So, I decided it was a tad self-indulgent of me to simply foist MY favourite films on you without an organised right of reply.  Time, therefore, to publish a survey.

Obviously, as with any survey, it is a self-selecting process.  One cannot force people to tick a box (imagine the quality of politicians we’d have if you could) so the people who told me their favourites were the people who wanted to.

I polled people at my place of work, in my (for want of a more accurate term) social circle and through Facebook.  This ensured as wide a range of responses as possible.

By the way, all these charts are embiggenable.  Just click on them for a closer look.

Age Range:

As you’ll see,  I’ve tried to cover an inclusive range of ages, the youngest respondent being 13, the oldest 74.  This doesn’t reflect the socio-economic demographic Hollywood targets its movies at, but then I didn’t just want Hollywood movies to be represented.

As with all the charts here, the numbers are a percentage so, for example, in this chart the share of the respondents in the 20 – 40 age-group is 44%.


Ah, how we all love poncey management jargon.  Since I live and work in the Grimsby / Hull area, it’s fairly obvious that a sizeable proportion of my respondents would too, but I have friends that, wisely, like to keep me at arm’s length.  Although it is worth noting that everyone who responded lives in mainland Britain.  So, the – ahem – geodemographics of my survey goes something like this:


Now, the allegation has already been made to me that this survey will mostly be made up of blokes.  Whilst it is true that men are, at least in my experience, more likely to be interested in comparing opinions about movies, they don’t have an exclusive claim over the medium so, without too much arm twisting, 26% of my respondents were female.

So, enough foreplay, let’s get to the point of this post.

It's over to the Returning Officer for the results of the only poll that mattered in 2009:

For this survey, I simply asked people to give me their ten favourite films of the decade.  I specifically didn’t ask them to rank them in order of preference, because experience has taught me that that is usually fairly mercurial, one’s favourite film one week is one’s second favourite the next … but the choice of absolute favourites is usually made from a fairly small and consistent field.  So the number one might change, but the top ten doesn’t so much.

The results, therefore, do not take into account which of these films are a respondents absolute favourite.  My results simply record how many people included a certain film in among their shortlist of favourites.  In amongst a fascinating range of different movies, there was a surprising uniformity among certain choices, even though the lists were all compiled in isolation and I have kept the developing picture completely secret.  The two front-runners very quickly emerged, constantly jostling for pole position.

Firstly, so they don’t feel left out, the films that didn’t quite make it into the top ten.  They each received  6% or 8% of the votes:

Aaaaaaand finally … the moment absolutely no-one has been waiting for … the results of my nation-wide survey, conducted under strict laboratory conditions!

The ten favourite films of the century so far, as voted for by you the great British public.  As before, the values on the vertical axis are percentages.




Feel free to leave a comment below.

Also, just a point of order, I counted trilogies and the like as single films - so Lord of the Rings is a single film, as is Pirates of the Caribbean, the Bourne trilogy and the Harry Potter whateverology. You get the idea. 

And, finally, for the cynics who think I asked the half dozen members of my family and turned the results into percentages to hide this fact, I actually asked 50 people.  I stopped at fifty because that made the maths of turning the results into percentages something even my poor brain could cope with. 

I know, 50 doesn’t sound like much of a population for a survey, but national TV adverts make extravagant claims based on little more, so, if it’s good enough for the likes of L’Oreal, it’s good enough for me.


Okay, I won't tease you any more ... Here it is; the result you've been losing sleep over ... My favourite films of the decade and therefore the century so far.  If you missed them, you'll find numbers 12 to 7 hereNow, read on.  Enjoy.  Digest.  Then disagree in the comments box at the bottom.  Go on, you know you want to ...

6: Sin City (2005)

Everything that applies to the technique employed to produce 300, was pioneered by Robert Rodriguez two years before with this decade’s other Miller adaptation.

Whilst I enjoy the intellectual conundrums of writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, my true love in comics is the visceral thrill you get from a melodramatic tale, epically told.  There is no greater exponent of this scruff-of-the-neck technique than Frank Miller.  In Sin City the unique noir-ish visuals are intrinsic to the fabric of the story and Rodriguez exceeded every expectation by collaborating closely with Miller on converting those visuals to the big screen.

Mickey Rourke made the first quantum leap towards his comeback as the simple-minded slugger, Marv. Bruce Willis used his star power to bring gravitas to Hartigan.  Even the usually wooden Clive Owen was exceptional as Dwight.  But the real star of the show was Rodriguez who figured out a way to make the film look, sound and feel like none other.

5: Watchmen (2009)

The Citizen Kane of comic-books becomes the Citizen Kane of comic-book movies.  Long thought unfilmable, this adaptation had defeated film-makers who are, frankly, far more talented than Zack Snyder.  But Snyder has found his moment and his medium.  Only time will tell if he can do anything other than comic book adaptations.  But, if not, no matter, because he made this!

The film honours its source material, brings it to life and shines a new light on it all at the same time.  The standout sequence was the origin of Dr. Manhattan, brought electrifyingly to life by the inclusion of Philip Glass’ appropriately messianic tunes Pruit Igoe and Prophesies (originally from the mesmerising Koyaanisqatsi).  Yes, they changed the ending, but the alien squid never worked real well, so I didn’t mind. 

No, it isn’t a passionate film it is, instead, a calm, deliberate meditation on the whole nature of heroes and the humans beneath the cape and cowl.  It is a film which, were it released even ten years before, would have been denuded of much of its significance. 

Moore and Gibbons’ original work found its moment in the late eighties, when Moore correctly diagnosed that comics readers were becoming disenfranchised with the repetitive simplicity of re-hashed sixties (and thirties) characters.  Similarly, only after a decade where superheroes became common coin at our multiplexes could a film come out that asked serious questions about the whole medium and do so whilst bearing all the hallmarks of that medium.

The film is not a replacement for the graphic novel, it is a companion piece to it.  The release of the film inspired me to re-read the novel.  Twice.  The re-reading inspired me to re-watch the film.  I expect this symbiotic relationship will continue for a good few years yet.

4: The Incredibles (2004)

Yes, yet another superhero film.  This time inspired by rather than adapted from.  However much I loved Wall E and was moved by Up, I feel that this is Pixar’s greatest achievement.  Placed in some non-specific 50s to 60s American idyll (the so-called Golden Age of comics), the film takes the aesthetic of shows like Bewitched and The Flintstones, mixes in the drama and scale (and music) of the later Connery Bond films and sprinkles with some early 21st century post-modern irony, such as in Edna Mode’s hilarious and utterly sensible deconstruction of the superhero cape.

Craig T. Nelson has, frankly, never been better and director Brad Bird proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the potential he displayed in The Iron Giant was far more than just potential.

The attack on the plane is genuinely terrifying and the battle in the jungle – particularly little Dash’s chase – are among the most thrilling such scenes I have ever seen.  But the heart of the film (as with all Pixar / Disney films) is the heart of the family and Bob’s reaction when he thinks his family are dead, shows us that animation really can do anything live action can do … not only as well, but even better!

3: Gladiator (2000)

I’ve always loved a good sword and sandal epic.  Ben Hur gets watched altogether far too regularly in my house.

I’ve also long admired Ridley Scott’s visual splendour, even if the films have not been worthy of it.  After a blinding start with The Duellists, Alien, his masterpiece, Blade Runner and the flawed gem, Legend, Scott kinda went off the boil, allowing his younger brother, Tony, to take up the reigns as the one to watch.  The only glimpse we had of the old Ridley was in 1492.  Clearly his forte had become the historical epic.  But the historical epic was a thing of the past, something consigned to the memories of his youth.  Well, it was, until he got his chance to revive it with Gladiator.

Overcoming the actor’s limited charisma, Crowe’s Maximus is a haunted man, more dead than alive, fighting out of instinct and out of a burdened sense that he deserves to be punished for failing his family.  Yes, the film is one part Mad Max to two parts Spartacus, but that only adds to the strength of the viewing experience – our familiarity with the broad strokes of the story make it feel like a folk tale, something that has been carved in stone for thousands of years.  I hope for (but don’t expect) a similar effect from their upcoming Robin Hood.

It is testament to Scott’s skill, to his authority and to the relationship he has with the crew he has built up around him, that he could make something so seemingly solid and secure from what was, it turns out, a horrifyingly chaotic production process.  The oft-quoted “vengeance” speech was written the night before if was filmed and Crowe initially refused to learn any new lines. 

Just thinking about the look in his eyes, the tone of his voice and the gravel in those words has sent a shiver up my spine.  From the photography to the choice of supporting actors (particularly the redemptive performance from Ollie Reed) to the awe-inspiring soundtrack, everything here is just … right.

Love is something we can, none of us, fully describe or satisfactorily communicate.  I can’t explain it properly, I just love that film.

2: The Dark Knight (2008)

It wouldn’t have been fair to finally make The Dark Knight Returns into a movie, because that would have put three Miller movies in my list.  But, let’s be honest … in (almost) all but name, that’s really what we have here.  Nolan selected the choicest cuts from Miller’s Year One to make Batman Begins (mixed in with the best bits of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Long Halloween).  For this film, he ram-raided Miller’s vision of the other end of the bat’s career (as well as taking much of the rest of The Long Halloween) to create a film which soared so far above the level achieved by the first, it was barely recognisable as the same thing.

The obsessive, humourless Christian Bale was perfectly cast as the obsessive, humourless Bruce Wayne and yes, his deep, gruff voice was daft, but then so is the idea of wearing a rubber helmet with pointy ears.  It is entirely in-keeping with the schizophrenic, self-destructive nature of the character that he would feel the need to talk in a lower register when he’s trying to scare people.

The pace of this astonishingly long film never lets up for a moment, with enough plots, sub-plots and set-pieces for an entire trilogy, yet none of the action is wasted, there’s no padding and the two and a half hours just flash past.  Every incident fits together as part of the puzzle, building the picture, progressing the narrative, expanding our sense of involvement and our understanding.  I saw this film at the cinema four times and would happy go four more if I had the chance.  Two of those viewings were at Bradford’s Imax where, even though it was, thankfully, still only in 2D, the sheer scale gave proceedings a vast extra dimension.

But, of course, the film belongs to Heath Ledger.  His Joker is the single greatest performance  of the century so far.  I’m not saying that because he’s gone.  I’m saying that because, when he’s on screen you simply cannot blink.  In this dark and dangerous vision of Hell that Nolan and Bale have created, the Nemesis needs to be all the darker, all the more unpredictable and all the more cunning.  The look, the tone of voice, the sheer calculated nihilism of him chilled me to my marrow.  How do you defeat someone who wants to lose? It echoes the real-world dilemma facing those who confront the Muslim fundamentalists who want to destroy us by destroying themselves.  How can you defeat that?  How can you defend against it?

Like Watchmen, The Dark Knight demonstrated what a complex and contradictory world we live in and how ill the superhero fits within it.  For a superhero to function in the real world, he would have to be mad and, if the world produced mad heroes, then how much worse would the villains be?

Batman’s sacrifice at the end of the film is obvious and perfect.  Of course the world is unworthy of such sacrifice.  No it can never know, as Miller put it, that Gods walk the earth, for we are too primitive and too fragile a people to deal with the situation we have created for ourselves.  Our response to such selflessness would, inevitably, be to provide it with more need. 

There are such heroes in the real world, firemen, nurses, aid workers, etc … but God help us all if they ever start seeing themselves as heroes and God help them if we ever start seeing them that way.  We need heroes, but that need just makes us feel worse about our failings and that frustration eventually makes us drag our heroes down.

Nolan knows this and his vision of the conflict between The Joker and Batman reflects this bleak knowledge.  His Dark Knight is every bit as critical of the whole concept of heroes, every bit as dense a work of modern art as Watchmen (but with far fewer pretentions), yet this superhero film couldn’t exist without the perception and wisdom that Moore and Miller (with more recent support from Jeph Loeb, Warren Ellis and Mark Miller) have brought to the superhero genre in its natural habitat – the comic book.

The Dark Knight is the perfect modern superhero movie.  It is the perfect thriller and the perfect drama.  I really have no idea where the genre can go from here … save to do what the comics themselves have done and start sadly cycling backwards.  I hope this and Watchmen do not mark the high-water-mark of the genre on film but, if they do, if the superhero genre now recedes like an ebb tide, leaving nothing but a memory of greatness behind, it’s a pretty magnificent memory to leave us with!

1: The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

I haven’t read the book.  There, I’ve said it.  I tried, about twenty years ago, and found it a leaden, simplistic travelogue filled with unpronounceable names and unlikable characters.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I first watched Fellowship of the Rings and found a sense of awe, of fascination and of joy that I had not tapped into since my early teens when Star Wars opened my eyes for the first time.

Despite its nine (or eleven) hour runtime, despite it’s shapeless (and repetitive) narrative, despite its substance having been siphoned and recycled a million times in the fifty years between the book being published and the film being released, Peter Jackson managed to make it fresh and vibrant and compelling.

His frankly mad casting decisions were inspired (if I ever meet him I will personally thank him for not casting Connery as Gandalf) whilst his entire nation full of never-before-seen locations was perfectly captured by Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography.  The costume design and set design showed a care and attention to detail that paid due diligence to the heritage and culture that had grown up around the book, while the  special effects put together by Jackson’s spin-off company WETA showed the big American boys that they couldn’t have it all their own way.

These films were as satisfying to know-nothing newbies like me as they were to hard-bitten fans who know the book inside out and can even read it in the original Elvish.  That is a considerable achievement!  As was getting the funding in place to make the full trilogy from a studio which then, to a great extent, stood back and let Jackson spend its money very much as he pleased.

The performances were a joy, from Mortensen’s earnest, honest Aragorn, to McKellen’s mischievous, occasionally camp Gandalf, via the wide-eyed innocence of Elijah Wood’s Frodo and the steadfast loyalty of Sean Astin.  Who knew any of them had that level of commitment within them?  Well, Peter Jackson obviously did as he persuaded them ( as well as a crowd of brilliant, committed supporting performers) to sign-up for the three-year slog of making a film in the wrong way on the wrong side of the planet.  Where did they go right?

Well, they went big.  How ridiculous must it have seemed when Jackson began planning the sheer scale of the battle scenes for The Two Towers and The Return of the King?  How gob-smacking was he eventual result?  How long was the journey between the ambition and the execution?  I don’t imagine many film-makers would have the stamina to take on so inconceivably huge a responsibility, and yet exceed expectation so fully and miraculously.

The world Jackson’s army of film-makers create is utterly convincing.  Not since I was a child has my disbelief been so fully and cheerfuly suspended.  Every stick and stone feels real, and you fully appreciate the weight of age that hangs in the air everywhere.  This is world building at its most perfect, logical and beautiful.  For me, the three volumes of this film – for I consider it to be one long film – were not nearly long enough.  Middle Earth is a place I didn’t just want to visit.  I wanna live there!

The Lord of the Rings is so much more vast than, say, Roland Emmerich’s anodyne end of the world movies The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 because, unlike them, its drama, whilst huge, is seen from eye-level.  It was always Tolkein’s intention to see huge earth-shaking events from the perspective of the smallest, seemingly least significant players, and Jackson honours this throughout. Yes, he draws on millennia-old prophesies and the oldest of nobilities and the greatest of kingdoms, but we see it all from the knee-high perspective of the halflings.  We feel their awe, their helplessness and, ultimately, we roar out approval at their steadfast bravery.

Yes, the film takes twelve hours to tell us that size doesn’t matter; but we have to explore, in the greatest detail possible, the epic sweep of Middle Earth, to fully understand what is at risk, what the world stands to lose, to fully appreciate the burden that rests on those small Hobbit shoulders.

The film venerates the abilities of the little guy, damns the failures of the corrupt and craven leadership that lead to the brink of defeat then takes the optimistic view that, however far down the road to self-destruction we go, the little people can be saved and are worth saving.

Given what’s been going on on our Earth over the last decade … and what we fear will be happening in the decades to come … that’s a message worth remembering.


So, I decided it was time to put together my list of favourite films of the decade, to see what the ‘noughties’ had to offer posterity.

Outside of the cinema it has been a troubling time and, as is traditionally the case, the cinematic art has responded by bravely offering a distraction from the woes of the world, as well as revelling in exploiting them mercilessly.

I don’t think it accidental that, in this decade, when The Western World was being led to the brink by seemingly insane leadership, we suddenly developed a hankering for super-heroes, for those characters who – in the tradition stretching back to the Cowboys of the Wild West and the Private Eyes of the Prohibition - stand up for what’s right, unsupported, unpaid and often unrecognised, just because somebody has to!

Well, this was great news to me.  I learned to read on black and white Spider-Man reprints and have carried a deep, primitive love of superheroes in my DNA ever since.
Musicals made a (sort of) comeback, for the first time since the sixties, as did screwball comedies.  Films in increasing numbers were aimed fairly and squarely at women (they were easy to spot, they generally had the words ‘Wedding’ or ‘Bride’ in the title).

Documentaries and serious political films rose to the fore in a way unseen in cinema since the dark, cold days of the 70s … a decade with which, movie-makers quickly noted, the noughties had much in common. 

There was also a disturbing rise, as there inevitably is when we feel under the heel of bad leadership, of dystopianism … when we despair of the present, we project that depression into the future.  We watched the world come to an end in a wide variety of ways, the most common of which was zombie holocaust … oh, we never seemed to tire of popping to the multiplex, watching ourselves eat ourselves to death, then going for a pizza.

On the other side of the entertainment coin, special effects achieved a level of authenticity and ubiquity previously unparalleled.  They are now so easy and cheap they can help hide the workings of even the most modest of films.

They also afforded the return (after nearly fifty years away) of the historical epic.  Suddenly film-makers didn’t need to rebuild Rome one-to-one scale and hire a million extras, the computer could do the bulk of that work for them.

As more and more Imax screens popped-up, cinema became a spectacle again, in a way that only our grand-parents will remember if they were there in the picture palaces when the Cinemascope screens were unveiled.

At home, the aim of having a television screen the size of a wall came tantalisingly close, and the Blu-Ray disc gave you the quality of image you needed to watch upon it.  The prices of Blu-Rays are starting to drop now, too, which is all to the good.  Finally, the term ‘home cinema’ actually has some meaning beyond the purely hyperbolic.

And so, to my favourite films of the decade.

I arrived at this list very methodically.  Firstly, I compiled a list of every ‘good’ film I’d seen in each year.  That took quite a while.  Then I ranked those films, the top five (or so) were strictly in preferential order, the rest were just films I couldn’t bear to leave out.  Most years there were between twelve and fifteen films in my top tens … I just couldn’t cut the lists any shorter than that.
By this measure, 2001 was the dullest year of the decade, with only nine films I thought worthy of mention. 2004 was the busiest year with fully 17 films in my, ahem, top ten.

Consequently, for my list of the decade, I had to only include films which occupied the top spots of my annual lists, and fill the gaps with a few of the films that came second. This led to shocking revelations (shocking to me, at any rate) when films like There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Monsters Inc (narrowly) failed to make the cut because they were released in the wrong years.  In weaker years they would have been right up there.  But in the years they were released, they were just nudged out.  After much consideration, I decided to consign Casino Royale, 2006's best film, to this same twilight zone because it simply doesn't mean as much to me as some of the runner-up films from other years. So, Casino Royale would be film 13.  Unlucky for them.

These omissions horrified me but I had to have some semblance of a method, so the judge’s decision is final.  Even so, I still managed to sneak fourteen into my top ten.

If I’d been putting this list together ten years ago (hmm … the best of the nineties … there’s a thought) I’d have chosen a lot more independent movies, because that’s where the quality writing and the experimental ambition lay, but, in the decade since then, those film-makers and those ambitions have crossed over to the big-budget mainstream. 

The films that are being churned out by the Hollywood factories these days are (at least occasionally) more creative and more visually original than at any time I can recall.  The new technology allows film-makers to try out new ideas almost for free, and enough of the audience is receptive to the new and unusual for the distributors and exhibitors to allow it to happen.  I don’t think there has been as much innovation in film-making since the grand days of the silents, when the gloves were off and everything was being tried for the first time.

Yes, there is a lot of pallid, cowardly, repetitive cliché-ridden offal being thrown at the screen, almost on a weekly basis., but that’s always been the case.  The fact that I can find so much to treasure in amongst all the slurry is something to celebrate.

These are not necessarily what I consider to be the best films of the decade, but they are the films for which I have the greatest affection and/or admiration.  They are the ones I re-watch the most and have the most fun with.

There are some obvious themes in here, and some possibly depressingly obvious choices, but I don’t care.  These films are my mental comfort food.  They tap in to enthusiasms that have bubbled away in my soul since childhood and are now, for the first time ever, bursting out on to the big screen and into the public consciousness.  It would be disingenuous of me to be sniffy about them swapping media from their four-colour pulp-paper origins.

So, here’s me and my dozen of the decade: 
12: X-Men 2 (2003)

. .

The first grown-up superhero movie.  I’ve never been a fan of origin stories, but the first X-Men movie neatly side-stepped this by dropping you into an ongoing situation.  The mutants were already mutants, deal with it.  But the conceit really came together in X2.  Packed to the rafters with stand-out moments, I still thrill at the attack on the school, featuring Wolverine at his fiercest and most noble, while Brian Cox casually exudes evil intelligence.  Magneto breaking out of his plastic cell is a tour de force of spectacularly applied logic.  Alan Cummings’ Kurt Wagner is deliciously twitchy and restrained yet provides the most captivating ‘pre-title sequence’ of the decade and tops the film off with the most inspired act of instinctive heroism. 

Neither the X franchise nor Bryan Singer have been as good since.  Suffice it to say, I’m more than a tad excited at the thought of his in-development  X-Men: First Class … even though it will be an origin story.

11: Wall E (2008)



The film that has more heart than any other in my countdown, has the fewest people and the least dialogue.  It’s that rarest of things, a proper science-fiction film which sees the world through sympathetic non-human eyes and where the narrative rises logically from the diegetic world the film-makers have created.  It manages to be a swingeing indictment of our present environmental policies (the opening fly-by swoops past a wrecked, failed wind-farm) and our over-consumption (Buy n Large is a far more economical critique of our bloated, self-destructive culture than Supersize Me or The Corporation were) whilst forgiving us our trespasses and moving on to tell a positive story where, simply put, a robot’s capacity to evolve and eventually to feel love saves the human race from creeping extinction.  If a simple trash-compactor droid can do it,  surely the rest of us can too! 

10: Stardust (2007)

The best fantasy of the decade and a huge improvement on Neil Gaiman’s po-faced source novel.  The mix of worldly-wise humour, beautiful special effects and innocent fairy-tale motifs made for a winning combination.  The star-turn is definitely Robert DeNiro, finally realising what his fellow method actor Dustin Hoffman rumbled about twenty years ago – you can have fun!   The best of Gaiman’s boundless imagination is retained, and brought vividly to life.  I would love to see director Vaughan’s take on Sandman
9: 300 (2007)

Yes, another film based on a comic.  There’s a theme developing here, is there not!  I love the way technology has allowed creative film-makers to stretch the boundaries of what is visually possible and to do it for a reasonable budget.  So, this film was shot in largely empty green rooms with everything added by the special effects bods later on.  The result is an extra-ordinarily faithful graphic novel-to-screen conversion. 

Narratively, what Snyder and his writing team added to Miller’s original, namely the whole Queen Gorgo / Theron sub-plot simply added to the thrill of the ride, as well as addressing the inherent, inevitable sexism of the source material.  No, the emphasis on the Queen didn’t make the film seem any less homo-erotic, but, given the mythological nature of the story, that simply didn’t matter.

Butler pulled off a seemingly impossible feat of humanising and adding dimension to a dogmatic, obsessive character, whilst hanging on to his dignity … in a loincloth.  He actually makes you give a damn about him and his men.  The Spartans were the original superheroes and, as such, their function is to inspire, rather than to endure.

8: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino’s grand return to form.  Featuring what should (but probably won’t) be an Oscar-winning turn from Christoph Waltz.  I worry about including a film in my top ten of the decade when it is barely three months old, but I am confident that the years to come will find the recently-acquired Blu-Ray of this visiting my player frequently.  My full review of it is here.



The funniest and most quotable film of the decade was even more of a delight because it came from nowhere.  Yes, I’d watched and loved Spaced, but bitter hard-won experience teaches one to expect the least when TV comedians get their shot at the big screen. Yes, it’s a zombie movie (yawn), yes its title is cringe-inducing but, like a proper story, it spends the first 30 – 40 minutes getting us familiar with the characters and their world, before chomping into them.  Filled with far-too-many vignettes to recall here, there is enough over-the-top gore to keep the zombies in the audience happy but the emphasis is absolutely on the living

This film has, by far, the most satisfying conclusion of any of the recent zombie flicks, it was the only recent zombie film (until Zombieland) where you actually want the characters to survive and it is the only zombie film that has, forever, changed my perception of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

Fried gold!

To start reading my top six just click here!




So here it is, a film that bears a greater weight of self-appointed responsibility than any since … well, ever.
Fox’s publicity machine has been slowly, carefully building the awareness of this film by claiming it is going to change the future by revolutionising the cinema-going experience.  We have been led to believe that the world will be redeemed by someone with the initials JC for the second time!  So, no pressure, Jim.
The first question this raises is a simple one: Will Avatar change the world?  No, of course it won’t, don’t be silly.  But the supplementary questions are less easy to dismiss: Is it a good film?  Is it a film to which, in the future, others will be compared?  Finally, for James Cameron, was it fourteen years well spent?
Let’s find out, shall we?
Avatar begins with something we’ve seen before in a Cameron film: His protagonist, a space marine, emerging from cryogenic sleep on a space-ship.  It’s twenty-three years since he introduced us to his Colonial Marines and their employer, the Weyland Yutani corporation, in exactly this way in Aliens.  He wants to evoke that much-loved film in our minds, so he can show us how far beyond that he has moved in the intervening quarter-century.
Cameron played no small part in introducing CGI into film-making with his next two projects, The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), both of which showed Hollywood what was now possible and therefore led directly to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) from which point there was no turning back.
So, you see, although he may not be widely credited with it, Cameron has already changed the course of the movie-going experience once; Fox were banking $300 + million in production budget (and about the same in marketing) in the hope that he could do it again.
Anyway, back to our protagonist.  He is Jake Sully, paraplegic ex-Marine, arriving at the far-flung Pandora to take part in the seemingly not-at-all secret Avatar programme.  The first glimpse of Pandora we get is of it reflected in the space-ship’s massive solar panel array.  This is a subtle and satisfying fore-shadowing of a film which will blur the line between the real and the appearance of the real.
Before I dig too deeply into the substance of the film, let’s look at the surface: These opening moments are not the only aspects of the film we’ve seen before … and every element we recognise is another obstruction to the film being as ground-breaking as the hype led us to expect.  For a film to be ‘game changing’ it has to create its own terms of reference, not borrow someone else’s or, as in the early scenes, the film-makers’ own.
All of the Marine scenes deliberately evoke Aliens, with their macho posturing and fetishistic hardware.  Michelle Rodriguez has been cast as the feisty pilot, Chacon in a deliberate echo of the equally butch, equally Hispanic Private Vasquez  (Jenette Goldstein).
The giant walking AMP Suits the Marines wear outdoors are a logical way of taking heavy artillery through a jungle environment, but they are also one part Aliens’ Power Loader to two parts machines we’ve seen in sources as various as the animated TV version of Starship Troopers, called Roughnecks (1999) to the Matrix sequels (2003) to the video game Lost Planet (2006).
James Horner, of course, can always be relied upon to re-hash his Star Trek II score from 1982, he’s recycled those horns for practically every action movie he’s scored since then (including, of course, Aliens), they have become his signature and I suspect Cameron will have specifically asked for them.
Further, the story of a disenfranchised American going native is a story we’ve seen many times in movies, from A Man Called Horse and Little Big Man (both 1970) through to Dances With Wolves (1990) and The Last Samurai (2003), but the influences go further: The jungle setting and outsider-rises-to-be-king narrative reminds me of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (story published in 1912, loosely adapted into the Johnny Weissmuller movie version in 1932) while the six-legged Direhorses  immediately suggest Thoats, the mounts ridden by the Martians in Burroughs’ Barsoom books and the size of the Na’vi (a word clearly derived from ‘native’ or possibly ‘naïve’) cannot help but remind one of the twelve-foot-tall Green Martians from the same books. 
I have also found several interesting articles (the first of which is here) which highlight considerable similarities between Avatar and Poul Anderson’s 1957 novella Call Me Joe.
Finally, can I be the only one who can see a very different and rather worrying reference in the story of a tribe of ‘primitives’ living in a giant tree and using cunning, guile and bows and arrows to defeat a heavily-armed, vastly superior force … on a forest moon?  Think about it.
Then there are the real-world influences: The battle between jungle-dwelling tribes-people armed with the afore-mentioned bows and arrows facing up to an American military-industrial complex, descending from the skies in helicopters, draws obvious and immediate parallels with our mediated image of The Viet-Nam War (comparisons Cameron encourages by referencing Apocalypse Now [1979] in calling his helos ‘Valkyries’), whilst the RDA corporation’s motives for invading their land in the first place (For the precious mineral resources buried beneath it) reflect America’s reasons for the present on-going unpleasantness in The Middle East.  Is it worth mentioning that the given name of this mineral – Unobtanium – is itself borrowed from the 2003 film The Core?  Possibly not, because the makers of that film will have taken the word from the same place that Cameron found it – a 1950s engineering colloquialism for, well, the unobtainable.
So, the perceptive viewer will be carrying all of this baggage with them.  Then, in addition to this burden, there is the structure of the narrative as a whole, which is a simple, traditional Hero’s Quest, with all of the traditional elements and character types that I teach my media students about every year.  This became the de rigeur story structure when George Lucas employed it with unprecedented success in Star Wars in 1977, and it is now taught to script-writers as the only structure that will get the studios to buy your script.  But, is that really true of a script written by James King of the World Cameron?  Really? Would he really have difficulty selling a script of which McKee and Meier would disapprove? No, of course not; but he has elected to use it anyway, presumably to make the story universally acceptable to the vast market he would need to reach to recoup that astronomical budget.  Yet, taking a narrative framework which stretches all the way back to primordial campfire stories is not a good way to innovate.  If this film is truly showing us the way forward, why is its story so tired and trusted (sic)?
So, there are some significant problems with both the surface and the underlying structure of the film.  But these aren’t what the masses are coming for … They want the long-promised spectacular visuals and, in this regard at least, the film absolutely does not disappoint.
What you are watching is, for about three-quarters of its screen-time, a wonderfully detailed cartoon.  (The official figure is 60% animation to 40% live-action but, in the watching, the amount of CGI seems greater).  Everything about the Na’vi and their home world is CGI and, for the first few minutes, this becomes a distraction … but such is the strength of Cameron’s vision and his control of his resources that you very quickly forget this – in no small part because of Zoë Saldaña’s quite extraordinary motion capture performance as the Na’vi princess, Neytiri.
An aside: I have a serious problem with Robert Zemeckis’ mo cap movies, The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and this year’s A Christmas Carol.  He is attempting to create CGI which is so utterly convincing it is indistinguishable from real life.  Moving past the sheer foolishness of this project (surely, if it looks real it would be easier to shoot it for real, CGI is there to help film-makers explore the un-real and the un-realisable) I consider all of his animated films failures because, no-matter how realistic the hair, no matter how convincing the flow of the materials and the flickering of the lights, the eyes of his characters – and therefore their whole faces – are dead.  Every close-up just pushes me back out of the movie and back into my seat.  Every facial expression tells me “It’s only a movie!”  I’m not alone in this reaction, it seems and a bit of research tells me that the technical term for it is ‘The Uncanny Valley’, coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori to explain the revulsion people feel towards robots the more humanoid they become.  Essentially, the more real simulated people appear, the more artificial we perceive them and the more disturbed our reaction to them.  The ever-reliable journal of record (ahem) Wikipedia, details it here, if you’d like to know more.
All of Zemeckis’ recent forays into animation fall straight into that valley for me.  Avatar does not.  From the first close up of Neytiri’s face, she is so is utterly convincingly alive, facial expressions so recognisably human, performance so rich with nuance and personality.  Finally someone has created a CGI character more convincingly real than Gollum.
But then, the bulk of the CGI work here was provided by WETA digital, the people who created Gollum!  They also undertook a lot of the design work relating to the Na’vi which will also go some way to explaining why their culture seems so fully evolved.
Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the CGI Na’vi are more engaging, more convincing and more human than the humans playing the Marines and corporate stooges.  Even Sigourney Weaver is more prepossessing in her CGI form than as the intemperate Dr. Augustine.
Cameron and his team of advisors have put an extraordinary amount of work into developing the Na’vi culture to make these creatures a fully-formed and utterly believable race.  The Marines (particularly in the person of Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch) come across as one-dimensional ciphers by comparison.
Similarly, while the artificial habitation created by the humans is as characterless as it is familiar, the eco-system outside is utterly original and – importantly – seems to make perfect sense.  The inter-dependent balance that exists between flora and fauna in our own environment, is reflected in the elegant beauty of the balance that exists on Pandora. 
This balance, this unity, is held together by the quite brilliant notion of the neural queue, a sort of biological USB cable that sprouts from the back of their head, insulated by a woven pony-tail of hair.  This connection allows the Na’vi to ‘plug in’ to the ecosphere around them, be it the direhorses they ride, the banshees they fly or the trees beneath which they live.  This simple notion – which itself mirrors the way Sully is himself plugged into his avatar, holds the eco-system together and provides the MacGuffin the plot needs to explain why Sully can so quickly adapt to their way of life.
Yes, Cameron will have gotten the idea for the forest becoming bio-luminescent at night from his regular forays underwater, but why not?  Bio-luminescence is, apparently, the single most common form of communication between life-forms on our planet – why shouldn’t Pandora’s exquisite plant and animal life have it too!?
The scenes where Sully is getting used to the world are fascinating and I wanted to seem much, much more of them.  Pandora is a fascinating place, what a shame we couldn’t have spent two and half hours just exploring its wonders … why did that pesky plot have to get in the way?
Indeed, I feel that the story of how Pandora was discovered and how RDA established their base, how they learned about the flora and fauna (about what would eat them and what wouldn’t) and especially about all the missionary work a younger Dr Augustine did with the natives, would be a far more engaging, far less cliché-dependent plot than the one we’ve got.
So, anyway, about that plot.  Sully arrives in his wheel-chair to take his now-dead brother’s part in the Avatar Programme, an undertaking designed to give humans the opportunity to ‘pilot’ genetically engineered Na’vi clones, Na’vitars if you will, out into the jungle to meet with the locals on their own terms.  Given how narrow-minded and profit-motivated the only representatives of RDA we meet are, it makes you wonder quite why they suffer this scientific exploration to continue.  Property developers here on Earth have to put up with the slow progress of archaeologists because we’re constantly being supervised in a developed country bound by the rule of law; RDA is working in a hostile environment six years’ travel away … who would know if they shut the scientists down?  But they don’t.  They haven’t for years.  Presumably because Quaritch was waiting impatiently for someone like Sully to arrive, someone he could get on his side with the old ‘Semper Fi’ routine, someone he can use as a spy in the scientist camp. 
But, before he can do that, Sully has to adjust to his out-of-body-in-a-different-body experience.  He lies in a cradle, is plugged in and wakes up in a twelve-foot tall blue body … with legs that work.  His first instinct – and this seems so human, even if the body doesn’t – is to break out of the medical facility and run … just run and run and run.
He does the same on his first foray into the jungle, gets chased, turns tail (literally), runs, gets lost, gets attacked and gets rescued by the beautiful, fearsome and damn-near-nekkid Neytiri.  She looks at the way he blunders around the jungle and calls him a child.  Watching him play the glowing leaves of various giant plants like a drum-kit, you can see her point.
Neytiri can, conveniently, speak English (because Dr. Augustine taught a few Na’vi some time in the past) reducing the need for those annoying sub-titles that certain cinema-goers don’t appreciate (if I wanted to read I’d open a book).  She takes Sully to her village and, for no clearly discernible reason (other than narrative necessity), he is accepted among them and trained up in their ways. 
It is during these second-act scenes, where we see time and again the Amerindian influences on their culture, cemented into place by the casting of Wes Studi as the voice of tribal chief, Eytukan. 
As these scenes proceed we become aware of the mirroring and the blurring of the line between Sully’s two worlds.  When his Na’vitar falls asleep, his real body wakes up, to a constant state of culture shock.  The Na’vi sleep in cocoons made of reed, he sleeps in a cocoon of metal and plastic.  Gradually, the far-more-compelling world of the Na’vi seduces him.  It is at this point that we finally see what Cameron saw in leading man, Sam Worthington.  Although as blank and humourless through the film’s first half as he was in Terminator Salvation, his experiences with the Na’vi nation  make him more animated, bringing forth smiles, jokes and, finally, some spark of humanity.
We’ll ignore the unlikeliness of a field-grunt with no apparent education learning an entire alien language and culture in just three months, and instead concentrate on the beauty of the landscapes Cameron’s vast team of artists have created.  I particularly love the Hallelujah Mountains, giant slabs of weather-beaten rock which hover like something off a Roger Dean album cover (I’ll leave it to minds greater than mine to figure out how and why) which are joined together and held stable by a vast network of vines.  Once again, an example of the Pandoran eco-system working collaboratively.
Unfortunately, the real purpose of these beautiful and delightful middle-act scenes are not imply so we can revel in the magic of the world-building that the film-makers have practiced.  No, every single lesson Neytiri teaches him, every single skill he develops and every single experience he goes through is for dramatically expedient reasons.  Everything will come in useful in the big battle at the end.  The script is disappointingly economical in that sense.
When Quaritch is giving his pep-talk to the newbies, he tells them that Pandora is worse than any Hell they could imagine.  But we have no idea what leads him to this assessment.  The place we see is no more dangerous than any jungle when approached by the ignorant.  However, Quaritch is an impressively ignorant man.  Blinded by this, his fear of the planetoid has become a rage that is his only defining characteristic.  He is completely one-dimensional character, driven to do one thing and one thing only: destroy everything beautiful.
Where the Na’vi are unambiguously a perfect good, he is the perfect evil, with the scientists trapped in the grey-area in-between.  This is a very traditional arrangement, which requires no thought to understand and that, again, is a disappointment.
The film has such a complex, detailed, rich texture and yet, when your mind bites into it, it finds the taste very familiar and disappointingly bland. 
Ultimately the film’s greatest failing is that it is just another movie following in the now far-too-long-in-the-tooth contradictory tradition of Star Wars … Like Star Wars, Avatar uses vast quantities of the very latest, bleeding-edge technology to tell us that our technology is a bad thing and we only do bad things with it.  We should abandon it and live a simpler, more spiritual life, the film advises us, for only in simplicity and naïveté can we ever hope to be saved. And how much new technology did Cameron have to develop to tell us this?  Only in America would the irony of that dichotomy not be noticed.  Only in Britain, I suppose, would we find that amusing.
The film’s greatest success is that it is, by far, the most spectacular, visually compelling, exotic fantasy released since The Lord of the Rings.  It cements WETA’s reputation as the go-to people for special effects which are both very special and deeply affecting.
So, is it a good film?  Visually it is stunning and watching it is certainly an experience that everyone must treat themselves to on the biggest screen they can. There is no denying the epic sweep of the simplistic themes the film deals with and thus, even for this cynical old hack, the confrontation at the end is as exhilarating as it is heart-felt.
Is it a film to which, in the future, others will be compared?  For the quality of its visuals and the depth of the thought that went into the world-building, yes.  No one will be able to get away with bodging together disparate alien-seeming elements on a suck-it-and-see basis ever again.  Someone will have to think about what works.  Just like proper science fiction writers do.  But it will also be a touchstone for script-writers whenever they want to think about great lost opportunities of our time. 
Finally, for James Cameron, was it fourteen years well spent?  Well, if he’d released it even two years earlier, the world would not have been ready for its 3D sophistication and would have seen it for the gimmick 3D, at heart, really is.  If he’d released it five or six years earlier, the special effects would not have been achievable for even this extravagant budget.  If he’d released it ten years earlier … it would have been compared unfavourably to the still very conspicuous Titanic.  So, 2009 was the perfect year to release this film.  He had to wait fourteen years.  His efforts would have been less impressive, less acceptable and, if the first week’s box-office is any guide, less lucrative.
Once you’ve seen the movie if you, like me, were far more interested in Pandora itself than any of the clichéd shenanigans that take place on it, and you want know more about the flora and fauna and the fully-rounded world they’ve developed, you could do worse than visit the Pandorapedia here.
Further, for a fascinating and entirely dispassionate review of the science of the film, explored, evaluated and converted into a reasonable facsimile of easy-to-understand English by an actual, proper, white-coat wearing scientist, look no further than the Ain’t It Cool article here.
To look at the ‘scriptment’ Cameron wrote in the mid-nineties, which many commentators consider to be superior to the script we ended up with, you can find it in its entirety on docstoc here.

Writer/Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang,
Dur: 14 years and 162 mins
Cert: 12A
image © 20th Century Fox



I like Gerard Butler. I’m the one person on Earth who liked Gamer. I thought he was brilliant in RocknRolla last year. I appreciate his unimpressed, sardonic, Celtic no-nonsense-ness. He humanises (and humourises) extreme, uncommunicative and occasionally one-dimensional characters. A thousand years ago, when I was at college, the ultimate accolade one could bestow upon another was the assertion: “I’d buy him a pint”; well, I’d buy Butler a pint!

Here, in the frankly awfully-entitled Law Abiding Citizen, he plays Clyde Sheldon. His story begins without preamble but with a knock at the door, two weapon-wielding villains burst in. Stab-stab, scream-scream, kill-kill. The destruction of Sheldon’s life is done with far greater economy and less lascivious attention to the gory details than, say Death Wish (1974) or Death Sentence (2007)

Cut to ambitious, politicising Assistant DA with the deliberately pale name of Nick Rice, played by Jamie Foxx, whose speciality is creating the illusion of justice. He cuts a deal with Darby, the home invader who raped and murdered Sheldon’s wife and daughter. Darby blames the murders he committed on his henchman, who will get the death sentence while he will be out in a few years. Sheldon will not be put on the stand, the jury will not hear his testimony and justice, in his eyes, will not be served. When he protests, Rice simply assures him that, in the judicial system: “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove” that matters. You just know that Sheldon is going to make him eat those words, along with Darby’s repeated assertion that “You can’t fight fate”.

Foxx was obviously drawn to this project because it gave him the chance to portray a bad guy who is, really, just a false hero. He isn’t a bad person and he is wracked with guilt over his actions, but that doesn’t stop him from profiting from them. Of course, the family he goes home to has to mirror that which Sheldon lost.

Fast-forward ten years. Sheldon suddenly and unexpectedly reappears, determined to right the wrong that was done him. He arranges for the painful death of Darby’s home-breaking henchman, then kidnaps Darby himself. Unfortunately Christian Stolte, who plays Darby, looks distractingly like Johnny Vegas, which does somewhat undermine the tension in the torture scene where he is systematically shopped up.

Hang on? So, this is a legal drama that turns into a torture porn movie? Yes. Then it turns into a long-con caper movie as we realise that Sheldon has spent his ten years out of the limelight carefully and methodically laying his plans. Who knows what atrocity he has laying in wait next?

The narrative hook is that Foxx has him chained-up in a maximum security prison and yet still he seems able to orchestrate the untimely demise of everyone associated with his original court case. You see, Butler was a weapons designer working for the CIA, his specialty was James Bond type gadgets which could kill people in exotic ways from a long distance. Not the kind of guy you really want to annoy, it turns out.

As we proceed through this neither-fish-nor-fowl plot-line, there are one-or-two surprisingly effective cattle-prod shocks, all the more effective because, unlike in a stalk-n-slash film, you don’t expect them here. But, arrayed against these are some contrivances of which even a Bond movie would be ashamed. In the film’s silliest scene, he sets up an automatic rocket-launcher at the side of a road in, significantly, a graveyard and three car-fulls of body guards fail to spot it before it opens fire. Headstone, headstone, rocket-launcher, headstone … yep, everything’s fine here!

Like Foxx, Butler will have also been drawn to this for the moral complexity of his character and the range of emotions it lets him essay. Sheldon swings from bumbling innocent to cunning super-villain to raving psycho and Butler relishes each performance equally.

The damage done to him first by Darby then by Rice runs deep and has undermined his sanity. Therefore, like Rice, he isn’t a clearly defined bad-guy. But, given the amount of ‘collateral damage’ he is responsible for, he clearly can’t be mistaken for a good-guy either. They are both grey and grey tones lead to a lack of contrast.

Visually, the film is also grey and lacking in contrast, in-keeping with director F. Gary Gray’s pallid career. He’s had several chances to make powerful, imagination-grabbing films: The Negotiator (1998), The Italian Job (2003) and Be Cool (2005) and succeeded in making each of them indifferent, compromised and forgettable. This is, therefore, entirely consistent with his career so far.

Ultimately none of these characters are especially redeemable. The moral core of the tale is clouded by compromise and the proceedings leave something of a bad taste in the mouth. The film tries to be serious, then flies off into fantasy as the final act unravels ever-more ludicrous plot twists, so it succeeds in being convincingly neither.

I rather felt that this was a film which, in some alternate dimension somewhere, Tony Scott could have made much more of. Sure, it wouldn’t have had the gritty dramatic edge, and yes it would be far sillier, but the transition from serious drama to inconsequential revenge fantasy would have been less jarring under his direction. Of course, he would have cast Denzel instead of Jamie and probably Russell Crowe instead of Butler. But I can’t escape the suspicion that the end product would be far more satisfying and would probably address the issues at hand far more successfully.

Dir: F. Gary Gray
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Stars: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney
Cert: 18
Dur: 109 mins