Gilbey on Film: what to watch in 2010

Our film critic chooses his highlights

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in a café ("café" being the euphemism of choice for those of us who frequent any of the popular high-street coffee chains, but would rather people didn't know it) when I fell under the spell of the couple at the next table. Not only were they bickering -- always prime eavesdropping material -- but the contentious subject was movies. He wanted to see Avatar that evening, while she was adamant that paying to watch a film that she knew in advance would be pure tedium was not on the cards for that Friday night, or any other.

I did my utmost to appear absorbed in my reading, and to refrain from rushing to the defence of this sane-headed woman. Just as well, really, because the entire fabric of their relationship was starting to unravel. "Whenever you choose the film, it turns out to be crap," she argued, which would have given her the upper hand, had he not immediately produced his trump card: "You're the one who made us see Save the Last Dance." Oof! That's gotta hurt.

Now we're on the other side of Christmas, I find myself wondering if they made it through. The odds weren't good; when the topic moved on to films they were looking forward to in 2010, he cited Iron Man 2 and the forthcoming remake of Clash of the Titans, while she sought silent consolation in her cappuccino. As I started coming over all superior towards my fellow coffee-consumer, I wondered if my own Must-See list for the coming year was any more radical than his. The answer: not really.

Most of the films I'm excited about are safe bets in their own way. For example, I can't wait for The Killer Inside Me because the idea of Michael Winterbottom directing Casey Affleck in a Jim Thompson adaptation sounds like dynamite (and because someone who caught an early cut assured me that it's impressively nasty).

Scott Pilgrim v the World has me hooked already because I adore the director (Edgar Wright) and the source material (Bryan Lee O'Malley's witty graphic novels about a lovestruck bassist who must overcome his new girlfriend's evil exes). And I like the look of Gentlemen Broncos, a florid comic fantasy about a science-fiction writer who plagiarises the work of a fan; I'm hoping it will return the writer-director Jared Hess to the heights of his debut, Napoleon Dynamite, after the disappointment of Nacho Libre.

I also hear great things about the new films from Claire Denis (White Material) and Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman). And I'm eager to see Chris Morris's first film, the jihad comedy Four Lions. But then, who isn't?

More than any of these partly known quantities, though, it is the surprises that get me buzzing: the films I haven't heard of, by directors whose names don't ring a bell, but which will in all likelihood change my life. The idea that they are out there somewhere is like the promise of an undiscovered colour. Or, at the very least, a new flavour of ice cream.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era