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Film challenge, reloaded

Several years ago, Shaun Duke and myself challenged each other to produce a short series of themed movie lists, which we posted on our blogs. I bumped into Shaun at the Worldcon in Dublin last month, and during our conversation I suggested we resurrect our film challenges. Shaun agreed. And then, a week or so ago, someone tweeted a link to Screen Rant’s “10 Most Underrated Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films Of The Last 20 Years” [sic, sic and sic], and it’s the usual suspects plus a couple of “they must be fucking joking” choices… But it occurred to me it was a perfect theme for mine and Shaun’s first film challenge.

For the record, here’s Screen Rant’s list, in reverse order:

10 Attack the Block, Joe Cornish (2011, UK)
9 Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK)
8 Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho (2013, South Korea)
7 Predestination, Michael and Peter Spierig (2014, Australia)
6 District 9, Neill Blomkamp (2009, South Africa)
5 Super 8, JJ Abrams (2011, USA)
4 Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006, UK)
3 The Cell, Tarsem Singh (2000, USA)
2 Annihilation, Alex Garland (2018, UK)
1 Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2014, UK)

I’m not going to bother dissecting the list, other than to say I disagree with most of it and strongly disagree with a couple of the movies on it. The list is also boringly Anglophone and surprisingly Anglophilic (even though Snowpiercer to have never had a UK sell-through release).

Twenty years, however, it a bit too long a period to pick ten under-rated genre movies, so for this challenge, Shaun, I’ve decided to limit it to ten years. Also, science fiction and fantasy only – no horror or superhero movies or supernatural thrillers. And, obviously, they can’t be on Screen Rant’s list…

This actually proved harder than I expected. Chiefly, I think, because I’ve watched so many films over the past few years. Some were obvious picks – for me – but selecting others, and making the list well-rounded, was a, er, challenge. Anyway, here they are, in reverse order as above:

10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011, USA). I’ve been a fan of Brit Marling’s work since seeing her first movie, Another Earth (also 2011), and while Sound of My Voice‘s genre credentials are slim they are certainly integral to the story. A pair of documentary film-makers attempt to infiltrate a cult whose leader claims to be from the future. It’s brilliantly under-stated stuff. And the ending manages to keep the viewer guessing.

9 Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). I’m not a huge fan of anime but no list of science fiction films would be complete without at least one title (er, I have two). Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the third of four films adapted from Anno’s own television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I would really like to see but which is really hard to find on DVD). The final film is due next year. It’s all giant mecha and giant weird aliens, but it looks great and it delves deeper into the psychology of its cast than is usual for the genre. True, it probably makes little sense without having seen the first two films in the series – but why not watch them as well?

8 Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010, Norway). This could be considered alternate history, although it’s cleverly structured such that its alternate history is actually a secret history. In the real world, Norwegian minister Arne Treholt was convicted of treason in 1984 for selling secrets to the USSR. In the world of the movie, he was actually the head of a secret ninja force which reported directly to the King of Norway and was at war with a CIA-created stay-behind group that sought to trigger a war with the USSR. The film is a pitch-perfect spoof of 1970s exploitation action movies, with an amazing level of care taken over the production design.

7 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). Switzerland is not a country that springs to mind when discussing science fiction cinema – well, other than HR Giger – but even more surprisingly Cargo is an accomplished piece of science fiction film-making that manages to encompass a whole raft of genre tropes and yet still spin something new out of them. The CGI is not perfect in places, and one or two of the tropes drop into cliché as the story progresses… but this is a good solid piece of space-based science fiction, with an interesting premise and a well-handled climax.

6 Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). Shinkai’s animated films are absolutely gorgeous. I swear, you can see the individual raindrops in them. I also have a soft spot for Japanese high school genre anime stories. And body-swap stories. Your Name does both. A female high school student in a provincial town finds herself randomly swapping bodies with a male high school student in Tokyo. As they learn about each other, so they discover there is a much more at stake. It’s not an easy plot to describe because too much detail would constitute a spoiler. But Shinkai’s animation is simply stunning, so it’s worth seeing any of his films. But this is his best yet.

5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012, UK). I grew up reading the comic 2000 AD and Judge Dredd was its flagship strip (UK comics are generally anthology comics, unlike US ones). He also appeared in a national newspaper. And in a pretty bad movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That a new film adaptation might actually be any good was not something I’d have thought possible. But Dredd succeeded. Its plot is simple: Dredd and new recruit Judge Anderson are sent to a tower block to investigate three murders by the local drug lord, Ma-Ma. The block goes into lock-down, and Dredd and Anderson fight to survive against Ma-Ma’s heavily-armed troops. Dredd is basically an ultra-violent arthouse movie, and it works astonishingly well. There have been rumours of a sequel. Yes, please.

4 Pojkarna, Alexandra-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). Speaking of body-swap movies… Although the title of this movie translates as “the boys”, the film was released with the English title of Girls Lost. Both fit. Three teenage girls who are being bullied at school order a mysterious plant from an online supplier. They drink its nectar and awake to find themselves changed into teenage boys. And so begin to explore their new, and temporary, existence. There’s a sort of understated acceptance to the central premise that allows the girls to explore their new identities without losing sight of who they are or what they gain from their transformation. And while story drifts a tad toward cliché as it nears its climax, the final scene is one of those which turns a good film into a great one.

3 The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). The Untamed opens with a young woman in a barn having sex with a tentacled alien. Meanwhile another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. The Untamed has a documentary feel, which I find greatly appealing, but more than that it is an excellent example of how a science-fictional conceit can be used to illuminate the quotidian. There are not many examples of good sf slow cinema, but this is one of them.

2 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012, USA). This is probably the most contentious entry on this list. Although plainly the first in a planned franchise, the movie flopped at the box office – thanks to a sabotaged marketing campaign, rumour has it, rather than poor audience response – despite being one of the most narratively sophisticated genre films for quite a while. Having said that, its source material is over 100 years old, which means a lot of the ideas have been re-used so extensively in the century since they’re just not fresh anymore. But the film looks stunning, the plotting is extremely clever and, the odd longeur aside, it’s a crying shame a sequel was never made.

1 Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013, UK). I read the Michel Faber novel of the same title from which this was adapted nearly twenty years ago, and absolutely hated it. So I was somewhat ambivalent about a movie made of the book. To be fair, the adaptation is not particularly faithful, and whatever plot the novel possessed has been stretched so thin in the film it’s pretty much non-existent. Scarlett Johansson is convincingly blank as an alien woman harvesting men in Glasgow for meat, and the guerrilla film-making gives the film a surprising verisimilitude. I’m not convinced the film makes a point as meaningful as it think it does, but at least it tries to say something.

There are another dozen or so films that could have made the above list. Perhaps I’ll save them for a challenge for another day…

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Best sf films since 2000

So Shaun Duke says Interstellar is one of the best sf films of this century and I’m like no way and he’s like way and so he challenges me to produce my own list of top ten sf films of the last fourteen years… And it’s actually quite difficult as I can think of two dozen off the top of my head that are better than Interstellar, but I have to whittle it down to only ten. Which I did. And here they are…

1 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009) I’m surprised this film isn’t better known. Perhaps it makes a little too free and easy with some well-known tropes, but this Schweitzer Deutsch production puts them to excellent use, and still manages to ring some changes.

2 Avalon, Mamoru Oshii (2001) A Japanese film made in Poland with a Polish cast. It looks amazing, and the VR game plot with its layers of realities seriously messes with your head.

3 Primer, Shane Carruth (2004) Probably the best time travel film ever made. And it’s impossible to work out the plot.

4 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013) An improvement on the book. Shot guerilla-style in Glasgow, with Scarlett Johansson as an enigmatic alien.

5 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012) Commercially a flop, but there’s much to like in this tentpole blockbuster – it looks gorgeous, the script is far smarter than the material had any right to expect, and the cast all play good turns.

6 Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran (2004) A CGI-fest which makes perhaps too much of a feast of its source material – while the pulp production design looks wonderful, the pulp narrative didn’t sit well with modern audiences.

7 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012) Who knew an art house version of the Mega City One lawmaker would work so well?

8 Upstream Colour, Shane Carruth (2013) Elliptical and even more of a mind-fuck than Primer.

9 Timecrimes, Nacho Vigalondo (2007) More time paradoxes than you can shake a reasonably large Moebius loop at.

10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011) A  clever study of the cult mentality, with Brit Marling as a “prophet” from the future.

Honourable mentions: Apollo 18 (2011), amazingly accurate rendition of an Apollo mission, with monsters; Gravity (2013), not quite as accurate, no monsters either; Possible Worlds (2000), odd and under-stated many worlds thriller; Natural City (2003), frenetic Korean cyberpunk actioner; Time Of The Wolf (2003), Haneke does post-apocalypse.


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2013, the best of the year

We’re a couple of weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year, so it’s time to look back with a critical eye over the past twelve-ish months and the words, pictures and sounds I consumed during that period. Because not everything is equal, some have to be best – and they are the following:

BOOKS
UnderTheVolcano1 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) A classic of British literature and rightly so. I fell in love with Lowry’s prose after reading ‘Into the Panama’ in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven thy Dwelling Place, although I already had a copy of the novel at the time (I’d picked out the collection, Under the Volcano and Ultramarine from my father’s collection of Penguin paperbacks back in 2010). Anyway, Under the Volcano contains prose to be treasured, though I recommend reading Ultramarine and Lowry’s short fiction first as it is semi-autobiographical and you can pick out the bits he’s used and re-used. This book was also in my Best of the half-year.

wintersbone2 Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006) I’d bought this because I thought the film was so good and because Woodrell had been recommended to me. But instead of the well-crafted crime novel I was expecting to read, I found a beautifully-written – and surprisingly short – literary novel set in the Ozarks that was perhaps even better than the movie adaptation. I plan to read more by Woodrell. Winter’s Bone was also in my Best of the half-year.

empty3 Empty Space: A Haunting, M John Harrison (2012) The third book in the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and I’m pretty damn sure I’ll have to reread all three again some time soon. Although the fulcrum of the story is Anna Waterman and the strange physics which seems to coalesce about her, Empty Space: A Haunting also does something quite strange and wonderful with its deployment of fairly common sf tropes, and I think that’s the real strength of the book – if not of the whole trilogy. And this is another one that was in my Best of the half-year.

sons4 Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) When I looked back over what I’d read during 2013, I was surprised to find I held this book in higher regard than I had previously. And higher than most of the other books I’d read during the year too, of course. At the half-year mark, I’d only given it an honourable mention, but it seems to have lingered and grown in my mind since then. It is perhaps somewhat loosely-structured for modern tastes, but there can be little doubt Lawrence fully deserves his high stature in British literature.

promised_moon5 Promised the Moon, Stephanie Nolan (2003) I did a lot of research for Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and this was the best of the books on the Mercury 13. But even in its own right, it was a fascinating read and, while sympathetic to its topic, it neither tried to exaggerate the Mercury 13’s importance nor make them out to be more astonishing than they already were. If you read one book about the Mercury 13, make it this one.

Honourable mentions: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013), an exciting debut that made me remember why I read science fiction; Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972), beautifully-written tall tales presented as Marco Polo’s report to a khan; The Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1989), a masterclass in writing accessible sf, this book needs to be back in print; The Day Of The Scorpion, Paul Scott (1968), the second book of the Raj Quartet and another demonstration of his masterful control of voice; The Sweetheart Season, Karen Joy Fowler (1996), funny and charming in equal measure; The Lowest Heaven, edited by Anne C Perry & Jared Shurin (2013), some excellent stories but also a beautifully-produced volume; Sealab, Ben Hellwarth (2012), a fascinating history of the US’s programme to develop an underwater habitat; Cities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1987), a thinly-disguised novelisation of the US oil companies’ entry into Saudi, must get the rest of the trilogy; and Wolfsangel, MD Lachlan (2010), Vikings and werewolves are definitely not my thing but this rang some really interesting changes on what I’d expected to be a routine fantasy, must get the next book in the series…

Oops. Bit of a genre failure there – only one sf novel makes it into my top five, and that was published last year not this; although four genre books do get honourable mentions – two from 2013, one from 2010 and one from 1989. I really must read more recent science fiction. Perhaps I can make that a reading challenge for 2014, to read each new sf novel as I purchase it. And I really must make an effort to read more short fiction in 2014 too.

FILMS
about-elly-dvd1 About Elly, Asghar Farhadi (2009) A group of young professionals from Tehran go to spend the weekend at a villa on the Caspian Sea. One of the wives persuades her daughter’s teacher, Elly, to accompany them (because she wants to match-make between the teacher and her brother, visiting from his home in Germany). Halfway through the weekend, Elly vanishes… and what had started out as a drama about family relationships turns into something very different and unexpected. This film made my Best of the half-year.

consequences2 The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino (2004) The phrase “stylish thriller” could have been coined to describe this film, even if at times – as one critic remarked – it does resemble a car commercial. A man lives alone in a hotel in a small town in Switzerland. Once a week, a suitcase containing several million dollars is dropped off in his hotel room. He drives to a local bank, watches as the money is counted by hand and then deposited in his account. One day, the young woman who works in the hotel bar demands to know why he always ignores her… and everything changes.

lemepris3 Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard (1963) I don’t really like Godard’s films, so the fact I liked this one so much took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it’s because it feels a little Fellini’s if it had been made by Michelangelo Antonioni. I like , I like Antonioni’s films. Perhaps the characters are all drawn a little too broadly – the swaggering American producer, the urbane European director (played by Fritz Lang), the struggling novelist turned screenwriter, and, er, Brigitte Bardot. Another film that made my Best of the half-year.

onlyyesterday_548494 Only Yesterday, Isao Takahata (1991) An animated film from Studio Ghibli which dispenses entirely with whimsy and/or genre trappings. A young woman goes to stay with relatives in the country and reflects on what she wants out of life. The flashback sequences showing her as a young girl are drawn with a more cartoon-like style which contrasts perfectly with the impressively painterly sequences set in the countryside. Without a doubt the best Ghibli I’ve seen to date… and I’ve seen over half of them so far. Once again, a film that made my Best of the half-year.

gravity5 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón (2013) I had to think twice whether or not to put this in my top five. It was the only film I saw at the cinema this year, and I suspect seeing it in IMAX 3D may have coloured my judgement. To be fair, it is visually spectacular. And I loved seeing all that hardware done realistically and accurately on the screen. But. The story is weak, the characters are dismayingly incompetent and super-competent by turns, some of the science has been fudged when it didn’t need to be, and it often feels a little like a missed opportunity more than anything else. Perhaps I’ll feel differently after I’ve seen it on Blu-Ray…

Honourable mentions: She Should Have Gone to the Moon, Ulrike Kubatta (2008), an elegantly-shot documentary on the Mercury 13; Gertrud, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1964), grim and Danish but subtle and powerful; Man With A Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929), astonishing meta-cinema from the beginnings of the medium; Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011), Brit Marling is definitely becoming someone to watch; Love in the Afternoon, Éric Rohmer (1972), the best of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales; The Confrontation, Miklós Jancsó (1969), more socialist declamatory and posturing as a group of students stage their own revolution; Tears For Sale, Uroš Sotjanović (2008), CGI-heavy Serbian folk-tale, feels a little like Jeunet… but funny and without the annoying whimsy; Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963), a Czech sf film from the 1960s, what’s not to love?; Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti (1993), an entertaining and clever paean to Rome and the Italian islands, and a rueful look at the Italian health service; and The Sun, Aleksandr Sokurov (2005), a poignant and beautifully-played character-study of the Emperor Hirohito in 1945.

This year for a change I’m also naming and shaming the worst films I watched in 2013. They were: The Atomic Submarine, Spencer Gordon Bennet (1959), a typical B-movie of the period with the eponymous underwater vessel finding an alien saucer deep beneath the waves; Cyborg 2: Glass Shadow, Michael Schroeder (1993), an unofficial sequel to the Van Damme vehicle and notable only for being Angelina Jolie’s first starring role; The Girl from Rio, Jésus Franco (1969), Shirley Eaton as Sumuru, leader of the women-only nation of Femina, plans to take over the world, it starts out as a cheap thriller but turns into cheaper titillatory sf; The 25th Reich, Stephen Amis (2012), WWII GIs in Australia find a UFO, go back in time millions of years to when it crashed, then a Nazi spy steals it and ushers in an interplanetary Nazi regime, bad acting and even worse CGI; Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, Jonas Pate (2012), they took everything that had been good about Battlestar Galactica and removed it, leaving only brainless military characters and CGI battle scenes.

ALBUMS
construct1 Construct, Dark Tranquillity (2013) Every time Dark Tranquillity release a new album, it makes my best of the year. I guess I must be a fan then. In truth, they are probably my favourite band and their last half-dozen albums have each been consistently better than the one before. So many bands seem to plateau at some point during their career but DT amazingly just get better and better. This album was on my Best of the half-year.

spiritual2 Spiritual Migration, Persefone (2013) Another band who improves with each subsequent album. And they’re good live too – although I’ve only seen them the once (they really should tour the UK again; soon). This is strong progressive death metal, with some excellent guitar playing and a very nice line in piano accompaniment. I didn’t buy this album until the second half of the year, which is why it didn’t appear in the half-year list.

DeathWalks3 Death Walks With Me, Noumena (2013) A new album by a favourite band after far too long a wait, so this was pretty sure to make my top five. Noumena play melodic death/doom metal, an inimitably Finnish genre, but they also use clean vocals, and a female vocalist, quite a bit. One song even features a trumpet solo. I posted the promo video to one track, ‘Sleep’, on my blog here. And the album also made my Best of the Half-Year.

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph4 The Threnody Of Triumph, Winterfylleth (2012) I first saw Winterfylleth live before they were signed back in 2008 at the Purple Turtle in Camden at the Day of Unrest (see here), and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. This, their latest album, shows how far they’ve come and amply demonstrates why they’re so good. They call it English heritage black metal, which I think just means they sing about English historical sort of things (the band’s name is Anglo-Saxon for “October”). Another album from my Best of the half-year.

Of-breath-and-bone5 Of Breath And Bone, Be’lakor (2012) On first listen I thought, oh I like this, it deserves to be played loud. And it really does – it’s not just that Be’lakor, an Australian melodic death metal band, have excellent riffs, but also that there’s a lot more going on in their music than just those riffs. The more I listen to Of Breath And Bone, the more I like it – originally I only gave it an honourable mention in my Best of the half-year, but having played the album so much throughout 2013, I think it deserves a promotion.

Honourable mentions: Dustwalker, Fen (2013), shoegazery black metal that works extremely well; Where the End Begins, Mentally Blind (2013), excellent sophomore EP from a Polish death metal band, with an astonishingly good opening track (see here); Unborn and Hollow, Forlorn Chambers (2013), a demo from a Finnish death/doom band, and very very heavy, sort of a bit like a doomy version of Demilich, in fact, but without the vocal fry register singing; Shrine of the New Generation Slaves, Riverside (2013), more polished, er, Polish progginess, a little rockier than the previous album, although one track does include some very melodic “sexamaphone” [sic]; All Is One, Orphaned Land, proggier than previous albums but still with that very distinctive sound of their own, incorporating both Arabic and Hebrew; and Nespithe, Demilich (1993), a classic piece of Finnish death metal history, I picked up a copy of the re-mastered edition at Bloodstock – there’s a special Demilich compilation album, 20th Adversary of Emptiness, due to be released early next year, I’ve already pre-ordered it.

One of the things I really like about metal is that it’s an international genre, and here is the proof – the bands named above hail from Sweden, Andorra, Finland, the UK, Australia, Israel and Poland. There’s also quite a good mix of metal genres, from death to black metal, with a bit of prog thrown in for good measure.