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Surprises of the Year : 2009 Edition

December 29, 2009

As I’ve expanded my film watching habits, I have frequently taken chances and moved outside of the kind of film that I might have expected to like (more on this when I put up my best of 2009 post!).  Sometimes, the results were disastrous.  Other times, I was nonplussed but looked into the director and found good things.  But occasionally, I have been pleasantly surprised.  I have gone into films expecting the worst and come out not only impressed me but also changed me.  This is a list of those films.

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1 – Edward II (1991) :  When I decided to take a proper and serious interest in film, I was well aware of the weaknesses in my aesthetic sensibilities.  Yes I could sit through the likes of Bergman’s The Silence, but I could not like them.  Not really.  Given half the chance I would still have rather been watching a Horror film.  Well aware that this was a failure not of the subject matter but of my palate, I set about confronting this tendency.  This meant tackling films that had a reputation for being “arty”.  Films like Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad but also the films of Derek Jarman.  The first piece of Jarman I tried out was his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.  It was nothing short of a revelation to me.  I adored the source material (in fact, I have developed something of a Marlowe obsession), I adored the cinematography and I adored the direction in which Jarman took the text.  I wrote about the film at length on this very blog.

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2 – Orphan (2009) :  I went to the cinema to see this at my girlfriend’s behest.  She has more of a fondness for ‘silly’ Horror than I do.  The fact that this film was directed by the monster responsible for House of Wax merely made things worse.  The film started badly as the characters we were supposed to sympathise with were horrible middle class smug-os.  They lived in a huge and beautifully designed house, had high-flying careers and had decided to adopt a child out of the goodness of their heart.  Awww.  Bastards.  For the first twenty minutes or so, I hoped that something terrible would happen to them and when it did I immediately sympathised with the demented midget posing as a child.  I hooted with laughter throughout the film and adored every last second of it.  While I have seen many films this year that I prefer, Orphan was undeniably my most enjoyable cinematic experience.  I wrote about the film for THE ZONE.

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3 – Empire of the Sun (1987)  : This is quite a personal choice.  I remember when this film first came out.  I remember the hype.  I remember the fact that every single VHS I rented had trailers for it.  As part of a psychological pattern that remains fixed to this day, I took against the film.  I refused to see it.  When it was on TV, I changed the channel.  However, upon deciding to watch it as part of my research for a piece that recently appeared in Vector, I was surprised to find that I really liked the film.  I even think that, Jaws aside, this is my favourite film of Spielberg’s.  I adore the dream sequence-like ending where the prisoners wind up in a stadium filled with random stuff purloined by Japanese troops.  I love the sense of culture clash at the beginning with Jim’s home being presented as a little corner of England.  I love the surreal progression of costumed white people through an Asian city.  Out there, Otherness.  In here, safety and home.  Great stuff.

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4 – The Red Shoes (1948)  : Again, my lack of engagement with this film is due entirely to my own perversity.  I knew that the film was widely respected.  I knew that Scorsese had taken upon himself to restore the film so that it could be re-released in cinemas.  I knew that it was supposed to be one of the defining films of British post-War cinema but it’s about ballet!  How good can anything be when it’s based upon ballet?  The answer, of course, is very.  Very good indeed.  I love almost every shot of this film.  From the cinema verite opening with shots of Covent Garden when it was still a fruit market and students from the Royal Academy of Music cheering on their professor from the cheap seats.  I love the amateur production of Swan Lake in a church hall.  I love the way that Moira Shearer’s character turns up to be offered the lead wearing a satin gown, cloak and crown only to find everyone else in their shirt sleeves.  I love the tragic ending.  I love the perversity of the company director who cannot let his feelings show.  And I love the fantastical way in which the ballet is staged with modernist music, strange costumes and lavishly cinematic sets that would never fit in a theatre.  The film is simply stunning.  I still wouldn’t pay to see ballet though.

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5 – The Informant! (2009)  : This was a film that slipped past me to a certain extent and I went to see it knowing absolutely nothing about it other than the fact that Matt Damon was supposed to be quite good in it.  As a result, the plot twist was a complete surprise to me.  Nor did I expect the film to be as funny as it is.  I adore the way in which Damon’s character’s head is forever full of musings on largely irrelevant factoids such as why polar bears know to cover their noses while hunting.  I also loved the way in which the comedy seemed to sneak up on the rest of the cinema audience.  Initially, only my girlfriend and I were laughing out loud at the jokes but by the end of the film people were really getting into it.  I included this film because it made me realise quite how much fun a non-spoiled engagement with plot can be.  It was also a hugely pleasurable cinematic experience.

4 Comments
  1. December 29, 2009 5:04 pm

    Can’t say I’m much of a Jarman fan, but the Archers I definitely think are very good. If you liked The Red Shoes, you should also see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death. If you’ve not already, of course.

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  2. December 29, 2009 5:08 pm

    I also really like Black Narcissus.

    I haven’t seen either of those but I did pick up the box set prior to Xmas and am looking forward to breaking it open :-)

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  3. December 29, 2009 5:23 pm

    Last time I saw Black Narcissus was years ago. I’ve been hoping to find a copy of the Criterion edition of the DVD for a decent price…

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  4. December 29, 2009 9:58 pm

    Yeah, the UK edition is a bit feature-light I seem to recall. Pity the Criterion stuff costs so much to import. Not helped by the low pound.

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