Monday, 11 May 2009

The Good, The Weird and The Fabulous - more movie magic!!

1) Salo o le 120 Giornate de Sodom / Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom - Pier Paolo Pasolini (Italy, 1975)

Salo is probably the nastiest, most revolting and controversial film ever made. Seriously, it's horrible. Vile. Cruel. Contemptuous of human sensitivity and emotions. A raging, seething polemic that appear to have only one purpose, which is to offend and alarm its audience.

Buuuuut, it's also a very -nay, amazingly- brave film, precisely for the reasons cited above. Pasolini had a beef with the established order of society, and by God was he gonna let society know. The premise, based on the writings of notorious French author Le Marquis de Sade, is simple: during the fall of Mussolini's Fascist Italy, a judge, a bishop, a politician and a duke -all symbols of the Old Authority- abduct 9 young men and 9 young women and take them to a grand old palace somewhere in the short-lived rump state of Salo. They hold them there and then proceed to inflict all manner of tortures on them, according to the rites of sex, shit and blood, as described in de Sade's writings and Dante's Inferno.

The scatology scenes were, for me, hardest to take. Watching all those young people being force-fed excrement and urine was beyond stomach-turning. In comparison, the sex scenes were almost amusing (though at no point erotic), and even the brutal final scenes of death and torture failed to quite shock my senses in the same way. But make no mistake, Salo is a harrowing and difficult experience. It is not a film I could really recommend to anyone.

But that's the thing: Salo is not there to be enjoyed. It's not "entertainment". Much like Haneke's Funny Games, it's a treatise, an essay. An attempt to look unflinchingly at what lies at the basic core of fascism: social dominance, violence and contempt for humanity. Pasolini depicts these traits with brutal honesty, because that was the best way to get the message across. And it was an important message for him, at a time when that dark shadow of Italy's recent past appeared to be looming again. He never saw the film's release: he was savagely murdered shortly before it came out. Some even think he was killed because of the film. I doubt it, but given the sheer audacity of Pasolini's cinematographic black sheep, it could almost be plausible.

2) The Brown Bunny - Vincent Gallo (USA, 2004)

I seem to be kicking off with a taste for the controversial. But if Salo was decried for the violence and depravity of its content, indie fave Vincent Gallo's second movie, The Brown Bunny, was loudly booed and jeered at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival -reducing actress Chloe Sevigny to tears, reportedly- simply because it was a bad, pretentious film. Esteemed critic Roger Ebert even went so far as to call it the worst movie in the Festival's history. Ouch.

But, as Ebert himself acknowledged, when Gallo then went away and re-edited his film, he succeeded in transforming it, a gesture of humility quite startling in such an ego-driven industry. The result is a shorter, sharper and therefore more touching movie (having said that, I never saw the original, but I have heard descriptions of the missing footage, usually accompanied by the words "dull" and "empty").

It has to be said, though, that a lot of the criticisms directed at The Brown Bunny are deserved. It's pretentious. Self-indulgent and self-absorbed, with Gallo (writer, producer, editor, cameraman, director and main actor, no less) seemingly wallowing in his role as American indie cinema's romantic, troubled maverick. His obsession with trying to be "real" or "heartfelt" or whatever seems forced. Yet, somehow, the film works. The beautiful photography helps, as does the slow, mournful pace. The melancholic denouement -unexpected, harsh and touching- is a winner, and it had me staring blankly at my screen for a while after the credits had finished rolling. And, much as I dislike him, there is something stirring about Gallo's performance and those bright, intense blue eyes.

And the film is peppered with great scenes, little moments and touches that ultimately make the pretentious vanity project a cinematic gem. There are silences that mean everything, intense exchanges of stares and gazes between fellow lost souls, and one of the most riveting -and graphic- sex scenes I've ever scene, completely un-erotic, but traversed by a sense of raw urgency and barely suppressed violence that had me glued to the screen (no pun intended). Few films explore with such candour the ins and outs and contradictions of male heterosexual sexuality. Gallo may be vain, but he should be applauded for making such a brave, and ultimately honest, film.

3) Metropolis - Fritz Lang (Germany, 1927)

Quite possibly the greatest film of the silent age, Fritz Lang's Metropolis is flawless in so many ways. I'm not sure that I could ever do justic to its depth, scope, intensity and above all, to the breathtaking images that assault the senses at every turn.

It has to be said: we made our films pretty in them days. The absence of sound meant that directors had to compensate with elaborate props and visual effects to capture the minds of audiences and inspire them both mentally and emotionally. Examples like The Phantom of the Opera or The Phantom Carriage literally overflow with visual treats, such as ciaroscuro lighting or outlandish sets. And nowhere did they refine the art of visual poetry with such expertise as in Weimar Germany. With the shadows of World War I, and an increasingly desperate economic situation, looming long and hard over the German populace, directors externalized the nation's fears and doubts in ever more terrifying horror masterpieces, from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) to Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (Friedrich Murnau, 1922), both cult and horror gems that will deserve my coming back to them at some point.

Metropolis topped them all, though. Inspired by Lang's visit to the towering skyscrapers of New York, it is the first true sci-fi movie, with breathtakingly inventive (and realistic, remember this is 1927 we're talking about - yet it honestly hasn't aged) sets, and a back-drop of class struggle, industrial monstrosity and fantastical horror. Metropolis is testament to Lang's vision, skill and artistry, and the fact that it has resonated so powerfully down the ages (even getting remade in cartoon fashion by Japanese Manga artist Rintaro) surely proves it deserves its place among the true masterpieces of the cinema.

4) Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - Stephan Elliott (Australia, 1994)

Soooo, a bit of fabulousness (is that even a word?) after all that depravity, raw sex and silence! Priscilla is the epitomy of the fun, heart-warming, outrageous cult comedies that are often staples of gay cinema, loved by straight audiences, but rarely done this well.

I mean, it's a film that couldn't possibly fail. Three drag queens (including one transexual) drive a bus overflowing with frocks, tiaras and boa scarves across the Australian desert en route to a show in Alice Springs. If you haven't already seen it, well, I'm sure you can still imagine the kind of scrapes, japes and adventures they get up to and into, form arguing with local rednecks, to dancing with Aborigenes, to watching a Thai "wife" launch ping pong balls from her nether regions.

Of course, it's camp, silly, over-the-top and chockablock with the kind of girly tunes that only us queers can love. I guess the word is "loveable", and after watching it the first time, I was very close to telling my parents that I intended to become a drag queen once I'd reached adulthood. But, beyond the costumes and the tunes, the main attraction of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the star turn by veteran hardman Terence Stamp as Bernadette, the aforementioned tranny. He's simply astounding, stealing every scene with his/her dry witticisms and unflappable personality. Highlights include "Stop flexing your muscles, you useless sack of budgie turd!", "What are you telling me? This is an Abba turd?" and "Why don't you light your tampon and blow your box apart? 'Cos it's the only bang you're ever gonna get, sweetheart!" Simply hilarious, all the more so because you wouldn't expect cockney Tel to be interested in such a role. Instead, he carries every subtlety, every nuance across with perfect grace and poise, and he and his two (also straight) co-stars, the equally superb Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, give extra depth and poignancy to characters that could have been mere caricatures.

So, if ever you fancy a laugh and a dance, there is no better way (apart from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) to glam up your cinematographic taste buds than Priscilla.

5) Blue Velvet - David Lynch (USA, 1986)

David Lynch is America's most enigmatic and curious director, and if I'm honest, one of the best. His output has been prodigious, and nearly every film he's delivered deserves "classic" status. They're usually odd, always troubling and never dull. Indeed, part of the entertainment value often comes from trying to figure out what the fuck is going on!

From Eraserhead to Lost Highway, Elephant Man to Mulholland Drive, all the way up to his most recent opus, Inland Empire, this visionary director, whose unique visual style surely owes much to his background as a painter, has beguiled, confused and enraptured audiences across the world, as testified by his continued success at festivals like Cannes. But, whilst all those films (and I would like to add the Palme d'Or-winning Wild at Heart to the list of Lynch treasures) are "must-sees", the ultimate laurel for best Lynch film has to go to Blue Velvet.

For one thing, it's hilarious, which is not an adjective one thinks of usually when assessing a David Lynch movie. Wild at Heart was also funny at times, but mostly Lynch's films are sober, grim and dark. And Blue Velvet is no exception, except that at times the director injects scenes with an almost Coen-esque sense of detached humour, whilst Dennis Hopper's portrayal as deranged psycho Frank is so over-the-top and insane as to elicit both fear and laughter.

And this dychotomy is at the centre of Blue Velvet's dynamic: it's a sly unveiling of the hidden shadows and dark corners that lurk under the pristine veneer of suburban America. The lawns may be immaculate, the houses bright and colourful, but deep underneath it all lies violence, corruption and sex. So Lynch toys with his all-American "heroes", clean-cut Kyle McLachlan and blonde beauty Laura Dern, before pitching them into the nightmarish underworld inhabited by Frank and his main victim, the stunning Isabella Rosselini.

Like all Lynch movies, Blue Velvet is hard to describe and impossible to summarise. But it's a sensory treasure and indeed assault, propelled by hallucinatory images and a deft use of sound, typical of this most esoteric and crafty of directors.

6) The Ascent - Larisa Shepitko (USSR, 1976)

Larisa Shepitko is now almost forgotten by most cinephiles, her untimely death in 1979 in a car wreck depriving the world of one of its greatest emerging directorial talents. As it is, we have The Ascent, a subtle and stirring masterpiece that won no less than The Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1977.

Recently, America's excellent Criterion DVD collection has re-released The Ascent, so this is an ideal opportunity for audiences to get acquainted with Shepitko's superb film. It is certainly long overdue, as, in my humble opinion, The Ascent is quite possibily the greatest Soviet film since The Battleship Potemkin, certainly at least as good as anything by the more lauded Tarkovsky (in fairness, though, I haven't seen all his films). It's depiction of two peasant soldiers who are captured and tortured by Nazi forces at the end of the Second World War is simple and understated, but from this basic storyline, Shepitko extracts a moving tale of betrayal and fear, but ultimately also of salvation and redemption. It may toe the Party line (as all Soviet films were expected to back then), but it does so subtly and intelligently, whilst never letting such preoccupations interfere with the profound and nuanced study of her character's psyches and frailties.

And all this is set to superb imagery. Shepitko's flawed heroes stumble through a bitter landscape of vast white snow and twisted black trees, ruined villages and dank, dark jails. As such, it is much more than an essay on human bravery and fragility, but also one of the most affecting war movies of all time. I recommend you snap this one up, as it would be a shame to see it go missing again.

7) Naked - Mike Leigh (UK, 1993)

Mike Leigh has delivered some of the most important and distinctive British films of recent years. His incomparable wit, dry sense of humour and dedication to exploring the subtle conflicts and challenges that pepper the daily lives of Britain's middle- and lower-classes are unique, whilst his penchant for letting his actors improvise their parts creates a strong atmosphere of unease and tension that simple visual tricks could never hope to replicate.

In this, Naked stands out even more than other triumphs such as Secrets and Lies or All or Nothing. It is dark, even by Leigh's standards, bleak even, with at its centre a sneering, almost-nihilistic, yet curiously eloquent Mancunien anti-hero named Johnny who pitches up at his ex-girlfriend's flat in London to spread a little chaos, and a massive dollop of sombre philosophy. Other characters slide in and out of the plot, as Johnny wanders the capital's dark and unwelcoming streets spouting his dubious wisdom, but he remains the core, the nexus of this strange and captivating film.

As such, Naked is essentially plotless. We follow Johnny's strange adventures and oblique conversations, none of which really "lead" anywhere. But don't let that make you think the film is dull. Far from it. It's a fascinating look into the minds and hearts of this world's lost souls, propelled by fantastic dialogue and deeply emotional character studies. Of course, the big star is David Thewlis as Johnny, whose mostly improvised ramblings and manic, disturbing energy had me hooked in every scene. I'm not aware of a more-deserved actor's prize at Cannes and am always stunned at the intensity of his performance. And credit to Leigh for letting it out, and for creating such an intelligent, thought-provoking and moving film, seemingly out of nowhere.

8) Elephant - Gus Van Sant (USA, 2003)

I will quite readily launch into massive hyperbole when discussing Elephant. It has the distinction of being a film that I was awaiting with baited breath long before its eventual release - and that didn't disappoint. In fact, it was yards, kilometres, miles, acres better than I could have ever hoped. I had long been a fan of Van Sant (despite the saccharine Good Will Hunting and the dubious Psycho remake), largely through my love of the seminal gay-themed indie, My Own Private Idaho, still one of my fave cult movies of all time.

And the premise behind Elephant hooked me from the moment I read a synopsis. An exploration of gun violence in Amercian schools, the film charts the gradual build-up towards a shooting in a vast Portland high school, seen through the eyes of a series of diverse teenagers, all of whom will be immeasurably affected by the upcoming tragedy.

Knowing the ending in this way imbues the entire project with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and fear. Which of these characters will survive? Why are these two boys so determined to commit such an atrocious crime? Van Sant refuses an analytical or over-dramatised approach. French magazine 'Les Cahiers du Cinema' described Elephant as "light", and the word is apt. The first two-thirds of the movie drift like the leaves that gather on the playground grass, or like the clouds that move across the Oregon sky above. We see Eli taking photos, John dealing with his drunk of a father, a gay-straight alliance meeting, a fat and ugly girl dealing with bullies, and a trio of skittish prom queens gossiping. Another guy meets his girlfriend for lunch. It's banal, but with Van Sant's permanently gliding camera, the improvised dialogue and eerie soundtrack, it takes on a dream-like, almost ghostly atmosphere. Knowing what we do about the ending, we end feeling like we're peering in at a building full of ghosts. It's a truly disquieting, and utterly unique, cinematographic experience. Van Sant would come close to replicating it in Last Days and Paranoid Park, but Elephant still stands alone as his greatest achievement to date.

Above all, his deliberate decision to not draw conclusions on why events unfold as they do is what gives the film its singular force. Van Sant touches on the reasons for the two boys' actions: detached, absent parents; loneliness; bullying; repressed sexuality; a violent culture; video games; Nazism - all theories put forwards after massacres like Columbine, but none ever feeling satisfactory. So we are left to contemplate the true reality - the loss, the fear and the pain. And the ultimate finality of what happens when teenagers run amok in their schools. It's troubling, and brave, and makes Elephant one of the greatest films ever made.

9) Reservoir Dogs - Quentin Tarantino (USA, 1992)

He's the coolest filmmaker on the planet, revered by millions, probably, and almost guaranteed to get tongues wagging and temperatures rising every time he announces a new film release. He's the king of geek movies, of video rental addicts, of cinephilia and cult references. And yet for all, there is always something that makes me pause for thought whenever I think of Quentin Tarantino. See, I can't shake the feeling that his first movie remains by far and away the best he's done so far. So, unless his latest offering -and darling of the current Cannes Film Festival- Inglorious Basterds proves to be a masterpiece, I think I'll stick to Reservoir Dogs. It's his grittiest, smartest and above all simplest film.

For, as great as Pulp Fiction et al were, there were just too many references, too many smart in-jokes or nods to Tarantino's vast cinematographic knowledge. So, despite the stunning dialogue and knack for hell-raising action scenes that he masters so well, I sometimes am left feeling a bit put off. Like he's trying too hard to be, well, cool.

Reservoir Dogs is cool without trying. It's gritty and basic and violent. It has the witty, irreverent and funny dialogue (see the opening diner scene where our Dogs discuss Madonna and tipping - pure genius). It has loads of bloody violence, so much so that it caused one hell of a stir upon release. And it has some of the most arresting screen performances ever scene in an American gangster flick, with Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen all shining. This is cinema at its stripped-down best: no frills, but lots of balls and attitude. And a razor-sharp script to boot. So, yeah, sue me. Reservoir Dogs is better than Pulp Fiction, better than Jackie Brown, better than Kill Bill. Both volumes. It's a landmark film, and I for one would love it if Quentin Tarantino revisited the sharp, brutal and hysterical simplicity he had in 1992.

10) Peppermint Candy - Leed Chang-Dong (South Korea, 2000)

Korean cinema has now become the thing to like in order to be a proper, middle-class trend-setter (or rather follower), so much so that French singer Renaud immortalised its influence in his song 'Les Bobos' (a massive crock of shit, but for other reasons than for his mockery of wannabe intellectuals like meself). Kim Ki-Duk and Park Chan-Wook have benefited most from this recent Western fervour, whilst Hong Sang-soo and Im Kwon-Taek have also toured the festival circuit.

A lot of this has to do with Korea's very Gallic approach to cultural preservation and promotion, with successive governments stipulating that a proportion of the national cinema industry's income had to go towards financing other Korean films. Likewise, cinemas were encouraged to screen as many locally-made movies as possible. This has created a fertile atmosphere for cinematographic creativity, as demonstrated by recent classics such as Old Boy, A Good Lawyer's Wife, 3-Iron and Woman is the Future of Man (all worth checking out).

And though he has been less prolific than the quartet mentioned above, Lee Chang-Dong deserves special mention in Korean cinema's recent revival, as he was, in the early "noughties", Minister for Culture in the Korean government, and was an aggressive promoter of this "cultural exception". And in Peppermint Candy, he has made the most moving and powerful contribution to his country's recent output.

Its scope is brilliant: a man's suicide sees us travelling further and further back through time, exploring the man's past, from his recent travails all the way back to the wide-eyed naivety of youth and young love. Yong-ho's life is intrinsically linked and intertwined with that of his country, so Peppermint Candy, as well as being a depply moving emotional journey, is also a grim and profound study of Korea's not-so-glorious recent past. War, police brutality and massacres slice into Yong-ho's life, turning it on its head, whilst he, like all Koreans, has to deal with the fall-out from the separation of the peninsula in two, and the subsequent isolation of North Korea. That event had a profound effect on the Korean psyche and although Peppermint Candy does not really address the separation directly, its shadow still hangs over all the event like a dark cloud.

Peppermint Candy is fascinating, sad, wistful and ultimately beautiful, the kind of mature, intelligent and ambitious film that we just don't see enough of these days, especially in the West. Lee Chang-Dong has returned to movie-making recently and on this evidence, we're very lucky!

11) The Innocents - Jack Clayton (UK, 1961)

Old-school horror at its brilliant best, Jack Clayton's The Innocents is a chill-lover's wet dream, a creepy and atmospheric black-and-white masterpiece, all repressed tension, dark shadows and hinted-at malice.

The Innocents is a far cry from the over-the-top violence, melodrama and rampant sexuality that characterised Britain's horror mainstay of the time, Hammer Films. Like most of their output, though, it's set in bygone days (Victorian England) and features a tried and tested horror archetype - the creepy old haunted house.

But The Innocents owes much more to the subdued, suggestive style of that most fruitful of 40s horror partnerships: producer Val lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. Together, they developped a deceptive, suspenseful style focusing on the clever use of shadow, off-screen violence and sound to create such bona fide horror classics such as Cat People, I walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. All were big hits, especially the former, and left an indelible mark on horror history, influencing such greats as The Haunting and, more recently, The Others. And of course, The Innocents, in which the excellent Deborah Kerr plays a naive young governess who becomes convinced that the two angelic children in her care have been possessed by ghosts, as a terrifying man appears in a window and a shadowy figure walks the house and grounds.

But are these visions for real, or merely a figment of our governess' imagination? The film constantly plays on this ambiguity, with shadows and off-putting lighting heightening the sense of unreality and unease. Meanwhile, the governess' sexual frustration bubbles away under the surface, masterfully suggested by the devilish script and Clayton's adept direction.

That The Innocents continues to chill and frighten even 45+ years on demonstrates the power of Clayton's film. It's beautiful (kudos to Freddie Francis' stunning photography), sad and sombre, and it's suggestive atmosphere and shadowy sense of menace still function greater than a thousand shocks and groy outbursts ever could.

12) Chungking Express - Wong Kar-Wai (Hong Kong, 1994)

When Chungking Express first exploded onto the art-movie scene in 1994, it caused quite a stir, with Quentin Tarantino in particular singing Wong's praises to all who would listen. Though perhaps not a revolutionary step forwards in the same way that The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind or A Bout de Souffle were, it certainly was a head-turner, and perhaps the first time since the French Nouvelle Vague that style and substance were married with such delirious panache.

"Delirious" is completely the right word, as Chungking Express is beyond frenetic, a neon head-rush that melds superb photography, a groovy soundtrack and sexy actors into a heady cocktail of modern, trendy cinema. It's script is simple and goes straight for the emotions, as a quartet of Hong Kong's cutest and hippest actors explore love, yearning and loss to the eerie back-drop of Hong Kong's never-resting activity.

Wong is famous for his rushed style, with the scripts using amounting to a mere paragraph and actors therefore encouraged to improvise around sets of ideas that change more or less every day. To make up for this "bare bones" approach, Wong roped in his favourite cinematographer, Australian Christopher Doyle, whose eclectic palette and stylish visual approach are at the core of this film. That and the music add bright, sensual flourishes to Wong's wistful script, so Chungking Express becomes not only a visually compelling experience, but a strangely touching one as well.

Wong would go on to refine and improve on his style with films like Fallen Angels and Happy Together (his masterpiece, in my book), but the starting point for one of modern cinema's most unique voices begins here.

13) Grey Gardens - Albert and David Maysles (USA, 1976)

A bit of a change here, as we delve into the world of feature documentaries. In this realm, the Maysles brothers have few peers, with their quiet, restrained approach and flawless respect for their subject matters paying massive dividends here in this touching portrait of two most peculiar women.

Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (aka "Big Edie") and her daughter "Little Edie" were relatives of one of the most prestigious and respected families in America, the Bouviers (of Jackie Kennedy fame). But, whilst her famous cousin earned adulation around the world, Big Edie ended up, for various reasons, secluding herself in her big East Hampton home with her daughter -a one-time wannabe dancer and actress who gave up her career to care for her aging mother- as her only real companion (apart from a rarely-appearing gardener and hoards of near-feral cats).

The Maysles brothers went to great lengths to get access to these two odd women after a news report highlighted the squalor that they were living, quite a scandal given their background. And their relationship is the most enlightening and impressive feature of this otherwise understated film, as decades of conflict, tension and love are exposed to the camera's discreet but omnipresent lens. Little Edie is particularly open, lamenting the career she gave up whilst preening and prancing for the camera and showing a begrudging love for her slightly loony mother. Big Edie, in comparison, is more guarded, but her moments of madness and her tantrums are cinema gold dust, and the pair's arguments swing from alarming to hilarious with speed.

Ultimately though, whilst the Beale women are infuriating, funny and perplexing, above all they are endearing. For all their arguments and bickering, their affection for one another is touching, and is given great room to be noticed by the brothers' quiet direction, with Albert and David deliberately keeping away from the camera's gaze to give full attention to their hostesses. It's a wonderfully honest and warm piece of cinema verite, and one worth re-discovering for any fans of slightly offbeat, weird cinema.

14) Wild Tigers I Have Known - Cam Archer (USA, 2006)

A decidedly odd and refreshing little-known gem here, from (then-) 25-year-old first-time director Cam Archer and based on his previous short. Youngster Malcolm Stumpf plays a lonely 13-year-old outsider who escapes from the bullying he receives and the indifference of his mother by delving into a fantasy world and by developing a quiet crush on an older, more self-confident boy.

Pretty standard fare for a gay-themed movie, really. Coming of age, unrequited love, raw sexuality, blah blah fucking blah... Except that Cam Archer's dreamlike style and his taste for the surreal take Wild Tigers... into quite different territory to your average Edge of Seventeen lookalike. It helps that Malcolm Stumpf is riveting as our "hero", Logan, convincingly by turns awkward, aloof and emotionally conflicted. With such a graceful central presence, Archer and his cinematographer Aaron Platt are able to weave a beautiful, oniric tapestry, as we dip in and out of Logan's reveries and feverish desires. The wild forests behind Logan's home, the swimming pool, his room: all become back-drops for some quite startling imagery, in a bold move by such a young director.

The boldest turn of all is the way Archer depicts Logan's furtive phone calls to Joey, his love interest. In order not to alarm or put off the older boy, Logan takes on a woman's voice, actually played by a woman (Logan's face is always obscured when he talks), as if to suggest that either all this is occuring in Logan's head or that, perhaps, Joey is equally attracted to him, but is surpressing the attraction by imagining he is dealing with an actual woman. It's a clever ambiguity that Archer handles masterfully, making the ending all the more effective.

Wild Tigers I have Known will never attract widespread attention and will remain a gay niche film. But if you are willing to overlook it's slight flaws and give it a go, it's well worth tracking down. With a great soundtrack, superb performances and beautiful cinematography, it's a great advert for American independent films.

15) Punishment Park - Peter Watkins (UK/USA, 1971)

Let's end on a political, hard-hitting note. Because, although Barack Obama has sailed into the White House bringing hope for a better, fairer future for the entire planet, the shadows of the Bush years, with their tentative totalitarianism echoing the worst aspects of the Nixon administration, still linger menacingly. As such, whilst Paranoid Park should be an archival film, relevant only to historians and collectors, it instead still seems frighteningly important and cautionary, nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War that served as its back-drop ended.

British director Peter Watkins depicts an alternative 1970, in which anti-war protestors are, instead of going to jail, offered the chance to race unarmed through the desert (in a military zone known as "Punishment Park") to an American flag. If they get there, they can go free. If the army catches them, they go to jail. Watkins features as a documentary crew leader who follows a group of prisoners as they attempt to make it to the flag. Quickly, however, they realise that the army have no intention of letting them reach the flag, instead unleashing a series of harrowing attacks on the protestor, made all the more troubling by the film's faux-documentary style.

Watkins' agenda is clear from the off, as the protestors are pitted against a heartless conservative machine in the form of dummy trials and intimidation. Then they are sent into the 45-degree desert heat with no food or water, as tensions bubble to the surface and the army closes in. At the end of the film, another trial is underway and another set of young people are faced with a choice between prison and the Punishment Park. It's fiercely political, hard-hitting and sobering. Predictably, it was massively controversial on release, especially in America.

Watkins' political pamphleteering will probably not be to everyone's taste, but there can be no denying the force and intensity of Punishment Park. It's brutal, gritty and harsh, and whilst it can be construed as exaggerated or hyperbolic, the truth is that, with the Kent State Massacre occuring just prior to its filming, and with the unpleasant realities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo bay fresh in our modern-day minds, it's actually not that far from reality, even in 2009. Scary stuff...