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9 stars

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

dir: Tom Tykwer
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A great book that never should have worked has, miracle of miracles, been made into a great film that could not, should not work.

Perfume: the Story of a Murderer (Das Parfum - Die Geschichte eines Mörders) by Patrick Suskind, is one of the most perfect books I have ever read. Even translated the German novel loses none of its most amazing qualities: an inspired and original story, an economical but expansive use of descriptive language to encapsulate one of the senses that you’d think would least be able to come across on paper, and a macabre, dark humour that delights as much as it horrifies. And THAT ending, oh my good god yes.

It’s the kind of book that potential writers read and then give up because of, convinced that they’ll never produce anything that good.

There’s even more going on in this amazing book that begs for it to be taught to school children from a young age. Well, maybe not from kindergarten onwards, but at least from when they’re young enough to appreciate greatness and stop picking their noses.

In calling it a perfect book, I mean that you can add nothing or subtract nothing from it to make it any better. Not a word, not a comma could be changed to improve it. It is perfect in what it has and what it doesn’t have, and what it has is an embarrassment of riches, both sensual and intellectual.

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Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del Fauno)

dir: Guillermo Del Toro
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So many film reviewers and other shmendricks called this film one of their favourites, if not their favourite film for 2006, that I started wondering if it was possible for me to enjoy it under the weight of so much expectation. The truth is, the film is even better than I expected.

It’s cliché time as people fall all over themselves to come up with superlatives to describe how good this flick is, but the one that I’ll happily use is that Del Toro’s career up until now has been solely in preparation for making Pan’s Labyrinth.

The thing is, directors have got to eat, too. And Mexican director Del Toro is a big guy. So some of the stuff he’s made which has been less than tolerable (Blade II, Mimic, Hellboy), kept him fed, built his profile and gave him the skills to pay the bills so that he could one day pursue a project like this.

It would be a falsehood to assert that, though. The first film of his that got noticed, Cronos, was pretty good right from the start, and The Devil’s Backbone, also set around the time of the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s, also showed promise. In fact, it was pretty damn good. And as much as I was nonplussed by Hellboy, it was one of his pet / dream projects.

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Prestige, The

dir: Christopher Nolan
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Based on a novel by Christopher Priest, The Prestige is one of the most intriguing and entertaining films of the year. If you told me that a film about two rival magicians at the end of the 19th Century would be a winner, I'd have told you to pull something else apart from a rabbit out of a hat.

The first image of the film is a winter scene on a hill, with dozens of top hats reclining upon in it in various states of disarray: one of the magician's most cliché of tools and part of their uniform. A voice asks us "Are you watching closely?"

Of course we're watching, but the magician's skill and the filmmaker's desire is to trick us whilst we're watching ever so carefully.

A different voice-over soon also starts up, explaining the film's title to us. The magic trick, as performed on stage in that era, is comprised of three parts. The Pledge involves showing the audience the elements of the trick, to convince them of the normality of the stage and the lack of dodgy machines. Of course, the machinery and parts that make the trick work are in plain view, but they look normal.

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Notorious Betty Page, The

dir: Mary Harron
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It's a crime that it's taken this flick so long to get distribution in Australia, because this really contained probably the best performance by an actress in a film released in 2006. Sure, there's no way Gretchen Mol could have beat the murderous juggernaut that was Helen Mirren, but she deserved some recognition at least. It's only been released here yesterday (8/3/2007), and will probably have an ignominious two-week run before disappearing into DVD obscurity.

Which isn't the worst fate in the world. It's kind of appropriate, considering the subject matter. And what is the subject? Why, it's the notorious Bettie Page, of course!

Bettie Page, for her time, was probably the main lust object and idealised non-attainable masturbation aid for squillions of men, lonely and otherwise, across America. She has probably been responsible for more shameful, furtive, blind-making male orgasms than Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and the Virgin Mary combined.

But practically no-one could tell you anything about her apart from the fact that she was in millions of smutty, smutty pictures.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

dir: Michel Gondry
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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rarity in this day and age: a film that has elements of romance, drama and comedy without being hampered or paralysed by any of those aspects. In truth this film is beyond a rarity: it's a gem that stars, inexplicably, Jim ‘Ham on Rye' Carrey and Kate 'Let Me Get The Twins Out' Winslet playing two oddball characters that don't pander, don't beg us to love how cute they are and therefore circumvent the natural expectations that an audience member might have of a scriptwriter having to create a story we could possibly care about. One that doesn't ploddingly, predictably, stagger from point A to point B to point Zzzzz.

Let's face it romantic comedies are about as popular as syphilis to those of us that don't think Maid in Manhattan, the Wedding Singer and Pretty Woman are the pinnacle of the cinematic experience. Sure, I understand, we're ungrateful, but some of us aspire to something more out of film and of life. With that in mind when something comes along that's clever and sweet it seems fuckstruckingly out of place. What? It's funny AND romantic? Are the seas boiling? Is that sky falling? Isn't this one of the signs of the forthcoming Apocalypse?

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Capturing the Friedmans

dir: Andrew Jarecki
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And I thought I came from a fucked up family…

What is true in life is rarely shown with such clarity in films: sometimes in the pursuit of ‘truth’, the more information we are given, the more sides we try to understand regarding a conflict, the more elusive that ‘truth’ becomes. No example is as representative of that essential conundrum as this film by Andrew Jarecki, who has managed to make a compelling and disturbing documentary on his maiden voyage.
I know, using the words “compelling and disturbing” about documentaries is about as usually appropriate as saying “intelligent and life affirming” about a film with Adam Sandler or Melanie Griffith in it, but at least in this case it is appropriate, or at least accurate as far as I’m concerned.

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Donnie Darko

dir: Richard Kelly
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Hmm. An interesting film. I was simultaneously surprised and non-plussed by this crazy film, having had an inordinately high level of expectation due to a bunch of positive reviews and some decent word of mouth. Despite going in knowing plenty about the film, it was still a mystery from beginning to end, and still remains something of a mystery for me right now. Right now, writing this, there are still many elements that I can't work out, and will be pondering for some time to come.

Which is definitely a good thing. It is a film that despite its somewhat modest scale (which people who've seen it would dispute, I'm guessing), defies any real category and comparison, though by its end it achieves a conventionality which I never predicted. See, whilst watching it I initially couldn't foresee that there was an overarching logic, a method to the madness that was eventually going to make sense. I stupidly believed that it was going to be disconnected, schizophrenic vignettes connected by quirky bridging scenes with no sensible conclusion. I was profoundly wrong.

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Peeping Tom

dir: Michael Powell
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1960

Peeping Tom is a first of sorts. It’s not the first flick about a serial killer, nor about voyeurism, nor about the killing of prostitutes.

But it’s one of the first flicks I can think of that has a character study of a sociopath with something of an explanation of how and why he does the things he does. And, oddly enough, it’s a sympathetic portrayal.

It starts with a first person point of view, where we are to understand that the camera is a character itself. He or she, we don’t know yet, approaches an old boiler of a prostitute, who squawks that whatever it is that they’re referring to, it’ll be “two quid”. She leads him up some stairs to a slum-like room, and she looks as excited by the prospect of servicing another punter as she does about filling out her next tax return.

But then the scene starts to turn odd, as we realise that the first person perspective, isn’t the person themself, but someone holding a camera as he hired the woman and followed her to her room. When she starts freaking out, we realise that whoever is doing whatever to her is also filming it.

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Leopard, The (Il Gattopardo)

dir: Luchino Visconti
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1963

The Leopard, based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, is a beautiful, languid film that slavishly follows the source material so as to not miss a single scintillating second of Sicilian magic. Only a Marxist director who was an aristocrat himself could so painstakingly reconstruct such a story about the decline of the aristocracy in Italy after the Risorgimento of the 1860s. So a classic story about the death of a way of life, of an entire people, becomes a classic film in the hands of the right director.

The acclaimed Italian director made plenty of other films, some as good and some worse (The Damned comes to mind), but few are as magnificent as The Leopard. The title itself comes from the coat of arms of the Prince Fabrizio di Salina’s prestigious and illustrious family. In the film he is played by Burt Lancaster, that most Italian of movie stars.

Oh, wait a second, he’s not Italian. How can he play a Sicilian aristocrat in that case? With great difficulty, perhaps?

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Graduate, The

dir: Mike Nichols
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1967

What a remarkably good film. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see it. Seeing it for the first time just recently (29//8/2007), I was struck by just how good this ‘classic’ flick from the 1960s really is. For once the link between reputation and quality actually coincides.

Certain phrases have become pop culture stalwarts like “Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me,” “Do you want me to seduce you?” and “Plastics!” said in that conspiratorial voice. And the soundtrack by undead folk troubadours Simon and Garfunkle is as well known and much lamented part of greatest hits commercial radio package played out daily across the globe.

Then of course there was the Lemonheads cover of Mrs Robinson which propelled the song and the flick back into the public consciousness many years after the fact. And it gave Evan Dando enough money to develop a really serious drug habit.

All these artefacts, cultural signifiers and signposts don’t alter a really significant fact: The Graduate is a funny and touching flick about an aimless guy who’s unsure of his place in the world.

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