Friday, 24 January 2014

Friday Five: Best films of 2013

Being as the award ceremonies are all the beginning of the year and some of the films nominated aren't even released in this country yet, it's tricky to have seen them all and my own judgement by the time the gongs are given. Being as I often disagree anyway, this shouldn't have too much bearing on my list of favourite films. 

Also, for the purposes of this list, I'm not including the excellent National Theatre Live series, in which I get to see superb productions of plays beamed to a cinema from the stage. Perhaps I'll do that in another post, but for now it's worth noting that The Audience, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Daldry, and starring Helen Mirren as The Queen in private meetings with each of England’s prime ministers from Churchill to Cameron was a privilege to watch. Furthermore, the National Theatre Live production of Othello was absolutely outstanding: the best production of this play I have ever seen, and I've seen a fair few.

It's very hard to choose just five out of the score of films released last year that I've seen, but I have whittled it down to this list, in alphabetical order as it's impossible to pick a favourite.

5 Favourite 2013 Films:
  1. August: Osage County – A Brilliantly brutal depiction of a dysfunctional family further unravelling with disease and deception, trapped against a backdrop of endless horizons. Superb acting (especially from Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts) and brilliant dialogue (screenplay by Tracy Letts) make this adaptation of the stage play (also Tracy Letts) a frontrunner for Oscars.
  2. Behind the Candelabra – Yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon are excellent. The flamboyance and excess are neatly captured with gentle ridicule but evident empathy, and confirm Liberace’s own conviction that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’.
  3. Blue Jasmine – Ten minutes in when I realised it was based around A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew exactly what was going to happen. The fact that it did, didn't make it any less compelling. Cate Blanchett is as wonderful as ever and this is the least annoying that I've ever seen Sally Hawkins. Woody Allen’s films are always better when he isn’t in them.
  4. Gravity – The first 3D film I've seen in the cinema since Jaws 3-D in 1983. It was done so well I was totally transporting (ducking as the flying space debris seemed to whizz out from the screen at me) and the weight of all the action was entirely carried by the two fantastic actors, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Director Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s Oscar nomination is thoroughly well-deserved.
  5. The Spirit of ’45 – A fabulous documentary, written and directed by Ken Loach, about the spirit of unity which buoyed Britain during the war years and how we are crying out for that same socialism to create a vision of a fairer, united society today – inspiring and necessary.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Muddle-Headed Storytime

The Muddle-Headed Wombat by Ruth Park with illustrations by Noela Young
Published by Angus & Robertson
Pp. 225

This Australian children’s classic is an utterly delightful tale of a wombat and his adventures with Mouse and Tabby, his second-best friend. The animals live in a little house at the edge of Big Bush which is “green and quiet and airy, and the right place for animals to live.” They go to school, visit the circus, have holidays by the sea and build a treehouse that collapses in a storm. Frequent squabbles punctuate their escapades, as they have many differences, but they always make up as they realise the value of friendship.

Wombat is muddle-headed because he is a Wombat. He mixes up words and can’t count past four – “He runs out of paws, that’s the trouble” – but he likes to be helpful although his favoured solution to a problem is to sit on things. He is thrilled to be going to school where “We’re going to learn things like four and eight make eleventy one and C O W spells cat, and things like that.” Similar to Pooh Bear he is not bright although he has inimitable logic, such as when he eats a packet of chalk but not the green because “it might taste like spinach and I don’t like spinach.” He is good at digging and seeing in the dark and is very loyal and loves his friends, which in turn makes him loveable.

Mouse is fastidious and house proud, always cleaning things, preparing meals (pancakes for Tabby; snails for Wombat; and mosquitoes for itself) and polishing its spectacles. Referred to throughout as ‘it’, Mouse is gender neutral, although this was written in 1962 and Mouse carries its long tail “over its arm as though it were the train on an evening dress” so is possibly meant to be female. Mouse is also sentimental and cares for things and people, particularly the grey tabby cat whom it adopts because “He was skinny and miserable and he had a peaky little face with big ears. He wore a bright red bow tie, but anyone could see it hadn’t been washed and ironed for weeks.”

Like many cats, Tabby is vain and thinks he is handsome, while he also claims to be frail and delicate, mainly to get out of hard work. He is very good at building things, however, such as a caravan and a treehouse and is also remarkably resilient, surviving being sucked into a carpet cleaner, dropped from a great height while performing as a puppet, and accidentally shaken into a stream, not to mention being sat on by Wombat who thinks “if he were sat on once or twice, and flattened out like a bookmark, it would do him the world of good.”

Noela Young’s charming illustrations add to the humour of the stories and caricature the animals highlighting their best and worst traits. They regard themselves as a family and they constantly attempt to adapt to living with each other while retaining their individuality. The tales are equally diverting and reassuring and were loved by both the adults and the children at holiday story-time.