2013 Year in Review Part 1 – Intro and Honourable Mentions

January 1, 2014

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Every year has its share of great films, but 2013 was special for the sheer number of films that can and will be considered “great”.  It was unusually strong, then, with even the late year traditionally “Oscar bait” releases delivering more often than not.  Of course, I’m not a professional critic which means both time and access are factors in what I could and couldn’t watch, especially as this year I’ve spent a majority of my time in the Deep South (which has, if we want to be polite in that Southernly way, a rather limited number of diverse releases) as well as a healthy chunk overseas.  I’ve missed some big ones, then, although I have somehow managed to see about 125 eligible films.  As usual, that “eligibility” is roughly the Academy Award criteria of any film released theatrically for public consumption in the calendar year, so festival-only films and undistributed wonders don’t count.  The major misses that I’ll have to catch up on in the coming months include Touch of SinBlue JasmineShort Term 12At BerkeleyViola, and Night Across the Street.  Obviously this isn’t the final word on the year in film, especially as only one of the films mentioned in the coming posts have I seen more than once (I am not a believer in that rather silly Kael maxim of only watching a film once, as the truly great ones and even some of the mediocre ones leave room for discovery with repeated viewings).  

Because of the number of films that have made an impression being so high this year, I’ve cheated a little with the “Honourable Mentions” section, which I’ve divided into three rough categories: arthouse, Hollywood, and acting.  I am not, I hasten to add, a believer that a Hollywood film is fundamentally worse than an arthouse, and I realise I’m wading into murky waters by treating them differently, but I think we can safely agree that they tend to have different aims as well as ways to achieve them.  Everything is eligible and treated the same in the Top 25, but these are films that didn’t work as well as maybe they could have, but have something significant of note that I feel are worth highlighting.

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Arthouse:

Traditionally where there is more outward experimentation, the arthouse films here work to varying degrees of success and, as you can image, your mileage may vary from one to the next.

Faust – Aleksandr Sokurav’s German-language (loose) adaptation of Goethe’s Faust play is bewildering, grotesque, occasionally transcendant, ugly and beautiful.  It’s one of the strangest films you’re likely to see with an 8 million Euro budget that, apparently, Putin hoped would announce to Europe what Russian culture is all about.  Equally interested in philosophy of power and bowel movements, I’m not sure I understood a majority of it or even if there was anything there to understand.  Either way, it’s not something I’ll forget anytime soon.

Only God Forgives – Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to cult favourite Drive is  pretentious, utterly absurd and probably totally bunk, but it’s also beautiful and hypnotic in the best ways.  Gosling continues his favoured non-acting acting style, but Kristen Scott Thomas lets loose as his harridan mother.  It’s an investigation of masculinity from someone who clearly has issues, but its conclusion is unexpectedly sensitive.  I kind of loved it, but with enough reservations that anyone who hates it won’t hear a peep of disagreement from me.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – More of a video essay than a documentary, Terence Nance’s investigation into why he, as he puts it, got “friendzoned” is scattered, smart, funny, and charming.  Arguably too much effort on the subject and he sometimes comes close to stumbling into indulgence, but it’s saved by it’s variety of styles (stop-motion, animation, found footage, recreations) and by Nance’s own sense of humour.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet – Nouvelle Vague warhorse Alain Resnais continues to expand his artfrom well into his 90s, and though this isn’t as moving for me as his previous effort, Wild Grass, it’s still an intriguing and sometimes very effective exploration of memory through art.  Assembling a who’s who of French Cinema to play themselves, Resnais surrounds them with chintzy green screen and CGI while they play their old roles to strange and sometimes vivid effect.  Any Resnais is a big deal, and I imagine my occasionally muted feelings towards this one will change once I revisit it.

Stoker – Making his English language debut with about as dumb and derivative a script as possible, Park Chan Wook compensates by ramping up just about everything.  Tiny CGI spiders, vivid chiaroscuro-in-colour lighting, and some delirious fun set pieces (that duet!) make sure absolutely nobody takes this too seriously.  The overwrought shower sequence also happens to be one of the funniest moments of the year.

Post Tenebras Lux – I’m considering instituting a “most frustrating film of the year” award just for Carlos Reygada’s sometimes incredible, sometimes half baked rumination on class, family, Mexico, rural life, and whatever else he felt like.  If cinema were solely about images, this would be the best film of the year.  From it’s staggering opening following a little girl around a waterlogged football pitch in the mountains, to the animated devil stalking a house with a briefcase, and the man pulling off his own head, there’s a rich bounty of imagery that hasn’t left my head from the moment I first saw it way back in March.  It’s also disorganized and occasionally laughable with its self-indulgence as though it were a series of ideas desperately in search of a thesis.  A gorgeous missed opportunity from one of the most unique directors working today, I can only isolate the good scenes in my mind and just try to forget everything else.

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Hollywood:

As opposed to the arthouse list, the films here are some of the most successful straight up Hollywood films of the year by virtue of, for the most part, competence.  They function well as genre and tend to have the more classical elements of star performances and a tendency to be purely pleasurable entertainments.

2 Guns – An utterly nonsense plot about two agents from different agencies robbing the CIA turns out to be a solid frame to hang an “unlikely buddy cop film”.  It looks utterly pedestrian in its gloss and nary a beat surprises, but it’s all about the fun we have watching Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg banter and snipe and generally be goofy cool.

White House Down – Another movie that doesn’t lack for charisma, the real charm of Roland Emmerich’s bonkers action rip-off is just how, well, bonkers it is.  Liberally ripping off Die Hard (and out Die Harding and actual Die Hard film this year) with its cast of henchmen and the “wrong place at the right time” scenario, it’s a reminder of just how fun Hollywood Blockbusters can be when everyone approaches the material with tongue firmly in cheek.  It’s a shame it was a flop, but as is often the case, that isn’t any indication of quality.

This is The End – 15 minutes too long is the norm for comedies these days, so I’m willing to give that a pass because of the sheer amount of funny that gets blithely tossed around by the likable cast (playing minor parodies of themselves).  There are dumb detours (the exorcisms of Jonah Hill, for one) but everyone is so game it’s hard not to just go along with it.  There’s even a not inconsiderable amount of intelligence swirling around in a sea of bodily fluids.  Second best apocalypse comedy of the year, then, and probably the best all-around film with a demonic phallus.

Iron Man 3 – Finally not relying solely on the charms of Robert Downey Jr, a should-be tired franchise gets a breath of new life with Shane Black and his surprisingly Shane Black-y script.  The closest the series about an arms dealer has come to actually looking at the way the arms trade drums up business for itself, and smartly avoiding the offense a character called The Mandarin should cause absolutely everyone, it’s really a big budget return to Black’s pet themes – the debased state of Hollywood.  It’s got a tinge of the 80s but that’s welcome, and even if it once again falls back on a “CGI ROBOT FIGHT” finale, it earns a reprieve with smart, funny dialogue and…yes…an actual character arc for Tony Stark and his PTSD.

Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron’s welcome return to filmmaking after a too-long absence is probably the most straight-up “Hollywood” film of the year.  It relies on the known personas of its two stars to do the heavy lifting character-wise, and it draws upon technical wizardry and a musical score to give us the thrills.  It’s about craftsmanship more than anything, and a silly sub plot about a dead child isn’t enough to sink anything.  It has the added bonus of feeling like an actual “event” film, in that it’s dizzying IMAX 3D just can’t be replicated in the home.  It’s kind of wonderful, really, and is precisely what the dream factory should be cooking up on a regular basis.

 

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Acting:

My weakest area by far is the recognition of acting.  I’m just not attuned to subtleties of the craft in the way many others seem to naturally be.  In other words, where others see a bad performance I usually think it’s fine, and only occasionally do I think anyone can be severely miscast enough to sink a picture.  These are a few films that are really great as actor showcases, even if the film or the style surrounding them isn’t new or particularly breathtaking.  These are good films with great performances.

Shadow Dancer – I feel like we’ve been to the 80s/90s IRA conflict well so many times that it’s almost impossible to say anything fresh about it.  James Marsh doesn’t shed any new light on the thorny issue, but this thriller about a woman forced to spy on her family is tense and wrenching enough that it doesn’t matter.  Central to its success is Andrea Riseborough’s incredible turn as the woman trapped in a terrible situation.  Her simmering anger and quiet desperation about being born into the wrong family in the wrong context is palpable and human, and it makes the ending twist credible where it might have otherwise been just a bit too much.

The Hunt – Tomas Vineterberg’s queasy drama about a decent man falsely accused of molesting a child, and the ways in which the community viciously turns on him is too rooted in contrivance to overwhelm with its “wrong man” nightmare, but Mads Mikkelsen pulls it together and takes us on the journey of emotional turmoil the basic set up wouldn’t normally allow.  Between this and NBC’s Hannibal, Mads is having a banner year, but he’s been one of cinema’s treasures for years now and I hope he gets the wider recognition he deserves.

Nebraska – The first Alexander Payne feature I can fully get behind this century (his best work to date is still his short in Paris Je T’aime), he finally nails the balancing act between affectionate ribbing and snobbish condescension.  Basically, he loves these characters and as a result we do too, and no small part of that is Bruce Dern’s quiet, grumpy, possibly dementia-developing Woody Grant.  Seen largely from the perspective of his decent but disappointed son (Will Forte, doing great work as well), we (and he) learns more about his father from the stories everyone tells of him on their road trip than he ever could from the tight-lipped Woody himself.  What’s truly special about Dern is the way each new bit of information changes our perspective of Woody, as though a look and attitude from one scene earlier was completely misinterpreted.  It’s remarkably humanist from a director I didn’t think capable of such a thing.

Blue is the Warmest Color – Getting past all the controversies from the actresses and the director, as well as wherever you might come down on them male-gaze issue, and what’s left is a 3 hour intimate epic about adolescence, maturation, and the blissful hell that is young love.  Not as good as Mia Hansen-Love’s Goodbye First Love from last year, or as intriguing about relationship dynamics as Everyone Else from 2 years back, it’s still affecting and totally relatable in all the right ways, thanks almost entirely to the astonishing performance of Adele Exarchopolous and the just-as-good Lea Seydoux.  Director Abdellatif Kechiche opts for the verite approach (possibly the most actor-friendly one around) and lets the two actresses give meaning to a story that could’ve been a hokey ball of cliches.

-M

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