Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Best Films of 2013

I would normally write a lengthy intro to my favourite films of the year list. This is traditional. All pundits normally indulge themselves.

Something about the trends apparent in modern cinema. And how these confirm the declining standards of life as we know it. And how much at least two of; mobile phone use in the audience, or overlong running times, or the inedibility of modern popcorn make me want to go and live in the forest and not watch any movies at all, unless they're ones I've made myself with a camera made out of twigs (a la The Last Movie).

But this is all too angry... and kind of insane... and a 'Best Of' list should be a happy time... and I don't really know what I'm talking about anyway.

So let's get to the money! I mean, the movies...


In the wake of a massive, civilisation ending catastrophe (implied to be a meteor impact in the Northern hemisphere), residents of Perth, Western Australia face up to the end with varying degrees of stoicism. Perennial fuck up James (Nathan Phillips) wants to spend the day partying with his friends, but a chance encounter with a distressed young girl (brilliantly played by Angourie Rice), provides him with one last opportunity to show his good side. This terrific, low budget Australian film serves as showcase for talent on both sides of the camera, and provides moments of excitement and tension along with less expected elements of pathos. Echoing On the Beach (which, like this, played at this years Melbourne International Film Festival) but with a contemporary mentality, These Final Hours provides a particularly fine example of the sort of local film we don't see often enough. 


Thousands of kilometres above the surface of the planet, a small team of astronauts work to repair a malfunctioning satellite. When an unexpected catastrophe decimates the crew and leaves their spacecraft prone, two survivors - plucky but inexperienced Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and cocky veteran Matt (George Clooney) - battle the relentlessly hostile environment as they struggle to make it back to Earth. About as far removed from a conventional Hollywood depiction of space exploration as you could get, Gravity starts with a realistic depiction of the difficulties of life in space... and then things start blowing up. Once the plot is in motion, the film becomes an almost unbearably tense scramble against time, as oxygen, fuel and mental faculties start to run out. Director Alfonso Cuaron and his team spent three years in pre-production on this and it shows; the film's visuals are literally jaw dropping and among the most elaborate ever created (see it on the biggest screen you can, for maximum impact). The characters and dialogue are all cardboard, but its impossible to care much while this thrill ride is going. 


Most people have questions about themselves; where they came from, their roots, what their parents were like before they were born. Canadian director - and sometime actor - Sarah Polley's probing of these fundamentals provides the foundation of this documentary, but her personal investigation soon takes a number of turns as family secrets are unexpectedly brought to light. Utilising interviews with her extended family and friends, and carefully selected re-enactments, Polley creates a family portrait remarkable for its depth and candour, and distinguished by the range of emotions on display. Joy, pain, sorrow and love all have their place in this story and the film maker is most generous in allowing the audience to share these with her. The director's father, Michael Polley, has some of the finest cinema moments of the year, as he talks very directly about his late wife, a woman he was married to for decades but never quite figured out. An outstanding, heartfelt movie.


Towards the end of his life, famed entertainer Liberace seemed to have it all; money, mansions and a multitude of small dogs. To the public, this was a story of tremendous, flamboyant success. Behind the scenes was a lonely and isolated man, forced to hide his homosexuality - and jumbo sized libido - from public view. Enter Scott Thorson; a likable and directionless teenager who becomes the musician's lover, confidante, chauffeur and (thanks to plastic surgery) lookalike. Their affair rides a roller coaster of manic behaviour, torrid emotions and drug abuse, ending in court accusations and recrimination. For a story with so many scandalous elements, and so much capacity for overblown melodrama, it's remarkable that Behind the Candelabra also works so well as a simple love story. The connection between star and acolyte is believably established and their early times together are sweetly, gently depicted, which gives their downhill slide the weight of tragedy. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon give stunning, uninhibited performances and the production design and depiction of 70's Vegas showbiz is spot on. A remarkable, funny-sad movie.


Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nebbish trapped in a low grade nightmare; he has a dull job, a cramped apartment and a crush on a pretty girl who ignores him. He's unhappy, frustrated and trapped. And then he meets... James Simon (Eisenberg again), a visual doppelganger with a dramatically different personality. The two become friends, but Simon quickly realises that behind his double's breezy exterior some very dark things are at work. Up and coming director Richard Ayoade's (Submarine) second feature is an assured comic puzzle box. The drab, grey and brown production design radiates just the right tone of mild urban hell, the perfect backdrop for the escalating events onscreen, and the director deftly chooses his moments to ratchet up the tension. Surprises abound and you're never quite sure where the narrative will head off to next. Eisenberg clearly has a ball playing twin parts, and the impressive supporting cast features neat turns from Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor and Wallace Shawn. A darkly funny, highly original treat.


Pat (Bradley Cooper) has hit rock bottom; his wife has left him, he's lost his job and he's been confined to a psychiatric hospital after assaulting his wife's new lover. On release, he's forced to move back in with his parents - a colourful pair with problems of their own -while he tries to sift through the wreckage of his life. Distraction comes in the form of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), another train wreck barely functioning after the sudden death of her husband. This manic, acerbic twosome slowly - very slowly - bond over joint  participation in an amateur dance contest, while driving everyone around them slightly nuts. Romantic comedies are one of the foundation genres of cinema yet good ones have become increasingly rare, which adds another layer to the pleasure of this fresh, funny, deeply romantic film. No punches are pulled in the depiction of the main character's mental health problems, which raises the stakes considerably as they edge towards each other. Brad Cooper is simply a revelation as the well meaning, manic, Pat, but he is surrounded on all sides by a fine ensemble (Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jackie Weaver and Chris Tucker all shine) and director David O. Russell maintains the right tone and tempo from start to finish. One of the feel good movie experiences of the year.


Heading for home after an extended stretch at sea, the crew of a Norwegian cargo ship have their tedious routine shattered when they are hijacked by Somali pirates. Escalating events on the ship are compounded by the drama at corporate headquarters, where a controlling CEO (Soren Malling) takes personal charge of negotiations and quickly finds himself out of his depth. This taut, tightly directed thriller starts slowly and then cranks up the tension in the second half, particularly when focusing on the plight of the ship's easy going cook Mikkel (a superb Johan Phillip Asbaek). The film achieves a level of realism that is completely absorbing and gives a gripping depiction of different personality types cracking under pressure. Violence is only used sparingly, but powerfully, and is shown as simply one tool available to the tormentor. An utterly harrowing movie experience.


China is the world's most populous country and its economic miracle child; three decades of modernisation has transformed a rural, isolated backwater into a global powerhouse. But these rapid changes have not come without cost. A Touch of Sin shows life in contemporary China through four loosely linked stories, each depicting a central character struggling to cope with the unbearable pressures of their daily lives. Each day is a fight, a sprint, a wrestle, where nothing comes easy and everything hangs by a thread. In such a harsh, unforgiving environment the violence the characters resort to (taken from real life events) seems entirely understandable and eventually becomes just another element of the background noise of a hyperactive society. The importance of the individual is depicted as entirely secondary to that of the state, leaving the characters in a moral vacuum where they make their own survival rules. A powerful, thought provoking film, full of remarkable performances and indelible imagery, and one that manages to work just as well on a conceptual level as it does on a narrative one. Sure to be dissected for some time yet.


The Thief is a criminal who may have conceived the perfect crime. The Sampler is an outcast who observes the natural world around him. Kris and Jeff are victims caught between the two; robbed and psychologically damaged by the first, rescued but somehow trapped by the second. To reveal much more is almost certainly inappropriate... if not outright impossible, given the complexities of the plot. Independent American director Shane Carruth returns with his second feature, nine years after cult favourite Primer also proved difficult to summarise concisely. His new movie simply overflows with ideas, examining (among other things); relationships, patterns of behaviour, the essence of intelligence and man's impact on the natural world. As a kind of bonus, it also works as a tender love story, as two wounded souls connect and start to heal each other. A bold, at times outlandish, film that is in equal parts disturbing, funny, tender and tragic, but is never less than fascinating. A shot of intellectual adrenaline.


Frances lives, loves and laughs in New York, at least when she can afford it. A professional dancer a few years out of college, but a few years short of professional traction, she lives very much in the moment, one haphazard misadventure leading to the next. 

Over the course of a few busy months she breaks up with a long term BF, moves house, loses and regains her bestie, doubts her career, moves house, visits Paris, works at her old college, dances in the street, moves many more times and smokes a lot of cigarettes. Usually short of a buck, and always needing new digs, Frances rides the bumps of her existence with remarkable equanimity. 

She does get knocked down, but never for long. And her determination to carve her own path ultimately pays off, and gets her moving toward where she wants to be.

This warm, beautifully observed light comedy is centred around Greta Gerwig - in career best form - as the title character; funny, bold, quick witted and generous, as well as awkward, difficult, impulsive and petulant. 

In other words, utterly human, and so removed from the caricatures that often populate movie comedies. While the central performance is a delight, this is only one among many. The supporting players, cinematography, sets, dialogue and music (a particular treat for fans of Modern Love) are all first rate. The sum of all these parts is a movie that is laugh out loud funny and touching, moving and gregarious, something with a universal message. 

I may never have lived in New York, nor been a dancer, nor a woman but I felt like I could relate to much of what Frances experiences, which makes her eventual progress so much more rewarding. 

Although you don’t want her to leave when the credits roll. The reveal of the meaning behind the title is probably my favourite movie moment of 2013, but there are so many great moments ('I'm really happy for you', is another) that I want to watch the whole movie again... right now! 

Brilliant stuff.

Also Very Good...

- Drinking Buddies

- Omar 

- Fruitvale Station

- Lincoln

- The Punk Singer

- Inside Llewyn Davis

- Computer Chess

- Blue Ruin

- The Past

- A Field in England

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Worst Films of 2013

This list comes with a few provisos:

a) There were lots of movies that I didn't see this year;

b) I don't know that much about movies really;

c) I don't know that much about anything.

With that in mind then, an otherwise definitive guide to the worst films of the year.


South East Asia is a nice place to visit. And an even nicer place to spend Christmas, at least if you're white, Western and loaded enough to hire your own private plantation replete with army of dark skinned servants. Shame that a big wave had to come and spoil the fun. But, if you've not seen this, you can rest easy knowing that the wealthy white folks get away safely, ensconced in their own private plane while the grubby natives look on disconsolately from behind a barbed wire fence. Sucks to be them! This film was rightly lauded for the special effects that re-created the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, but unfortunately this only lasts for about 5 minutes. The remainder of the running time is taken up with fatuous melodrama, which is offensive when it isn't mundane. The only thing they didn't show was Naomi Watts stepping on the head of some local nobody, as she sprinted for the getaway plane.


This wasn't the worst zombie movie of the year (see below) but nevertheless, problems remain. Fans of Night of the Living Dead, for example, will be surprised by the lack of scares. And fans of the popular novel this is based on will be surprised by how it’s no longer set in the future and told from multiple points of view. And fans of entertainment will wonder how $200 million could be spent to produce something so devoid of any entertainment value. This film has a few good moments and Brad Pitt tries his best as a hackneyed everyman, but it’s mostly just overblown, silly and dull. Humanity's central defence against zombie takeover – they won’t attack people who are injured – also means that pretty much everyone alive on planet earth today would be safe from them (who hasn't had an injury or two), thusly negating the film’s existence. Which would have saved everyone a bit of time, if nothing else.


JJ’s first Star Trek reboot was a lot of fun; New Spock and New Kirk took to their roles with relish and quickly established some chemistry that seemed set to power the franchise. And the preliminaries on this follow up could hardly have been better; a thunderous trailer and Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain (yay!). This good feeling lasted through the pre-credits sequence – a vigorous run through the jungle on a primitive planet – but began to fade about the time a mysterious set of tubes were entrusted to the Enterprise’s crew. 


‘That’s right, tubes Kirk. Tubes!’ 

The tubes contain… bodies? Which were put there because… not too sure. But the bodies themselves had come from a failed experiment of some sort, conducted by someone, somewhere else. The ship’s cute new lady engineer then shimmies down to her undies to try and work out what’s going on, by which time I was looking around the IMAX trying to see if anyone else’s mouth was hanging open. The whole thing wraps up with a bizarre re-telling of the famous ending from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, only with the principal roles reversed… for some reason. This made squillions and was liked by Trekkies (for the most part) but for me, was the worst tent pole of the year.

7. THIS IS 40

Pity Pete and Debbie; they live in an enormous mansion, have tonnes of disposable income, two cars, four laptops, 8 TV’s, 16 i-Devices, live in the richest country on Earth and have never wanted for anything in their entire lives. Wait… What was that thing at the start? Oh right, the pity thing. Oh, yes, well, it seems that both of them are getting a bit older. And Pete spent $25000 on a neon sign for his business which he should have given to his dad. And one of the employees at Debbie’s hobby homewares shop is hotter than her and makes her feel a bit dowdy. It makes your eyes moist to think of it all, to be sure. While this bloated, mid life crisis comedy is technically well made and has some fun with the supporting characters, there’s something utterly obscene about watching these wealthy, spoilt brats bemoan their lot. Do the makers of this have no idea what’s going on outside the gates of their privileged, fortified compound? History will tell you that they never do, until the mob forces the gate and puts them to the sword.


AKA, When Great Directors Go Bad. Pedro Almodovar has found late career lustre with a string of rapturously received comedy-dramas (Talk to Her, All About My Mother and Volver chief among them) but his last two movies have died terrible, tawdry deaths. But if 2011’s The Skin I Live In was merely trashy, exploitive junk, this dismal, wannabe provocative comedy set on a doomed airliner ups the ante by adding more adjectives; insipid, boring, unfunny, tired and pretentious among them. What may have seemed fresh and lively when Almodovar was making films in the 70’s and early 80’s has long been gazzumped by a shift in taste: The Farrelly Brothers moved jokes about semen into the mainstream a decade ago and this sad attempt by the director to return to his X rated roots falls resoundingly flat. Embarrassing.


Something about this lame, unappealing zombie rom-com recalls the South Park episode where AWESOME-O pitches new Adam Sandler movie ideas to Hollywood execs… ‘Adam Sandler is trapped on a desert island and falls in love with a coconut… Adam Sandler inherits a billion dollars but first he has to become a boxer…' So, we've had low budget zombie movies and big budget zombie movies, zombie action films, zombie sci-fi films, zombie comedies, a critically acclaimed zombie TV show and films where the zombie-ization has been caused by space rays and aliens and solar flares and viruses and radio waves until… Well, how about zombies in space? Zombies at Spring Break? Hold the phone I’ve got it, zombie rom-com!! Suffice to say that this film struggles from the opening voice over but then, much like the subject matter, fails to properly die, limping on through 98 more excruciating minutes. Not something John Malkovich will highlight on his CV.


I had very much enjoyed 2012’s The Sound of My Voice, about independent journalists trying to debunk a suburban cult leader, so was eager to see this re-team of that film’s writers, director and star (Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, sharing duties). And their scenario here had potential; a young investigator (Marling) is assigned to infiltrate a secretive enviro-terrorist group and write an expose of their activities. But from the moment the established members of said group show up to breakfast wearing strait jackets and then feed each other without using their hands, this film quickly throws off any claim to credibility it may have had. Even worse, the plot devolves into a malnourished will-she won’t-she scenario, as our heroine tries to decide whether to stick by her dorky new terrorist boyfriend or stay loyal to her boo-hiss evil corporate boss. ‘Isn't there a third option?’ you want to demand on her behalf. Cliched scenarios, dialogue and characters abound, as the film plods slowly to an obvious finale. The biggest disappointment of my movie year.


This movie could serve as some kind of guide to creative casting: Zak Effron as a shy, backwards type; Nicole Kidman as a trashy southern sexpot; John Cusack as… a crazed, red neck, croc hunter!!! Woo hooo! That each of these ideas is sillier than the last (although Effron is pretty good actually) points you clearly in the direction of the mindset of this ludicrous thriller, which starts out in a middling fashion and then quickly heads downhill. As the plot unfolds in a way that is probably meant to be serpentine, but is actually just plain daft, the bizarre sights and sounds pile up like cars on a highway at the start of a Final Destination film; Nicole Kidman urinating on Effron’s leg, Matthew McConaughney revealed as a BDSM freak, baccy chewin’ Cusack coming on a like a tough old bubba while a rubber alligator hangs from a tree behind him. This last was so absurd that it gave me a good laugh, which is probably not the idea when characters lives are meant to be at stake. Still, at least it was a rare moment of levity, on a night otherwise better spent in front of HBO. 


With the plethora of Superhero and Comic Book movies that have filled multiplexes of late, here is a concept that no one had thought of yet; take a well known superhero, remove them from their normal genre and dump them in an entirely different type of movie. So, in this case, we have Wolverine taken out of his usual context battling other mutants and plonked at the heart of a Yakuza/Asian crime saga. As an idea, this feels like the random garbage that comes out of a late Wednesday afternoon spitballing session, and as a movie it works about as well as watching Superman go to the old West or Batman join an interstellar space mission (the latter, admittedly, a pretty awesome idea). That the Yakuza/Asian crime drama Hugh Jackman’s earnest hero finds himself in here is also an overwrought, dreary mess clearly doesn't help. And neither does the feeling that nothing happening on screen really means anything much, beyond the Wolverine Happy meal tie in at Maccas.


There are always questions around remakes. Why? Being the main one. With this unbearably mediocre rehash, another would be ‘How do I remove all trace of what I just watched from my brain?’ Lacuna Inc? But perhaps the makers of this version were always on a hiding to nothing. The 1976 Brian DePalma original is a favourite of many, and not just from the horror-cult fanboy community. But everything that makes the original work seems to have been sucked right out of this; it’s neither scary, nor funny, nor populated with crazy-awesome 70’s hair and clothes. And Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek are enormously large shoes to fill, even for the well credentialed replacements that have been brought in. Ultimately, this Carrie just feels amateurish and the pointlessness of its existence is enough to require French terminology to describe it. Carrie is... The worst film I saw this year.