Gilbey on Film: The best of 2010

A look back at the year in cinema.

Film of the year

The Social Network

Honourable mentions

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives , A Prophet, The Headless Woman, Greenberg, Gentlemen Broncos, Father of My Children, Beeswax, Another Year, Lebanon, The Time That Remains, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, The Arbor, Still Walking, The Ghost (though let's keep things in perspective -- what's with the 3,017 prizes for Polanski's picture at the European Film Awards?).

Most unjustly forgotten film of the year

The Road, which also contained the scariest scene of the year: good to see there's life (and death) in the creaky old "Don't go down to the cellar!" routine.

Soundtracks of the year: The Social Network (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and Greenberg (James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem)

The "What took you so long?" prize for delayed distribution

Contenders included I Love You, Phillip Morris, with 15 months elapsing between its Sundance premiere and its UK release, and The Headless Woman, which opened here nearly two years after its Cannes debut. But the most extreme case of delay was Frownland,an extraordinarily abrasive US independent film about a lonely, emotionally victimised door-to-door salesman. It took more than three years to get here, but it was worth the wait.

Knockout comic performance of the year

A tie between Nicolas Cage as a drug-crazed cop who hallucinates iguanas and breakdancing spirits in The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans, and Jemaine Clement as the pompous science-fiction novelist Dr Ronald Chevalier in Gentlemen Broncos.

Most inventive death scene

Many contenders here, all of them from the impressive Hong Kong socio-horror film Dream Home, which included: a man forced to slash with a penknife at his own neck in an attempt to sever the cord that was strangling him; mid-coital disembowelment; asphyxiation by plastic bag and household vacuum cleaner. And the winner is... (cue fumbling with blood-spattered envelope)... the "man stabbed in the neck with his own glass bong" scene. That's what you call going out on a high. By the by, Dream Home also wins the L'emploi du temps award for Best Recession-related Film of the Year.

Rip-off cinema of the year

The Vue, Shepherd's Bush, west London. One adult, one child, bringing their own 3D glasses to a 10.30am screening of How to Train Your Dragon, on a Sunday morning three months into the film's release. Ticket price? £21. Consequence? I don't go to Vue cinemas any more. Admissions may have risen, but multiplexes shouldn't think they can price prohibitively, especially in off-peak times. Joe Flint wrote a sound piece on the subject on the LA Times website this year. His beef was with the pricing structure at Hollywood's otherwise wonderful Arclight cinema, a classy venue that knocks any Vue into a cocked popcorn tub. Extortionate pricing, Flint says, "gives people just one more reason to stay home. At a time when theater operators are worried about movies popping up sooner on DVD and video-on-demand and thereby undercutting ticket sales, making it costlier to go out to the local multiplex seems ill advised."

Misjudgement of the year

The violence in The Killer Inside Me. A straight minute, or however long it was, of Casey Affleck bashing Jessica Alba's face until it resembled an overripe nectarine may have grabbed headlines. But for visceral, enduring impact, it was manifestly not the cinematic equivalent of the few, sparing sentences that Jim Thompson used to convey the attack in his original novel. Winterbottom receives a partial pardon for some gorgeous moments in his six-part BBC2 series The Trip (especially episode four -- the "We leave at daybreak!" one), which started limply but proved a real grower.

Guilty pleasure of the year

The crude action movie spoof MacGruber was good, indefensible fun. Even doubters should seek it out for the divine Kristen Wiig (she plays the unimprovably-named Vicky St Elmo). I'm hoping 2011 will be the year that Wiig, who was also excellent this year in Drew Barrymore's underrated Whip It!, breaks out with a scorching lead performance. Nicole Holofcener, director of Please Give, has expressed a desire to work with her.

The "I don't get it" award for movie phenomena that passed me by

I experienced strange waves of guilt for failing to warm to either Of Gods and Men or Toy Story 3. That said, the latter film featured both my favourite character of the year -- the lumbering, shabby, horribly mewing Big Baby, who was both tender and menacing -- and the most traumatic scene: the toys holding hands in acceptance of mortality as they descend toward a furnace. No such guilt about disliking Inception, a film which felt like being trapped in business class on a grounded flight, listening to CEOs discussing their dreams for two-and-a-half hours.

Funniest line of the year

This award goes not to any screenwriter, but to an anonymous wag with a biro at London's Holborn underground station. On the poster for Please Give, the certificate advice reads: "CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE AND INFREQUENT SEX." Next to which someone scribbled: "Story of my life."

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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser