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It’s 2011 and time for a new Film Fight. I’ve been considering changing the format this year, but have decided against that for now so it’ll be the usual: a paragraph or so for each film, with the best selected as the month’s winner. All the winners are compared, and the year’s film is selected. Easy.

January is always a packed month, with Oscar-baiting meaning that the quality is kept suitably high. In January 2011, there are six movies to be reviewed.

First up, is It’s Kind of a Funny Story: an indie film that tries to show how mental illness can affect anyone and is easily misunderstood by non-sufferers, by taking a slightly comedic look at the issues. It doesn’t go far enough in it’s exploration of the issues, often opting for shorthand and stereotypes to make it’s points, which is somewhat disappointing. It does, however, move the plot forward at a good pace, balancing comedic elements (Zach Galifianakis plays a big part, but more does so more seriously than usual) and a romantic subplot with relative ease. It’s not a classic, but it’s a good, kind-hearted film. (See my It’s Kind of a Funny Story Twitter review).

The King’s Speech humanises King George VI in a way I hadn’t thought possible. By focussing purely on his speech impediment and his years of suffering and humiliation because of it, we begin to see him as a sympathetic man, rather than purely as an elite Royal. He is, of course, both, and it’s to the filmmaker’s credit that they manage to get this across so clearly. This is successful in large part due to Colin Firth’s fantastic performance; the crushed dignity of the soon to be king made clear in every embarrassed look and stammer. An excellent film. (See my The King’s Speech Twitter review).

Blue Valentine is almost an anti-love story. It doesn’t focus on things being difficult and then working out. No, instead it contrasts the beginning and end of a relationship, showing a couple at their worst. Communication break downs at the end of a marriage are intercut with two younger versions of the leads with hope and kindness trying to find their place. It’s sad and well-done, if a little slow. It does a remarkable job of showing how people change. Worth seeing. (See my Blue Valentine Twitter review).

127 Hours does some unexpected things, not least of all because of what everyone expects from the premise: a climber (played by James Franco) is trapped by a boulder against his arm in a cave and, over several days, is forced to make a very difficult decision. Despite being on his own, and their being relatively little dialogue, Franco brings out an extremely likeable character that you want to get out of this hopeless situation. Every tiny triumph and minute failure will see you gasp in just the right way. When the inevitable happens, the film has really earned it’s most painful moment. A few moments aside, this is a very good film. (See my 127 Hours Twitter review).

Darren Aronofsky has another classic on his hands with Black Swan, the tale of seeking out perfection when the pursuit itself makes perfection much more difficult. Natalie Portman is excellent as a ballerina who practices obsessively, even when her obsession – her madness – stops her from seeing the world correctly. It’s surreal, dark, sensual and unnerving: we’re never allowed to know how much of what we see is real and what is imagined. I won’t spoil it, but the ending is excellent: finding the right mix of closure and mystery to round out an altogether astounding movie. Very worthwhile. (See my Black Swan Twitter review).

Finally, NEDs shows how one young boy is repeatedly failed by those in authority around him, forcing him down the path he’s been trying to avoid for years. We see his fall into violence and crime, despite his brightness, and can imagine how it could have been avoided if people had acted with a little more kindness and less judgement. NEDs, then, is a morality tale; a look a reaping what we sow and then blaming the crops for withering. Brutal in places, but a stunning watch. Very good. (See my NEDs Twitter review).

As I mentioned in my preface, there are a number of good films this month. Five of the six would easily have won in other months (and the sixth, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, would’ve done well in some). If forced to watch just one again, I’d pick Black Swan; and that’s why it’s the first winner for 2011.

As always my caveat from previous years still apply: Film Fight is a knock-out tournament and, as such, will only select my favourite film. It makes no guarantees about any other place.

First, good films that didn’t win their month:

  • Up In The Air
  • A Prophet
  • Precious
  • Shutter Island
  • Kick-Ass
  • Green Zone
  • Predators
  • Toy Story 3
  • Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
  • Cyrus
  • The Other Guys
  • Winter’s Bone
  • The Social Network

And then the monthly finalists:

  • January: The Road
  • February: A Single Man
  • March: Crazy Heart
  • April: Crying With Laughter
  • May: Four Lions
  • June: Rec 2
  • July: Inception
  • August: The Expendables
  • September: Dog Pound
  • October: The Town
  • November: Let Me In
  • December: Megamind

Last year had a number of really strong contenders as finalists, with only one film sneaking through. Sadly, that’s not the case with Let Me In, The Expendables, and Rec 2 all getting through when they might not have in another month (possibly Megamind too, but it’s fun).

That said, there are still a number of very strong choices in there. I’d strongly recommend the rest, but need to pick out a few.

4th place goes to Crying With Laughter, for it’s dark comedy and bleak look at one man’s life.

3rd place goes to Dog Pound: it’s such a well-paced film, constantly raising the feeling of menace until the final act unleashes it all at once.

2nd place: I’ve debated back and forward on this and the first place a few times. I’ve even switched them around in various drafts of this post, it’s that close. I think, though, that the second place goes to Inception. While many will get stuck on the special effects, which are quite extraordinary, it’s the storytelling structure that is the real key to this film. Multiple stories, in multiple timeframes, all happening at the same time and interacting with each other; and rarely missing a beat. That’s an accomplishment on it’s own. The fact that multiple viewings reveal more, and there are many more stories left untold leave this as a real masterclass in structure.

1st Place: That means that The Road is the Film Fight winner for 2010. It’s bleak, agonising, and quite desolate, but such a strong vision of a world where a man is compelled to protect the only thing that matters to him, his son, and the consequences of being so single-minded. A classic.

As is normal at this time of year, there’s not much out that looks worthwhile so I’ve only seen a few films this month.

First up, Megamind is the superhero story we’ve all wanted to see for a while: the one where the evil villain and his dastardly creations finally win out and defeat the hero. Megamind is about the loneliness of a villain with no hero to fight. From that point onwards, the story is fairly predictable but fun, built around a number of parodies and sight gags. The highlight is probably Will Ferrell’s Marlon Brando impersonation, but there are a bunch of other neat little moments. It never manages to raise itself to the level of a classic animated film (like Toy Story 3), but is good enough to watch at least once. (See my Megamind Twitter review).

The Tourist, however, is not good enough to recommend watching even half of it. It’s a truly terrible film on almost every level. It looks pretty and has a strong cast, but they’re squandered here on terrible dialogue and a formulaic, “twisting” plot. You’ll see the twists coming, you’ll cringe at the ropey lines, the heavy-handed spoonfeeding of information, the seen-it-all-before action set pieces, and the overacting. I can’t recommend this at all. Terrible. (see my The Tourist Twitter review).

The winner is Megamind. Not because it’s a classic film, more because it didn’t have any competition.

For various reason, I only made it to the cinema once, so the winner is a foregone conclusion.

Let Me In is an American remake of the classic Swedish film, Let The Right One in. During the making of this film, we were promised that it would be a different take on the source, focussing more closely on the burgeoning relationship between Oskar and Eli (renamed Owen and Abby), and the relationship between Eli and her carer. This remake fails to deliver. What we get appears to be a somewhat neutered cut of the director’s vision: following the plot of the original very closely, sometimes shot for shot, but replacing the uneasy menace with some more obvious action scenes. There are moments where it shines. The few moments that Richard Jenkins gets he puts to great use, especially the scene he’s hiding in a car. Largely, though, it’s disappointingly similar to the original, without many fresh ideas. (See my Let Me In Twitter review).

In another month it wouldn’t have gotten through, but Let Me In is obviously the November winner.

October was an even busier month for cinema than September, with 6 films in total:

Winter’s Bone is a grim story of desperation in an isolated community. A young girl is forced to raise her brother and sister due to an ill mother and an absent father. When said father skips bail, she’s forced to look for him in places where she should not be asking questions. The film is vicious and dark, and paints an interesting picture of a rural family. It’s well put together, but features some fairly unnecessary moments of questionable animal scenes. That aside, it’s a good film. (See my Winter’s Bone Twitter review).

The Town is a surprisingly good crime-thriller, following bank robbers in Boston as they become more involved in a job than they should. The story stands up by itself surprisingly well, with very little waste. There are some good performances too, with Jeremy Renner as particularly notable. A few too many establishing shots aside (yes, I know we’re in Boston, move on), Ben Affleck does a great job in the director’s chair. Along with Gone Baby Gone, he’s showing some real talent on that front. Well worth seeing. (See my The Town Twitter review).

Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake show the problems with mixing business and pleasure in the story of Facebook, The Social Network. While I’m sure the story has been dramatised more than a little, it’s a good one, and well-structured. Framing the story through the telling of two lawsuits against Mark Zuckerberg gives the film the pace it needs to be interesting, without losing the audience. David Fincher proves himself again as a must-see director, with a real mastery of storytelling and simple, clean visuals (even if the reality of a shot is much more complicated). A good story. (See my The Social Network Twitter review).

The original Wall Street was a classic movie, capturing a time and place perfectly through a story of loyalty, betrayal, decency and the shady face of capitalism, Gordon Gekko. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, at best, captures a fairly flimsy, dumbed-down vision of the same environment two decades on. It fails on a number of fronts: the dialogue is awful, the acting is perfunctory, the direction is scattershot, and the story is nonsense. Frank Langella puts in a great early performance and is easily the best member of the cast, while the character of Gordon Gekko shows some promise in his behind-the-scenes trickery. We’re never shown why we should care about any of the other characters, so we simply don’t. By the time the cringeworthy final act appears (“See? They’re not such bad guys. Let’s have a party!”), you’ll care very little about this waste of film. Avoid. (See my Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Twitter review).

In Despicable Me, Steve Carrell really helps sketch a great villian in the shape of Gru, the evil mastermind who feels underminded by his mother and feels he has to out-do his rivals. At first, he’s a little Wile E. Coyote, but quickly finds a sweet side that adds some depth. That’s where this film delivers: as a sweet film about a grouchy villian finding his humanity. Funny and fun.  (See my Despicable Me Twitter review).

Finally, Paranormal Activity 2 serves as a prequel of sorts to the events of the first film, but fails to capture the simple but effective scares on show there, going for louder and bigger moments. Some of them work for sheer shock value, but it quickly pales by comparison. Given the horror in this kind of film is rooted in suspension of disbelief, casting Sprague Grayden as one of the bigger characters was a mistake. While she puts in a great performance, it was impossible to take her seriously in the role given her work on some big TV shows (24, Jericho, Sons of Anarchy). If you’re looking for a Halloween scare, you could do worse, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it. (See my Paranormal Activity 2 Twitter review).

Another tough month to pick a winner. The Social Network and Winter’s Bone came very close, but I think The Town wins on the grounds of sheer enjoyability.

September was a decent enough month for cinema, with five films in the fight:

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is the latest effort from Edgar Wright. With a track record including Spaced, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, you’d expect something a little bit special; and that’s exactly what you get. More than any film this year, Scott Pilgrim is bursting with constant visual invention that delivers the story beautifully rather than suffocating it. The story itself is sweet, funny, exciting and full of great ideas: as soon as you think you know what’s coming, the rug gets pulled from underneath you. I’ve not read the original comic, but as a standalone piece of work Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is very worthwhile. (See my Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World Twitter review).

Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd team up for a fairly meek comedy, Dinner For Schmucks. While there are some decent enough jokes (most of them focussing around the bizarre characters, particularly Zach Galifianakis), it falls flat far too often. Some of the more mean-spirited comedy just doesn’t work, and the final act is far too long: at two hours, it more than overstays its welcome. Average, at best. (See my Dinner For Schmucks Twitter review).

Dog Pound is the fairly dark story of three newcomers to a young offender’s prison. From the outset, an air of menace is maintained: from the authoritarian guards, to the beatings from other inmates, to… well, I’ll let you see. The low budget feel adds weight to the feel of increasing pressure on the boys, and helps build up the brutal final act. An excellent but dark movie. I highly recommend you see it at least once. (See my Dog Pound Twitter review).

Despite the whacky Hollywood comedy style of the trailer, Cyrus is and feels like a real indie film, and works very well because of it. The laughs never erupt, but they don’t have to: the comedy comes from the characters. All three leads really understand their parts, and play them to perfection. A good film, but not a great one. (See my Cyrus Twitter review).

Finally, The Other Guys is another great comedy from Will Ferrell and Adam Mackay, with Mark Wahlberg joining Ferrell in a bizarre buddy-cop movie. It’s pretty much what you expect from these guys: a film with great lines, over the top moments and bizarre characters. The middle act drags a little longer than it should have, but it’s a good comedy otherwise. Worth seeing. (See my The Other Guys Twitter review).

Picking a winner this month was a toughie but I think the winner is Dog Pound. Scott Pilgrim was very close, but I think the gripping discomfort of Dog Pound clinches it.

In part one, I discussed some of the fundamentals of building a cinema community that is engaging. In this part I’ll go a little further into the social aspects of such a community.

Building out from the fact that you can track, rate and recommend films, engaging in some form of debate around the merits of those films would be useful. People love to talk about films, and there are plenty of forums around to do just that but those forums don’t know a huge amount about your film habits. They can’t tell you that a discussion has just kicked off on a film you recently watched, that people are discussing a forthcoming sequel or that it’s actually a poor quality knock-off of another film. By tying the discussion of films into tracking and recommendation, you can do all of those things and more.

While the last thing the world needs is yet another social network, having some connections between accounts would be of great benefit. If I’m looking to go and see a film with a particular friend or friends, it would be easy to check the films we all want to see automatically and recommending it, rather than picking through them one by one. Turn this around: if I want to see a certain film but don’t know who wants to see it, the site could easily give me a list of my friends who also want to see it. Slightly different, have all my friends been raving about some new film that I don’t know about? Well, let me know and I can add it, see it and join in that conversation. There are a lot of interesting possibilities here.

Next, throw location into the mix and you can power another bunch of community-building features. If I genuinely don’t know anyone who wants to see a film, maybe there are some other like-minded people in my area that would like the company. A little feature to negotiate a time or set up a meeting and you get more people through the door, and a happier audience.

Probably more interesting is using the recommendation features and location together to build film groups. A bunch of people in the same area all like horror films? Encourage them to start a group to go and see all the new scary movies that appear, and discuss it later. You wouldn’t even necessarily need location for this: you could add film groups to the forum and have people across the country discuss their favourite zombie movie.

I hope I’ve shown that a handful of features, mixed and remixed, can drive a hell of a lot of interesting behaviour that would benefit the movie-going public and make a cinema chain stronger.

It’s always surprised me how little Cineworld (and other big cinema chains) have made of building a community of film-goers, especially given their Unlmited cards.

Here’s what Cineworld do right now towards engaging with customers:

  • If you sign up to their website, you can keep track of your bookings, and anything you’ve ordered from their shop. Note that unlimited customers can’t advance book tickets, so that’s not helpful.
  • If you sign up to their website, you can keep track of anything you buy in their shop section. Since the only thing they appear to sell is cinema gift cards, that’s not hugely handy for unlimited customers unless they’re buying for someone else.
  • If you follow Cineworld on Twitter, they have competitions and info, and answer questions you may have. Handy, but not the most engaged community.

I’ll preface my ideas about how they could both improve the experience they provide for customers and their engagement by saying that as I understand it, right now, they can’t connect the use of an Unlimited card to an actual user account so those ideas are a little fanciful just now. The rest are not.

That important issue aside, a few thoughts.

First and foremost, a cinema-focussed community is about films: seeing them, discussing them, and figuring out what else we would like to see. From that:

Each film shown at Cineworld should be followable from the moment it’s added to the release schedules. They maintain a list of future releases. Users should be able to add those films to the list of films that they would like to see. Once they’re nearly out, it would then be trivial to send reminders to all interested users that whatever they want to see is nearly out.

Now, importantly, this could not only apply to future releases, but current releases and past releases. It would be useful to know when a classic film is being re-released, or shown as part of the cinema’s sporadic classic film series.

Having trackable films leads quite comfortably into having rateable films. Users should be able to give a personal rating for every film they have seen. Once you have this information, you can start to push a lot of interesting functionality. You can do things like take the noise out of the listings page. If I can view a listings page of current releases that I have not already seen, that clearly makes picking something a smoother process. Films that I had already tracked as wanting to see could be highlighted, and films the cinema think would be of interest (more later) could be too.

Additionally, if Cineworld could track viewing through Unlimited card usage, the tracking of films viewed could be automated and reminders for ratings could be sent out.

Now, knowing what the users think of each and every film, it would be possible to start employing the same ideas that have helped Amazon and Netflix: based on prior ratings, personal recommendations could be made on what to view next. This seems so obvious to me I’m surprised that no cinema chain has picked up on it. Netflix practically built their business on top of it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the first cinema chain to do this seriously disrupts their industry in the same way.

Tracking, rating and recommendation: the three obvious pillars on which to build a community. That’s just a starter. I’ll be discussing the social aspects and stickiness in part 2.

August is the month for the big summer blockbusters, three in total.

The A-Team is a failed attempt to revive a well-loved franchise. First, the good: both Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley were great as Face and Murdoch, using all the right ticks for those characters. Some of the action sequences (i.e. the numerous explosions) were decent enough. That’s about it. The rest was a mish-mash of nonsensical plot, with too many pointless threads and characters. Given the film was trying to establish four strong leads, adding a half dozen other people to the mix really left little time for much else. Liam Neeson’s Hannibal was an interesting idea, portraying him as a meticulous and obsessive planner, but we don’t get enough time with him to really see it pay off. Quinton Jackson’s take on BA was pretty poor. Rather than being the mean, near invulnerable hulk of the series, we get a generic brawler who, to add yet another sup-plot, finds religion. There were some good ideas on show, but they were drowning in franchise building, dumb plotting, and the apparent need to move to the next action set-piece. Poor. (See my A-Team Twitter review).

The Expendables, on the other hand, made to qualms about what it was. Sure, the plot was perfunctory and the characters paper-thin, but that was the point. It was all about getting the biggest action movie stars of the last three decades together to revel in their artform. It’s a big dumb action film, with all the explosions, guns, and hand-to-hand fighting you could hope for. If you want a story, don’t bother. If you want to see Stallone fight Lundgren, then this is the film for you. (See my The Expendables Twitter review).

Finally, Salt is a fairly straightforward action-thriller. It borrows heavily from the improvisational spy style of the early part of the Bourne trilogy, but without either the story or meaty contact to really see it through. While a handful of the set-pieces are genuinely well-done, they get lost in the predictable “twists” of the thriller plot. It’s the usual 24-style movie-plot threat and by the time it actually happens you really won’t care. A shame. (See my Salt Twitter review).

The winner is The Expendables, for it’s no-nonsense action sensibility. It would have lost in many other months, but up against two other action films, it’s no contest.

As is the norm, July was a reasonably full month with 4 films viewed.

Predators, while not a masterpiece by any measure, is exactly what it needed to be: an action movie with an 80′s feel, free from large CG scenes and full of physical effects, enough of a plot to put the cannon fodder where it needed to be, and some absolutely great scenes. The pre-credits opening shot is particularly grabbing, pushing the audience immediately into the action and getting things started with some panic. Adrien Brody doesn’t pull-off being an action hero in the same way that Schwarzenegger did, and the slow reveal of the predators themselves was something of a waste, given we know what they look like from the rest of the franchise, but those are small points in an otherwise solid film. (See my Predators Twitter review).

There’s a lot I would like to say about Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece, Inception, but can’t do so without leaving a large trail of spoilers. There will be many fiercely argued debates about the minutiae of it’s world and it’s take on subjective reality. That’s how you know it’s going to be a classic. Nolan has created an incredible piece of cinematic storytelling, full of visuals and world-building that wouldn’t work in any other medium. The central conceit of controllable dream worlds is revealed just as quickly as it needs to be, just like everything else in this film from Leonardo DiCaprio’s broken team lead to the depth of the maze that is being built in the incredible plot. That, as I see it, is its only major flaw: everything moves so quickly that only the central concept and DiCaprio get a chance to breath. The supporting cast (and a great cast it is) provide excellent sketches of characters and there are many questions to be asked about them, but we never get the time to see any of it. When the only real criticism you have of a movie is that you want to see a lot more, you have a classic. A fantastic, must-see film. (See my Inception Twitter review).

Pixar’s latest effort is a new look at an old franchise. Toy Story 3 revisits Woody, Buzz and friends ten years later as Andy, their owner, prepares to go to college. The central theme of transition and moving on sets a tone that is both sweet in places, and fairly sad in others. That’s not to say it’s not got the little adventure set-pieces of the previous films, it has quite a few that will make you laugh, but it is less overtly funny than its two predecessors. Revisiting a franchise this long gone is dangerous, but Pixar have done well to put a neat little ending on this story. A great film. One other note: the 3D effects are understated to the point that they actually don’t add anything to the film. If you saw this in 2d, you’d still have the same great movie. (See my Toy Story 3 Twitter review).

I had high hopes for The Karate Kid, a thematically different take on the story structure of the 80′s classic. In the opening chunk, some of my hopes were lived up to: we see the frustration and loneliness of a young boy pushed into a foreign situation. Had the film built on this theme, it could’ve been a great film but it was there just as the set-up for a much more formulaic movie. Jaden Smith managed to get the emotional points across pretty well for an actor of his age, but failed when it came to anything approaching comedy: he has the mannerisms of his father, without the brash charm to pull it off. For a film lacking in depth and out-and-out fun, it certainly ran a lot longer than it should have. The plot on offer could’ve been covered in 90-odd minutes, but we’re given nearly an hour more than that. A shame. (See my The Karate Kid Twitter review).

While I really enjoyed Toy Story 3, this month’s winner is Inception for its clever storytelling and THAT hotel corridor scene.

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