rare example of a female writer working in Hollywood at the time, was swiftly ostracised from Hollywood circles thereafter – this ingenious effort is enough to end all debates on whether or not the 1970s was indeed the best decade ever for film.

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