Monday, 23 December 2013

2013 film countdown, part 4: the final countdown

Alright. This is it.

So good.

Oh, and I guess I should write about my top 5 films of 2013 as well.

2013 in film: top 5

5) Pacific Rim

Apparently, director Guillermo del Toro couldn't get a live action Neon Genesis movie going so he made his own giant robots vs. giant monsters flick instead.

The human race are in a desperate battle against Kaiju, monsters from a trans-dimensional rift in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Many years into the war, the last remaining Jaegers, giant human-controlled mecha, are corralled together in an effort to fight back against increasingly dangerous Kaiju.

I thought this was a real treat. It does exactly what it says on the tin. To see the giant robots (technically mecha, yes, but "giant robots" sounds better) do battle on the big screen without the stupid stylistic choices of a Michael Bay film was great. Specifically, when you've spent so much on fancy CG and special effects, it's nice to be able to actually see what's happening.

The dialogue and acting in this is not the best, but it does carry a certain charm, like action movies of old. Idris Elba is good as Stacker Pentecost, head honcho of the Jaeger program, and delivers the definitive cheesy line of the movie, "we're cancelling the apocalypse!"

For me, this was the biggest geek-out of the year. It may not be considered the pinnacle of film-making, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, and fun is the name of the game.

4) Amour

From Michael Haneke comes the only foreign-language entry in my top 10, and perhaps the most depressing film of the year.

Georges and Anne are an old French couple, both retired music teachers. One day, Anne suffers a paralysing stroke and Georges has to take care of her. Anne is adamantly against going back to hospital and as her condition deteriorates she loses her will to live. While Anne is undergoing physical duress, the emotional strain on Georges and their relationship becomes increasingly palpable.

This is a heart-wrenching yet beautiful film about the power of love. Emmanuelle Riva is incredible in this and I feel she should have won the Academy Award for best actress (which went to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook). Though it appears uncharacteristically restrained from Haneke, there are many layers working here. For instance, while Anne is still well (or relatively well), we hear a lot of classical music, as it is an important part of their lives. As things progress, we hear less and less, and the silence in the couple's apartment becomes almost oppressive.

I almost wish I had put down all of my thoughts of this film in writing as soon as I saw it because it is one of those films that would be difficult to watch a second time due to its subject matter.

3) Stories We Tell

The highest-ranked documentary in my list this year is from actress/film-maker Sarah Polley and tells the tale of her family. Presenting differing takes on the same subject, Polley's mother, the film is also a study on how we tell stories based on truth, rumour, and memory, and how sometimes not everything is as it seems.

I thought this was a clever film and the way it handles the topic and the theme simultaneously makes for an entertaining and intriguing hour and a half. Despite a focus on different perspectives--complete, incomplete, reliable, unreliable, etc.-- this is a very personal story for the director, and it is very much her version of it. Which, perhaps, is why it works so well.

2) Gravity

In my first post, I made fun of 3D, CG, and IMAX. I take it back, just for this entry.

Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space mission while George Clooney is Matt Kowalsky, a veteran astronaut on his last. During a spacewalk, they are hit with disaster and must struggle to survive against the odds.

Bullock, I thought, put in some of her best work in this one. Clooney is, well, Clooney. Not that that's a bad thing. Apart from that, it does away with too much character development and is thrill after sci-fi thrill for most of its duration.

Despite me being, for the most part, anti-3D, this was one film I saw with those silly-looking polarised glasses and is, probably, the first movie whose use of 3D I felt was justified. Not only does it bring us closer to (and further from) the characters, it is also adds to the stunning beauty of the film. It has some of the best cinematography this year and does an excellent job of showcasing the Earth and humanity set against the vastness of space. There's this scene near the start where the gravity of the situation (ay? ay?) is accentuated by an extreme close up of one of the main characters as they literally hurtle through space for what seems like several minutes--one of the most terrifying edge-of-your-seat movie moments of the year. One of the next shots is an extreme long shot, as if to suggest that that character's plight, and that of humans in general, is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

The sound design and music are great, too, with many moments set in the silence of space, the astronauts (and, by extension, the audience) only hearing the noises within their suits and through their comms system. In space, nobody can hear you scream, etc. etc. The music ramps up ominously during particularly exciting sequences but lets the lack of sound do the work for the most part. It was one of those nice touches of science fact placed into a science fiction film.

Speaking of which, one of the more amusing reactions to the film was when Neil deGrasse Tyson ripped on Gravity's inconsistencies and followed up by highlighting some of its scientific merits.

Every year I see maybe a couple of movies that remind me just why I love going to the cinema so much. This year, Gravity was one of them.
This was another, and it is my favourite 2013 film (and favourite overall film) that I saw in 2013. It's also the only one I watched twice this year.

Shane Carruth brings us this enigmatic gem nine years after the release of Primer, his low-budget indie sci-fi classic (can I fit any more descriptives here?).

Kris struggles to piece her life back together after she wakes up to find she has lost weeks in her memory, her house is in a mess, and her belongings and money have been stolen. She meets Jeff, another lost soul, and together they begin to discover similarities to their stories.

Carruth continues to be tight on budget by hiring himself to play a Jeff while also providing the score. Seimetz, also an independent film-maker, is a talent to watch out for, and is excellent as Kris.

Much like Gravity, this is a visual and aural feast, never really relenting with what it presents to you. However, that's where the comparisons end. Unlike Gravity, its shots are short and mostly with a shallow depth of field. Furthermore, the ambient electronic soundtrack is atmospheric yet almost overwhelming at times. These contribute perfectly to the sense of disorientation that the characters are feeling.

Disorientation is something that this film does not lack in. Where Primer was (necessarily) temporally disjointed, Upstream Color is, mostly, narratively sequential. However, it creates that puzzle-like quality by bombarding you with scenes with minimal exposition. Much like the characters in the film, you are forced to figure out for yourself what exactly is happening, how things fit together. At its heart is a message about taking control when everything seems to be controlling you.

There's so much more to this film and I could go on and on about it, but it's best to see for yourself. It's hard to define. I guess you could call it a sci-fi film, but it's also a mystery, and a romance, a drama, a thriller. Ultimately, it's just a really well-made film that deserves attention.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

2013 film countdown, part 3: intermission

Before the big top 5 reveal, which I'm sure you are all very excited about, here are a few honourable (and dishonourable) mentions from 2013. It's a selection of films that didn't make my top 10 or bottom 5 but I wanted to quickly comment on them anyway for whatever reason. I've just realised that I should probably have done this post second instead of third, so I shall do that when it comes to my non-2013 films.

Speaking of which, I'd also like to note that what I mean by "2013" is that it was either a 2013 release, or a 2012 release that I saw at the movies in 2013, so there is a fair bit of overlap, especially when it comes to the Oscar-nominated ones.

2013 in film: highlights

Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen

Pretty cool piece Frankensteined together using scenes from many classic and obscure films in a way that tells a (necessarily generic) love story. A treat to watch for a lover of film, especially when a snippet comes up that you recognise.

Les Misérables

The film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's French Revolution classic. Tom Hooper and crew do such a good job of translating this to the big screen that you wonder why it hadn't been done before. The highlight from this film for me, apart from the achievement as a whole, was Anne Hathaway's rendition of I Dreamed A Dream. Tears. In fact, I loved most of the performances, but it has to be said that Russell Crowe was the odd one out. I felt it could have been a better spectacle had they found a better singer to play Javert. It's kind of like when they got a Jonas brother to play Marius in the 25th anniversary concert and he just absolutely bombed it compared to everybody else. That said, it was a great movie regardless.

Django Unchained

Tarantino's entry into the Djangoverse, with Jamie Foxx as Django Freeman, a freed slave who seeks to rescue his wife from slavers. He also dons an amazing costume about halfway through the film. It's far from my favourite of Tarantino's, but it is an undeniably fun (and characteristically violent) flick. Christoph Waltz is really good in this but that was to be expected after his excellent turn in Inglourious Basterds.

Sound City

A documentary by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl about the eponymous Sound City recording studio that hosted many legendary musicians, including Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young. Probably a little bit too self-serving on Grohl's part for my liking (can't blame him, really), but the bits covering the history of this old music studio were very fascinating and worth the price of admission. Some of the new songs recorded are quite good, too.

Red Obsession

Russell Crowe makes the list again! This time he narrates a documentary about Bordeaux wines, what makes them so good, their rise in price and prestige, and the impact of the wine boom in China. Pretty interesting and is kind of analogous to all hobbies/products that become popular for varying reasons.

Man of Steel

While far from outstanding, I do have to say that this didn't suck. I guess I could even say I enjoyed it for the most part. Given the averageness of the previous Superman film, and Zack Snyder's history of style over substance, I came in with low expectations, so I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't shit. I think the involvement of Christopher Nolan may have helped matters. Also, can I just say that Henry Cavill is ripped? Holy crap.

A Good Day to Die Hard

I heard from a couple of people that they watched this on a plane and it wasn't too bad for a plane movie (what does that even mean?) so I decided to watch it on a plane, too. And, well, it was kinda shit. One gets the feeling that Bruce Willis keeps agreeing to do Die Hard sequels just for the money. This is the worst in the series and I really do hope they stop flogging this dead horse. (Hmm, it's Christmas soon, so I guess it's time to re-watch the original (and best) Die Hard soon.)

Thursday, 12 December 2013

2013 film countdown, part 2: electric boogaloo

Time for some bad films. Here are the best of the worst of 2013.

2013 in film: bottom 5

5) The Act of Killing

We start off with a documentary that follows Indonesian death squad leaders as they recreate their mass killings on film.

It's an intriguing concept to see these hired killers go about their lives and bring to the screen re-enactments of some pretty gruesome acts, and it makes for some uncomfortable viewing. It's certainly very confronting and shocking at times. However, that is not the reason why it is in my bottom five.

Indeed, this movie could have ranked much higher because of the interesting subject matter and what it tries to do with it, but I felt it ultimately lets itself down because it was just not made very well. I found it lacked focus and needed some heavy editing. I watched the director's cut at the Sydney Film Festival, which I thought ran far too long and was all over the place.

Kudos to director Joshua Oppenheimer for taking on this project, but sadly the film falls flat.

4) Star Trek Into Darkness

A couple of points before I begin with this one. Firstly, I loved Star Trek and its spin-off series growing up (Deep Space Nine being my personal favourite of the TV shows, but I digress) and even enjoyed a few of the shittier films (not 5 though, never 5). Secondly, I liked the first of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films and appreciate what the reboot did for the franchise. However, I think Star Trek Into Darkness is a piece of crap.

Starfleet is hit with a terrorist act by rogue agent by the name of Commander Harrison. Kirk and crew go after him. Ok, I can dig it. There's this whole smoke and mirrors thing about who Harrison is and what his motives are. Spoilers: turns out he's Khan Noonien Singh, ultimate baddie from perennial favourite, The Wrath of Khan. Nice twist, right? But from here, I think Abrams and co. fuck it up. They continue the charade for a bit longer that Khan may be doing what he's doing for noble reasons, fighting corrupt actions by the Starfleet higher-ups. But eventually they reveal that he's the same bad guy that he was in the original series and films. He then goes on to be all menacing and stuff while Abrams shows off his Trek knowledge by pretty much copying scenes from The Wrath of Khan.

I mean, c'mon, do something original, guys. That's what a reboot is good for. Instead, everything that happens in this has pretty much happened before, and the reboot becomes just an expensive rehash.

Star Trek Into Darkness is just a mindless action film that does not entertain a great deal or offer anything new. After seeing this, I fear what Abrams will do when he gets his hands on the Star Wars franchise.

3) The Counselor

Dear oh dear. You'd think a film from the guy that made Alien and Blade Runner, written by the guy who wrote The Road, with a names like Fassbender, Cruz, Diaz, Bardem, and Pitt attached to it would be fantastic. The Counselor, unfortunately, is a complete mess.

Michael Fassbender is the titular lawyer that gets involved in drug trafficking and quickly finds himself in over his head. Penelope Cruz is his girlfriend, Brad Pitt is his business partner, Javier Bardem is...

Oh, who gives a shit.

Look, just don't see this film. It's a horrible train wreck. The plot is convoluted (what the fuck was the point of that scene with Cameron Diaz and the car?), the dialogue is unnecessarily vague, and it's just badly put together. Outside of Uwe Boll's notorious body of work, I can't remember a cast that's been wasted so thoroughly. It's such a shame that such a promising project on paper turned out to be so terrible.

Side-note: A bit weird that this is called The Counselor (one L) in some markets and The Counsellor (two Ls) in others. I guess it adds to the baffling quality of the film.

2) ParaNorman

Probably the most utterly forgettable film that I saw this year. I even had to look it up to remember what it was about.

IMDb says, "A misunderstood boy takes on ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse." There you go.

I will point out that I watched this movie because it was nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature, which I guess is always a dangerous thing to do with so few solid candidates each year.

ParaNorman is guilty of being so uninteresting that you question why it was even made.


1) Sharknado

Sharks. Tornadoes. Sharknado. I think that was an actual line from one of the original trailers for the film. Pure genius.

I almost feel bad putting this at the top spot. Almost. Make no mistake, this is a bad film. It's laughably bad. And perhaps that is why it doesn't deserve the "worst movie" label, because some of the other films mentioned in this post were just plain bad (looking at you, Counselor). That said, it does deserve some recognition for its so-bad-it's-good worth-watching-once quality, and perhaps this is a fitting way to do it.

There's not really much to the plot at all, but here's the official trailer:

Some of the highlights of the movie are (spoilers ahead): a house, on top of a hill, somehow gets flooded, and then somehow gets filled with sharks, and then somehow EXPLODES from all the water; tornadoes--sorry, Sharknadoes--can apparently be diffused using bombs thrown down from helicopters; "we're going to need a bigger chopper"; excellent use of chainsaw; and the "twist" ending.

But really, the script is awful, the acting from the cast of washed up actors is awful, the laughable scenes are few and far between (you know it's bad when most of the good bits are in the trailer), and once you've seen it you don't ever want to watch it again, which makes it a bad film in my book.

2013 film countdown, part 1: an unexpected journey

Alright, whoa, this blog hasn't been used in a while. Skimming through the last few posts is like going through old boxes of things at your parents' house and finding dusty keepsakes that make you say, "What was I thinking?" Fortunately, the first post in five years (!) will not be about looking back but moving forward. By looking back. Hmm.

In part inspired by movie and book countdowns of Fletchers Jez and Sam and in part because I have a lot of time to kill these days, I present to you my best and worst in film of 2013. I'll be shamelessly plagiarising a format of Jez and Sam have famously (infamously?) used, listing things in a non-conventional order for added effect; to give it more "oomph", if you will. Is "oomph" still a thing these days?

Anyway, the format is as follows: #10-6, bottom 5, honourable mentions, top 5. Each will have a separate post, and I'll repeat the process for non-2013 films closer to the end of the year. (With the possible exception of the second Hobbit movie, I don't think I will see any other 2013 films this year, while I still plan to watch a few more non-2013 films before the year is done.) So prepare yourself for an 8-post spectacular. Unless I change my mind about the format halfway through.

2013 in film: #10-6

10) Elysium

Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to District 9 was good enough to make me copy and paste Neill Blomkamp's name from IMDb. (It's difficult to remember the spelling, shut up.)

It's the near future and the very wealthy live on Elysium, an orbital space station, while the rest of the world live on an Earth that has turned into a giant slum. Living conditions are appalling and only the few on Elysium have access to miraculous life-saving medical technology. I don't actually get why this technology isn't available everywhere. It'd just make sense and solve a lot of problems. But I guess that's the idealist in me talking, and it does accentuate that vast poverty gap that forms the basis of the film. Anyway, Matt Damon plays a slum native that gets involved in a plot to even things up a little bit, etc. etc., cue action scenes.

This is a solid sci-fi actioner with a smattering of social commentary, which makes it hard not to compare it to District 9, though that's not a bad thing; the depth it adds to the story is refreshing in an era where 3D, CG, and explosions are king. Speaking of which, some of the visuals, especially those of Elysium, are spectacular, and action-wise there's enough happening to keep you interested for the duration of the film. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster are good as always, but the highlight for me was Sharlto Copley (wow, I didn't even need to copy and paste that), the protagonist from District 9, playing the over-the-top baddie of this film. That accent alone deserves a top 10 ranking.

9) Before Midnight

The only sequel to make my top 10, this is the third (and possibly final) part of Richard Linklater's Before series. It's also the most complex.

Some plot spoilers if you haven't seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset: after the events of the second film, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) end up staying together, getting married, and having two kids. It's nine years later (I do love how Linklater waited about that long to release the movie, much like the gap between Sunrise and Sunset) and the family is on a holiday in Greece, staying at a famous writer's estate. It's clear from the start that the couple are struggling with various issues to do with family and work, and this plays itself out throughout the film.

In some ways, Before Midnight is the most important film in the trilogy; this is what it's all been building up to. There's a lot more history between the two now, as opposed to the first two films. There's more at stake. The issues they discuss have a lot more weight. Linklater also does a good job of making you feel like this relationship has developed organically over nine years.

I'm in two minds about the inclusion of other characters in this film. It introduced an added layer to the two-person dynamic of the series, while at the same time taking away from that charm of seeing just these two people interact with each other for an entire film. That said, the key scenes are still the ones between Jesse and Celine.

This is a great film, and a strong third act in a delightful series.

8) Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park in this Woody Allen retelling of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire in modern San Francisco.

Jasmine (Blanchett) arrives at the San Francisco apartment of her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and it's clear that there's something not quite right with her. She's fled from her New York life and, despite flying first class, claims to have no money to her name. She sometimes talks to herself and she constantly lies to cover up some dark secret. Through flashbacks, we are slowly shown what triggered her downward spiral. In the periphery are the lives of others, including her sister's, all in some way affected by her unstable personality.

Acclaimed as one of the best Woody Allen films of recent times (I can't personally account for this as I've seen so few of his films), Blue Jasmine is a multi-layered, often funny, and ultimately harrowing look into a person's life out of control. For me, the clear stand-out is Blanchett's performance as Jasmine. She acts the hell out of it and I'd be very surprised if she doesn't win a few awards for her role.

7) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig co-writes and stars in this charming little comedy-drama. Or is it a drama-comedy?

20-something New Yorker Frances Halladay, played by Gerwig, has her comfortable status quo disturbed when friend and housemate, Sophie, decides to move in with another friend. This event leads her to reassess her life and questioning her career as a dancer.

Shot in black-and-white and seemingly with a low budget, I liked the understated style of this movie. Thematically, it appealed to me on a personal level more than any other film this year, with the journey to discover oneself mirroring my current situation in real life (or "IRL" for those playing along).

I was really impressed with this one and I'm interested to see more works from Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach.

6) Much Ado About Nothing

Whoa, two black-and-white films in a row. What madness is this? Concluding the first post in this countdown epic is Joss Whedon's low budget and modern take on the Bard's classic comedy of errors not named The Comedy of Errors, starring many familiar Whedonverse faces.

The main action follows two couples, both vastly different in their personalities and relationships. The straightforward romances are complicated by scheming and mistaken identity, usually to comedic effect.

I found this a whole lot of fun. I've never seen the play on stage so I only had the script to go on, but thought this adaptation nails it in the execution. There were only few changes to Shakespeare's original dialogue but it's clear Whedon put a lot of thought into non-dialogue portions of the script. All the beats were just right, it was snappy, the acting was great (Fillion almost steals the show as Dogberry), and it's beautifully shot. It certainly made me appreciate the source material a lot more.