The Golden Plantpots 2009

It's cold and wet and slippy outside, and I am so full of food. Hope you had a good Christmas and that you have a big pile of pressies to work through. Myself and Ms. Plants have the great opposing forces of a Wii Fit and a pile of choccy, biscuits, choccy biscuits and all sorts of over-bought party packs.

In this quiet interim, and since the pavements are sheet ice out there, I thought maybe I should get some plantpots dished out for the best of the 200 or so films I went to see this year. To get full reviews of all the films I saw at this years' various fests, clicketty on the following links:
As with last year, I'll award some golden pots to some of the best films out there, which are unlikely to make it to a cinema near you (especially now) but I would definitely recommend you rent or buy the DVD if you can get at them. There's also a handful of rubbish that I would not wish upon anyone to go waste their cash on, although of course, this is all my opinion so YMMV - and this year there was certainly less to deride.

There were so many films this year, and so many of a high standard, that the honourable mentions list has grown in size. I'll try to keep it brief, and if you want to know more, search for the film in the box above to find my original post. On the other hand, did you see one of the festival films and think I gave it a poor/inflated score, or is it not even on the list? Tell us all about it in the comments!

Best Film - Mary and Max (Australia)
A claymation film from an unknown production house in Australia about the friendship between a lonely young girl and an overweight old man with Asburgers sounds like the last film you would expect on a best of list, let alone getting the top spot. It's a beautiful example of storytelling in its most honest form. Frank, unpretentious and both lump-in-the-throat beautiful and darkly humorous. I defy anyone to see Mary and Max and not like it.

Honourable Mentions:

- Mad, Sad and Bad (UK)
It's sad to think that many people may skip over this film about the adult lives of two brothers and a sister trying to find happiness whilst trying to please their unpleasable mother, because the family in question are Asian. If you can see it, do so; it is a thoroughly entertaining, heartwarming, funny, sad and happy film about accepting what you are naturally drawn to in life.

- Departures (Japan)
Yet another film that surprised me with it's ability to grab my attention. Departures won 2009's foreign language film Oscar, telling the tale of a young man who finds himself in the socially derided profession of encoffinment. It's gentle pace and respect for the changes to society and how traditions bend around it, mixed with warm humour and an absence of the zany-wacky physical comedy that often peppers Japanese cinema, make this accessible for everyone except the most ardent subtitle-avoiders.

- Terribly Happy (Denmark)
The first film I saw this year got the festival off to a great start with a semi-tense, semi-comic thriller about a policeman drafted to a quiet, backwater town and coming up against the people there who do things 'their way' was entertaining and chilling in equal measure.

- Kin (UK)
This ultra low-budget suspense about the [re-]imprisonment of a middle aged man with learning difficulties when he answers a plea from his sister to help take care of their mother depended on how convincing the principal parts were played, and it's the quality of these performances, mixed with surprising depth and conversation points to chew over long after the end of the film, made for a really satisfying experience.

- Cracks (UK/Irl)
This unassuming but thrilling and occasionally shocking debut from Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) was beautifully set in the period between the world wars, where charismatic and unconventional teacher Miss G teaches her tight-knit group to spread their wings. It completely bowled me over and by the end left me with one of the most powerful endings I had seen in film.

- Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Jpn)
Receiving critical acclaim as you would expect from one of Hayao Miyazaki's efforts wherever it is shown, Ponyo is a beautiful, hand-crafted film in watercolour. Every frame shows love from it's composers and the story canters along at the pace of a child who has just discovered the joys of exploring. Both parents and children sat happily throughout with a big silly grin on their face, sharing the experience as the ever-young mind of a white-haired old man poured it's contents with style and care onto the screen.

- Bright Star (UK/Australia)
The short and precious life of the poet John Keats is played brilliantly by Ben Wishaw, with Abbie Cornish as his muse and love Fanny Brawne. The film chronicles only their short time together, but manages to pick the right elements and explore them with accuracy and respect. It is an intelligent film that is best enjoyed with a relaxed mind.

- Tales from the Golden Age (Romania)
Though rather long (and technically 5 films), Tales took a light-hearted stab at bringing to life five Romanian urban myths to life. Best of the bunch were the fantastic 'official visit' about the perils of arranging a village celebration for a state visit, and the 'greedy policeman', who manages to get a pig for Christmas - which turns out to be still alive and quite angry at being bundled into a cramped flat. If you have the time, they're well worth it.

- Hierro (Spain)
A late-night cracker of a film about a woman who loses her child on the ferry to a remote island has elements of horror, psychological thriller and tense murder-mystery mixed in without making it unpalatable for anyone averse to those kinds of film. Guillermo del Toro added his considerable influence to tighten up the script, and the whole thing worked especially well.

- Crying with Laughter (UK)
Stephen McCole actually played the role of stand-up comic Joey Frisk, the lead from this film in the pubs and clubs of Edinburgh to get into the part, having never performed on-stage before. His portrayal of a boozy, foul-mouthed man who loves his daughter but is on the wrong end of a divorce was utterly convincing, and the unpredictable, brooding Frank, a quiet man with a past somehow connected with Joeys' is masterfully played out.

- The Misfortunates (Belgium)
Some people are just born into the wrong family, and Gunter's retelling of his early years in the chaotic household of the Strobel family with five grown-up, drunken, abusive and violent sons (one of which is his father) barely contained by their elderly mother, is both wickedly funny and strangely heartwaming at the same time. Even though the family holds together by the most frayed of threads, it is difficult not to find yourself warming to them in their more lucid moments, and laughing with them in the lesser ones. If you like Shameless, you'll love it.

- The Men Who Stare at Goats (UK/US)
It's not had a complete thumbs-up everywhere, but I really enjoyed this opening film at Leeds. Based loosely on the book of the same name, it tells of some of the weird and wonderful things the US army was working on to keep one step ahead of the enemy. Kevin Spacey and George Clooney put on great performances of old army grunts used by the First Earth Batallion to test out their crazy ideas, and Ewan MacGregor plays the role of Jon Ronson, handcuffed to the rollercoaster trying to find out as much as his luck will allow him to. More of this is true than you would think..

- Baraboo (US)
The Lynchian influences of collaborator-turned-director Mary Sweeney were absent in this gentle view of a sleepy American town, where the balance of the community has shifted slightly and things have started to slide out of control when one of its inhabitants returns visibly changed from serving as a soldier in Iraq. It is a beautifully shot film about the importance of community and the stabilising influence it brings to a close-knit group, without ever sinking into saccharine disney-ified sweetness.

Best Short Film - Echo (Romania)

Sometimes short films can be the more powerful than full-length features. Echo is one such example; the deeds of a young teenager and his reluctant accomplice are played out in the minds of the viewer as the inspector assigned to the incident brings them back to the scene and gets them to describe the events.

Honourable Mentions:

The Horribly Slow Murder with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon (US)
A trailer for a nonexistant 9-hour super-movie about a man pursued relentlessly by a deathly figure whose chosen weapon is a small teaspoon. The movie would have been a horrible trial, but this short spoof was great fun.

- Fard (France)
A really innovative work, creating a computer generated future world where everything has been made super-efficient by placing the rough edges of reality behind a screen. When Oscar finds a package containing a torch, his eyes are opened to the real-world underneath.

- The Stars Don't Twinkle in Outer Space (UK)
The imagination of a pair of children help them cope with the harsh reality of their lives in this cleverly shot film.

- The Tube with a Hat (Romania)
This charming little film told the story of a young boy and his journey with his father to fix the family TV set, an antique from the days where you could open the back up and tinker with the insides.

- Surviving History (UK)
A sobering look at the lives of Lithuanian Jews whose ordeals did not stop with the end of the second world war. They share their thoughts and fears candidly with the viewer about a world increasingly distanced by time from that which should not be forgot.

- Poste Restante (Poland)
A beautifully crafted film, clearly reflecting a fascination of the director, about the thousands of letters that cannot be delivered to their intended recipient for one reason or another. The film is played as a cycle as the letters are stored, opened by mail staff, forwarded if possible, and if not, recycled.

- Photograph of Jesus (UK)
A short film which could so easily have been a full feature, about the sometimes crazy requests for photographs from the Getty Images Hulton Archive. Told with animation using the vaults as a backdrop and some of the myriad images as characters, this film deserved much more attention.

- Slaves (Sweden)
Using a unique animated style, an audio transcript of a meeting between two newly liberated Sudanese slave children and a documentary film crew manages to capture with great accuracy the subtle movements of souls struggling to express what they have encountered in their short lives.

- The Little Dragon (France/Sweden)
Putting the essence of Bruce Lee inside a Bruce Lee doll is a stroke of genius, and the journey he takes across the bedroom of an untidy student is both excellently crafted and very funny.

- Boy (UK)
Powerful and unsettling, told from the point of view of a man who realises he is a paedophile, when a young boy begins to hang around his allotment.

- Red Sands (UK)
The divisive subject of bullfighting and the views of an elderly veteran of the bull run as he describes it's place in his countries' tradition, it's brutality and beauty, and his thoughts on whether it should be stopped, were examined here in frankness and with a surprisingly unbiased viewpoint.

- The Yellow Smily Face (Romania)
Replayed from last year, this gentle film about the struggles of two techno-phobic parents to use their son's computer to communicate with him is something any son or daughter would recognise and identify with.

- Monsters and Rabbits (UK)
The loneliness of two imaginary friends as the children who created them meet and find a kinship amongst the bullies and squabbling evokes memories of the viewers' own childhood, and is played in a way that both adults and children can enjoy.

Best Animation - Mary and Max (Australia)
Out of nowhere, Adam Elliot created something special with Mary and Max. Largely ignoring the influence of computer graphics, it manages to produce with clay more 'real' situations than a load of pixels could ever do. On top of that is an intelligent script, narrated with the reassuring tones of Barry Humphries, about the friendship between polar opposites, who find common ground thousands of miles away through their honesty and innocence in letter form.

Honourable Mentions:

- Ponyo On the Cliff By The Sea (Japan)
In any other year, Ponyo would have won, but it was beaten fair and square by Mary and Max. Ponyo, as with many other Miyazaki films, is written from the viewpoint of the children in the audience, with enough intelligence and charm to also enthral the adults, and both sit mesmerised as this charming tale of love and friendship plays out.

- Summer Wars (Japan)
Some are citing director Mamoru Hosoda as the new Miyazaki, and though it's not quite time for him to take over that position, he's making great progress toward it. The efforts of unlikely partners Kenji and Natsuki to shut down a virus in a gigantic virtual world of the future, while playing sweethearts to the extended Natsuki family in real life have the twin-layered complexities not often explored in other art forms, and the positive vision of the future, where technology has correctly found its place as servant, not master is a refreshing one not often explored.

- Angel's Egg (Japan)
A rare chance to see this early effort from now-famous anime producer Mamoru Oshii and character designer Yoshitaka Amano could not be passed up, and although it would be impossible to justify as a new project in the current cut-throat world of film production, it stands as a beguiling, confusing, but ultimately mesmerizing and beautiful tale of a young girl protecting a mysterious egg, and the soldier she meets in the middle of her distopian world.

- Chick (Poland)
A high-energy short film about the romantic entanglings of a man and woman, using heavily stylised animation to draw attention to all the details each side puts into the preparation to meet. If you don't laugh at the copious jiggling, there's something wrong with you.

- Fard (France)
Using a mix of computer generated worlds and live action is nothing new, but combining both in the same character certainly is, and Fard, whilst not posessing the most innovative plotline, certainly made for a pioneering and striking visual experience.

- Time Masters (France/Switzerland/Germany)
The best of the Rene Laloux trilogy, Time Masters is the coming together of two matured and seasoned artists, Laloux and Jean Giraud (AKA Mœbius) about an abandoned child, Piel whose parents have died on a hostile planet, and the heroic attempts by family friend Jaffar to rescue him. Playing with the ideas of family ties, friendship and betrayal and temporal relativity, Time Masters features none of the typical Laloux obsession with nudey women, and instead delivers a celebration of pre-computer age animation.

- The Little Dragon (France/Sweden)
A great short film, the Little Dragon uses stop-motion animation to describe the adventures of a Bruce Lee doll enfused with the spirit of the dragon.

Best Documentary - Outrage - (US)
It is no secret that America has a more backward intolerance of gay and lesbian people than Europe, (although that has a few large creases to iron out as well). It is thanks to movers in the area such as Michael Rogers of that things change for the better. This powerful and informative documentary shows the institutional homophobia within the American political system, practised even by the gay men and women within its walls, whose self-loathing and hate spurs them on to vote in anti-gay legislation affecting thousands of others. Powerful without relying on overbearing music or down-your-throat messages, informative without getting bogged down in data, this film shows just what closeted people do to maintain their house of cards, and the benefits they only see when that house has been pushed to the floor.

Honourable Mentions:

- Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty (Netherlands/France)
Even though Renzo Martens spoils the show a little by insisting on parading his pretty-boy looks into the camera while his hire crew struggle with his luggage, there is no denying that he has a pragmatic, though controversial solution to the persistent state of poverty in the third world nations: turn the poverty and the pain and suffering into a resource, and make money out of it. Martens sells his idea with enthusiasm and attempts to provide solutions to some of the hurdles along the way, showing us a side to the current humanitarian effort provided by UNICEF et al we neither knew about nor wanted to see. It made me think twice about how I would give my money in the future.

- The Crimson Wing (US/UK)
Disney revived its Nature arm with this cinema documentary, told in similar style to March of the Penguins, with Mariella Frostrup taking over from Morgan Freeman. Shot over the salt plains of Africa, showing the mating rituals, births of the young chicks, their young lives, and finally the long journey through the dangerous salt lakes to the fresh water beyond. The cinematography was breathtaking in places, the narration was kept sparse and tight, and the film did not shy away from the harsher aspects of nature.

- Slaves (Sweden)
A short animated film putting to video a transcript of two African children and a pair of journalists shortly after their liberation is told to simple but sobering effect.

- Disco and Atomic War (Estonia/Finland)
An unassuming but smartly presented history lesson about the shifting of power between the Estonian communist government and its people, helped in part by the rogue television signals seeping in from nearby Finland. Though it may sound dull as dishwater, it was nothing of the sort, showing the government attempts at censorship to be as ridiculous as they were ineffectual and portraying it all as a humorous caper between the plucky underdogs and the bumbling management. Funny, entertaining, informative.

- Kinshasa 2.0 (Africa)
A campaign to free political activist Marie-Thérèse Nlandu from her exiled state outside the DRC is the subject of this short film, or rather, the method by which she still manages to communicate by satellite internet connection to her friends and colleagues, using a specially created world within Second Life.

- Below Sea Level (Italy/US)
When times become hard, those who cannot provide the government with their daily taxes drop off the map. Some end up at an abandoned naval base in the American border with Mexico, where they live an existence of sorts, relying on each other to come together and solve the problems of policing, healthcare and food and water. Living in cars and old school buses, this lawless community is mostly ignored by the outside world, but rarely seems to care. Worth it for the ramblings of Insane Wayne alone.

- Mental (Japan)
Though long, Mental was a gentle look at the lives of several patients at the barely surviving surgery and communal house in a downtown area of Tokyo. It only survives as it does largely due to the selfless and freely-given contributions of Dr Yamamoto, who acts as lecturer to the local college and locum to the many mental patients who come through the doors, struggling with the hectic lives demanded of a resident of Tokyo. Approaching this film with anything other than a state of Zen meditation will probably result in fidgeting and a lot of clock-watching, as the secret to it's enjoyment is to let it happen in front of you at life's pace, enjoying the moments of joy and progress as and when they happen, and allowing the patients to tell their often heartbreaking stories at other times.

- Isolation (UK)
A documentary about the lives of war veterans once they come back from life on the front line. Those without horrendous injuries often find readjustment to civilian life impossible after what they have been through and go off the rails. Stuart Griffiths is a veteran of the first Gulf War, and after losing his home and becoming separated from his family, picked up his life from the streets and decided to record and help others like him by joining the Ex-Forces Fellowship. This film follows Stuart as he interviews several war survivors, concentrating on the difficulties they have experienced readjusting, returning to their families, and even getting help from the government who put them there in the first place.

- Dancing on the Edge (UK)
A short film about the Dadao Live Art Festival in China, taking place against the dislike of the government, who reluctantly allow it but see the expressionism on show as decadent and corruptive, as the form is often used to make an artistic, or political statement. A view clearly demonstrated when a couple of festival performers decide to stray beyond the venue limits and perform on the street.

- Another Planet (Hungary)
With no interference from behind the camera, Another Planet quietly sits and allows the subjects to express their views, or do their jobs, and let the audience decide what to make of it. The child subjects all have one thing in common; they form the very bottom layer of society in a range of locations around the world; pimps and prostitutes, child labourers, soldiers, slaves, and others forced to grow up long before they should. It's difficult viewing, but an important contribution to the education of the world outside.

- Turn It Loose (US)
An unexpectedly enjoyable flick about the lives, loves and dreams of several 'BBoys' as they breakdance themselves silly in the annual BC-One tournament. A surprisingly gentlemanly sport, the physical face-offs give way to some amazing bodily contortions and stunts, and the director makes clever use of the 360-degree cameras to slow down the action at crucial moments. An interesting peek at an alien culture told through enthusiastic and positive imagery.

- Red Sands (UK)
The balanced view of Spanish bullfighting is explored from the viewpoint of an elderly veteran as he struggles with his opposing emotions on the subject.

- Carmen Meets Borat (Netherlands)
Enjoy The Journey Award - The Butterfly Tattoo (UK)
A new category for those films whose plots and eventual outcomes are obvious from the off, and so won't win prizes for originality; or they don't have a defined ending as such at all, but are still thoroughly enjoyable while the film rolls.

The Butterfly Tattoo wins this category because it clearly showed the tragic outcome of the film in the first minute, and then replayed the events leading up to that moment over the course of the film. Like a slow motion train crash, you cannot keep yourself from seeing what happens, and hoping that somehow everything will be all right, as the two central actors give great performances for characters that you eventually end up caring about.

- If You Are The One (China)
Romantic comedies don't often hail from China, but this one did. It was obvious that Qin Fen and Smiley were going to somehow end up together by the end, but getting there was a pleasant mixture of cynical humour, beautiful locations and a healthy pace, spoilt only slightly by the poor quality of the copy.

- At the Center of the Earth - Of Wells and Men (Africa)
A beautiful short film about the well-builders of the African desert, and their ability to create perfectly cylindrical wells through sometimes solid rock by hand, a process which takes years to complete. It didn't progress much beyond the well-digging and the lives of those connected to it, but it was a quiet look at an unknown profession.

- The Two in Tracksuits (Japan)
If ever a film was made deliberately to follow its tail in a circle, this charming film from Japan is it. Father and son take their yearly break from the choking closeness of the Tokyo summer, and head to Mount Asama, where the weather is much fresher. The film meanders happily through the beautiful countryside, gently prodding the characters for little bits of their daily lives, but never spoon-feeding it directly. What you get is a gentle summers break in the company of two family members with warm humour and bits and pieces of life that everyone can identify with.

- Creation (UK)
The life of Charles Darwin is chronicled time and time over, especially this year in the 150th year of his publication of The Origin of Species, and though the film touches briefly on his work to piece together his ground-breaking theories, the film actually concentrates on Darwin the family man, and in particular his relationship with his daughter Anna who died aged ten following a bout of scarlet fever, and with his sternly religious wife, who has serious problems with the work he is doing. Darwin is played to a tee by Paul Bettany, and his real life partner Jennifer Connelly plays Emma Darwin with equal constance, in a film whose eventual purpose is not to convince the viewer either way about his theories, but to understand and connect with the turmoil that raged within the household at the time.

- Summer Wars (Japan)
There was no chance that Summer Wars was going to end up with anything other than Kenji and Natsuki ending up together by the end, but the constantly high animation quality, over the top computer generated virtual worlds put next to with old style Japanese households, and a bouncy, entertaining narrative meant getting there was fun.

- The Maiden Heist (US)
What could have been a 'by the numbers' made for TV style American movie about a trio of elderly museum security guards who try to swap their favourite pieces for fakes before they are carted off to the other side of the world, actually turned out to be a very entertaining piece; the well-trotted but dependable 'will-they-wont-they manage it? of course they will' caper style was peppered with fun and humour, well acted and tightly scripted, and always felt like the actors were having a good laugh throughout.

After the Credits Roll - Kin (UK)
This new category is for those films that are particularly good at encouraging debate and chatter at the end about what you have just seen.

Kin was a great talking piece, mainly due to what was not said about the lives of the wretched people within. Expressions, half-sentences and reactions all had their own significance, and nourished the sparse dialog to present a full-blown description of the back stories, wholly constructed by the viewer.

- Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (US)
Not to try to sing the praises of Expelled, because it is a prime example of misinformation and misguidance, but as a talking point between a Creationist and a Scientist, Expelled is very effective and will remain a point of contention and argument long afterwards.

- Hierro (Spain)
Another film where that which is said is dwarfed by that which isn't, Hierro managed to skilfully show us the horror of losing your child and the desperation of getting him back, whilst also conveying the backstory of the situation in actions and symbolism, not words.

- Seven Minutes in Heaven (Israel/France/Hungary)
The ambiguous nature of the ending to this film warrants a second viewing, and it's multi-layered mystery will keep any two film buffs debating the outcome all the way home.

Emotional Kick - Wolfy (Russia)
There was no greater film this year at depicting the corrosive influence of immaturity and selfishness on the life of a child. A selfish, drunken mother abandons her newborn baby to its grandmother in the pursuit of a carefree, single life, and only after several years does she decide to visit, upon which a token gesture of a small toy welds the child to her mother's leg, who reacts with brutal coldness. A shocking, powerful film and very affecting.

Honourable Mentions:

- Slovenian Girl (Slovakia)
The life of a young call-girl, using the generated income to get her through university, is turned on its head when two pimps masquerading as punters try to take over her life. Barely escaping with her life, she has to call on the favours of friends, ex-fiancée's and most of all, her father, none of which know about her other life. Genuinely tense throughout, Slovenian girl tugs at both sides of your feelings for her as her house of cards collapses and she has to make amends.

- Before and After 22/12/1989 (Romania)
A short film about the changes brought about after the overthrow of the Ceauşescu regime by the Romanian Revolution, exemplified by two typical days in the life of a family living in both time periods. The sense of freedom and relief in the second part from the constant fear in the first is palpable in the audience.

- Surviving History (UK)
The experiences of the few surviving Lithuanian Jews from the time of the second World War are told with quiet reverence here. Their stories are very affecting, and the brooding menace of the emerging Neo-Nazi movement can be seen hanging over them, meaning that peace is never truly going to be theirs.

- The Stars Don't Twinkle in Outer Space (UK)
A short, quietly shocking film about how imagination acts as a natural coping mechanism when two young children play at spacemen.

- Can Go Through Skin (Netherlands)
As Marieke attempts to heal her mental wounds from an attack in her own home, she moves to an abandoned house and re-invents herself. The process of healing is slow and strewn with potholes, and her scars are deep, and the audience is taken through the full experience.

- Echo (Romania)
Truly raw in its' depiction of the aftermath of a young teenager's murderous attack on a young girl. Instead of showing the incident, this short film is made more powerful by centring in on the police investigation afterwards, where the boy and his friend are made to replay their actions, using a terrified girl in place of the victim. An extremely powerful film.

- The Heart of Amos Klein (Israel/France/Netherlands/Denmark)
The life of a hard-hearted and brutal Israeli general is played backwards, concentrating on crucial points in his life, where his attitude to others is shifted as a result of the mistreatment by those around him, or just plain unfortunate luck, at major historical events. It shows how even the most evil of men can start out as cherub-faced and innocent children and is a truly impressive work.

- La Pivellina (Austria/Italy)
An abandoned girl named Asia barely old enough to walk, is found by a poor husband and wife travelling circus and taken in. Her adorable personality immediately fills the film with colour, especially as young Asia seems unwilling to return to her birth mother. A beautiful and loving film about the kindness of strangers.

- Desire (UK)
Playing out like the pages of a novel, Desire is an unusual and slightly saucy story of a typical London 2+2 family, who are changed forever when Nene, an au-pair arrives. Getting close to both father and mother, and bonding well with the kids, the viewer ends up wishing for the unconventional ménage et trios to remain because, strange as it is, it works. I found myself transcended from my initial interest of jiggling ladyflesh to a feeling of empathy and warmth towards this unit, and reacting with dismay when it's existence was threatened.

Twist Award - Hierro (Spain)
The twist at the end of Hierro forced you to re-evaluate all that you had seen for the past hour, and look again at the desperate actions of Maria to find her missing son.

Honourable Mentions:

- A Thousand Oceans (Luxembourg/Sweden)
A massive twist in the middle of the film turns the first half completely on its head, requiring you to relive it through new, more informed eyes.

- The Stars Don't Twinkle in Outer Space (UK)
When this short film lets you into the real life of these two children, it's whole meaning and gravitas is made clear.

- White Night Wedding (Iceland)
The last days of Jon's ex-wife Anna become the focus of the flashbacks between the preparations for the wedding to his young fiancée Thora. Only toward the end of the film do we truly see what caused Jon to have such self-loathing in his life.

- West of Pluto (Canada)
Almost like two separate films, West of Pluto played as documentary, followed seamlessly by a slice-of-life look at the hopes and dreams of a group of rebellious teenage kids in a French-Canadian town.

- Cracks (UK)
Some of the more shocking scenes from Cracks were of the sort no-one could prepare for the first time you saw them, made even more unexpected by the overall feel of the rest of the film, which started off as your typical period drama, but morphing into something much darker.

- No Way Through (UK)
A brilliant short film set in a fictional Britain, where a seemingly straightforward situation where a woman is knocked down and an ambulance is called, turns into a life-threatening situation for the driver. Only on seeing the final few moments do you suddenly hit on the point being made.

- Seeds of the Fall (Sweden)
A totally unexpected accident sets the spark back in the lives of a couple of mature bedfellows.

- Small Crime (Germany/Cyprus/Greece)
This low-budget whodunnit mystery keeps the viewer guessing until the very end what happened to Zaharias, who lies dead at the bottom of the cliffs with a daft grin on his face and his shoes missing. Only Leonidas, the local plod, bored out of his wits at the lack of crime on his little island, can crack the case.

- Day In Day Out (Brazil)
A quiet, but unsettling short film about the life of a woman as her husband goes to work, but when he doesn't return, she makes a terrible discovery, but one that will keep you guessing until the end.

- The Refuge City (Poland)
Only in the final moments of this tense standoff between two skinheads and a gun at a football match, do we see which way the situation will end up, and it might involve many more people.

- Seven Minutes in Heaven (Israel/France/Hungary)
This brooding thriller keeps you guessing up to the end as to the real intention of this film, about Galia, a survivor of a Jerusalem bus bombing with a flaky memory of the events, her boyfriend Olek, who possibly didn't make it out alive, and Boaz, a medic and possible new flame who seems to know more about her than he should.

Cleverest Film - A Thousand Oceans (Luxembourg/Sweden)
The idyllic holiday on an island in the Maldives for Michael, his friend Bjorn and two girls apparently along for the ride, begins to take a wierd turn. Bjorn decides to stay when it's time for the plane to leave, and on arriving home, his parents are acting strangely. The twist in the middle of this film is one of the most well thought out I have seen in a long time, forcing the viewer to re-examine everything that has gone before it, and see the rest of the film in two lights; one through the eyes of someone not let in on the secret (as Michael isn't) and the other from the more enlightened viewpoint.

Honourable Mentions:

- Outrage (US)
It's clever use of statistics (in a non-boring fashion I'll add) fills you in on the bigger picture as several high-ranking American politicians have their voting records examined with regard to gay rights legislation. The actions of the main catalyst of the film, Michael Rogers, to out some of these politicians as gay has an unexpectedly positive effect both for the electorate and the politician themselves.

- Desire (UK)
Desire has the ability to take a situation that should not in real life work - that of an au-pair carrying on with both mum and dad, and getting on well with the kids, and deftly turns it into a warm-hearted tale of the right person fitting the right place in the puzzle.

- Puccini and the Girl (Italy)
Though far away from my favourite film of the year, Puccini and the Girl cleverly uses nearly no dialogue to tell the story of the man and his forbidden affair with a young woman of less than noble stock, relying on the use of gestures and expressions to carry the messages, and the beauty of the music and the locations to keep up the interest.

- Echo (Romania)
Using the teenagers to recount their heinous deeds at the scene of the crime is a much more powerful method of storytelling than showing it outright, and the mental conflicts within the mind of the perpetrator are shown through his barely controlled rage and confusion throughout.

- Fard (France)
The clever overlaying of live action characters and objects into a computer generated virtual world can only be truly appreciated as you watch this film about the shroud of a perfect world falling away.

- The Revenant (US)
The typical tread of the zombie-horror flick is given a more cerebral twist, as Bart, a soldier killed in the Iraq war, wakes in his coffin to find himself turned into a revenant zombie - clearly dead but with all his morals and braiiins intact. He still needs to feed, however, so the question is, where should he get his blood from?

- Red Sands (UK)
This short film surprised me with it's reluctance to go down the expected 'bullfighting bad, stop it now' route and instead allow it's tradition to be told through the experiences of a bullfighting veteran as he struggles with his conscience on the matter.

- Next Floor (Canada)
An inventive short film about a fictional but disgusting gluttonous banquet set high up in a skyscraper, where the floors below become the new location when the one above can't take the weight of them eating themselves to death.

- The Little Dragon (France/Sweden)
An innovative stop-motion short film about the escapades of a Bruce Lee doll and the forces of evil he comes across as he makes his way through the detritus of a teenager's bedroom.

- Disco and Atomic War (Estonia/Finland)
Use of animated diagrams and funny clips of people subverting the Estonian government's attempts to crack down on 'evil capitalist broadcasts' from nearby Finland rises this above a typically dry documentary about life in communist Russia.

Biggest Laugh - The Misfortunates (Belgium)
Many films managed to generate laughs here and there, but the ones in The Misfortunates were the most numerous and consistent. The recounting of the dreadful upbringing of Gunther in a house full of rampaging, drunken older men and their effect on their community at large is by equal measure tragic, life affirming, and hilarious. I defy anyone not to laugh at the naked bike race.

Honourable Mentions:

- Departures (Japan)
When it wasn't charming me with it's solemn and respectful depictions of the dressing ceremonies by those derided individuals performing the act of encoffinment, Departures had me in bursts of laughter as nappies and 'unexpected thingies' entered into the proceedings.

- Tales from the Golden Age (Romania)
Though spread out over five films, some of the stories presented in this collection had me breathless with laughter.

- Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl (Japan)
Too mad not to include, those Japanese certainly know how to do crazy. Although it was too way over the top to seriously consider in other categories, there was no denying several scenes had me in tears of confused laughter, not quite knowing what to make of it all.

- The Men who Stare at Goats (UK/US)
The outlandish attempts by the American army to get one over on the enemy are just ridiculous enough to be true, and it's the ones that make you stare at the screen and think 'they made that one up, surely' that provide the biggest laughs.

- Photograph of Jesus (UK)
A short film not short on warm humour, its portrayal of the long list of mad requests the picture archive receives every year could and should be made into a full length programme.

- Chick (Poland)
A hugely stylised film about a man and a woman getting ready for, and then performing, a night of passion cannot be looked at with a straight face. The high-energy frolics results in some, *cough* quite pendular jiggling, and if that doesn't bring out the Benny Hill in all of us, I don't know what will.

A Thousand Words - The Crimson Wing (US/UK)
A new category for those films that are not necessarily great from a story point of view, but excel in their cinematography, art style, the beauty of the places they were set in, or the quality of the soundtrack.

The Crimson Wing cannot be beaten in this category due to it's often breathtaking cinematography, shot in high definition as one of the world's most beautiful birds comes together in huge flocks in one of the harshest, but purest places on the planet to re-enact the courtship practised by millions gone before.

- Seraphine (France/Belgium)
This biopic of Seraphine de Senlis is a recent darling of Franco-Belgium cinema, and quite rightly so, being an extensive and beautifully shot film about the life of an unlikely painter during and after the first world war years. Not only are there gorgeous locations set in the French countryside, complete with period architecture and spot on acting - particularly by Yolande Moreau as the childlike Seraphine - but the reproductions of the beautiful and naive paintings, often 8 or so feet tall provide the most compelling reason to pass through the life of this unassuming woman.

- Follow the Master (UK)
A gentle and affectionate walk through the Somerset South Downs by Matt Hulse, his partner Lucy, and their bouncy dog Tippi, re-treading the path once laid down by his late grandfather many years previous and told through grainy home camera film and his grandfathers' notes. The inspirational beauty of the pilgrimage and the love it shows for a much missed family member, is matched only by that of the journey itself, through (thankfully still) unspoilt wilderness on this very isle.

- Mary and Max (Australia)
As if the funny, tragic, heartfelt story wasn't enough, Mary and Max can be appreciated purely for the work of its artisans, creating a complex, detailed and believable world into which two oppressed souls find each other by chance.

- Little White Lies (Germany)
Little Alexandres' life in 1930's Germany, coping with the small-life struggles of his schooldays as a not so subtle parallel to the reasons behind the rise of the Nazi movement at the time was solidly made, but it is it's film locations that sold it more for me; beautifully recreated snow-topped villages, giant, unending factory complexes and cold, birch-whipped classrooms.

- Creation (UK)
Everything presented in Creation just felt right to see on the big screen. Paul Bettany was a perfect fit for the lead role, but the use of many of Darwin's haunts for the filming (including Downs House in Kent) made for a visually very appealing film as well.

- Turn it Loose (US)
There is little that can come close to when the BBoys got their moves perfect on the dance floor, and the use of 360 degree cameras ensured you caught every detail as they pulled off what sometimes seemed impossible with confidence and grace.

- Mental (Japan)
Though short on majestic views, Mental gets a mention due to it's quiet observance of a forgotten and under-supported section of Japanese society. Simply looking in through this window into the lives of both the patients and staff was a bit special.

- White Night Wedding (Iceland)
Iceland has some beautiful nature, and when summer comes, you can enjoy it 24 hours a day without ever having to get your torch out. This film took advantage of its location on Flatey to set much of it outside, to capture the spirit of the place. It became a character in the film.

- Love and Rage (Denmark)
We know that Daniel has both the amazing musical skills and the unbalanced mental state inherited from his father at the beginning of the film, but just how much and whether he can control it so as not to lose everything he has.

- Puccini and the Girl (Italy)
A film with almost no dialogue had to rely instead on the attractiveness of it's visual and aural experience, and both were handled very well in this beautiful, although ultimately quite tiresome film of the less publicised life of the Italian composer.

- Vanquished (Belgium/Spain)
The realisation of a boy that his father was not killed and buried with dignity, but instead was one of many casualties of the Franco dictatorship, was set in the undulating mountains and valleys of the beautiful Spanish countryside.

- Ander (Spain)
The gently progressing life of the unmarried Ander takes place in the Catalunian alps, where the air is fresh and the nature goes on seemingly forever, barely changed from how it must have been a millennia ago. To see it is to realise how transient we are as humans and how privileged such people must have been to live there and experience it.

- Dunia (Poland)
A charming short animation about a girl and her protective cat, where each frame of animation is presented in beautiful watercolour.

- The Cat Piano (Australia)
In an art style almost imperceptible from that of Don Bleuth, The Cat piano portrays a stylish, shadowy world where cats have human qualities, and seem to live by the sensibilities of the 1940's. The animation is smooth, the artistry beautiful and the story is entertaining, for its 8 short minutes on the screen.

- Blow Horn (Spain)
As a film that reflected the experiences of a group of Europeans living in a Buddhist monastery for a year, I thought Blow Horn fell a little short; it's narration was sparse, and it just didn't hang together tightly enough, but it worked very well as a visual record of a journey through the roads less travelled in Tibet.

Best Indie to Show Your Friends - The Men Who Stare at Goats (US/UK)
If it wasn't for the average casual filmgoers insistence that a flick be in English (subtitles? I'm not watching no foreign muck), and that it be live action (what am I watching a cartoon for?), this would probably have been a close fight between several of the other films below, but I have reluctantly decided to settle for The Men Who Stare at Goats, because it is the best compromise. It's pacey, its funny, it's smart and occasionally it's a little bit shocking when you think that somewhere, sometime, some soldier will have been trained to do it.

Honourable Mentions:

- Ponyo (Japan)
A beautiful story to fill the mind of a child with magic and wonder, without the need for Elton bloody John to crop up in the middle of it and start singing. And, if your audience doesn't want to have to deal with subtitles, there is a high-quality English dub available, full of easily recognisable actors.

- Mary and Max (Australia)
A great film full stop, and one that exemplifies that, no matter what the plot is, or the medium it is told through, a great story is a great story told.

- The Revenant (US)
A perfect horror film for those who don't fancy horror films much. Smart, funny and a refreshingly cerebral alternative to what you typically expect from the genre.

- The Butterfly Tattoo (UK)
A great film to spend with your partner, being an up-to-date re-imagining of the classic Romeo and Juliet.

- A Boy Called Dad (UK)
The confused life of a council estate kid, spurned by his missing father and sent off the rails when he returns just as he learns he is a father, is accurately realised on screen here, and would be great for those who like their bit of gritty realism.

- Mad, Sad and Bad (UK)
Meera Syal heads a bulging cast of British actors and actresses in a funny and warm tale of acceptance that is intelligently written and spans ethnic borders. It should have got much more attention than it did.

- Baraboo (US)
Another gentle film that bestowed a sense of satisfaction and calm upon its viewers as they left. This film should be seen if your group is chilled out.

- Cracks (UK/Ireland)
The perfect film to show an audience that is perhaps weary of period dramas, as this seemingly by-the-books film hides a few shocks that will make them re-evaluate what they saw.

- A Thousand Oceans (Luxembourg/Sweden)
If subtitles are not a problem, A Thousand Oceans is definitely one to catch, the innovative plotline and crucial mid-film twist will impress, as everything is suddenly made clear.

- La Pivellina (Spain)
Only the hardest of hearts can possibly withstand the onslaught of cute from little Asia, as she asserts her authority on the new family that has adopted her. This is one film particularly suited to a group of broody ladies.

- Crying With Laughter (UK)
Foul-mouthed comic Joey Frisk's life gets more and more chaotic, and his silver tongue can only help him so much. This film has aspects of comedy, thriller and mystery, and is perfect for a lads night out.

- Departures (Japan)
Again, if subtitles are not an issue, this one is very worthy of consideration. Departures is a beautiful, funny film about making the best of your situation, with plenty of laughs mixed with genuine pathos throughout.

- Bright Star (UK/Australia)
This beautifully shot film about the short, tragic life of poet John Keats is another one for couples to go see together. Lines of prose straight from the mouth of a dying poet can't get much more romantic.

The Manky Sankey Awards

This year, I am happy to report that there was relatively few manky films, and so this section is pretty short.

Biggest Let Down - Boogie Woogie (UK)
You would have thought a film lampooning the vacuous and empty lives of the London fashionista as they ponce about their self-important galleries squabbling over who gets the next painting of a load of squares would be a cracker, especially as it contains such a large roster of recognisable names. But it just didn't work. It was crass and exploitative, and not even in a sense that you could attribute the crass-ness to the character types in that line of work; I felt that, much as I deride these sort of people for not going out and getting a proper job, that they were simply paraded as animals to be picked off with blunderbuses.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Wide Open Spaces (Ireland/UK)
Father Ted is one of my most favourite comedies, and to hear about a film that featured several of the actors and producers was for me a big pull, so imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be a flat, emotionless missed opportunity, with few genuine laughs.

- Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (US)
I wanted this film to at least be honest with me. If the ID-er's have any valid contribution to make, surely they can do it by making a film that sets out, in no uncertain terms, why their way of looking at the world is the correct one. When watching it, I felt manipulated, and at several times I had to hold myself back from gesturing audibly at the screen as more half truths were spun out to the monotonous nasal drawl of Ben Stein. If this is what they want to use to put their point across, I pray (no irony intended) that all they attract is the already converted.

- Cold Souls (US)
Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti sounds like an ideal starting point for a film doesn't it, but only so much of his face-pulling can be considered funny before I began to tire a little of the film. It wasn't a bad film, but it had trouble sticking it's head above the crowd, and I was left a little cold myself.

- Dr. S Battles the Sex-Crazed Reefer Zombies: The Movie (US)
The film ran out of steam too early, relying on rehashing the same cigar-chomping jokes just too many times for it to be funny any more. The students who made the film had clearly got bored midway through creating the script and just got to the end a bit reefered up themselves I suspect.

Most Pretentious - Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty (NetherFrance)
An honourable mention elsewhere doesn't stop this one getting the manky prize for pretentiousness, as Renzo Martens spoils his own film by not only sticking his mug into the camera for long periods, but - shudder - sings right in the middle of it for no reason at all.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- Puccini and the Girl (Italy)
There was no particular reason given exactly as to why there had to be no dialogue in this film, and that lent it a degree of pretentiousness, as the film ruggedly tried to stick to it's unfounded principles and labour through several scenes where a bit of dialogue would have sorted them out in seconds.

- Silence (Latvia)
Arty films set in an art gallery means pretentiousness squared. A woman goes through an art gallery in a silly, unconventional way and daft things happen. Bleh.

- West Point (France)
An example of experimental film was predictably pretentious, using the well-worn cod-philosophising and over-talking, the typical fare in the poorer quality French films.

Most Drawn Out Scene - Angel's Egg (Japan)
Loathe as I am to admit it, Angel's Egg lost it's beauty somewhat by suffering from some of the most drawn out scenes this year, mainly down to the low budget constraints, meaning that the meeting between the young girl and the unnamed soldier contained sequences where neither moved at all for what seemed like minutes.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- 199 Tips to be Happy (Chile/Spain)
Billed as a raunchy, steamy love triangle, became one long drawn out scene of angst between the three main protagonists, with no real outcome to speak of.

- Blow Horn (Spain)
Too many times, Blow Horn spent it's minutes on the screen just observing, expecting the tourists-cum-Buddhists to do something when there was naught to really do. Quiet contemplation is more than welcome in a film, but it has to go somewhere.

- Stingray Sam (US)
Though entertaining, this ultra low budget film did have a couple of 'filler' scenes, put there seemingly to pad out the episodes to their allotted length. Chief suspect amongst the drawn-out scenes was the 'Fredward' Song, which though very funny, was ridiculously long.

Most Annoying Film - Trickster (Germany)
How to make a short film seem like a long one. Trickster went from impressive, to odd, through to downright annoying. A clown plays to an audience except he doesn't seem to know he's a clown and he's really obnoxious and can't seem to communicate using anything other than grunts. And then his costume changes twice so you aren't sure its still him.

Dishonourable Mentions:

- The King of Escape (France)
Somehow the French seem to excel at films that annoy. I have no idea why. Maybe its just me; maybe I was knocked down by a mime as a child and never quite got over it. However, I defy anyone to watch this film through and not be bothered by its undertones.

- Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (Japan)
There were plenty of laughs to be had, but this film just went too close to the bone in places, relying too much on the shock element to try and get the humour across.

- Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty (Netherlands/France)
Although packed with important messages for the world, director Renzo Martens seemingly wanted us to wade through pictures of his own pouting self before we got to them, as if it was some sort of trial. Those sections should have been jettisoned.


That's all I'm doing this year. I hope you've enjoyed reading about them all as much as I enjoyed battering my eyes seeing them and blogging about them. The film festivals start up again in March with the Bradford Film Festival, which I may attend for the first time next year. After all, I've got a 200 film total to beat :).

Happy New Year!