Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 12/01/2003
Once again, Spank's Pals assemble for their annual vote of the best movies of the year, and then watch as many of them as they can over one day. What did they choose this time? Well, that image to the left may be some sort of clue, obviously.
I hate to admit it, but this site appears to be developing some sort of end of year routine. Obviously, November is given over to the London Film Festival, and early January has become the time when my Pick Of The Year CD gets an airing. (Or mid-to-late January, given my current problems with personal deadlines.) And in between, we have the VidBinge: the annual event in which Spank's Pals vote on their favourite films of the year (from a shortlist of 20 assembled from what's available on DVD). They all come over to my place just before Christmas to spend ten hours or so watching four or five of the most popular ones, and I get to write about it afterwards inna vague review-of-the-cinema-year stylee. You saw the results in 2000 and 2001, and I assumed it'd be a similar deal for 2002.
Except this year, there's been a slight complication. In the past, the selection's been a nice mix of films seen at the previous year's London Film Festival (which, of course, I've already written about on this site) and ones I haven't reviewed here before. This time, when I collated the votes of The Belated Birthday Girl, The Cineaste, Corinne, Jon, Lesley and Nick for our get-together on Saturday December 21st 2002, the results ended up looking like this...
...and the more perceptive of you will have spotted that the top four films (all we had time to show in the allocated slot) were all reviewed here during the 2001 LFF. So this year's report has become an exercise in seeing how my documented opinion from twelve months ago differs from the way I feel now. (I'll include links to my original reviews in each case, so you can compare and contrast for yourselves.) Luckily, as you'll see, all four selections stand up well to repeated viewing - in fact, they all positively demand it, as in each case the narrative takes an unexpected turn towards the end that makes you reassess what you've already seen.
The VidBinge screening of Y Tu Mamá También is the third time I've seen it. In between the LFF viewing (when it was showing under the English title And Your Mother Too) and this one, I also caught it in London early during its theatrical run. That screening was graced by the presence of director Alfonso Cuarón and stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. Cuarón was dropping hints about a future sellout to Hollywood, but was vague on details. It turned out that he's scheduled to do Harry Potter 3, which has led fans of Mama to eagerly await scenes of Harry, Ron and Hermione in a three-way. Or maybe not.
Y Tu Mamá También is just as enjoyable third time round as it was first, possibly even more so. This is because it changes tack dramatically during its running time: it starts out as a full-on teen sex comedy (Bernal and Luna as the two lads trying to occupy themselves while their girlfriends are touring Europe for the summer), widens out into a combination of road movie and state-of-the-nation treatise (as they meet up with Maribel Verdú and take her on a beach holiday they've only just invented), and does a magnificent flip during the brilliantly understated final scene, as you discover that the movie hasn't really been about its lead characters at all. Repeated viewings show that far from coming out of nowhere, that revelation has been carefully set up from the beginning.
Some idiots (notably on Amazon) simply can't see past the shagging and the gross-out gags: but there's so much else going on here that the sexual content isn't such a major part of the film at all. Obviously there's the third person narrator who literally hijacks the soundtrack to tell us more about major and minor characters, and Mexico as a whole: but the camera's another (or the same?) narrator, frequently wandering off in the middle of scenes to look at the surroundings. There are some lovely subtle touches in the production design (a poster for Harold And Maude glimpsed in the opening shot, which nobody ever sees because of the nubile teens having sex in front of it) and some cleverly placed background gags (some time after discussing their fears of their girlfriends running off with Italians, the boys can be seen looking at a poster of Michaelangelo's David and giggling at its tiny cock). But yes, it's also sexy as hell. In fact, there's a lot of filth on this year's VidBinge bill, as you'll see. Don't blame me, I don't get a vote in these things.
The filth continues with the girl-on-girl action of Mulholland Drive. David Lynch's psychodrama would seem to be an obvious choice for a second look, as it's virtually impossible to make complete sense of it first time round. (Or ever, if you believe The Belated Birthday Girl, who detests this movie with a passion, and watched it on this occasion with steam coming sexily out of her ears.) It's still very much a film of two halves - the first half, the story of two girls in Hollywood who stumble into a tale of murder, amnesia and a large amount of unexplained cash: and the second half, about a has-been actress going out of her mind alone in her house. Nobody could really take issue with either of these stories on their own: it's the bridging sequence between the two, the queasy narrative gear shift that is Club Silencio, which is where the problems tend to start.
Sadly, on second viewing everything's crystal clear. Once you've picked up the cues that bookend the first half of the movie, and are aware of how the various parts of the film relate to each other, then it's all relatively conventional stuff. The curious are advised to track down a 1991 British horror movie called Afraid Of The Dark: it's rather bad on a large number of levels, but has some interesting structural similarities to Lynch's film.
That's not to say that it fails as a movie second time round, though, particularly with the excellent performances from all concerned. (Here's one of my key disagreements with the BBG: I think that one of Lynch's undeniable strengths is the way he can get you involved with his characters, so that when he turns up the weirdness you're forced to follow along. She says yes, actually, that is deniable.) But first time round Mulholland Drive was crawling around inside my head for days after, as the various possibilities and interpretations of the plot jockeyed for position. Second time round, it struck me that only one real interpretation exists... and a fair chunk of the magic's lost as a result. In effect, it's a big old Schrodinger's Cat of a movie, where the moment you open the box is when you collapse all the quantum possibilities into a single one, and everything becomes slightly less interesting as a result. Maybe I'd love Mulholland Drive more if I'd kept the box shut and only seen it once. After all, you saw what happened when Diane opened her box...
Thanks to an early US DVD release, I've seen Donnie Darko several times now: and that, by comparison, isn't diminished at all by multiple viewings. Possibly because although the mystery at its centre is explained at a high level in the final scenes, a lot of the finer detail is left to the imagination. (Apparently writer/director Richard Kelly explains quite a lot of it in his DVD commentary, so I'll be keeping clear of that one for a bit.)
To be honest, Donnie Darko has cult movie written all over it: partly by accident, partly by design. As I noted back in 2001 it's got a tone entirely of its own, gleefully playing around with a number of genres but never letting you know exactly which one it's in until the last few minutes. It's also got a terrific website: rather than the usual synopsis/photos/trailer setup we're all used to by now, we get a whole interactive environment that looks into the various possibilities raised by the story, and gives you some background information you wouldn't get otherwise. But in the end, Donnie Darko achieved its cult status in the most traditional way of all: no bugger went to see it in the cinema. At least in America, which simply wasn't ready for movies examining the positive benefits of plane crashes back in Autumn 2001. As a result, the Yanks are only now beginning to discover Richard Kelly's film through its video release, while the release throughout the rest of the world ended up slipping to Autumn 2002.
Thankfully, people are realising that the film was worth the wait. Including me: out of the four movies in this year's VidBinge, it's the only one that wasn't in my top five of LFF 2001, as on my first viewing I had serious doubts about it right up to the ending. By fourth time around, it's grown on me a lot. Great performances (notably Jake Gyllenhaal, who's destined for much bigger things), a lovely score, unexpected gags ("baby mice!"), endlessly quotable lines, and it's the only teen movie that references Three Colours Blue at its climax: what more could you want?
Well, the answer to that question seems to be "another movie with loads of shagging in it", judging from the votes of the VidBinge jury: the top film in this year's poll, Sex And Lucia, picked up double the votes of anything else on the list. I'm prepared to accept that Spank's Pals may not just be dirty old men and women, and that their decision was partly influenced by my rating it as the best film of LFF 2001. However, on a second viewing it's like Mulholland Drive all over again: sure, it's still incredibly watchable, but the pleasure of assembling the fragmented narrative in your head into a coherent whole is no longer there, and it looks like that was the key pleasure for me first time round.
But there's still a lot to love. Contrary to some opinions I've read elsewhere, it's not a film about sex, in the same way that Apocalypse Now is not a movie about Vietnam: both are character studies set against a background that only looks like the foreground if you're not paying attention. Sex And Lucia is primarily a meditation on the dividing line between reality and fiction, and the dangers of mixing the two. It's easy to miss that the vast majority of the sex depicted here is filtered through the increasingly unreliable imagination of writer Lorenzo, leaving us all confused as to how much we can believe. (But on the upside, Lorenzo is a tacky enough novelist to write every fuck as if it was the best one ever, and director Julio Medem and his fabulous-looking cast are happy to indulge him.)
The other thing that needs to be praised from the rooftops is the film's look. I never realised on first viewing that Sex And Lucia is shot entirely on digital video. Star Wars Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones was shot in the same way, and boasted about it loudly in its publicity: but George Lucas didn't take into account how the format dictates what you shoot. The dialogue in the desert scenes has to be that bad, because it distracts you from those huge sandy backgrounds pixillating away like a pirate VCD. Medem, sensibly, doesn't try to use video in the same way as film: he avoids doing things with the camera that might draw your attention to its shortcomings (an early, blurry nighttime shot is the only real offender on that score). He uses the crappy colour balancing that all camcorder users are familiar with as an artistic effect, particularly in the white-out sunscorched look of the island scenes. The result is a look entirely of its own, that never draws attention to the way it was produced, which is as it should be.
So, another VidBinge over, and once again I'm left scrabbling around trying to find some sort of common theme between the four films chosen. Does their appearance at last year's LFF mean that nobody's made anything of interest since November 2001? Isn't there a lot of Spanish language stuff in this year's bill (including the performance of Llorando at the heart of Mulholland Drive)? Why does my favourite film of the year never get voted for in these things? (24 Hour Party People this time, since you asked.) And is it significant that all the films chosen this year have a big masturbation scene in them? I really wouldn't like to think too hard about that last one. Being a monkey, and all.