Thursday 31 December 2009

Best Films of 2009

Bearing in mind that I haven’t seen every movie released in the UK this year, here are the top 20 films that have made such an impression that I can fearlessly call them the best of the year, plus links to my extended thoughts on them where available:

1. The White Ribbon
Simply peerless filmmaking. I have no doubt that the second time I watch this there will be a thousand things I didn’t notice the first time, which will leave me even more amazed at Haneke’s artistic control and accomplishment.

2. Up
Probably the most universally brilliant film of the year. Wonderful storytelling and brilliant characterisation combined in a truly life-affirming tale.

3. Fish Tank
Bruised and beautiful. Read my full review here.

4. Che
Steven Soderbergh’s two part epic is an amazing fimmmaking achievement, with a career-best performance from Benicio Del Toro.

5. Bright Star
Romantic perfection. Read my full review here.

6. Star Trek
The best film of the blockbuster season by a million light years, this confirms JJ Abrams as the popcorn director of the 21st century. Eat that, Spielberg!

7. Moon
Duncan Jones low-budget sci-fi gets everything right, from the classic genre feel to Sam Rockwell’s moving performance(s).

8. The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke should have won the Oscar; his performance gave wonderful depth and reality to Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful broken-down character study.

9. Coraline
The kind of children’s film that I thought they didn’t make any more; properly scary and imaginative and with a fearless heroine, brought to amazing life in painstaking stop-motion.

10. A Serious Man
Life’s biggest questions, confronted as only the Coen Brothers can. Read my full review here.

11. Burma VJ
12. The Hurt Locker
13. Inglourious Basterds

14. Synecdoche, New York

15. Rachel Getting Married

16. Slumdog Millionaire

17. The Class

18. Monsters Vs. Aliens

19. Zombieland

20. Let The Right One In

And the worst? No contest, it’s got to be Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. 160 plus minutes of meaningless rubbish that fails on every level. Michael Bay, please retire now!

Here’s to another great year at the movies in 2010.

Friday 18 December 2009

Radio Scotland Movie Café: Avatar review

I had the pleasure of being asked back on to the Movie Cafe this week, to review arguably the biggest movie of 2009, James Cameron's Avatar. I was discussing the film with fellow film critic Nigel Floyd and the show's host Janice Forsyth. Click the link below to listen:

Paul Gallagher - Avatar (opens in a new window)

We all agreed that the $300 million plus epic was a must-see cinema experience, offering awesome visuals quite unlike anything previously seen on film, particularly in the amazingly believable CG imagery. I was a little more critical than Janice and Nigel on the films flaws, particularly the lack of drive to the story in the film's first half, and the uninteresting characters that Cameron had populated this eye-popping world with, but would still urge anyone with an interest in cinema to check out this significant movie event at the biggest screen possible.

Friday 4 December 2009


Adapted from J.M. Coetzee’s acclaimed novel, this is an admirably complex film, in which director Steve Jacobs successfully presents a scenario with no easy solutions, but fails to tell a really compelling story. John Malkovich plays David, a South African university lecturer who is discovered carrying on an affair with a student and is forced to resign his post. Seemingly unrepentant, but accepting that he cannot stay in Cape Town, he decides to go and live with his estranged daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines) on her remote farm on the opposite side of the country. He begins settling down and trying to rebuild some kind of relationship with his daughter, but this fledgling peace is soon burst open by a brutal act of violence.

David is a puzzle, and difficult to even begin to try and understand; he behaves badly, but we are kept from simply hating him by Malkovich’s excellent performance. He gives very little away about David’s internal life, making him recognisably human, but such an impenetrable central character is tough to stay interested in, and while there are clearly deeper layers to David, Jacobs never lets us find them. Jacobs is interested in exploring some of contemporary South Africa’s biggest social problems though, and particularly through the character of Lucy, he very effectively shows the broken state that this nation is in. As often happens with literary adaptations, Jacobs introduces several themes and characters that are introduced but not fully developed, and the film is often a frustrating experience as a result.

Me and Orson Welles: Richard Linklater interview (

Richard Linklater, Orson Welles and William Shakespeare: not three names that usually come up in conversation together. Linklater is a prolific director who has managed to forge an enviably balanced career of indie hits like Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise with more mainstream successes, notably School of Rock starring Jack Black. But his isn't the first name that springs to mind when considering who might direct a film focusing on Welles's Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1930s New York. So it's refreshing to report that Me and Orson Welles, Linklater's latest film, does exactly that, and to great success too. It's warm and witty, pitched at just the right level to engage Welles' aficionados and newcomers alike, and it boasts a standout performance from newcomer Christian McKay as the big man with the big cigar. As well as McKay, the film stars High School Musical's Zac Efron, another eyebrow-raising name in such hallowed grounds of film history. We spoke to Linklater about how this unlikely troupe came together and the experience of making the film...

What was the initial appeal of this film for you?
The book by Robert Kaplow is a wonderful historical fiction, a recreation of that moment in Welles’s life, seen through the young guy’s eyes. It was just a very charming book, and as a filmmaker, that depiction of Welles at that moment was a real challenge.

With a title like Me & Orson Welles I’m guessing the film must have hinged on finding the Orson Welles?
I wasn’t gonna do this movie if I didn’t find the right actor, but I didn’t have anyone in mind, as it’s such a hard part to cast. I remember theorising to my colleagues back in the US, “you know who our Welles is? He’s probably on stage in London doing Shakespeare right now, some guy who has a resemblance to him, that’s who we have to really look for”. And about 5 weeks later I get an email – this guy’s doing a little one-man show in New York. And the fact that Christian is unknown was even more magical, because you’re not sitting there judging the actor; it allows you to feel more that you’re hanging out with Orson Welles in 1936. I think that can be wonderful when it happens, and particularly with a personality as big as Welles, it’s only better that Christian is fresh.

How did Zac Efron get involved? Was it difficult to get him in a smallish movie?
Well, he played a supporting role in Hairspray, and I think of he and Christian as the co-stars of the movie; it’s his movie. But anyway, I heard he liked the script a lot, and I wanted to meet him. And I sat down with him, and less than 20 seconds into our conversation I knew I had found my young Richard. I go by my instincts, and he had all that innocence, and yet he’s really smart and knowing - he fit the role perfectly. I didn’t want a neutral character who would just disappear. He had to go toe to toe with Welles, and I think Zac is a worthy opponent, he maybe out-duels him there for a second in the movie. And Zac has that quality. I think he’s a real star.

So from such an American story, how did you end up filming on the Isle of Man?
We’re all nomads as filmmakers; you go where you can make your film. If you go to West 41st Street now in New York City, there’s a huge office building there and you would never know what it used to look like by its modern standard. And it’s too expensive to shoot there anyway, so as a filmmaker you just see where it might work. And in the Isle of Man they had this beautiful old theatre, the Gaiety Theatre, built around the same time as the Mercury Theatre. I visited it, and the stage was the right dimensions, they had that wonderful understage area so we could make that work. And that allowed us to shoot half the movie there, because half of it was inside the theatre. I didn’t need their beautiful scenery, which I think is why most people go to the Isle of Man to film, but us being in the theatre allowed them [Isle of Man Film] to be the main producer on the film. Every film is a bit of a puzzle to piece together, so I felt very lucky to be over there.

Did you organise directing the play within the film separately from the period aspect of the film?
They are two separate elements, you have to approach them differently. In one they’re putting on a play, it’s Julius Caesar, you have the exact text. That’s its own production and then there’s all the rehearsals that are leading up to it. So that was the big challenge for me. There were a lot of notes, which helped, as I was recreating a historical production, so that gave me some grounding, and I worked with a wonderful Shakespeare dramaturge from the Globe Theatre, Giles Block, and he helped me enormously. We shot all the stage elements first and then we came over [to Pinewood] to do the rest. So as they walk up the aisle and out the door, we cut to four weeks later at Pinewood studios and they’re walking through a little façade. It was a puzzle that had to be pre-planned.

Had you ever directed any Shakespeare before?
Not technically. When I was 12 I directed our Junior High production of Julius Caesar, believe it or not. I think I had about a 180-degree different interpretation of the play than Orson had – you shouldn’t kill Caesar! Those are bad guys – but there you go. It’s kind of a joke, but it’s funny looking back in your life and you can connect the dots. Even then as a kid I didn’t want to audition as an actor, but felt that I should be working with the sets, and working with the actors and costumes and staging; I should just be in charge!

Jools Holland and Eddie Reader feature in the film’s live band sequence. How did that come about?
Some of my favourite moments really in this whole process were sitting in Jools Holland’s living room, listening to him play. I’d been introduced to him and we had this live performance section, and he loves this period of music; it was just this wonderful collaboration with him and his band. And he brought Eddie Reader on board, so the music was just a joy to work on.

The industry has changed so much since Welles’s time – can visionaries like him still exist, or are independent filmmakers like yourself always at the whim of number-crunchers as opposed to artists?
Well I think yes, you are in that position in terms of getting your film green-lit. That’s the hard part, but once the film’s financed I’ve always felt this incredible amount of freedom and support, whether from a studio or whoever’s producing the movie. I mean, there’s always limitations; budget, schedule and you’re under a certain deadline, so those are obvious pressures. But I’ve never felt accountants or anyone interfering with a movie. I think people make a bigger deal of that than there really is.

Me and Orson Welles is released on Friday 4th December. This interview first published on

Wednesday 2 December 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

If you count both parts of Che as separate films, this is Steven Soderbergh’s fourth film to hit UK cinemas this year; not bad going for a director who began 2009 being (mis-)quoted saying he was soon to retire. The Girlfriend Experience sits firmly in Soderbergh’s ‘experimental’ pile, as it’s shot in a very immediate handheld digital style, and features porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role. Her character, Chelsea, makes her living from giving wealthy clients the experience of the title: company, conversation, sex and whatever else they want. Soderbergh parallels Chelsea and another character, Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer who is working equally hard to make a name for himself in his industry; we discover the reason for this parallel later.

Grey, fully clothed for most of the film, gives a beguiling performance, showing little emotion and offering only a few hints as to Chelsea’s reasons for doing what she does. Soderbergh is interested in presenting life as a series of transactions, with everyone trying to earn their keep with what they have. Explicitly set in the context of the current financial crisis, it makes for compelling, provocative viewing.


The Descent: Part 2

Neil Marshall’s excellent 2005 horror The Descent wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel, in fact the ending that we saw in UK cinemas (changed in the US) pretty much put a full stop on the story. But a film producer’s power of selective amnesia knows no limits, so we’re being served this second helping of underground terror whether it makes sense or not. This time it’s helmed by the first film’s editor, Jon Harris, with Marshall overseeing as an executive producer.

Essentially it’s a re-run of the first film, but in a straight comparison this film is weaker in every respect. Where Marshall spent time establishing characters and creating inter-group tensions that gave the mounting horror emotional depth, Harris can’t wait to get his paper-thin characters down into the caves and start killing them off. Similarly, this second part has none of the original’s unknown quantities, as we already know that once the group get into the caves it’s only a matter of time before the monsters from part one appear to kill them in grisly ways. It’s efficiently made, and there are some effectively gruesome deaths, but the film can be accurately summed up as more of the same, only nowhere near as good.