2014 In Retrospect

It was 100 Films’ greatest ever year in terms of sheer size, but it was also one of the highest-scoring too, with the most five-star ratings I’ve ever awarded and the second-highest average score to date. Now it’s time to look back over the list and ask: Which were the cream of the crop? Which were the dregs? And which significant new films did I not even see?

To top it off, you can make your voice heard by voting for your favourites (plural) in this year’s top ten poll. Exciting stuff.

So without further ado:

The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014

In alphabetical order…

Chicken Little
Disney are back at the height of their powers of late, at least as far as the box office is concerned, with the phenomenon that is Frozen. Things weren’t so rosy in the early ’00s, though, leading them to abandon traditional 2D animation for the burgeoning world of 3D CGI. Their first effort was this dross, instantly proving it wasn’t the style of animation that was the problem.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I only gave this two stars (as opposed to one) for two reasons: 1) the rather cool cliff-swinging fight sequence, which deserves to be in a better movie, and 2) because for some unknown reason I’d given the Team America-esque first one two stars, and this is marginally better. Really, though, it’s awful: messily told, tonally uneven, ridiculous in any number of ways. Even as a daft actioner, it’s no fun.

Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider’s maligned sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, wasn’t particularly good, but at least it embraced the trashier, grimier aspects of the character (even if it was only in a PG-13 way). This first attempt to bring the Marvel anti-hero to the big screen tried to force the concept into the shape of a trad blockbuster, ending up with a Constantine rip-off. As hardly anyone liked Constantine, that wasn’t a very good idea.

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!
I liked the first Nativity — it’s not high art, but it’s a perfectly lovely Christmas movie. This follow-up has to switch out Martin Freeman for David Tennant, which isn’t a problem, but the new story is. Not that it’s much of a story, more a series of loosely-connected misadventures. Throw in a climactic concert made up of truly dreadful new songs and you have a disappointingly charmless sequel.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay can make good movies, but he seems to have forgotten how. There are many things wrong with this third Transformers flick, but what’s most shocking is how ineptly it’s put together. For experienced filmmakers, there’s no excuse. Apparently this year’s fourth instalment is even worse, but it’s tough to imagine how. To quote a character in the movie: “does it suck or what? I mean it’s like a bad sci-fi film.”

Dishonourable Mention
Sin City: Recut & Extended
Not bad enough to actually make the bottom five, this recut took a film I remembered loving and messed about with it so much it made me doubt if I’d ever liked it in the first place. It could be my tastes have changed in the intervening nine years, but I suspect it’s at least as much due to the frustrating and near-pointless rearrangement of the running order. I recommend you stick to the theatrical cut.

The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014

The fascinating story of the outrage provoked in Britain by gory horror movies in the early days of VHS. Excellently constructed from talking-head interviews and archive clips, it not only tells the tale clearly but also presents spot-on juxtapositions. Informative both for those who lived through it and those for who it’s now part of history, the important message is how easily such censorship was allowed — even encouraged — and that we must be on the look out for it again. Unfortunately it is happening again, to the internet this time, and once again is being championed via misinformation from those with a vested interest. I guess more people need to see this film…

The gang’s all here for an all-eras X-Men team-up, the original cast teaming up with the First Class lot, and led by original franchise director Bryan Singer, for a time-travelling adventure inspired by the classic comic book storyline. Some surprisingly deep characterisation, buoyed by strong performances from a first-rate cast (how many of them are Oscar nominees/winners?), rubs shoulders comfortably with witty and inventive action sequences. The series that kicked off the current Hollywood superhero obsession proves it can still hold its own among the big boys that have come since.

Darren Aronofsky’s multi-pronged narrative about the evils of addiction is sometimes cited as one of the bleakest films ever made. Even if you’re prepared for that, the verve of the filmmaking transcends expectations. Finely-tuned editing and attentive sound design gradually position the viewer for the climax, a fast-cut perfectly-scored assault on the senses that almost batters you into submission. It may ultimately be grim and without hope, but it’s so amazingly crafted that you’re left longing to experience it again regardless.

Snatched off the street, locked in a bedsit for 15 years, then inexplicably released and given just days to figure out why it happened — that’s the concept behind this dark South Korean thriller (remade in America to no fanfare and even less acclaim in 2013). Oldboy mixes what could almost be a straightforward revenge thriller with weird, almost surrealistic touches, for a whole that is ready-made to be cultish without the self-conscious Cult-ish-ness that such things are normally saddled with. It ends with twists and revelations so hard-hitting they equal even the famous single-take hammer-featuring corridor scene.

Found-footage and superheroes — two current cinematic obsessions, reviled by some and beloved by others. They had to come together eventually. Director Josh Trank keeps a handle on affairs, so that the film always sticks to concept without becoming samey, while screenwriter Max Landis reveals the true nature of his characters as he leads them from low-key beginnings to a barnstorming citywide climax that’s a bit like the ending of Man of Steel, only really good.

Why aren’t there many thrillers set inside the jury room? I’d wager because 12 Angry Men got there a long time ago and nailed it. A man is on trial for murder; we join the case as the twelve-man jury enter their deliberation room. Eleven of them are absolutely certain; one thinks they ought to discuss it. For the next 90 minutes, twelve men sit in one room and talk to each other… and it’s absolutely gripping, tense and thrilling, with moments that make you virtually punch the air with excitement. It’s a masterclass in constrained filmmaking, from director Sidney Lumet, and acting, from a cast of twelve peerless performers.

The sequel to the prequel of the Planet of the Apes takes the fad for all-CGI characters and brings it to maturity with a fully-realised ape society, played by mo-capped actors led by Andy Serkis, that is far more interesting than the human portion of the story. This is a story of interspecies relations where everything could be fine if it weren’t for past distrust and people constantly bringing guns along — like the best sci-fi, it reflects our world back at us. They claimed Avatar proved motion-captured performances should be considered alongside ‘the real thing’. Rubbish. Dawn, however, makes that case completely.

Hated by Stephen King, author of the original novel, and his most die-hard fans, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation sees Jack Nicholson and family as the caretakers and sole residents of a remote hotel over a snowbound winter, when very creepy things begin to happen… Goodness knows what any of it ultimately means (I know there are plenty of wild theories — I’ve got Room 237 recorded to catch at some point), but as an exercise in eliciting emotions of dread and almost-primal fear, it’s second to none.

The sixth feature film to star Hergé’s boy reporter (yes, really) sees the master of action-adventure cinema, Steven Spielberg, bring us the best Indiana Jones movie in over 20 years — only it’s computer animated and stars a blonde Belgian chap with a posh British accent. Rendered with incredible realism by Weta, with a screenplay that perfectly balances investigation, action and humour, and direction that knows when to maintain verisimilitude and when to cut loose with all the freedom CGI can offer, Tintin is a quality entertainment. Very nearly my film of the year, but for…

Regular readers will know I love a single-location thriller, and this is one — it just happens that the single-location in question is the entire orbit of planet Earth. There may not be much of a plot (“woman gets stranded in space; tries to get to safety”), but it doesn’t matter: director Alfonso Cuarón reminds us of his mastery of the single-take, using it to better connect us to the characters’ experiences. I’m sure people were right that it’s best in 3D on a huge screen, but even in 2D on a telly it’s spectacular. It’s also the third film in my top five that’s only been made possible thanks to advances in computer graphics — that surely says something about how an intelligent use of CGI still allows filmmakers to innovate.

Top 10 Poll

As ever, I welcome your opinion on my top ten — not just in the comments section, but also in the form of a lovely poll. This year you can pick multiple options, so feel free to vote for all your favourites.

And if you feel I’ve made an unforgivable omission, do feel free to berate me below.

Honourable Mentions

Yet another record: for the first time ever, all of my top ten films are ones I awarded a full five stars to. That’s once again testament to the quality of this year’s viewing, because I felt sure at least one four-stars-er would make the list. To be precise, that was The Green Hornet, which I know isn’t widely liked but I rather loved — I called it “one of the best superhero movies of the current generation”, in fact. On the day, though, I couldn’t in good conscience say it was better than any of the films I have included. I guess that confers 11th place on it.

In total, 27 main-list films earned themselves a five-star ratings this year. As well as those in the top ten (for which, see above, obv.), the others were After the Thin Man, All is Lost, La Belle et la Bete, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, In Your Eyes, The Kings of Summer, Rear Window, Saving Mr. Banks, The Searchers, The Secret of Kells, Sightseers, The Thin Man, The World’s End, and Zero Dark Thirty. Additionally, both of the ‘other’ titles I watched and reviewed — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition) and miniseries The 10th Kingdom — also scored full marks.

There are any number of other films I could highlight here — my long-list for the top ten had over 50 movies on it, and at least 25 of those were genuine contenders — but two categories stand out. Firstly, after finishing the Falcon series earlier in the year, towards the end I made a start on The Thin Man, watching the first three out of six films. They’re excellent fun, the tonal inspiration for the likes of the Saint and the Falcon (which I’ve previously covered in full), but on the whole even better. Expect reviews before too long.

Finally, we all know superhero and comic book movies are everywhere right now, and will continue to be so if the announced plans of Marvel Studios, Warner Bros, Fox, Sony, and the rest, come to fruition. It’s felt particularly true for me this year, with not only a few well-received recent releases (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past), but also getting caught up on an array of recent entries (all but two were from the past decade, and one of those is only 11 years old). All told, there were 22 superhero, comic book, or related movies on this year’s list — that’s 16%. For a single subgenre — and not one where I’ve (say) dedicated myself to watching the entirety of one series — that does seem rather a lot…

The Films I Didn’t See

As is my tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films that were released in 2014 but I’ve not yet seen. They’ve been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety. It’s biased slightly towards ones I might actually see at some point, though there were a couple of highly-successful or much-discussed ones I felt couldn’t/shouldn’t be left out. Feel free to assume which ones those are.

22 Jump Street
300: Rise of an Empire
American Sniper
Big Eyes
Big Hero 6
The Equalizer
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Expendables 3
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Fault in Our Stars
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
The Imitation Game
The Inbetweeners 2
Inherent Vice
The Interview
Into the Woods
The Maze Runner
A Million Ways to Die in the West
The Monuments Men
Mr. Turner
Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie
Muppets Most Wanted
The Raid 2
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Theory of Everything
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Under the Skin

Party like it’s Nineteen Ninety Nine…

It’s 100 Films’ ninth year — crikey, when’d that happen?

Expect more archive reposts (can I finish them before my 10th anniversary?), a third round of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” (it’s got a killer new acronym…), and — fingers crossed — both my 1,000th review and the official 100 Films’ #1000!

All that and hoverboards. We were promised hoverboards.

Gravity (2013)

2014 #13
Alfonso Cuarón | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2014 Academy Awards
10 nominations — 7 wins

Winner: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Production Design.

GravityOn its theatrical release, a commonly-cited recommendation was to see Gravity in 3D on the biggest screen possible. Obviously, I didn’t bother. Some say it isn’t as effective on a small screen in 2D. Maybe it isn’t as effective, but it’s still a damn fine film.

A near-future thriller (albeit one set in space), the destruction of a satellite sees a cloud of debris hurtling round the Earth, in the process destroying the space shuttle of Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and other less-fortunate crewmembers. Using Clooney’s experimental space-jetpack, the survivors set off across the void for the nearest space station, racing against their oxygen supply to find a way home…

As many have noted, Gravity is a little light on plot. That’s a dealbreaker for some, it would seem, which I think rather misses the point. This is a survival story, predicated on two things: one, the desperate attempts of our heroine to triumph against increasingly-poor odds; and two, the spectacle of weightlessness and space. Not every movie needs a complex storyline to keep it going; not every film needs to only be about its plot. As co-writer and director, Alfonso Cuarón drives the film admirably on the aforementioned survival attempts and some swiftly-sketched character development.

The spectacle may have worked best on the big screen in 3D, but Cuarón’s talent as a director means it translates at home, too. That most of the film was created in computers means his penchant for long takes is indulged, but the impact of those is paramount: rather than fast-cut action sequences (even if the speed of cutting has been pushed to extremes in recent years, He said DON'T let goquick editing has always been a way of creating excitement in that arena), the never-ending shots serve to make you feel closer to events, right alongside Bullock, almost wishing it would stop. Plus there’s skill in being able to show us what we need to see from a single vantage point, without the easy option of being able to cut to a different angle to clarify a detail.

Left to carry much of the film solo, Bullock’s performance is strong enough, but this isn’t a deeply-drawn character. There’s something to her, and the situation she’s been put in is trial enough without the need for backstory, but is it really a performance that cries out for awards recognition? Not as much as the rest of the film.

Speaking of which, controversy has occasionally dogged Gravity — on two fronts. Firstly, that BAFTA awarded it Best British Film. Cue varying degrees of outrage and incredulity that an American-funded film about American astronauts could be considered British. The flipside to this is that Cuarón has made Britain his adopted home; and while the Big Studio may ultimately be American, the production company and producers are British. It was shot in Britain by a British crew, and the groundbreaking CGI — which even James Cameron, he of great determination and resultant innovation, said couldn’t be done — was created in Britain by British artists. Made in BritainThe most high-profile jobs — the actors, the studio — may be American, but everything else is pretty darn British. Rather than cry “that’s ridiculous! Give it to a proper British film!”, we should be keen to point out that, actually, this surprise global mega-hit wasn’t made in America, but in Britain, by all the talented filmmakers we have here. Rule Britannia, etc etc!

Secondly, there’s the genre issue. Most have labelled the film “science fiction”, primarily because it’s set in space. The hardcore SF brigade take umbrage with that, however: technically it’s set almost-now, with present-day technology. This is a story that Could Happen Today, not a distant dream of what Might Happen Tomorrow. Really, it’s a bit of a mixed bag: technically it is set in the future — that’s proven by little things like flight numbers and the existence of a finished space station that, in real life, is still being built — and makes use of technology that doesn’t actually exist (the space-jetpack I mentioned earlier), plus it depicts a massive-scale disaster that, obviously, hasn’t happened. But that’s no worse than many an earthbound thriller, which routinely use just-beyond-possible tech (look at all of Bond’s gadgets, even (at times) in the newly-grounded Craig films) and depict huge events that haven’t actually occurred (Presidential assassinations, nuclear detonations, etc). So, really, Gravity is no more sci-fi than those, except for it being set in space… which immediately categorises it as SF to your average viewer.

Space jetpackWhile I sympathise with the idea that it’s not A Science Fiction Movie, but instead A Thriller (That Happens To Be Set In Space), you can’t really deny its SF-ness. OK, if we’re classing this as SF then so too should be films like The Sum of All Fears, or most of the James Bond canon; but really that’s just an argument over technicalities — one I’ve indulged for far too long.

The point is, however you classify it, Gravity is an exciting, spectacular, technically-impressive movie; one that overcomes the alleged need for a huge screen and 3D to work even in the corner of your living room.

5 out of 5

Gravity debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4:30pm and 8pm.

It placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

July 2014 + My Votes for the Hugo “Best Film” Award

That title is massively simplified (and therefore technically wrong), but still seems long, doesn’t it? Yeah, wait ’til you see the proper name of that subsection.

Oh, also, I watched some films and stuff. Y’know, what this blog is actually about.

What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?

Continuing apace, this month’s WDYMYHS film is quirky French comedy Amélie.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and VideotapeJuly’s films in full

#56 Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
#57 A Late Quartet (2012)
#58 The Raid (2011), aka Serbuan maut
#59 We’re the Millers (2013)
We're the Millers#60 Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (2010)
#61 Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)
#62 Pacific Rim (2013)
#63 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013)
#64 Frozen (2013)
#65 Amélie (2001), aka Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain


I’ve come over all Modern this month, with all but one film being from the 2010s — to put it another way, that means that all but one come from the last five years; and 40% are from last year alone, too. Well, I do have a lot of catching up to do. And the only film from outside this decade is still from this millennium. Ah well.

In terms of the history of Julys, I’m forming a new pattern: this year I watched ten new films, year before it was four, year before that it was ten, year before that it was four… Funny how these things happen, ain’t it? Year-to-date, ten films puts July precisely in the middle of things: it’s both my fourth-best and fourth-worst month of 2014.

As for having reached #65, that finally puts me ahead of last year, when I’d ‘only’ reached #62 by this point. I say ‘only’ because the goal for the end of July is 58, so both years remain ahead of expectations — indeed, I only need to watch one film next month to reach August’s target.

This month’s archive reviews

100 Films has changed home multiple times (deviantART, Blogger, FilmJournal, WordPress), and each time I’ve brought all my old content along with me. The move to WordPress has proven the most awkward in that regard: by the time I made the shift, I’d accumulated something like 700 posts. I’ve been here a couple of years now, regularly reposting old reviews as and when, but still fewer than half of those have made the transition. It’s time for a change… which is why early this month I began a concerted effort to repost at least one archive review every day. I don’t imagine I’ll keep it up full time (I think I’ve missed a day or two already), but it remains an overall goal; one that should see me fully transferred in a year or so — finally!

Each month I’m going to highlight the mass of reposts in this round-up, just in case you missed them. So, the inaugural selection of 24 are…

My Ranking of the 5 Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) Nominees

The Hugos are the prestigious science fiction and fantasy awards handed out by the World Science Fiction Society at whichever convention is Worldcon that year (this year, it’s LonCon 3), voted for by attendees and members of that convention. This year, I’ll be among those voters… well, by the time this has been posted the deadline will have passed, so I am among those voters. I signed up for two reasons, really: the “voter packet” of free ebooks, which this year included the complete Wheel of Time series (price of membership vs. value of the ebooks more than covered itself); and the chance to give everything Doctor Who-related a boost, as of course these awards are for last year, i.e. Who’s big 50th anniversary. Biased, me? Um…

The Hugos are primarily a literary award, with a dozen categories related to the writing and editing of fiction at various lengths; but in addition to those there are two Dramatic Presentation awards: Short Form (mainly, TV) and Long Form (mainly, films). As a good voter, I’ve made an effort to see all of the latter (and all but one of the former), and as two of them are amongst this month’s viewing, and (as I mentioned) the deadline for voting has just passed, I thought I’d share my final ranking. From best to worst, then…

  1. Gravity
    GravitySet in the immediate future using technology that largely exists or is about to exist, some contend that Gravity isn’t a science fiction film at all — it’s a present-day thriller, just one that happens to be set in space. And they’re right, really — there are plenty of “real-world present-day” type thrillers that have more science fictional happenings than Gravity. But it’s on the ballot and it’s an incredible film, so pish, it wins.
  2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
    The Hunger Games: Catching FireThe decision between second and third was a tough one for me — I’d’ve tied them if I could. However, I haven’t posted a review yet for Catching Fire and am still debating my score — does it stretch to a 5? It still could — not only did I really enjoy it, but I think it has a lot more thematic/dramatic heft than your average blockbuster. Anyway, the next film’s locked at 4 stars, so Catching Fire wins the toss.
  3. Iron Man 3
    Iron Man 3Some people seem to really, really dislike Iron Man 3. Not sure why — it may well be the best entry in what’s an all-round enjoyable trilogy (I still maintain Iron Man 2 isn’t so bad), a different-from-the-norm superhero tale that excites and entertains. It works as a trilogy-capper too (it’s almost a shame he’ll just be back in Avengers 2.) I’d quite like to rank it first… but, sadly, not in this year.
  4. Frozen
    FrozenDisney’s all-conquering version of The Snow Queen is the only fantasy film on this year’s ballot (seems to me the Hugos skew more SF than F. I suppose they are awarded by a Science Fiction society). I didn’t find it as incredible as the audiences who made it the fifth highest grossing film of all time, but it’s a fine film, whose initially-bland songs improve with re-listening (he says, listening to Let It Go as he writes).
  5. Pacific Rim
    Pacific RimGuillermo del Toro’s Westernised riff on a very Japanese subgenre flopped Stateside — it just crossed $100m, which once would’ve been remarkable, but on a budget of $190m is poor. Internationally, however, it stormed past $300m and so will be sequelised. Del Toro apparently aimed it at 11-year-old boys, and it’s better than most other super-budgeted movies aimed at that demographic.

And the one thing I reviewed as a film but the Hugos count as Short Form…

    Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor
    Doctor Who: The Day of the DoctorWell, of course they do — it’s a TV episode really, isn’t it? But it is feature-length (long enough to qualify for Long Form) and was released in cinemas, so I maintain you could count it as a film. Still, in Short Form it stands a strong chance of winning — I ranked it #1. My #2 and 3 was another tough decision, but I put Peter Davison’s hilarious spoof The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot in second and, in third, Mark Gatiss’ incredible An Adventure in Space and Time (another feature-length production that could hold it’s own against movies). Neither of those are strictly SF/F, but I guess as they’re Dramatic Presentations rather than books it was felt they belonged here rather than in the Related Works category. In fourth was Game of Thrones episode The Rains of Castamere. It is great as an entire episode, but let’s face it, it’s here because of the Red Wedding, which is the last, what, 10 minutes? Any other year it would probably win, but against four Doctor Who nominees (it’s a transferable vote, so more nominees means a better chance of one winning) at a convention held in Britain? We love Thrones here (more than the US, according to some stats I saw), but Hugo voters everywhere love Who. Finally, unranked by me, were Doctor Who finale The Name of the Doctor (it underwhelmed me — I won’t advocate “no award” above it, but I don’t feel it deserves to beat any of the above nominees), and Orphan Black mid-season ep Variations Under Domestication, which I’ve simply not seen.

Have I been a crazy person and put these in all kinds of the wrong order? And what about the Hugo nominators — are there any science-fiction/fantasy films (or TV programmes) from 2013 that they were fools to leave out? Lemme know.

Next month on 100 Films in a Year…

It’s the summer! Though blockbuster season is almost over already, isn’t it? Never mind. Perfect time of year to stay inside where it’s cool, anyway.

Oh, and watch some films. Which I shall list next time. But you knew that.

For All Mankind (1989)

2009 #42
Al Reinert | 77 mins | TV (HD)

For All MankindFor All Mankind tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon using only NASA’s own footage of the real missions.

It’s not a documentary in the sense that most people perceive the form — i.e. a highly realistic presentation of the facts — but instead something a little more interpretive, aiming to recreate the feeling and experience of travelling to the moon, not the hard facts of who went when and how it was done. As such it is both beautiful and artistic, featuring stunning photography that has been sensitively edited and scored.

In this regard, it makes In the Shadow of the Moon look like a Hollywood remake. While they follow the same tack — telling the tale of the Moon missions with just the testimony of the astronauts, treating it as one big mission rather than taking them all in strict chronological order — For All Mankind does it with a greater sense of artistry. Where Shadow feels like a typical documentary, with talking heads and onscreen identification of who’s speaking, Mankind just uses original footage and astronaut’s narration, never bothering to identify the speaker. Both styles have their place, and Shadow adds a great deal to the story with its retrospective comments by the astronauts, but the glorious footage and skilled editing of Mankind — and the added wonder of seeing it in HD, it must be said — leaves one with a sense of awe that isn’t as present in the more informative Shadow.

These two films make an excellent pair then, but For All Mankind’s beauty provides the superior experience.

5 out of 5

For All Mankind placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

2009 #40
David Sington | 96 mins | TV | U / PG

In the Shadow of the MoonIn the Shadow of the Moon tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions using only contemporary footage and the words of the men who actually walked on the Moon.

The telling is dominated by the words of the actual astronauts, describing their personal experiences and feelings. Rather than following a mission-by-mission chronology it mixes all their stories together, thereby telling the tale of a journey to the Moon and exploring its surface only once. It’s a neat way of editing it, albeit essentially borrowed from For All Mankind, because it avoids repetition while also covering a variety of perspectives. The typically reticent Neil Armstrong is conspicuous by his unsurprising absence, but this allows the personalities of some of the others to come out more (Buzz Aldrin features relatively little too, for example), perhaps none more so than Mike Collins, the man ‘left behind’ while Armstrong and Aldrin stepped into the history books. He comes across as thoroughly likable and it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on screen.

Narration is limited to a couple of brief intertitles and that contained on archive footage, culled not only from NASA archives but also newsreels, adverts, speeches and so forth. In this it manages to avoid using some of the more obvious and over-played clips, such as Kennedy’s famous “not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech, while unearthing some interesting bits of its own, like Armstrong’s parents on a game show the day he became an astronaut, being asked how they’d feel should he happen to be the first man on the Moon. Such found footage is often used to put the missions in the context of wider events at appropriate junctures, such as Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement during the time Apollo 8 led the first men to orbit the Moon, or showing the whole world watching the TV broadcast of Armstrong stepping on to the Moon for the first time.

Although this external perspective is welcome, while being kept to an appropriate minimum, it’s difficult not to note that this is exactly what the HBO dramatisation, From the Earth to the Moon, did at these points. Other points of emphasis feel similarly culled, such as the way Apollo 13 is almost glossed over, but there are only so many ways of telling the significant elements of the same story and any accusations of plagiarism, from either HBO’s series or For All Mankind, aren’t seriously justified.

A closing perspective treads the fine line that leads toward sentiment and preachiness, but errs on the right side of awe and significance. Some have criticised the end for having too much religion and spirituality and not presenting a conflicting, ‘accurate’ scientific perspective. As a staunch atheist, I found no such problem: beliefs are there to an extent, but they’re not overpowering and there’s no apparent religious agenda, as some critics might have you believe.

In the Shadow of the Moon may not offer the plain facts and figures of how we went to the Moon and who did it when, but it does present the reflections of the men who risked their lives to further the knowledge and reach of our species. Their thoughts on this are invaluable.

4 out of 5