The top 10 films of the 00’s

Everyone else is doing their top ten films of the decade piece, so why buck the trend? Though I’m not even going to start getting into the whole “Well, technically, the decade runs from 2001-2010…” thing. This is based entirely on movies released in years that start “200”, with Wikipedia being the source of information on the date of a particular film.  You may notice some differences from the year-by-year lists previously published. This is mostly because some films stand the test of time better than others. The year-end lists tend to be based on a single viewing, while all the titles listed below hall gone through multiple viewings [in some case, multiple-multiple viewings], and been found to be just as effective – or even more so – than when initially seen.

Links go to the most appropriate review, either here or on Honorary mentions [in alphabetical order]: The Animatrix, The Booth, Children of Men, Finding Nemo, Gladiator, Kung Fu Hustle, Nine Queens, The Returner, The Ring, Shoot ‘Em Up, Signs, Sin City, Sexy Beast, 300.

  • 10. Sick Girl
    Horror movies should make you uncomfortable. They should make you squirm in your seat. And even the jaded horror fans that Chris and I are were made very uncomfortable by this, more so than any other of the hundreds of genre entries that strayed across our eyeballs in the past decade. Martyrs made a late push to dethrone this, but Leslie Andrews’ performance here is just so disconnected and matter-of-fact, as she carries out the most unspeakable of acts on her victims. Horror – true horror, not torture-porn – is absolute indifference to the suffering of others, and it’s this chilling effect which lies at the heart of Sick Girl and its impact.
  • 9. The Dark Knight
    Would certainly have ranked higher, if we didn’t have a strong urge to clear our throat, every time Bale’s caped crusader spoke. Otherwise, however, this is near perfect, highlighted of course by the stunning performance of Heath Ledger as The Joker. Every time we come across the film on cable, we have to put it on, especially if it’s in time to see the sublime “How about a magic trick?” scene. The scope and scale of Christopher Nolan’s vision is the perfect backdrop for this larger-than-life performance, which succeeds in engaging both brain and heart in a way few “comic-book” movies have ever managed to do.

  • 8. Versus
    At the risk of mixing my metaphors terribly, this fuels up on adrenalin and goes full-throttle straight for the action jugular, Ryuhei Kitamura coming out of nowhere to deliver one of the most purely-entertaining action flicks of all time. Packed with characters who can best be described as “fascinating,” it combines impressive imagination with spectacular execution on a tiny budget, punches far above its weight as a result. Zombies, swordplay, really-big guns and martial-arts combine in a delightful and heady cocktail that is quite unique. Some of Kitamura’s subsequent work has been solid; nothing has quite matched Versus.
  • 7. Kill Bill, Volume 1
    Proof that, when Quentin Tarantino reins in his verbal diarrhoea and keeps himself off-screen, he is capable of delivering a thoroughly-entertaining piece of work. He is now 1-for-6 there [not see Inglorious Bastards yet], thanks to the best action-heroine film to come out of Hollywood in the decade. Uma Thurmann’s Bride was a tornado of revenge, chewing up and spitting out any and all who got in her path, be it old friends like Vernita Green, new enemies such as Go-Go Yubari or, in the film’s most impressive sequence, an entire pack of enraged, masked Japanese men wielding samurai swords.  A marvellous swirling of popular cultures.

  • 6. Wall-E
    Not the last Pixar movie you’ll see in this list, and the studio dominated the decade as far as animation goes, in the way Studio Ghibli did the mid-80’s to mid-90’s. After a bit of a road-bump with Cars [pun not intended], Pixar roared back with a tale about a garbage clean-up robot that falls in love with a probe. James Cameron could have learned how to make non-human characters – indeed, non-organic ones here – sympathetic. They could conceivably have made the entire film without a single word of meaningful dialogue, and it would still have been eqally as marvellous. Or possibly even more so.
  • 5. Borat
    I still have absolutely no idea how this subversive piece of surrealist theatre managed to get a massive release across the entire world [except, I suspect, Kazakhstan]. Too much of what passed as ‘satire’ in this decade was toothless, but Sacha Baron Cohen hit his marks with impeccable precision, as he tore across the United States from New York to Pamela Anderson. Great satire should offend people – especially its targets – but Baron Cohen exposed not just the prejudice inherent in Western society, but also its remarkable tolerance for and patience with outsiders. It made us laugh, cringe, and think, a unique triple-play.

  • 4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    The only martial-arts movie to ever make me shed a tear, because for once, equal attention was given to the characters as to the ass-kickery. The relationships between them had a genuine, timeless feel to them which meant the period setting was not a strait-jacket for the storyline. The amazing action sequences which punctuated proceedings, by Yuen Wo-Ping, had a lyrical grace and imagination to them which has rarely been matched: the duel between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi-yi was probably the finest one-on-one fight in the period covered here, like watching water go over a cliff. Add the emotional punch of the end, and it’s a masterpiece.
  • 3. Monsters Inc.
    Oh, look – another Pixar movie. I could just copy and paste the paragraph above, about the ability to make non-human characters work.  However, this was not only a very sweet and innocent love story, it was also riotously-funny, and showcased a blizzard of pure imagination – the lifeblood of animation. This was apparent, not only in the construction of Monstropolis, but also the characters which populated it, and all the way to little things like the street signs [Stalk/Don’t Stalk]. CGI animation is no longer anything rare or unusual; however, this film transcends the medium and is simply great movie-making.

  • 2. Shaun of the Dead
    Probably counts as our most-watched film of the decade. Any time it’s on – even on a non-premium channel, where it has been been formatted to fit the screen, run in the time allotted and edited for content – we just have to watch it, rejoicing in the glorious dialogue and marvellous combination of horror and comedy, two notoriously difficult genres to combine well [many have tried – most have failed, and few things are worse than a horror-comedy that is neither horrific nor funny]. There is not a wrong step, weak moment or wasted sentence to be found in the entire thing. Makes me proud to be British.
  • 1. Lord of the Rings – Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King
    To commemorate the end of the decade, I decided it was long past time to pull out all three entries in the series, and watch them back-to-back-to-back, see if they all held up. The versions in question were the extended cuts of parts one and three, and the regular version of part two – we really didn’t feel that it was a film particularly in need of additional footage of tree pontificating. The results of this furry-footed marathon are a separate article, which can be found here.

11 Hours in Middle-Earth: The Lord of the Rings marathon

Watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in one sitting is something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while, almost since the third movie came out. It makes sense because it is basically one epic, split into three parts due to length, so putting them back together again seems like the best way to appreciate the trilogy as a whole. However, the gap between theory and practice proved difficult to bridge, for a number of reasons. I almost did get there at Thanksgiving 2009, but technical issues involving our new Blu-Ray DVD player meant it had to wait until we got a new TV set too. However, on Boxing Day, the stars aligned, the decks were cleared, and an intravenous drip of caffeinated beverages installed.

I must confess to wondering  how I’d cope. Even though we had skipped the extended version of The Two Towers, we were still looking at 640 minutes from one source in a single day, which would easily smash the previous record of about 350 minutes [set back in Christmas 2002, when we watched eight episodes of 24, for three consecutive days]. However, I hoped that the unarguable quality of the works in question would ease their consumption – it should be easier to watch eleven hours of the greatest trilogy ever than, say, 11 hours of American Idol. Well, so went the theory, anyway.

This is therefore not so much a review as a live blogging of the event. If you want “reviews”, you should go here, here and here for the three parts respectively. This will be more of a stream of consciousness, and will likely not make a great deal of sense, unless you have already seen the films. [And if not, how was Mars?] Because of this, I will not be exercising any caution in the spoiler area. Time stamps given are straight off the DVD timer, and as noted, are based on the extended editions, except for Part Two – we’ll get into the reasons for this in due course. And with that…

The Fellowship of the Ring

Disk One

  • 0:00 Rated PG-13 for epic battle scenes and some scary images. They should have used that on the poster: “Epic battle scenes! Scary images!” — MPAA
  • 0:01 So, there were actually twenty rings in total. The other 19 are kinda irrelevant, given the whole “One ring to bind them” thing
  • 0:02 I’m with the MPAA. Epic battle scene #1. This one features Mr. Anderson. How many people have been in *two* trilogies to gross more than $1.5 billion?
  • 0:05 Oh, Prince Isildur. If only you hadn’t been such a plonker. It’d have saved me about 10 1/2 hours.
  • 0:07 That’s enough voice-over, I was beginning to wonder if I was watching the DVD with a commentary-track by Galadriel.
  • 0:09 “Pipeweed”. Yeah, sure… Explains the hobbit apathy and apparently-perpetual munchies, shall we say.
  • 0:22 Elijah Wood Looks Concerned. #1 in a series of… quite a lot. Collect the set!
  • 0:31 Wikipedia can be so distracting. I thought I recognized Andy Serkis playing a hobbit, and somehow ended up reading about the Moors Murderers.
  • 0:35 “Is it safe?” demands Gandalf. Laurence Olivier’s estate gets a shiny new penny.
  • 0:39 Asks Frodo, “No-one knows it’s here, do they?” Gandalf’s stunned silence is very reassuring.
  • 0:44 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely Landscapes.
  • 0:45 There go the elves. Splitters!
  • 0:47 Remember I asked “How many people have been in *two* trilogies to gross more than $1.5 billion?” Well, here’s Christopher Lee of LotR and the Star Wars prequels.
  • 0:48 He and Ian McKellen have a Facial Hair Face-Off for the ages.
  • 0:50 And then fight. Their combined age is more than 140, but it still works.
  • 0:53 Hobbits entranced by mushrooms. Yep, I see why hippies like the book.
  • 0:58 Peter Jackson cameo!
  • 1:01 And one ring to fit them all, it appears – Sauron, Isildur, Gollum and now Frodo’s little stubby finger.
  • 1:04 The Nazgul are loaded with mystical power, but apparently unable to tell the difference between a Hobbit and a pillow.
  • 1:10 Orcs are ugly.
  • 1:14 Aragorn proves Ring Wraiths are vastly over-rated.
  • 1:17 Uruk-hai are even uglier. This seems to be the way Middle-earth works. Ugly = bad. Pretty = good.
  • 1:23 Arwen tells the Ring Wraiths to come and have a go, if they think they’re hard enough. Elf-powered tidal wave 1, Ring Wraiths 0.
  • 1:27 Come to Beautiful Rivendell and See Our Lovely Landscapes.
  • 1:30 Ah, turns out Ian McKellen joins Weaving and Lee in the $1.5 billion club, for LotR and X-Men.
  • 1:34 The Arwen-Aragorn romance kicks into gear. “I would rather share one lifetime with you, than face all the ages of this world alone.” Sniff.
  • 1:40 OMG! Strider is Aragorn! This revelation might have had more effect if a) I knew they explained why that was important, and b) if I hadn’t been calling him that for the past 1:40.

Disk Two

  • 0:00 I thought changing discs in the middle of a movie went out with LD. Apparently not.
  • 0:05 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely (360-degree) Landscapes.
  • 0:07 You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you? You know, for a second there, yeah, I kinda did.
  • 0:16 I have to say, the way of getting into the mines of Moria appears to come from a poor D&D adventure.
  • 0:17 A tentacle not-so languidly breaks the surface.
  • 0:26 Nice city. Shame about the dead dwarfs littering it.
  • 0:27 “We have barred the gates…but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes. Drums…drums…in the deep. We cannot get out. A shadow moves in the dark.” Never a good sign.
  • 0:31 Legolas running up the troll’s chain onto its head, and firing an arrow down into the skull. Cool.
  • 0:32 But otherwise, the troll does look a bit Playstation-y. There’s no doubt WETA’s work improved as the series went on.
  • 0:37 Now, that’s what I call a yawning chasm.
  • 0:38 “Nobody tosses a dwarf.”
  • 0:39 Ah, that’s why the orcs ran. Don’t blame them.
  • 0:42 And “Fly” is only a 3rd-level AD&D spell too. Guess Gandalf must have gone with “Fireball” instead.
  • 0:51 I imagine when you’re an elf and so near-immortal, you don’t… need… to… speak… with… any… urgency.
  • 0:57 Or blink, apparently.
  • 1:04 Galadriel turns into Santa Claus, handing out gifts like Halloween candy.
  • 1:07 Gimli the hair-fetishist. Who knew?
  • 1:11 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely Rivers [But not our giant statues, for they are CGI]
  • 1:15 Chris adds Orlando Bloom to the $1.5 billion club: LotR and Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • 1:21 Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Legolas unleashes the semi-automatic bow and arrow.
  • 1:25 Uruk-hai decapitation. PG-13 rating. Hmmm. Lack of resulting arterial spray, I assume.
  • 1:32 Hobbits hugging. The film must almost be over.
  • 1:34 “I don’t suppose we’ll ever see them again,” says Frodo. Not for about another eight hours, no.
  • 1:42 The official fan club credits start.
  • 2:02 The official fan club credits end. I notice the list include Sir Ian McKellen, plus an Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd and Christopher Lee, but not Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom or Liv Tyler.

The Two Towers

  • 0:00 What? No ‘Previously, on Lord of the Rings“?
  • 0:01 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely Snowy Mountainscapes
  • 0:03 Now, that’s “falling with style”
  • 0:07 Gollum! Hooray! A great gift to celebrity impersonators everywhere, just like Christopher Walken.
  • 0:08 I hope Sam had his rabies shots.
  • 0:10 Andy Serkis should have won the Oscar.
  • 0:13 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely Expanses of Plains
  • 0:15 Saruman: “The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall. A new order will rise. We will drive the machine of war with the sword and the spear and the iron fists of the Orc. We have only to remove those who oppose us.” I imagine Lee’s operatic version of Tomorrow Belongs to Me is in the extended version.
  • 0:23 Rated PG-13 for brief scenes of orcish cannibalism, I suppose.
  • 0:25 Why, yes, Chris – that is Dr. McCoy from the new Star Trek playing Eomer..
  • 0:28 Orc head on a stick! Get your orc head on a stick!
  • 0:32 Here comes the talking tree. Well, that’s ent-ertainment.
  • 0:35 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Not-so Lovely Bogs, Marshes and Swamps.
  • 0:38 Elijah Wood has been biting his nails. Maybe that’s method acting.
  • 0:44 Gandalf 1, Balrog 0.
  • 0:46 Shadowfax arrives. The extended cut also includes his younger brothers, Shadowemail and Shadowtwitter.
  • 0:47 Now this is what I call an evil fortress.
  • 0:54 Personally, I would think twice before appointing any adviser called Grima Wormtongue.
  • 1:00 Another great facial-hair face-off, this time between Gandalf and Theoden.
  • 1:09 Eowyn – clearly not just a wallflower princess, who replies to the question “What do you fear?” with “To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.” You go girl…

  • 1:13 Sam and Frodo bickering like a married couple. I wonder if there’s LotR slash ficton?
  • 1:14 Oh, god. “Results 1 – 20 of about 469,000 for lord of the rings slash”
  • 1:15 Yep: Andy Serkis really should have won the Oscar.
  • 1:19 Those oliphaunts are quite large. They are, however, not as big as the F-sized ones in Return.
  • 1:25 Eowyn vs. Arwen. Now that’s the kind of slash fiction I could cope with.
  • 1:28 Legolas swings from the ground to a galloping horse. Never mind Aragorn, I think Legolas may be even cooler in battle.
  • 1:35 I guess Grima somehow missed the forces of darkness massing outside the tower in their tens of thousands, on his way in.
  • 1:36 More than an hour since we last heard from Pippin and Merry. Still with the ent. No change there, then.
  • 1:43 It’s not exactly looking good for the forces of light, is it?
  • 1:48 David Wenham does look like he could be Sean Bean’s brother.
  • 1:52 Serkis chews the scenery to great effect: “MY PRECIOUSSSSSS!” Marvellous.
  • 1:56 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely Lands… What? Did we do that already?
  • 2:01 Pippin and Merry. Still with the ent.
  • 2:09 The elves show up. Must be part of the National Elf Service. Thank you: I’ll be here all week.
  • 2:11 The enemy shows up. There’s a lot of them.
  • 2:12 And they appear to be upset.
  • 2:15 One of those shots, panning along the battlements of Helm’s Deep, that still makes you go “Wow.”
  • 2:16 The ents continue to debate. This would be a good part of why we decided an extended version of this one was not worthwhile.
  • 2:18 Is that Uruk-Hai carrying an Olympic Torch?
  • 2:21 After careful consideration, the ents decide to…do absolutely nothing,
  • 2:24 I think there was a Peter Jackson cameo here, third spear-chucker from the left or something.
  • 2:26 Somehow, the words “epic battle scenes” don’t quite do this justice.
  • 2:31 The ents experiences a change of…sap, or something, I guess, and charge into battle. Run, forest, run!
  • 2:40 I’m sorry. My jaw has just been slack for the past ten minutes.
  • 2:42 Had to laugh at the ent, its head on fire, running into the advancing waters to put it out.
  • 2:49 “Samwise the Brave” – “Samwise the Gay, more like” snorts Chris.

The Return of the King

Disk One

  • 0:04 Hobbiticide! I’d forgotten Gollum was a hobbit, before the ring got to him.
  • 0:05 No fish were harme… Oh, well – never mind.
  • 0:09 Do you think they are actually barefoot, or just wearing shoes that look like hairy hobbit feet?
  • 0:15 Saruman does some very good taunting for altitude, like the French castle on Holy Grail.
  • 0:16 Saruman and his Magic 8-Ball (TM) fall from grace onto a conveniently-pointy waterwheel.
  • 0:21 Dwarf flatulence. Oh, hold my aching sides.
  • 0:23 Serkis vs. Serkis again. In a film of great performances, I’m ever more convinced this one was the best.
  • 0:29 Wizards sleep with their eyes open. Which makes sense, when you think about it.
  • 0:41 It’s gone a bit low-key for the moment. I get the sense of pieces being moved into place for the final battle.
  • 0:42 Minas Tirith. Ok. I’m impressed. But why does it need a helipad on the roof?
  • 0:44 It’s Dr. Walter Bishop! Ok, it’s John Noble, but I’m so used to seeing him spout non sequiturs on Fringe, that seeing him as a broken steward of a kingdom is… interesting.
  • 0:52 Nice to see Billy Boyd actually get to do a scene with some dramatic oomph to it, and he does quite well.
  • 0:58 The Witch-King is deeply peeved. I know I said the Uruk-Hai were, but they barely count as miffed. Which isn’t bad given he doesn’t actually have a face.
  • 1:03 Is it just me, or does the subplot involving Osgliath and Faramir, not add much to the storyline overall.
  • 1:05 Oh, wicked, bad, naughty Pippin! He has been setting alight to our beacon, which, I just remembered, is grail-shaped.  It’s not the first time we’ve had this problem.
  • 1:06 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely Lines of Beacons
  • 1:15 No, I’m sorry – I’m still seeing Dr. Bishop
  • 1:19 “I will break him”, mutters the Witch King about Gandalf. Didn’t realize Dolph Lundgren was in the series.
  • 1:30 “Your father’s will has turned to madness!” says Gandalf of Denethor. Well, he does have something in common with Dr. Noble then.
  • 1:32 I’m sure charging headlong into the forces of darkness seemed like a good idea at the time.
  • 1:33 Come to Beautiful New Zealand and See Our Lovely War-Machines Being Pushed by Hideous Trolls.
  • 1:40 “You ride to war, but not to victory.” Aren’t you a little bundle of joy, Elron?
  • 1:46 Yeah, it’s all turning into a bit of a gloomfest at the moment.
  • 1:47 If I recall correctly, these chasms are the same ones used at the start of Brain Dead.
  • 1:50 Eowyn gets a dashboard ornament for her war-horse, in the shape of Merry.
  • 1:56 Skullvalanche! In a movie of Very Cool Things, that has to be one of the coolest.
  • 1:59 “Release the prisoners.” And who said monsters had no sense of humour?
  • 2:02 Duelling catapults. And let battle commence.
  • 2:06 It’s a good job no-one thought to get the gunpowder recipe off Saruman.

Disk Two

  • 0:00 Peter Jackson cameo. And possibly the best reponse to “You and whose army?” ever.
  • 0:07 In which Frodo gets coated in white, sticky stuff. Slash fiction hysteria ensues.
  • 0:12 Gandalf looks all surprised when the Wolf’s Head battering ram begins to assault the gates. Guess he missed it rolling up to the main entrance. And it wasn’t quick – they started moving it in broad daylight, and it’s now after dark.
  • 0:16 In which Frodo gets all bukkaked by Shelob. Slash fiction meltdown ensues.
  • 0:25 and twenty seconds And THAT is the money shot.
  • 0:29 and zero seconds No, that is.
  • 0:31 Crap. I’ve just remembered this battle isn’t even close to the climax.
  • 0:32 For example, here come the F-size mumakil.
  • 0:40 Witch King: “You fool, No man can kill me. Die now.” Eowyn (removing her helmet): “I am no man.” Loud, sustained applause.
  • 0:42 Legolas enters ultimate cool mode, taking down a mumakil and its passengers. “That still only counts as one,” grumbles Gimli.
  • 0:43 Eowyn says goodbye to her dying father. For me, the most emotionally-intense moment of the whole trilogy.
  • 0:55 Sam and Frodo escape. I must confess to not having really paid attention.
  • 1:03 Orc brawl. And am increasingly convinced that Frodo is a wuss.
  • 1:11 Decapitation of the Mouth of Sauron. I will say this, the agents of evil lose their heads quite easily. Hohoho.
  • 1:20 One last epic battle scene? Oh, go on then…
  • 1:24 Frodo gives Gollum the finger.
  • 1:27 Now, why exactly does the destruction of the Ring cause Mordor to collapse into a gaping chasm?
  • 1:33 And now the hobbit-hugging starts in earnest.
  • 1:39 “My friends. You bow to no-one,” And that’s where the film should have ended, but noooooooo…
  • 1:46 Still going. Elves shipping off and taking Bilbo.
  • 1:50 Chris think Billy Boyd could be a future Doctor Who.
  • 1:51 Elijah Wood looks concerned, for the last time, and sails off with the elves. Surely that’s the end now?
  • 1:52 No. Not yet.
  • 1:54 The End. Finally.

Conclusion? It’s only when you watch all three movies back to back, that you can appreciate how Jackson managed to tell so many interweaving stories. I felt that the trilogy was more even in quality on this viewing: Towers didn’t drag as much as I felt it did originally, while Return wasn’t quite as astonishingly good. All told, it stands as an epic (there’s that word again!) feat of imagination, one that is certainly worthy of its position on top of the decade’s movies.

Avatar: or, Earth First – we can rape the other planets later

Dir: James Cameron
Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver

We saw Avatar on Tuesday night, in IMAX 3-D. Well, I did, anyway – the relentless camera motion made Chris’s motion-sickness kick in, and she spent much of the moving trying to fight back her nausea. I know how she feels: as the storyline unfolded, I had to restrain my own rising tide of vomit – though in my case, this was triggered by the yawning chasm between the stunning technical aspects, and the storyline that was not only a cobbled together hodgepodge, it was a two-hour forty-minute anti-technology, anti-human, screeching polemic, which we will forever refer to as, Dances With Blue Things.

Before getting into the pitiful excuse for a plot, let me first say, as a technical achievement in whizzbangery, it’s quite magnificent. The alien world of Pandora is realized in an incredible way, populated with alien creatures and a landscape that, from the ground up, makes it clear, to quote one character, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” [a line that, like much of the movie itself, was cynically lifted from another, superior film] If you’re going to see the film, make sure you see it on the biggest screen possible. Because, then, there’s a chance the visuals might help distract you from the story-line.

Quick summary.  Humanity, having screwed up Earth, has now moved on to Pandora, a lush, forested moon in the Alpha Centauri system. Arriving there is Jake Sully (Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine who is taking over for his deceased brother as an avatar pilot. These avatars are vat-grown hybrids between humans and the native Na’vi population and are used to explore the planet, in the hopes of fostering peaceful interaction with the somewhat combative Na’vi. The pilots are linked remotely to the avatars during their waking hours, experiencing what they do and controlling their bodies. On his first mission, Jake becomes separated from his team and is rescued by Neytiri (Saldaña, left).

Which is where the wheels fall off the plot, and it becomes mired in a combination of painful predictability and pretentious pomposity. As Jake learns more about the Na’vi – who resemble eight-foot tall Smurfs with USB connectors in their pigtails – he inevitably grows to love and appreciate their native culture. His original mission was, in part, to find a way to get the tribe of Na’vi to move so we could use the valuable mineral on which they are sitting. When he realizes this will never happen, it triggers an attack by the industial-corporate forces under Colonel Quaritch (Lang), and Jake completely rejects his humanity, becoming the leader of the Na’vi forces in his avatar body, and taking them into battle against the invaders.

Even Sully at one pont calls the philosophy of the Na’vi “tree-hugger crap,” and it’s a rare moment of honesty, because that’s exactly what it is, propagating the myth of the noble savage. For example, one core aspect of the Na’vi lifestyle appears to be that it’s okay to slaughter other animals in the forest – as long as you apologize to them afterwards. Well, I bet that makes feel alien Bambi, whose twin hearts you just stabbed with your large knife, feel a lot better as their life ebbs away. The Na’vi come across as the kind of smug, hypocritically pious jerks who insist that everyone has not only to respect their way of life, but bend over backwards to fit in with it – yet still need a human to solve their “time of great sorrow”. Add in the fact that it looks like all the CPU cycles went on the landscapes, with the Na’vi looking less than convincingly alive than the local lichen, and you have a gaping hole at the heart of the movie.

It’s almost as if Cameron is trying to make up for Aliens, a film which, if you think about it, basically had the somewhat questionable moral that genocide is sometimes a pretty good idea. There, the humans were the good guys and the alien creatures the villains, with no shades of grey. Here, the roles are completely reversed, and the problem is, it’s a much harder task trying to get me to empathize with blue, cat-like alien hippies, who would be really good in the NBA. I’m sure it’d bring audiences around Alpha Centauri to their feet though. At the end, Quantich asks Sully, “How does it feel to be a traitor to your race?” and he’s right, as Sully abandons his body entirely, in favour of the avater. However, it’s a question that should probably also be posed to James Cameron, whose opinion of the bulk of humanity is clearly that of a Hollywood liberal, isolated from everyday reality.

The humans try to make sense of the script

It doesn’t help that the rest of the storyline is equally ham-handed. Clunky metaphors for Iraq abound – or maybe for the colonization of North America, it’s hard to be sure – with characters such as the one played by Giovanni Ribisi, who could be directly channeling Paul Reiser’s corporate drone from Aliens. Other films more or less shamelessly strip-mined include Dances With Wolves, The Matrix, Braveheart, The Emerald Forest and, most obviously of all, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The last-named covers much the same ecologically-conscious territory, pitting technology against nature, without making the audience feel like a baby Harp seal, or pissing on us, collectively as a species.

Can I also  that the material for which we are plundering Pandora is called – and I kid you not – unobtainium. While this has been a joke name applied by scientists for decades, its conversion into an apparently serious use here provoked a derisive snort. It’s like Cameron thought when writing the script, “Well, I’ll come up with a proper name for the stuff later,”  then promptly forgot all about it. One can imagine him slapping his forehead and going, “Dammit! I knew there was something I meant to do!” at the premiere. It should have been on the list – right below stopping James Horner from writing another crappy song for the end-credits.

There is a definite moral to be drawn from the film. But I should warn you, it probably isn’t the one Cameron wanted. In future, if we find another planet, with resources which we want to have, the human race should not bother trying to negotiate with any local inhabitants – because according to Avatar, this will lead to us getting our butts kicked by the local insurgents. A better, less painful (for us) approach can be found in another Cameron movie. What we should do in order to secure the mineral rights is simple: “Take off and nuke the entire site from orbit.”

After all, it’s the only way to be sure.


The 10 Greatest Monty Python Sketches of All Time (plus one)

IFC recently ran a six-part documentary series, chronicling the history of the Pythons, from their beginnings in the Oxford and Cambridge revues, through to Spamalot. It was quite a treat, not least realizing how the troupe was a semi-random collection of people, who gelled into a near-perfect whole for three sublime seasons of television, at a rare moment in television history when the opportunity to make a show like that presented itself.

Of course, as with any sketch-based comedy series, it wasn’t all good: it’s a genre that inevitably lends itself to peaks and valleys, rather than the consistency of things like Fawlty Towers or Blackadder. And, especially in the abortive fourth season, there were plenty of valleys – without John Cleese, the show was lost, and those episodes are the Python equivalent of those Eastern Bloc Tom and Jerry cartoons from the early 1960’s. But the peaks were sublime; both in the TV series and the movies, they created timeless moments of comedy which have rarely, if ever, been matched. It spans generations: my father loved Python. Myself and Chris adore Python. And our son is just as much a fan, who will recite The Four Yorkshiremen at the drop of a dead parrot.

Hence, this list of my favourite Python moments – not just from the TV, but the movies as well, which can hardly be denied their significance in comedy’s Hall of Fame. However, I have excluded stuff from The Secret Policeman’s Ball and its sequels. The hard part was restricting it to ten eleven (for reasons explained later): I could easily have doubled the number without blinking. The link for each title will open a new tab where you can view the sketch in question.

I note that my preference is clearly skewed towards the more verbal side of Python comedy, rather than the physical – I think this is because the slapsticky stuff is rather too well-worn a path, from Charlie Chaplin through to Benny Hill. Hence, sketches like Upper-class Twit of the Year, often ranked highly on other, similar lists, are not ones of which I’m particular fond. It’s in word-play and their use of the English language that the true strength of Python can be seen. They manage to be immensely smart (who else would ever base a piece on summarizing Proust?) without getting pretentious (you don’t really need to know who Proust is to appreciate the results), and that’s a lot rarer than you might imagine.

10. Black Knight (Holy Grail)
The Pythons had a love for and appreciation of OTT hyperviolence – see also Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days. However, this scene, in which John Cleese’s Black Knight is systematically dismembered by Graham Chapman’s King Arthur, yet proclaims “It’s just a scratch” as his limbs go cartwheeling away from their body, is even more memorable. It’s the contrast between the arterial spray – something not seen in cinema at the time, outside a grindhouse screening of Shogun Assassin – and the Black Knight’s completely oblivious attitude that makes this work. Could also have been Castle Anthrax. Or the French taunting. Or the witch-finding.

9. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Life of Brian)
Likely my least favorite of the Python movies, it feels to me like it’s a film with only one idea, which as a result doesn’t have enough energy to drive the film for the entire running-time. However, the ending has to remain one of the all-time greatest in cinema, with the men being crucified alongside Brian, led by Eric Idle, breaking out into a cheerful song extolling the joys of optimism. It shows up in the most unlikely places. In 1993, when the Manchester bid for the 2000 Olympics was (thankfully) rejected in favour of Sydney, the crowd watching in Castlefield spontaneously burst into the song.

8. Mr Creosote (Meaning of Life)
Speaking of “spontaneously bursting”… Perhaps the Python’s deepest excursion beyond the borders of good taste was this hideous sequence, which Chris still has problems watching [she has a thing about vomit, and the sketch has it, by the literal bucket], and which grossed out Quentin Tarantino. Again, it’s the contrast that makes it work: here, between Terry Jones’ obese, obscene restaurant customer, and Cleese’s unflappably obsequious waiter, who is entirely unfazed by Creosote’s behaviour. Again, this is probably more extreme than anything else to pass the BBFC at the time.

7. Argument Clinic
“Is this the right room for an argument?”
“I’ve told you once…”

Thus starts the core of the sketch, which has Cleese duelling with Michael Palin in a pay-per-minute argument, which drifts topic from whether the initial question has answered, over to the very nature of what constitutes an argument. It’s beautifully constructed, though suffers from the frequent Pythonesque problem – they could never work out how to end their pieces, with a punchline apparently being viewed as too traditional. Here, Idle, dressed as a policeman, arrests the show for “simply ending every bleeding sketch by just having a policeman come in.”

6. Spanish Inquisition
Possibly the finest running-joke in the history of running-jokes, it appeared at various points throughout one episode, when a character would proclaim “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition.” This would trigger the arrival of Cardinal Ximenez [Palin] and his useless henchmen, who would attempt to extract confessions with the aid of a comfy chair, after getting all confused when listing the Inqusition’s weapons. The show ends with the inquisitors having to rush across town by bus, to the Dick Barton theme, only to be cut off by the closing credits. Brilliance.

5. Mad Barber/Lumberjack Song
While everyone knows the Lumberjack Song, often forgotten is the lead-in, where Palin’s homicidal barber tries to fake cutting a customer’s hair, for fear it will bring out his psychopathic tendencies (“Cut, cut, cut, blood, spurt, artery, murder, Hitchcock, Psycho…”). He eventually admits, “I didn’t want to be a barber anyway,” which leads to the song. This may be the most famous of all Python ditties, as the lyrics drift from extolling the joys of a life of woodmanship, into the pleasures of wearing women’s clothing – to the disgust of the backing chorus of Mounties.

4. Live Organ Transplants/Galaxy Song (Meaning of Life)
Meaning of Life is the most variable of the Python movies, combining moments of genius with dismal failure. This is the highlight of the film, with paramedics Chapman and Cleese arriving to take the liver of Mr. Jones (Terry Gilliam), even though the donor card says, “In the event of death.” As they respond, “No one who has ever had their liver taken out by us has survived.” His wife (Terry Jones) is asked to sign up, and is convinced to do so by Idle’s Galaxy Song. Most of the litany of astronomical facts it contains, are actually surprisingly accurate.

3. Dirty Fork
One of the few Python sketches with a true punchline – announced, in typical self-referential style with both a voice over and caption saying, “And Now… The Punchline!” Naturally, the punchline is not up to the level of the rest of the sketch, which features an escalating series of absurdity, after a restaurant diner (Chapman) complains about a dirty fork. By the end of the sketch, the restaurant manager (Idle) has committed fork seppuku, the chef (Cleese) has to be restrained from attacking the patrons with a cleaver and the waiter (Palin) is clutching a war wound in his head.

2a. The Four Yorkshiremen
I’d completed the list when I suddenly remembered this one. I refuse, absolutely, to lose the Black Knight, so have just gone ahead and inserted this in the appropriate place. On the other hand, it isn’t technically a Python sketch, since it was written for At Last The 1948 Show, with the writer-performers there including Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, as well as Cleese and Chapman. However, its presence in Live at the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere has made it part of Python canon, though other enactments have included participants from Rowan Atkinson to Alan Rickman.

2. Nudge Nudge
Eric Idle plays the over-friendly stranger in the pub, who slides up to Terry Jones, enjoying a quiet, solitary half-pint, and proceeds to ask a series of questions about his wife that gradually become more and more innuendo-laden. Idle tries to appear as the man of the world, but the punchline – as in Dirty Fork, a rarity – completely shatters that illusion. It was originally written for Ronnie Barker, but was rejected. The dead-pan delivery by Jones of his responses, as he (deliberately?) refuses to see what Idle is getting at, is what really makes the sketch so memorable.

1. Dead Parrot
Not just the greatest sketch in Python history, but possibly also the greatest sketch of all tine. An it’s not just me who thinks so, as the sketch topped the IFC/Nerve list of the 50 All-Time Greatest, ahead of Who’s on First? and the entire output of Saturday Night Live. It may also be John Cleese’s finest moment, and given the sublime wonder which was Fawlty Towers, that in itself is quite an achievement: he works himself up into a frothing fury, in the face of Palin’s relentless denials that there is anything wrong with the obviously-demised avian. Has been performed in a number of ways by the pair since: for your amusement, here’s a link to one where Palin can’t stop laughing. But, for your amusement, here is the original version, in its entirety. Enjoy.

YouTube video