…And Relief Washes Over Me In An Awesome Wave
From Spring Breakers to 12 Years A Slave, 2013 proved a year of extremes. Harmony Korine’s films are art-house trash, but there is never any doubt that he has a particularly strong agenda with much of his creativity. Spring Breakers was wild and crazy, and a lot of fun. In comparison, 12 Years A Slave was one of the more impressive dramatic films of the year, critically lauded with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance especially praised. Slave was neither wild nor crazy, or a lot of fun; yet both were sociologically rich.
Matthew McConaughey had a big year, shedding some serious poundage for the excellent Dallas Buyers Club and donning some messed-up teeth for the equally good Mud. He’s been trying hard (with success) to shed his rom-com ties, and after 2012’s Killer Joe (anyone for fried chicken?) he’s been taking on those roles that showcase his chops with aplomb. Also in the process of shedding former casting is Emma Watson, who was excellent in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.
James Wan’s The Conjuring was one of the best ‘haunted house’ films I have ever seen. Surprising, considering Wan’s last effort Insidious (and its sequel) was a rather limp rip-off of Poltergeist. I think James may have hit Netflix and watched every single ghost-in-the-house flick since 1970. And it worked, for despite its many genre tropes, it was especially well done.
The sci-fi docufiction Europa Report was a damn good attempt to breathe life into a quickly fading sub-genre. It was a big year for sci-fi, and Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game was also a fine film. Young Asa Butterfield (from Scorsese’s Hugo) is a talent to watch, not to mention that it was good to see Harrison Ford in a worthy role.
The East, co-written by and starring Brit Marling (best known from the excellent Another Earth and Arbitrage), was a film that undeservedly slipped beneath the radar. This Is The End provided more than enough genuine deprecating laughs to deflect the vanity of the project, and Enough Said gave adult audiences an intelligent romcom, lead by two fantastic performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, great James Gandolfini. The beguiling Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Frances Ha, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight and Blue Is The Warmest Colour from France were also stand-outs for the year. And for sheer wackiness, indie legend Don Coscarelli’s John Dies At The End was a confusing mess of ridiculous fun.
In any given year, there are bound to be at least a handful of worthwhile documentaries for audiences to sink their fangs into. The Act Of Killing is one of those films that will have you commenting as the credits roll, “What the phuck did I just witness?” One of the more interesting documentaries of 2013 was Sirius, a crowd-funded film on the UFO disclosure and alternative energies project and its founder Dr Steven Greer. More information can be found here.
And finally, Justin Bieber blew all his critics out of the water with the behind-the-scenes doco Justin Bieber’s Believe, showing us all what a talented artist he is and of course I’m kidding around.
I’d Buy That For A Dollar
Actually, I wouldn’t. Wasting money annoys me, but I should know better. Iron Man 2 received mixed reviews, and I was in the sucks-balls camp. So why would I see Iron Man 3, given that I already knew it would be pretty much the same film as the second (I guess I’m Iron Masochist…). Same old blueprint, yet audiences are eating up Marvel like Skittles, so I guess there’s something wrong with me. But then, I really liked the first Iron Man…and Thor. Maybe I just don’t get the attraction to the entire Marvel (and DC) universe…
There are other blueprints of course. The horror movie blueprint, in particular the horror-movie-remake blueprint. Pump the old film with Botox and give the audience a much fuller experience. Which, in the case of The Evil Dead, means four ridiculous tanker loads of fake blood and a dump-truck full of severed body parts.
Star Trek Into Darkness also disappointed me after its predecessor’s success. I mean, come on – Benedict Cumberbatch is no friggin’ Ricardo Montalban. Excess seems to equal success. Increasingly, audiences seem content to ride a special effects wave in lieu of anything substantial vis-a-vie characters and/or original plot (although I won’t level that charge at STID). Of all the big CG driven films of 2013, the three I enjoyed the most – Pacific Rim, Man Of Steel and Oblivion – were also the most maligned by critics and audiences.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, while silly and juvenile, was at least something different, and its giddy visuals were at times breathtaking. Similarly, Zach Snyder’s Superman re-boot attempted to bring a much larger scope to the story and centre it in some kind of reality. It wasn’t completely successful; but where Cumberbatch may be no Montalban, Terrance Stamp could definitely kneel before everyone’s favourite psycho Michael Shannon. Joseph Kosinski did a great job adapting his own graphic novel for the screen, and as a first time director, he created something quite special with Oblivion. Audiences didn’t agree with me; perhaps there was too much character and a requirement for thought, and not enough explosions, fights and gunplay.
I’m not against movies as pure escapism. I’m a Star Wars fan for chrissakes! And most films exist as an escape, that’s their purpose. But more and more films are made that rely solely on CG at the expense of story and character development. A big movie doesn’t need to be a big dumb movie. It doesn’t need to follow a blueprint. But of course, if the swill sells, why change the ingredients?
I Coulda Been A Contender
Not since Avatar has a film received as much pre-release hype as American Hustle. Certainly not a bad film (the opening scene was priceless), but David O. Russell’s messy crime drama was far from the classic it so hoped it would be and that most people seemed to think it was. No amount of visual flair or retro clothing can disguise zircons for diamonds.
Another over-hyped film was Prisoners. If your idea of a swell time at the cinema is watching Hugh Jackman frown, shout and bare his teeth for two hours, this is your baby. Prisoners grabs the gong for the most dour and wannabe-extreme Hollywood film of the year. For a better, and far more intense treatment of a similar idea, watch the recently released Israeli film Big Bad Wolves.
Of films that failed to reach their potential, The Purge leads the way. An interesting concept destroyed by your typical home invasion scenario, The Purge was another film that clearly could have benefitted from a re-write. I can’t believe someone on the crew, even the damn Caterer, didn’t stop the production and say, “Guys, this ain’t workin’. Let’s take a brief hiatus and look things over.”
Other disappointments this year included Elysium, The Counselor (how could McCarthy get so screwed up?), To The Wonder, Now You See Me and World War Z.
But by far the most disappointing cinema experience of the year for me was Siberian Education. Combining the two novels by Nicolai Lilin – Siberian Education and Free Fall: A Sniper’s Story From Chechnya – into 90 minutes of movie was director Gabriele Salvatores’ first mistake. His second was casting a bunch of unknown ‘actors’ and having them speak in English as opposed to Russian. And lastly, filling his film with crappy cliches that Lilin, despite his lack of prowess as an author, managed to avoid. If I’m being rather savage, well…I think Lilin’s books deserved much better than this.
How’d You Get The Beans Above The Frank?
In a year of great belly laughs, 2013 didn’t get much funnier than Diana. Firstly, what was Naomi Watts thinking? And secondly, what was Naomi Watts thinking? Movie 43 was a success in as much as it was the myriad filmmakers’ intent to embarrass a bevy of Hollywood actors (including Naomi Watts!). But the embarrassment didn’t end there. Billed as ‘this generation’s first big Mob movie’ (or something like that) Gangster Squad not only managed to ridicule its talented cast but also cover with egg the faces who made that comment.
Other hilarious(ly bad) moments of 2013 came via M. Night Shyamalan’s latest mega-dud After Earth. Maybe we could enjoy M. Night’s movies as comedies if only he weren’t so egocentric as to his importance and prowess. Jaden Smith was certainly very funny in the film. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was definitely not the same fairy tale my mother read to me as a child, and left us all bewildered why Jeremy Renner thinks it’s okay to just take a paycheck. You’re better than this, bruh.
Anyway… the following ten films are those I enjoyed the most in 2013.
10. The Place Beyond The Pines
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood
Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio & Darius Marder
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
From the opening tracking shot The Place Beyond The Pines announces the grandeur it is striving for. And while it may never quite reach the epic heights that its complex story attempts to achieve, it is still an impressive, emotional drama dealing with themes of nature versus nurture, as well as the virtues of honour and integrity. There’s a lot going on here; split into three distinct movements, each broadening the scope of what comes before. There are telegraphed moments that undermine the power of the piece, but in their own way are essential to the development of the story. At the core of the film is the impressive cast – Gosling doing his brooding thing as he does too well, Ben Mendelsohn giving another edgy performance and the two young actors from the final act Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, who are magnificent. Director Cianfance has followed his heartbreakingly real Blue Valentine with another thoughtful piece of work. It will be interesting to see what he delivers with his next film Metalhead, featuring the band Jucifer.
Bratty American teen Daisy is sent to the picturesque English countryside by her father to stay with her cousins. Those cousins are abnormally vivacious, at least to Daisy, who prefers to not accompany them fishing or swimming. They’re also smart and self-sufficient, left alone in the country mansion by their absent mother. Soon, Daisy is drawn into their tech-free existence and warms to them all, particularly older cousin Eddie, and the two become romantically involved. All this is cast aside in an instant when London is attacked with a nuclear device. If I were a teenage boy today, this would probably be my favourite film. Based on the book by Meg Rosoff, it’s a film for young people, but it seems to have been made/written for a 1980s teen/young adult set, not the attention deficit members of its current demographic (even though that characterisation may come from the films that are made for them). Smartly filmed and well-acted (especially from the always impressive Ronan), How I Live Now is not without its flaws but is simply affecting. It made me feel teenage again, with all that associated angst-ridden romantic heartbreak that I loved so much. Stupid kid.
Aside from being Sandra Bullock drifting helplessly in space, my greatest fear is being lost at sea. It’s not just the frightening power of the ocean, but the unknown beneath. It’s a two-pronged attack on your nerves when you’re lost at sea (I imagine). Either the ocean or the living, swimming things will kill you. Gives me the shivers. So it was with white knuckles that I managed to sit through All Is Lost. Anchored (so to speak) by a true Hollywood icon Robert Redford, a man who is all gravitas, and his ability to hold an audience’s attention has never been more clearly demonstrated. The smallest things here provide a sense of panic, and of wonder and victory; from stepping onto a listing boat to retrieve some necessary items, to successfully learning how to use a sextant. A great film, held together by a talented director and a formidable personality.
Devastating documentary about killer whales held in captivity by SeaWorld. Through interviews with former employees and raw footage, Blackfish sheds light on the abhorrent treatment of these animals, and at the same time reveals their magnificent beauty. From the initial capture of the whales, to their (yes) imprisonment in woefully small tanks, the film tells the story of one Orca in particular named Tilikum (the eponymous “Blackfish”), and his years of abuse not only by SeaWorld’s procedures but also by other whales. This is an emotional watch for any animal lover, and a must-see for anyone who has enjoyed SeaWorld’s ‘spectacular’ Orca shows in the past. I guarantee you’ll never return.
With much talk recently of Oscar snubs, Fruitvale Station probably tops the list as the most under-appreciated film of the year, despite winning numerous awards. Based on the true incident of a young American African who was killed by a police officer in California, Fruitvale Station is a meditation on the last day of this man’s life. Very well acted by its cast especially Jordan in the lead role, best known from HBO’s The Wire and 2012’s Chronicle. Organically directed by Coogler, the film manages to elicit a sense of dread that is in conflict with the gentle nature of its characters, thus creating an unsettling and tragic experience.
Based on the true story of what happened when a Maersk shipping liner was hijacked by Somali pirates, Captain Phillips is an extremely tense dramatisation of that event, exceptionally well-made. I was never a fan of director Paul Greengrass. Like a lot of people, I found his shaky-cam aesthetic incredibly frustrating, even infuriating. The Bourne Ultimatum/Supremacy was basically just an excuse to give me a migraine. Thanks a lot. But then I saw Green Zone in 2010 and saw a change in the volume of shake. It were as though Mr Greengrass had finally understood that creating action visuals that are near impossible to comprehend actually displayed a contempt for his audience. So he toned that shit down, and now he has a nice balance of shake, used but not abused where necessary. And he has finally made a film I can happily say was fantastic. Nice work, sir.
Poor Llewyn Davis. Left as a solo artist after the suicide of his songwriting partner, Llewyn is set adrift in New York in 1961, mooching off his various acquaintances for a place to crash with the Gorfein’s cat in tow. Eventually Llewyn sets off to Chicago to see if that album he cut and sent to a music mogul there has any potential. It doesn’t. But everything will be alright (we hope) for an artist who cannot compromise his integrity. Whimsical, melancholic, any other adjective along those lines, Inside Llewyn Davis presents another introspective Coen Brothers character to sit alongside Larry Gopnick in their masterpiece A Serious Man. Aside from being one of their best films, it gives a great talent like Oscar Isaac an amazing platform. And talk about snubs…Where’s Oscar, Oscars?
By far the most off-the-wall film of 2013, equal parts sleazy, exploitative, derivative, creepy, hilarious and downright phuckin’ weird. Two apathetic parents allow their kids to explore a strange hill near a rest stop. While the parents get funky in the car, the kids disappear inside a cave. Next day, they come back, but they’re not the same kids. Maybe they’re not even kids anymore. Writer/director Bogliano wears his influences on his sleeve, and from the poster art alone you know this is gonna play like some B-horror film from the 70s. The smallest details seem to deserve a quick zoom; some characters speak like they’re in a Kubrick film or simply don’t know how to act. And it’s all an intoxicating mix of incestual overtones and strange deeds. Actually released in its country of origin Mexico in late 2012, Here Comes The Devil is so oddly unique despite its many borrowed concepts. The filmmakers are well aware of this; noting its influences in the end credits, under the title ‘Ayuda Espiritual’ (‘spiritual help’). This ‘help’ includes Nicolas Roeg, Henry James, Sergio Martino, David Cronenberg, T.E.D. Klein, Marilyn Burns, The Entity and (most obviously) Picnic At Hanging Rock. So, you might know what to expect. Or maybe not.
It is tough to go past Gravity as the cinema event of the year. For anyone who didn’t catch this in a theatre, I’m sorry. It simply won’t have the same impact on the small screen. Gravity is essentially a by-the-numbers thriller, with the villain a cloud of space debris; the stars of this show are not Bullock or Clooney, but director Cuaron, his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the CG wizards who created this unique experience. I was certain they actually filmed this thing in orbit. It’s a popcorn film and it’s everything a great popcorn film should be. It takes us (so convincingly) to a place where a good majority of Earthlings alive today will never go. Frankly, after seeing Gravity, space scares the crap out of me and I wouldn’t go there anyway.
Theodore Twombly, lonely guy, falls for an operating system. A sensual OS named Samantha who organises Theo’s life and provides a sense of companionship and eventually love. In a wry near future where fashion seems to have devolved a few decades, technology is ubiquitous and at the same time invisible. The complete interaction with tech is not so far from where we are now, but is so intertwined in the characters lives that it is no longer a source of wonder. It is merely a facet, and as such, can easily replace human interaction. The film casts a dreamy spell as it wanders through this foreign yet completely recognisable world, and its themes and perspectives are far too varied to even go into here. Why bother, so much has been written about Her, right down to the sublime music score by Arcade Fire. Simply put, this is a marvelous film that writer/director Jonze never lets slip into absurdity, despite the seemingly farcical scenario.
by Wadrick Jones