Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 Year in Review: 30-21 & Runners-Up

A very good year in film meant that even when I go completely overboard and name 30 films – and that doesn’t include a couple of docs and one animated film that would have ranked just outside the top 10 had I not decided to relegate them to their own posts - there are still some I want to mention as stuff you check out, even if there wasn’t room any higher.

Runners-Up: So these are the films I wanted to include but did not have room for. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery) was a beautiful looking film, that recalls films like Malick’s Badlands and Altman’s Thieves Like Us. August: Osage County (John Wells) pales in comparison to the brilliant play it is based on, but what works about the film works brilliantly. Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland) is a must for horror fans, as Toby Jones gives an excellent performance as a Foley artist on a 1970s Italian horror film slowly going insane. Blue Caprice (Alexandre Moors) took very difficult subject matter – the DC Snipers – and made a thoughtful movie out of it, anchored by the best performance of Isaiah Washington’s career. The Broken Circle Breakdown (Felix Van Groeningen) combined Bluegrass music and a cancer storyline for one of the most emotional films of the year. The Conjuring (James Wan) is one of the best Exorcist clones made since that classic, 40 years ago. Drug War (Johnnie To) is not quite as good as his best action films, but it is still a brutally effective action film, with an expertly staged climax. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) was an emotional look at a young black man’s death, with an excellent lead performance by Michael B. Jordan. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai) is nowhere near his best work – but is as visually stunning as anything he’s ever done. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg) was anchored by an excellent performance by Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher falsely accused of molesting a young student. Lore (Cate Shortland) was a fascinating movie about a teenage daughter of a high ranking Nazi as the war comes to an end. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas) was a consistently challenging art film that rewarded patient viewers. The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard) may be even bleaker than her debut, The Arbor, but proves she is a real talent to watch. Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz) was a very promising debut for director Seimetz – also a very talented actress – and was a riff on Terrence Malick’s Badlands, with an excellent performance by Kate Lynn Shiel. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick) is easily the most problematic film of the master filmmaker’s career – but it is still utterly beautiful from beginning to end.

While I’m not sure that any of these are truly great films, they were all borderline excellent and deserve your attention.

30. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)
The Spectacular Now is an uncommonly intelligent movie about teenagers that doesn’t shy away from the clichés of the genre, but twists them at least a little. Miles Teller gives an excellent performance as a high school senior whose girlfriend dumps him – and it’s only then that he realizes he isn’t quite as well loved as he thinks he is. Gradually we get to know him – and his problems mainly that he may well be a teenage alcoholic. He starts to date a shy wallflower (a wonderful Shailene Woodley) with her own problems and slowly turns draws her into his problems. This is a quiet, subtle movie – at times it is quite funny, but it is also very perceptive and moving – with a wonderful, ambiguous final shot.

29. Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
Some dismissed Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said as a big screen sitcom – and while it is true that the basic setup – woman finds out her new boyfriend is the ex-husband of her new friend and has to keep both from finding out – could be on a sitcom, the execution is far above that level. The great Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (who is one of the best television actresses ever – and has sadly never really found a place in movies) is excellent in the lead role – a long divorced single mom with a daughter about to go away to college, who meets the sweet, lovable James Gandolfini at a party, and surprising even herself, the two start dating. There is a large ensemble cast – some great work done by Toni Collette and Catherine Keener among others – but the heart of the movie is between these two characters as the slowly fall in love, but have their relationship threatened by Dreyfuss’ lies. Yes, this could have been sitcom level stuff – or worse, typical Hollywood romantic comedy stuff – but the writing and direction by Holofcener, and especially the two central performances elevate it well beyond that level. If this was a sitcom, it would be the best one on TV not named Louie.

28. Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)
Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain is the best film of his career – a pitch black comedy about three steroid taking, idiot body builders who want the American dream – but have no way of getting it other than through robbery and murder. Mark Wahlberg is very good as the idiot ringleader, but Dwayne Johnson is even better as the born again Christian drug addict, who goes off the deep end as the film moves along. As with every Michael Bay film, there is nothing subtle about Pain & Gain – the film is fast paced, quickly edited and loud. You can say the film is big, loud and dumb if you want to – but that is precisely what the film should be as the film is about guys who are big, loud and dumb. If anyone other than Bay had made the film, it would have been a lot more acclaimed than it was.

27. The Dirties (Matthew Johnson)
Matthew Johnson’s little seen little loved film is a cult film in the making. In its first scene it makes a joke about Gasper Noe’s Irreversible, and from then on the movie references come fast and furious for the rest of its runtime. Yet, this is not a comedy – or not just a comedy anyway – as the film is really about a movie obsessed high school student, played by Johnson himself, who plans a school shooting – first a fake one as part of his movie he’s making for school, and later a real one. The shift is gradual, as eventually he stops just referencing other movies, and starts planning his own. Meanwhile his friend, who at first seems okay with the plan, discovers that perhaps life isn’t as bleak as he thought, and wants to back out. The film is a treasure trove for movie lovers who can play spot the reference – but it’s far more than that. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is, and probably always will be, the best “school shooting” movie ever made. The Dirties is as close as anything else I have seen to matching it.

26. Our Children (Joachim Lafosse)
An exceedingly bleak foreign film – this one from Belgium. Emile Dequenne delivers an excellent performance as a woman who marries a man (Tahar Rahim) who is beholden to an older man (Niels Arestrup) – and their odd living arrangement, and their many children, gradually wear her down until she does the unthinkable. This is a film that certainly doesn’t excuse its main characters actions, but does make you understand them in an odd way. The film is extremely claustrophobic, trapping us right alongside its main character, who feels she has no way out and is trapped in the house with these two men, to be treated like a maid or worse. She is so powerless to control anything that she finally snaps and decides to take control. It is a harrowing film – a bleak, dark one – but a brilliant examination of what makes one woman snap.

25. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengass)
Paul Greengrass’s thriller was expertly paced and crafted with his trademark style. It gives viewers what they expect and want in a film like this – a tense standoff between pirates and Tom Hanks’ title character – an American ship captain who is taken hostage and waits to be rescued. Taken as a pure thriller, Captain Phillips works remarkably well. Yet, the film also gives audiences a little bit more than that. The film offers a complex portrait of one of the pirates – brilliantly played by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. This makes this more than a standoff between good and evil – but rather a standoff between the first and third worlds – while the film doesn’t excuse the pirates actions, it does seek to humanize them. The action climax, while it does offer the expected action sequence, doesn’t really seek to glamorize the violence. Then the movie takes things a step or two farther, and shows the trauma suffered by Hanks’ Phillips. In his breakdown scene, Hanks perhaps delivers the best single moment of acting of his career – and helps to make this more than “just a thriller”.

24. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
No film has grown in my mind – and upon rewatching it – more than The Place Beyond the Pines this year. I still think the first segment – about Ryan Gosling’s daredevil turned bank robber – is far and away the films best, and the second segment, dealing with Bradley Cooper’s police officer is the weakest, before it regains some momentum in the third chapter about their sons. But I appreciate the ambition behind the film more than I did when I first saw it – how the first segment hangs over the rest of the film as a constant reminder of death. The ensemble work truly is exceptional – best is still Gosling, but the performances by Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendolsohn, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen and Bradley Cooper are also excellent on closer inspection. The film was one of several 1970s crime movie throwbacks this year – and probably the best of the bunch. The film does not have the immediate impact that director Derek Cianfrance’s last film – Blue Valentine – has. But it a deep, expertly crafted film that more than shows that he is one of the best young directors to watch.

23. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu made his long awaited follow-up to his Palme D’or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days with this film – another about a complex relationship between two women. In this one, a woman who has moved away from Romanian returns to try and talk her best friend, who grew up in an orphanage with her, to come with her to get a new job. The problem is her friend has become a nun, and lives in a convent with strict rules – and the other nuns, and the priest, think that perhaps this outsider is possessed. The film is long, slowly paced and bleak in the extreme. However, everything is not quite as simple as it appears – while what the nuns and the Priest do in the film is horrible they remain good people who did what they did with the best of intentions – and only after it’s clear that no one else is going to step up to do anything. The chemistry between the two leads – that suggest more than just friendship in their shared past – is excellent, adding to the slowly mounting tension in the film. We are used to seeing exorcisms on screen – but you’ve never seen it dealt quite like this before. A worthy follow-up to a truly great film – and a further sign than Mungiu is one of the leaders of Romanian cinema.

22. The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s latest film is a crime movie that is far more interested in creating atmosphere than in its plot. It involves a group of young, fairly rich LA teenagers who break into celebrities houses and make off with thousands of dollars in jewelry, clothing and other accessories – often times without the celebrities even noticing. Some thought Coppola sympathized with the teens – but I don’t. She sees them as products of a shallow, empty celebrity/consumerist culture that includes them, and the people they rip off – who she observes the same way. The film is a typically striking visual film from Coppola – great cinematography by the late, great Harris Savides (including one of the very best shots of the year – seen from a distance as a pair of the teens go into a house and rob it at length). Coppola was a critics darling for all of one film – Lost in Translation back in 2004 – but since then although she’s continued to make interesting films, the critics haven’t quite be as generous. This was one of a number of films this year to look at America’s fame and money obsessed culture – and while most of the others went large and loud, Coppola goes subtle and quiet. It’s her best film since Lost in Translation.

21. Stoker (Park Chan-wook)
The history of foreign auteurs coming to Hollywood has not been especially good. But Korean master Park Chan-wook delivered the goods with his Hollywood debut Stoker – a stylish thriller that features a great lead performance by Mia Wasikowska as a teenage girl with a bitch of a mother (Nicole Kidman, because she plays a bitch so well), a recently deceased father, and a very strange Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Hitchcock references abound in Stoker (much more than just the name Uncle Charlie), and Park proves he can craft a grisly thriller for American audiences, while toning down the extremes levels of violence that have marked his Korean films like Oldboy or Thirst (at least a little). Stoker was an early year highlight – and is one of those films that grow the more I look back on it. It’s rare to find a thriller this stylish – but Park played it just right. Now, if only more audiences paid attention to the film.

No comments:

Post a Comment