A feast of turkeys
Film - Philip Kerr on the nominations for the hits and misses of the year
Emerson once wrote that one should never read a book that isn't at least a year old. I'm beginning to feel the same way about films. Nearly all of the movies I've seen this year have been duds, and while DVDs are expensive - absurdly so, when you compare prices here with those in the US - a DVD player is becoming an essential purchase for anyone who is at all interested in film. (If you are planning to buy a machine this Christmas, then make sure you buy a multi-region player so you can stock up with the latest titles when you go to the States, or order them up on Amazon.com.) With so much rubbish on our cinema screens, I'm often tempted to suggest you forget going to the cinema at all, and instead that you buy a DVD of some old movie.
There were, however, a few exceptions.
Back in January, I wrote that I had already seen what promised to be the best British film of 2002, in Last Orders, Fred Schepisi's excellent adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel. I haven't changed that opinion. Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtney, Helen Mirren, David Hemmings and Michael Caine were all superb in this moving study of five disappointed lives. Danny Boyle's sci-fi thriller 28 Days Later, still on general release, is a pretty good runner-up in this category.
January also saw the British release of Mulholland Drive. Directed by that Lucifer of modern cinema, David Lynch, this was his best film since Blue Velvet and was a story in which, as usual, reality was a feast that moved around like a '57 Chevy. It reminded me that Los Angeles is damn lucky to have Hollywood, otherwise it would be as boring as any other American city that isn't New York or Chicago.
March saw one of the dullest films of the year in The Shipping News and my light-hearted comments about Newfoundland, where the film is set, drew a record number of complaints for an article in the NS, mainly from people in Newfoundland. Apparently, the word "Newfie" is considered offensive and so, to all the Newfies that I offended, I'd like to apologise for suggesting they were as dull and stupid as the film seemed to indicate.
I wonder what Newfies made of Iris, which was certainly the dullest British film of the year, if not the millennium. It purported to be the story of Dame Iris Murdoch, but there was precious little in the movie to persuade you that this woman had been a philosopher and novelist of note. Indeed, the film seemed designed to expose not Dame Iris's wise words, but as much of Kate Winslet's very lovely naked body as possible. "Her greatest talent was life itself," warbled the sickening trailer for this travesty. Twaddle. Iris Murdoch had no more talent for life than anyone else, and this stupid film seemed to be based on the premise that she was some kind of modern Mahatma, or great soul. But Hollywood loves a movie about a loony, or someone who has been reduced to acting like a loony, especially when said loony is someone terribly clever.
Entering the same asylum ward as Iris, with no less risible result, A Beautiful Mind starred Russell Crowe, and tried to show that thinking too much, as Shakespeare has it in Julius Caesar, is dangerous. Watching Crowe try to look and act like a clever man was a little like watching Dubbya trying to spell Afghanistan.
Oscar night was 24 March and, thankfully, Crowe, whose ego seems quite large enough already, was pipped for best actor by the brilliant Denzel Washington, who was excellent as a badass cop in Training Day. I was less convinced by Halle Berry as best actress in Monster's Ball, and for me the high spot in this film was not Berry's eroticised performance but the sight of Sean "P Diddy" Combs, who played her murdering husband, being fried to a crisp in the electric chair. Now that really was worth the price of a cinema ticket. Halle made the traditionally lachrymose spectacle of herself while collecting her statuette, while Gwyneth Paltrow merely made a spectacle of herself dressed in what looked like the oily vest Bruce Willis had been wearing at the end of Die Hard.
But it was nice to see a Brit, Julian Fellowes, picking up a screenwriting Oscar for Gosford Park, a movie that looked like Renoir's La Regle du Jeu rewritten by Jean (Upstairs Downstairs) Marsh.
Sadly, there was no award for Gene Hackman, who gave an excellent performance in what was one of the quirkiest films of the year, The Royal Tenenbaums. Nominated alongside Hackman was Will Smith, who was Ali in Michael Mann's hugely disappointing biopic of the same name. In his commendable search for veracity and realism, Mann forgot that no movie about the life of Muhammad Ali could ever be as exciting and interesting as the real thing. Anyone could have told him that. In fact, I think I did.
While British film faced financial bankruptcy with the collapse of Film Four, French film faced a different kind of bankruptcy: the moral kind. Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of erect penises and full penetration shots in mainstream movies, and I'd always rather see a man getting his cock sucked than his head blown off. The trouble was that in Baise-moi, we got both, and almost simultaneously. As road movies go, Baise-moi lacked a certain je ne sais quoi: two women, one of whom has been raped, have sex with, and then travel round the country killing, as many men as possible. The film tried so hard to be shocking that it quickly became as tiresome as a group of French lorry-drivers. No less boring was The Pornographer, in which an ageing director of porn-movies played by Jean-Pierre Leaud came out of retirement to do one more skin flick in order to pay off his debts. British audiences were denied a much-vaunted 12-second "money shot" that you can see any time on the porn channel in your hotel bedroom. Paris only looks like the cultural capital of Europe until you see its cinema.
So what does it take to make a really bad movie? Most crucial of all is a really big budget. Scooby-Doo cost a staggering $90m, and managed to look like the kind of Scooby-Doo you need to scoop up in a plastic bag. For me, this was the worst film of the year, though it was run a close joint second by the execrable Mr Deeds and Novocaine. The NS award for the most blatantly derivative film of the year goes to The Sweetest Thing, starring Cameron Diaz playing what used to be known as a right scrubber in a film that looked like something stolen from a wastepaper basket owned by the Farrelly Brothers.
The most overrated film of the year was, without a doubt, an Iranian film called Ten, which was so bad it made the film of the same name starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek look like Twenty. Going to the cinema is not cheap, especially when you add in the parking and the baby-sitter - and, in my opinion, people want a little more movie for their buck than a couple of talking heads in a Tehran-registered 4x4.
Another disappointing film was Spielberg's Minority Report, which bore no more relation to logic than the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Equally disappointing were Spiderman and The Time Machine. So-called "event" movies have become no more singular than the draw for the National Lottery.
The best thriller of the year was surely Insomnia, confirming Al Pacino as the best actor in movies, and it's a source of continuing amazement that another excellent Pacino movie, People I Know, is still being denied a British theatrical release because his character has an office in the World Trade Center. When will studios learn to treat audiences like grown-ups?
While Dancing at the Blue Iguana wasn't as good as my libido said it was, I still think Road to Perdition was a better movie than a lot of critics allowed. If I had to pick my own personal favourite of 2002, it would be Mulholland Drive. It's available on DVD.
Films to look out for in the next few weeks include the new Lord of the Rings movie (the unfortunately named The Two Towers), Chicago (if you like that kind of thing - I don't),City of God (not to be confused with the dreadful City by the Sea) and Scorsese's Gangs of New York.
Doubtless 2003 will see the usual crop of remakes, prequels, sequels and clapped-out TV shows pretending to be features; and I leave you with this Christmas thought: Hollywood is the only place on Earth where they spend millions of dollars of other people's money to serve you last year's turkey.