The Bens 2014

My movie-watching for 2013 was way down on previous years. 26 in total, and of those, 8 were watched on the way to, at or back from Worldcon in San Antonio. Dear me. I can only put this down to an increase in Scandi crime viewing on Saturday evenings, our usual viewing slot, including working our way through two series of The Killing.

So anyway. Remembering the criterion and adage that “It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it”, here goes. The Ben Awards for 2014.

Best movie

So, how do I define “best”? I go for what I perceive as the most satisfactory meeting of ambition and ability; my enjoyment levels in watching; and the crunch question, would I mind seeing it again or would I rather just read a book? All of the above meet these criteria; and indeed, I have seen two of the three more than once. (Cloud Atlas on two successive evenings, TGtB&tU more times than I can possibly count over a period of 49 years.)

Ultimately I felt TGtB&tU is so much in a class of its own that comparisons are unfair, bringing it down to a choice of two. Ender’s Game is a flawless recreation of the book which still allows the director’s own vision to show through (unlike, say, the early Harry Potter movies, which were equally flawless book recreations). The story is simplified for the screen without losing anything, though bizarrely gaining a Kiwi accent for Ben Kingsley which contributes nothing. Ultimately however the movie misses out on the Best tag because, being as good as it is, it also highlights the absurdities of the novel – an interstellar fleet run by children? Most attendees at any games expo would wipe the floor with world-saving genius Ender.

Cloud Atlas wins not only because Ender loses but also for being, quite a simply, a 90% successful attempt to film an absolutely unfilmable book. The book tells six stories broken down into 11 consecutive chunks: five half stories in a chronological sequence, then a whole story set at the farthest point in the future, then the remaining five half stories in reverse chronology. The film takes them and chops them up much more finely, with the same core cast playing characters who are not only very different in type but sometimes age, ethnicity and even gender. In some cases it’s not until you see the end credits that you realise just how many times you have seen the same actor. And every one of them acts, even Hugh Grant, who appears in a brief role so utterly against type that I wanted to rewatch the movie straight away, just to catch another glimpse. (I didn’t, I waited 24 hours.) And, even more so than TGtG&tU, you can tell the cast are having a ball, which adds to the enjoyment; Ender’s Game, it must be said, is just a tad po-faced.

Best actor

Ender’s Game sinks or swims on the strength of Ender’s performance, and it’s hard to imagine any other boy actor in the last 20 years doing as well. Asa Butterfield is spot on: he’s grown since The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but is still small enough to appear vulnerable, and his character is completely different to pyjama-boy and to his lead role in Hugo. But for all that, maybe because the character of Ender himself is such a contrivance, it’s hard to shake the feeling he’s jumping through hoops on demand, as is every other character in the movie.

Ditto Suraj Sharma, who is very good indeed in his debut performance as Pi, spending much of his time acting at a CGI tiger. Both these young men have the true triumphs of their careers yet to come.

And then we come to Karl Urban, who is Dredd, and conveys it despite having half his face obscured for the entire movie. What was I saying about contrived characters? Well, he takes the not-entirely-uncontrived lawman of Mega City 1 and makes him human. With half a face. And he is also pretty good as McCoy in Star Trek Into Darkness, playing a totally different role. So, Urban it is.

Most unexpectedly good

Dredd comes very close indeed to winning here; its one drawback is that, apart from the Judges themselves, it just looks too contemporary. One thing I will give Stallone’s Judge Dredd is that what we saw on screen really was Mega City 1, which sadly was the setting for a lousy story. But this Mega City is just like downtown Detroit, with (okay, okay) brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers, but brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers alone do not a Mega City make.

Whereas Man of Steel is, believe it or not, not a Superman movie. It’s a movie about Kryptonians. Kal-el is not the only exiled member of his race trying to make a new life on Earth. Meanwhile, before succumbing to damsel-in-distress mode, Pultizer-prize winning journo Lois Lane actually behaves in a Pulitzer-prize winning manner and tracks down Clark Kent by following the inevitable clues a man like him would leave behind, without him realising.

Not necessarily bad but biggest waste of a good cast

All three have good casts, two of which include Helen Mirren. However, in two cases the story is predictable because it’s already based on historical fact, and in one it’s predictable because the denouement of the entire fiction-based plot is the only thing that could happen in a pastoral comedy starring Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. But the winner, i.e. the biggest waste, has to be Phil Spector, for not deviating one jot from reality and giving neither Mirren nor Al Pacino anything to do other than recite their lines (Pacino mumbling his around the bits of the scenery he was chewing at the time).

The Bens 2011

Your admirable patience since this time last year is rewarded. The Bens are in for the best movies watched by me in 2010. That is the sole criterion for consideration, so even quite old movies can be up for awards. Remember, it’s now what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it.

So …

Best movie shortlist

Winner: Toy Story 3

Judge’s Comments: a very strong choice of movies that were well made, well produced, well acted and (crucially) in which I had no idea where they might be going. For instance: movies where it is not a given that the hero(es) will survive. But in the end it had to be Toy Story 3. How many of these would I get on DVD and re-watch? Exactly.

Best actor shortlist:

Winner: Lotso Hugs

Judge’s comments: Lotso wins because, despite the handicap of being a CGI animation with no actual physical form, from the moment he appears he manages to come across as genial and friendly and slightly creepy and threatening, all of which he in fact is. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets an honorable mention for so spectacularly notbeing the Operative from Serenity in his portrayal of a transvestite club singer. And his songs are pretty darn toe-tapping.

Best SF short list

Winner: Moon

Judge’s Comments: Not such a strong list of contenders, frankly. Moon would have stood out in any year but neither of the other two really deserve an urgent repeat viewing. Very cleverly done, yes, but … but. Moon however has a standout performance by one actor playing two men, and an old-school approach to practical, model-based special effects that is a huge relief after endless vistas of CGI.

Best thriller shortlist

Winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Judge’s Comments: Another clutch of well-made movies where you really didn’t know what was going to happen or who would live and die. The Girl has to waltz off with the prize, however. What else could you do with a movie where the lead character has her probation officer tied up naked, is forcing objects inside him via the bodily orifice that isn’t the mouth, forcing him to watch a video of him raping her so she can blackmail him into releasing her from probation … and that’s just character background?

Best paranoid conspiracy theory

Winner: Defence of the Realm

Judge’s Comments: The judges surprise themselves on this one, expecting The Ghost to be the shoe-in due to its topicality and dislike of Tony Blair. Defence of the Realm came up from behind. It was made in the eighties, which only occasionally shows, but is still just as taut and unexpected as, say, State of Play. In fact, withoutDefence of the Realm there might have been no State of Play. Or indeed The Ghost.

Best Swedish Film

Winner: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Judge’s Comments: Okay, so the field was limited to two choices anyway – but even so. See comments above about the winner. Arn suffered a little from trying to compress a quite long trilogy into one 2 hour movie and from a certain Swedishness along the lines of: “oh look, something exciting is happening over there / has just happened here.” Mind you, I was at school with one of the villains which gives it a notch up.

Best comedy

Winner: The Big Lebowski

Judge’s Comments: Ooh, this was a hard one. The Big Lebowski scrapes it, just, but a very honorable mention to Tamara Drewe, not least for all the writer jokes.

And finally, some one-offs – categories of one which still deserve a mention because that single category was so noticeable.

Best facial hair

This movies features players like LongstreetLeeChamberlainArmistead andPickett, so the facial hair was always going to be key. As it turns out, their beards and whiskers were present at one of the most important battles of modern history and prove well up to the challenge.

Worst waste of Bill Nighy

Bill Nighy as a hitman. So much promise …

Best use of a screen legend

Michael Caine continues to prove that his one-style-fits-all acting method really does fit all. The man is a marvel.

Until next year, then!

The Bens 2010

I freely admit to nicking this idea from my friend Bob, who has to have regular dialysis and so gets through a lot of films and awards his own annual Bobs to them. So, here are the 2010 Ben Awards, for movies seen during 2009.

The guiding criterion of the Bens is the principle oft-stated by Roger Ebert and repeated by me so often that Bonusbarn now likes to get in there first: it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. Also (like the Bobs), as any movie seen is eligible the winner in any category doesn’t have to be new.

Best movie shortlist

Bubbling under: Layer CakeValkyrie

The winner: Inglourious Basterds

The judges note: for its sheer panache, exuberance, total in-your-face disregard of history and recycling of Ennio Morricone, it can only be this one.

Best performance shortlist

Bubbling under: Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno, Brüno), John Malkovitch (Buck Howard, The Great Buck Howard); Meryl Streep (Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada). All very good, all cursed by the fact that they are in fact so good they could do it in their sleep.

The winner: Christoph Waltz

The judges note: rare as it is for Tom Cruise to get any kind of acting award, he is certainly worthy of consideration for so completely burying his film star persona in his portrayal of the noble but ultimately doomed von Stauffenberg. Quentin Tarantino is good at getting actors you wouldn’t normally associate with the part to turn in a master performance (cf. Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill pt 2) and in 2009 he triumphed with Christoph Waltz, whose name may be on everyone’s lips in his native Germany but is barely heard of outside it; the creator of the charming, slimy, ruthless, highly intelligent, mesmerising Col. Hans Landa – one of the few baddies you actually want to win and then kick yourself for realising that he’s sucked you in too.

Best SF or Fantasy shortlist

The winner: Let the Right One In

The judges note: the only vampire movie it has been worth watching the past decade.

Best animated movie shortlist

The winner: WALL·E.

The judges note: while the other movies on this list successfully used animation to portray real people, WALL·E used animation to ascribe emotions and feelings to a mechanical device that are more realistic than many actors can manage.

Best comedy shortlist

The winner: Brüno

The judges note: awarded even though, or perhaps because, the judges spent half the movie with their eyes shut; and even though he’s done it all before.

Best quirky / indy movie shortlist

The winner: Telstar

The judges note: comedy, tragedy, good acting, excellent music and a faithful recreation of period. The same could almost be said of The Boat that Rocked andStone of Destiny but in the former (fictitious recreation of the Radio Caroline heyday) the tragedy is just a bit too fluffy and nice and in the latter (slightly fictioned-up account of how some genuine Scottish students stole the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland) you only really care about the outcome if you’re Scottish.

Best crime movie shortlist

The winner: Layer Cake

The judges note: this is probably the role that got Daniel Craig the Bond gig, but here he shows he is so much better than that. This is the movie Guy Ritchie would make if Guy Ritchie could actually make movies.

Best movie featuring Bill Nighy shortlist

The winner: Valkyrie

The judges note: not only does Nighy actually resemble the historical character he plays, but apart from the only occasional trademark Nighy grimace he actually acts the part.

Best previously seen and worth rewatching shortlist

Bubbling under: The Whole Nine Yards

The winner: Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The judges note: one of the very few cases where Hollywood takes rights to a book and improves on the original. They also note that while Paul Bettany is far too young to be Dr Stephen Maturin, this is made up for by the flawless casting of Jack Aubrey, Killick, HMS Surprise and other roles.

Best overcoming of the plot’s sheer predictability shortlist

The winner: The Commitments

The judges note: you have to be brain dead and/or historically illiterate not to work out how any of these are going to pan out, but The Commitments does it with Irish humour and great music.

Best phoned-in performance shortlist

The winner: Clint Eastwood

The judges note: for most of the movie he is, while still very good, undeniably Clint Eastwood doing a post-retirement pensionable Dirty Harry. Then suddenly we get taken by surprise.

Finally, for the record, here is the full list of all contenders for 2009.