The World's End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

 A man of your legendary prowess drinking fucking rain! (spoiler notice)

And so ends Edgar Wright's, Simon Pegg's and Nick Frost's much-lauded 'Cornetto trilogy'. The World's End comes not entirely hot on the heels of the breakthrough success of 2004's Shaun of the Dead and the hilarious Hot Fuzz from 2007. Once again, the story centers around a pair of friends played by Pegg and Frost. I say a pair, not the pair, since the tales are unrelated and the characters different every time. The trilogy's hallmark isn't its stories, it's the way it smartly deconstructs modern genre cinema and its tropes; lovingly put together in films brimming with inside jokes, knowing foreshadowing and a real jolt of craft.

You Kill Me (John Dahl, 2007)

 From anonymous professional killer to anonymous alcoholic

You Kill Me is the sort of film that doesn’t even get a theatrical release in the Netherlands. It’s too small for it, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. Dutch cinemas are necessarily picky, and there’s a certain charm to the movie’s simple story.

The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)

Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich are in their, wait for it, element

Whenever I'm not feeling well, due to a cold or influenza, I have the irresistible urge to watch science fiction. Wait, let me back up. When I was around twelve years old, I remember it fondly, I once stayed home with a fever. Lying on the sofa, I watched reruns of Star Trek: Voyager that were on at the time. The images of distant worlds and the romantic idea of traveling the galaxy on a space ship left an indelible mark on my impressionable, by sickness enfeebled mind.

The masks of cinema

Should they stay on or go off? (spoiler notice)

Like Chekhov’s gun, it seems a golden rule that whenever a mask shows up in a film, an unmasking must follow. Masks have a strange allure on us. They invariably hide something, be it a promise or a disappointment. In film, masks are used to hide identities, to build legends, to alter perceptions.

La Règle du Jeu (‘The Rules of the Game’, Jean Renoir, 1939)

Sincere people are such bores

La Règle du Jeu starts with a simple affair: young adventurer André Jurieux has a crush on Christine de la Cheyniest, whose husband, Robert, thinks it's a charming diversion but wants it to end. From there on out the film snowballs more and more different characters into the proceedings, employing an 'upstairs, downstairs' structure you may recognize from Downton Abbey. Most of it takes place in a mansion on the countryside, where masquerade revelries and ballroom games take up much of the time.

The Naked Gun (David Zucker, 1988)

One noir detective in a world of fools

Hundreds of years ago, which is to say way before George Méliès was born, comedy meant ‘a story that ends with a wedding’ (that epitome of a happy ending), and not necessarily ‘anything that is funny’. This is why Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – a harrowing tale of racism and cutting pounds of meat out of people – is a comedy and not the English Renaissance equivalent of Saw.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

 Tech and rebirth (spoiler notice)

Underneath the veneer of a – frankly – shockingly entertaining astronaut thrill ride, some interesting themes simmer. Amidst exploding ISS modules, depleting oxygen tanks and lethal debris swarming in orbit, Gravity uses its tech-heavy setting as a means of exploring the beauty of Earth and the hidden strengths within our minds. At the peak of our current technological achievements, Alfonso Cuarón finds the rebirth of a human.

Uncle Buck (John Hughes, 1989)

 Wanted: sleazy relative to watch the children, no experience required

Who wouldn’t want John Candy as their uncle? Well, back when he still lived, of course. Uncle Buck is a fine comedy in that specific 80s John Hughes tradition, coupling broad laughs with teenage angst and concerns about growing up.

Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994)

Would you commit to cheating if the price is right?

Clocking in at two hours and twelve minutes, most movies would outstay their welcome, but not Quiz Show. The reason for its endurance is that from the first moment to the very last, it places its characters before tough, interesting choices.

Riddick (David Twohy, 2013)

A man, a dog, two ships full of mercs and a planet of beasties (spoiler notice)

Right off the bat, let me confess that I like this film series. I have a soft spot for Richard B. Riddick. Not everyone has, clearly evinced by the slew of negative reports surrounding this latest entry. Riddick is a movie that sets out to do a very specific thing. It takes its damn sweet time to do it, and along the way a few iffy story lines involving women swish uncomfortably past, but it succeeds at exactly that goal. Whether you'll be as disappointed as many others depends on your stomach for Vin Diesel reprising his role as intergalactic badass.

Gone in 60 Seconds (Dominic Sena, 2000)

 Blasting to Palm Springs with Eleanor

Rare is the film starring Nicolas Cage in which he doesn’t freak out at some point, but Gone in 60 Seconds is that film. It’s an unapologetically fun heist movie that doesn’t center on any one bank or casino to be robbed, but instead has no less than fifty expensive cars in its visor. Not only is this a large amount to steal unnoticed in any situation, circumstances force them to be arranged in a single night.

Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008)

 Give that man a measure of respite

My appreciation for this film has grown since I first saw it in the cinema. 2005’s fantastic series reboot Casino Royale reintroduced with a vengeance the idea that Bond movies are spy thrillers rather than a facile parade of action stunts. Coming from that, Quantum of Solace was a step back. It was an ordinary Bond flick with a typical plot, spurred, I have come to believe, by the incredible rush to produce a sequel at the time. But that same time has been kind to this film and I’ve warmed up to it.

Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

 When you’re inside a whale, there’s not much to do but make art

Mind Game is a Japanese animated film steeped in art and deconstruction of cinema. Sounds a little heavy? This absurdist anime fortunately offers a lot of laughs as well.

Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012)

The trick is not minding it hurts

Ridley Scott made a worthy prequel to the core Alien film series that, with the exception of the exceptionally poor fourth film (Alien: Resurrection, 1997), has managed over four decades to remain a unique sci-fi horror experience.

Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)

Praise for an unloved Bond

Generally, Die Another Day is seen as one of the lesser Bond movies. An apex of the hollow, CGI-stocked Brosnan efforts that typified the late nineties and early naughts. I think the film gets an unfairly bad treatment though, and here’s why:

Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques (‘Asterix at the Olympic Games’, Frédéric Forestier, Thomas Langmann, 2008)

Throwing out the menhir with the bathwater

I had feared this would happen. After the comedy brilliance of Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (‘Mission Cleopatra’ from 2002) – a film containing successful jokes, hilarious performances and a knowing, canny script – the series has returned to its roots of tepid, lackluster kid’s movies.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (David Gelb, 2011)

 
It takes ten years to make a good omelet

In an underground tunnel in Tokyo lies an eatery with only ten seats and an external toilet. Yet this is the only sushi restaurant to carry three Michelin stars. The 85 year-old head of this establishment is Jiro Ono, and every night he dreams up new creations.

Deguchi No Nai Umi (‘Sea Without Exit’ AKA ‘Kaiten – Human Torpedo War’, Kiyoshi Sasabe, 2006)

The unsung, drowned tragedies of war

In 1944 flocks of Japanese students joined the army to become martyrs in a war against the United States that could no longer be won. Next to the infamous suicide airplanes, the ‘kamikaze’ (‘divine wind’), there existed also manned torpedoes. They were named ‘kaiten’, which means ‘return to heaven’. A lugubrious concept rarely seen in the mainstream, until this 2006 film.

V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005)

All day, all day, watch them all fall down

There is one moviemaking technique that defines V for Vendetta. It’s not the bullet time fighting – that earlier visual discovery by the Wachowski Siblings (screenwriters on this film) in The Matrix: since then a staple for action films and making its appearance here as well. Nor is it the slick costumes, the ensemble cast trappings of this stylized dystopian parable or its symbolism of masks, secrets, subterfuge.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro, 2013)

 I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away

There can be no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro is a huge fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion. His latest epic (and they keep getting more and more epic for this director, though he oscillates between those and smaller features) draws broadly and heavily from the anime classic. Let's not mince words: it's a straight-up love letter. Where many homages turn into something less than the thing they were inspired by, Pacific Rim manages to walk the rope with skill - until it eventually plummets off.

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)

Am I a samurai?

I will not lie: I enjoyed this movie. Perhaps that should be prefaced with the expectation that I was in for a dumb action flick. You know, in the vein of the first stand-alone Wolverine feature from 2009, which wasn't terribly impressive. Imagine my surprise then. Just imagine it.

Hospitalité (Koji Fukada, 2010)

This is why we can’t have nice things

Japanese people are incapable of saying no. That observation is put to the test in Hospitalité. How far can you bend over backwards until something snaps?

Doodslag (‘Manslaughter’, Pieter Kuijpers, 2012)

 An insoluble moral dilemma seized by demagogues (spoiler notice)

Every culturally diverse society bumps into certain problems. Problems that politicians and demagogues are keen to use as currency for attention. In recent years, one of those big topics was the way ambulance personnel are increasingly mistreated as they attempt to provide aid, with an emphasis on the role of ill-adjusted immigrants.

Ninja Assassin (James McTeigue, 2009)

 You must hate weakness in others and in yourself

It’s easy to see where the fascination for ninjas comes from. Invisible warriors, hiding in the shadow, flitting over rooftops, lethal with any weapon, possessing supernatural powers. It should come as no surprise that though ninjas did exist, they were nothing like this romantic vision. The historical ninja has as much in common with the black-hooded killer from pop culture as actual British secret service agents have with James Bond.

Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

To boldly borrow where the last film also went for inspiration (spoiler notice)

'Star Trek Into Darkness' is probably the best film name I've heard in a while. Just purely from a word-appreciation viewpoint: wow. What a find. It's instantly clear this is a sequel, yet there's also a meaning beyond simply saying something like 'Superman Returns'. Never before has the actual Trek of Star Trek been used so convincingly (if used at all), and still poetically, since Darkness is not a physical place to journey towards, but a metaphor. So, what darkness is this that we're going to be venturing into?

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

To boldly go where no Trek should ever have gone

Star Trek: a collection of television series and films about exploring space. Diplomacy. The delicacy of dealing with alien species. Pondering the moral choices in life. Hard, speculative science fiction. This latest film, a reboot, is not about these things, but about running around and strangling people.

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)

 Have a vignette with your cake and tea

The correct way to watch Coffee and Cigarettes is in chunks, maybe four or five of them. The film is a collection of shorts Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed over the course of many decades, all of them tableside conversations between well-known musicians and actors. Sometimes playing themselves, sometimes not. Most of them are charming in their own right, but view them all in one go and it gets a little tiresome. The black and white meet-ups are like finger food. Take a few at a time, enjoy them, then watch another the next day.

The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)

A comedy to wake up the world

Having seen my fair share of Laurel & Hardy, I thought I knew the extent of the humor of the great slapstick artists from the black and white movie era. Worse, I believed comedy in general was an evolving art, one that got sharper and wittier as time moves to modern eras. The progression of standup comics and Dutch cabaret performers over the decades seemed to confirm it. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator has taught me a lesson, however, one I intend to profit by.

The Weather Man (Gore Verbinski, 2005)

It’s wind, man, it blows everywhere

David Spritz’s marriage ended in fights, his two kids are messed up and people on the street throw fast food on him. He’s a weather man, you see; he gets paid way too royally for too little work. How cruel is the common man’s jealousy. All the other stuff is David’s own fault, though.

The Jerk (Carl Reiner, 1979)

Steve Martin breaks a lance for jerks everywhere

Steve Martin’s comedy film debut is a madhouse of oddball characters, barely threaded situations and the absurd, non-sequitur humor he drew scores of people to his shows with.

Seppuku

Japan’s secret storytelling weapon

Seppuku is the secret narrative weapon of Japanese storytelling. Unique to Japan and their culture of honor, seppuku (or hara-kiri as it is also known) is the ritual self-disemboweling of a samurai with a sharp knife. Sometimes it happened when a samurai was disgraced through his own actions. Sometimes it was demanded by their lord for political reasons. Sometimes it occurred to save the samurai’s family. But whatever the reason: it is an evocative, excruciating, captivating dramatic experience that has virtually no parallel in western cinema.

Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962)

Doctor Nobody does it better (spoiler notice)

It was a little over fifty years ago that Dr. No launched James Bond into the collective unconscious. Bond became a film icon that is today just as valid and valued as it was when handsome, rugged Sean Connery first walked into the frame and shot his unknown assailant.

L'année dernière à Marienbad (‘Last Year at Marienbad’, Alain Resnais, 1961)

What really happened in this luxurious maze of marble and mirrors?

It’s difficult to discuss the plot of L'année dernière à Marienbad, because so much of it is shrouded in the unknown. There is a man in a hotel. He meets a woman and informs her that they had a meeting here last year. The woman can’t remember it, but the man insists and refuses to leave her alone. Is there truth to his story, or are they the delusions of an obsessed stalker? Perhaps even a rapist? As time goes by, memories get muddy on both sides, are forced onto the other, become strained, contradictory, disappear altogether. The truth of Marienbad is known only to its endless marble hallways, its trompe l’oeils.

Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik, 2010)

Be a good boy and pay your loans, or the repo men will come (spoiler notice)

Remy and Jake are damaged goods. After the war, their desensitization towards violence was so all-consuming they ended up with the grisliest of jobs without batting an eye: they became repossession men.

Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008)

Bill Maher goes for a stroll through crazy town

In the comedic documentary Religulous, Bill Maher tours the world and takes the task upon him to discover why religious people believe. Not in any dead serious way, but with a sort of casual, honest kind of inquisitiveness that lends some fresh air to the thing. Religious discussions can quickly become complicated philosophical arguments spread out into dozens of little skirmishes, so it's nice to see something like this.

Budo: The Art of Killing (Masayoshi Nemoto, 1979)

Wallow in the fantasy of Japanese martial arts

Budo: The Art of Killing is a documentary that waxes poetic about the founding principles and thoughts behind samurai and the fighting styles and sports of Japan. The presentation is straight-up like a National Geographic documentary. In truth, it is a work of fiction, choreographed to appeal to a caricature: the myth of Japan as the Other, the Japanese as an unknowable and mystical race. This is part of a superficial tradition with roots in Japan's closed country policy and the Second World War, where the US portrayed everything Japanese as alien. Budo presents not so much a concise picture of martial arts as it partakes in the same fantasy world as The Karate Kid.

Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010)

The lone and level sands stretch far away

I didn’t want to see Buried. I had read the premise and knew I wouldn’t be able to take it. I don’t have claustrophobia, but that doesn’t mean I want to be locked in a coffin for an hour and a half. So I decided not to go, because I know my limits. Then the sneak preview in the local cinema tricked me. It lured me in with promises of another movie, one I did want to see. Then, darkness. Muffled breathing. A sneaker bumping into wooden planks. Buried.

Minecraft: The Story of Mojang (Paul Owens, 2012)

Lego for the 21st century

Welcome to the exciting world of future entertainment. Everything about this documentary shows how our media landscape is evolving in all sorts of different, unknown directions. It isn’t just the subject of this film, but the very film itself – which was paid for by crowd funding through the now-popular Kickstarter website. This documentary exists because the audience wanted it to and put down their money for it in advance. It only gets better from here.

Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)

Night-time vistas expose LA’s dangerous beauty

Most buddy movies feature an involuntary pair-up of opposites. The retiring officer with a screw-loose rogue (Lethal Weapon), an overly serious city cop with a laid-back countryside local (Hot Fuzz). If you’ll excuse my deliberate misapplication of the genre: Collateral has the most involuntary team of all.

Gentlemen Broncos (Jared Hess, 2009)

When the going gets weird, the weird get a beard

Like Napoleon Dynamite before it, Gentlemen Broncos revels in weirdness for weirdness’ sake. But unlike its spiritual predecessor (both films are from the hand of writer/director Jared Hess), it has a hero who is, shockingly, likeable and relatable.

The Great Buck Howard (Sean McGinly, 2008)

Isn’t that wild, folks?

Buck Howard is a has-been magician. His decade-old repertoire consists of simple sleights of hand, cheesy stand-up and cheesier piano songs: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”, perennially dedicated to his old friend George Takei. The only one who doesn’t seem to realize his career is over and that Takei wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, is Buck. Two people are in for the ride: his agent and a new road manager, the drifting kid Troy Gable. To him, his boss is a bit of a sad figure and a stepping stone to figuring out what he wants from life.

Fetih 1453 (‘Conquest 1453’, Faruk Aksoy, 2012)

The largest cannon ever smelted versus the strongest walls in the world

The year is 1453 and Constantinople is under siege by the Ottoman empire. History tells us that it will fall (Constantinople is now known as Istanbul, Turkey’s foremost city). But tell me: looking at the picture in your head, who are the villains in this battle? The warmongering Turkish force? According to Fetih 1453, you might just have been brainwashed by western films.

Shrek Forever After (Mike Mitchell, 2010)

Ach, wie gut, dass niemand weiß, dass ich Rumpelstilzchen heiß

Last time I monitored how this series had been all but played out. Shrek the Third had reached those decidedly middling grounds where franchises go to die. Lame story, a rehash of old jokes and recycled bad guys. What a surprise Shrek Forever After is in that light. It’s a breath of inventiveness that recaptures the charms of the first two films.