Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 22/12/2000. Following on from VidBinge 1999, and leading up to VidBinge 2006, I'll be reposting all the ones in between on a daily basis between Christmas and New Year.
A look at the year 2000's best cinema releases, or at least the ones that have made it onto DVD. Warning: contains imagery that may be unsuitable for young children and fan clubs of female singer/songwriters.
Now if Dubya and Al had talked to me four years ago, I could have told them what it's taken them all this time to find out: democracy just doesn't work. If you think the Florida election result was a mess, you should have been round my house four years ago.
To explain. I have a regular arrangement with Spank's Pals, whereby once or twice a year they come over to my place bearing gifts of booze and a cushion. The cushion is important, because my part of the bargain involves them doing a certain amount of sitting down while I show them four or five videos back to back. In the past we've had programmes such as a collection of John Travolta's greatest hits (Saturday Night Fever, Get Shorty, Grease and Face/Off) and an all-night Halloween scary movie marathon (A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Wicker Man, A Chinese Ghost Story, The Company Of Wolves and Cronenberg's The Fly). But I've always chosen the films, and that didn't seem entirely fair.
So in 1996 I decided to do a video night with the title Diminished Responsibility. The idea was simple: the names of all of the Pals attending would be put into a hat or other large receptacle. One name would be drawn at random, and the person chosen had ten minutes to rummage through my video collection and pick something they liked. We then all had to watch their choice. At the end of the film, they picked the name of the next selectee, and so on through the night.
Well, that was the theory. In practice, I'd made a rather stupid assumption: obviously this process would result in some people having to sit through films they didn't like, but I thought that they'd hang around for the chance to inflict their own choice on everyone else. Whereas, of course, what they actually did was get bored and leave. By the end of the third film, the night had pretty much collapsed in on itself through lack of interest. (For what it's worth, the films that successively alienated everyone in the room were Midnight Express, Chungking Express and Something Wild.)
I never tried that again. But last year I came up with a slightly different approach: rather than giving individuals free rein of my collection, narrow it down instead to a shortlist of 20 films, and get everybody to vote for their top 5 in advance. The votes would then be collated to produce a selection of films that would be popular with the majority of people. It pretty much worked in 1999, so I thought it was worth another shot in 2000. As before, I restricted the choices to films that were released in UK cinemas this year, which meant that the event also became a useful look back at the last twelve months' worth of movies.
So in the weeks leading up to the VidBinge 2000 event on Saturday December 16th, ten of Spank's Pals - Christine, Grizelda, Jon, Lesley, Naomi, Old Lag, Rachael, Rob D, Rob G and the Suzanne Vega Fanclub - voted for their top five out of a list of 20 films. Click on the small graph above if you want to see what those 20 films were, and how the votes tallied up. Notice that Magnolia - which I still insist is the best damn film of 2000 - was the only movie that didn't get a single vote from anyone. Like I said, democracy just doesn't work. Still, there were four clear front runners which led to a jolly good afternoon and evening's worth of entertainment for us all.
First up on the day was our fourth most popular choice, The Filth And The Fury. Spank's Pals are of the age where we remember punk from the first time round, so this is all fairly familiar stuff. It's director Julien Temple's second film about the Sex Pistols, again assembled from the copious amounts of footage he shot during the band's short life in the mid-seventies. His earlier movie, The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle, was told from the viewpoint of manager Malcolm McLaren after the demise of the band, and he ended up warping the story to make it look like the Pistols were entirely his creation: a Situationist prank on pop music and the people of Britain.
Filth, as the story has it, finally tells the truth about what happened: in practice, it covers the band's own take on events, and I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two films. There's a lot of 20/20 hindsight being applied to the events that led up to punk's birth, as the band - well, mainly John Lydon - tie the whole movement a little too closely to Jim Callaghan's Winter Of Discontent, just so that they can draw parallels between Johnny Rotten and Richard III. (But wasn't that the winter of 1979, the year after the Pistols split?)
Nevertheless, it's still a more satisfying film than Swindle. The distance allows for a historical perspective the earlier film never had, and Filth ends up being as much a social history of England as well as the story of a band. There's lots of stuff we haven't seen before: footage of the Pistols entertaining at a children's Xmas party for striking firemen, an archive interview with Sid Vicious which just confirms how much he was being exploited by people smarter than him (i.e. most people, but nobody ever said stupidity should be a capital offence), and the astonishing sight of Lydon stricken with remorse at the ultimate fate of his friend. And the music kicks arse, as ever.
Next up came Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, whose high place in the vote is mainly down to Rob G's enthusiasm for the movie. Still, no complaints from anyone else here. This was actually the first time I'd seen the film since its November 1999 London Film Festival screening: regular readers may recall my discussion at the time of how certain members of a Manchester boy's school choir had their gender perceptions terminally warped by a production of The Mikado we put on in the mid-seventies, and I refuse to go over that again.
Still, Leigh's tale of Gilbert and Sullivan's creation of The Mikado holds up wonderfully on a second viewing. I still have no idea what people are talking about when they say it's too long: the two hours and forty minutes fly by, partly because you're expecting all the rehearsal scenes to lead up to a third act about the night of the performance, which ends up being much shorter than you think it's going to be.
It's a given in a Mike Leigh film that the performances and script are going to be excellent: second time round, credit has to be given to Lesley Manville as Gilbert's wife, whose final scene with her husband is just one of those moments where writing, directing and acting combine to produce something staggeringly emotional in the middle of all this terribly English reserve. What's less expected is how sensuously filmed everything is: the director we associate with grubby British realism has made a gloriously rich-looking movie, and it's easy to see why the costume and set designers walked off with the Oscars earlier this year. And the music kicks arse, as ever.
Now it should be pointed out that although ten of Spank's Pals voted for the lineup you see here, only seven of them attended VidBinge 2000. Grizelda and Naomi had to send on their apologies for dropping out at the last minute, which is fair enough when you consider how crammed people's time can get in the week leading up to Christmas. But the case of the Suzanne Vega Fanclub has to be examined in more detail. Suze notoriously walked out of a cinema screening of The End Of The Affair after thirty minutes or so, for reasons which were a little vague at the time but seemed to revolve around the sight of Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore with their kit off. (See his letter dated 27/02/2000 for details.) When Suze found out that Affair had been voted the second most popular film of the day, he saw no alternative but to boycott the whole event.
Of course, it's amusing that Suze walked out before all the interesting stuff from Graham Greene's original story kicked in. As far as he's concerned, it's about Maurice Bendrix (Fiennes) and Sarah Miles (Moore) having an extra-marital affair in wartime London: but the story really starts in the bit after Suze left, when Sarah mysteriously dumps Bendrix for no apparent reason. Two years later, when her husband (Stephen Rea) starts to suspect she's having an affair, Bendrix uses the opportunity to investigate her and find out who she's seeing behind both their backs.
Neil Jordan's adaptation handles all this very cleverly. The time structure is complex, with some fascinating use of flashbacks: but it's never done for the sake of tricksiness, and pays off in spades when we see the key events of the story told first from the perspective of Maurice, then from that of Sarah. It's all done in a very measured, terribly repressed style reminiscent of forties melodrama, except for those couple of scenes of red hot sex (and no, Suze, I couldn't find another shot to illustrate this section). The performances of the three principals are excellent, and Ian Hart's lovely cameo as a private investigator makes you smile in anticipation whenever he appears on screen. The ultimate revelation of Sarah's dark secret leads to one of the most astonishing lines of dialogue of the whole year: unfortunately it gives away the whole plot in a dozen or so words, so I won't tell you what it is. See the film for yourself and find out.
Affair got most of its votes from people (well, women) who'd seen it before and wanted a second look for what the Film Unlimited crew like to refer to as Shallow And Obvious Reasons. Titus appears to have got the most votes of the night for precisely the opposite reason. I was the only person in the room who'd seen the film before, and was slightly worried that everyone had chosen it purely on my recommendation. But it all worked out happily: we were all still talking about it the next day over a Christmas lunch, and re-enacting the climax using the miniature plastic cutlery that had fallen out of our Christmas crackers.
Julie Taymor's first film as director is a visually stunning adaptation of Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's violentest play. Anthony Hopkins takes the title role as the Roman general whose family becomes entangled in the election of a new Emperor. When the new leader Saturninus (Alan Cumming) first tries to take Titus' daughter Lavinia for his wife, and then ditches her in favour of Titus' mortal enemy Tamora (Jessica Lange), the scene is set for an apocalyptic spiral of revenge and counter-revenge. Taymor's visual style is a pick 'n' mix affair, taking elements from any time period in history she can lay her hands on: there are hints of Fellini (the interiors were filmed at CineCitta), fascist architecture, modern war movies and everything else you could think of. But the visuals are there to ensure the text is as comprehensible as possible, a task they fulfill admirably (with, admittedly, the help of the powerhouse cast that's acting the lines).
Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare's first big commercial hit, and it's become a modern cliche to think of this as his Tarantino period: a young writer using excessive violence to make his audience pay attention. For the most part the violence is in the language, but Taymor knows just when to pull the stops out. Lavinia's first appearance after her violation is simultaneously surreal and terrifying, and is the turning point where we start to realise to what depths the characters can sink. The climactic banquet scene (which you either know about, or you don't) can probably only be played as black farce these days, and Taymor goes blissfully over the top at this point, which made for a very satisfying finale to our day in front of the telly. (Or at least, a finale which it was impossible to follow. Similar to last year's event, really, which ended with Todd Solondz' Happiness: once you've seen a woman accidentally ingesting her own son's sperm via a dog, there's nowhere else for the evening to go.)
So on the whole, a very successful event. Good films were seen, booze was drunk, nibbles were nibbled, and everybody was happy (well, except for Suze). There's probably a thesis to be written on how the four films we ended up seeing give you the most wide-ranging view of the British character you could imagine, but I won't do it here. Anyway, given its success, hopefully I can organise a VidBinge 2001 in twelve months time, and rely on the electoral skills of Spank's Pals to produce another fine selection. At least you can count on them not to spend weeks arguing and then lumber us with a choice as crap as Curious George W. Which I can only consider to be a good thing. Being a monkey, and all.