It’s nearly over. The extended farrago over who’s better than who and the flood of yet more pointless platitudes from the supposedly great and good of Hollywood comes to an end for another year in the early hours of Monday morning UK time, with the 497th Academy Awards (probably). It’s not been a bad year for films, and the awards voters in Hollywood have got a lot more right than wrong this year. Gradually, the large field of contenders has been whittled down to just nine, through a process of expensive advertising and devious marketing, and the times when The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks or The Counselor were being considered seriously for awards greatness – in other words, before people actually saw them – have long since passed, and we’re now firmly at the business end. In just over two days, Hollywood will allow a select band of people to upgrade to “Academy Award Winner” when they’re mentioned in trailers for serious films, while a host of others will have to remain content with “Academy Award Nominee” or, somewhat inexplicably the best he can yet do, “BAFTA Award Nominee / SAG Award Nominee / Independent Spirit Award Winner Paul Dano”.
For the third time in the four years that the blog has been running, I’ve managed to see all of the nominees in all of the big eight categories (picture, director, acting, writing) by the time the awards happen, compared to the two occasions I could claim that before I started blogging. However, this has led me occasionally to be sat in front of a film simply so I could claim a full house on my Oscar bingo card – mainly because I like to feel informed when I criticise the Academy for its poor decision making – but this year my only real regret was seeing The Butler about two days before it seemed to lose all of its awards momentum. At least I got to claim a full house at BAFTA as well, and I could answer the question as to whether Oprah Winfrey deserved a nod ahead of June Squibb. (Answer: no. I’m sure Oprah will be crying herself to sleep on a giant bed made of money and success at my decision.)
The process has, inevitably, thrown up a few films that should have got more love, but were inhibited either by their very nature or by the resistance of their distributors to spend flipping great wodges of cash taking out ten page ads in Variety asking voters to please, please, pretty please remember their film when casting their vote for Best Art Direction or Sound Editing. In a different year, with a slightly different sensibility, or if the Academy actually understood what people in general mean by “Best”, we might have seen Short Term 12 (too indie), Frozen (too animated), Prisoners (it looked too generic from the trailer – it wasn’t), The Great Beauty and The Hunt (too subtitled, even when one stars an actual person famous to Americans in Mads Mikkelsen), Iron Man 3 (too mainstream), The Act Of Killing (documentaries should know their place, apparently), Inside Llewyn Davis (too miserable without being melodromatic) or Before Midnight (too sequel-y). All of them are better than the first three on this list, Before Midnight better than most, but we should at least be grateful the list we do have doesn’t have any real stinkers in it.
So, for the third time in four years, here’s my ordering of the nominees for Best Picture, from least best to most best.
The Least Best Picture is Dallas Buyers Club
We should all be duly relieved when something of the quality of Dallas Buyers Club is the least of the nominees in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy about Dallas Buyers Club: the performances of both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are excellent and I wouldn’t begrudge either the awards they’re nominated for (although they’re not necessarily the best). Details of Ron Woodroff’s real life may have been somewhat sketchy, leading to this being a little more myth-making than accurate reporting, but it’s the kind of story that needs a little myth-making when all’s said and done.
There are three main problems with Dallas Buyers Club. First is the lack of other characters: Jennifer Garner – who, apropos of nothing, looks amazing for 41 and being married to Ben Affleck – only develops into a living, breathing character around the halfway mark, and no-one else gets a look in; the lack of character development for Ron’s fellow club worker Denise, for example, is almost breathtaking. Secondly, it’s a story in need of a better ending, saddled with a feeling of anticlimax. And thirdly, although it has no bearing on the quality of the finished product, there really should be an apostrophe in that title.
Which is not as good as American Hustle
American Hustle is the movie equivalent of a decent Chinese takeaway: satisfying and enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but for some reason leaves you unfulfilled not long after. Much of what there is to enjoy is down to the performances, from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to Christian Bale’s sleazy conman. While Jennifer Lawrence might be a little miscast, it would take a genuine curmudgeon to take too much offence with her stroppy headbanging, but the real highlight is Amy Adams once again twisting any man in a five mile radius round her little finger.
But beyond the quality of the acting, the rest feels as threadbare as Christian Bale’s wig / comb-over combo. There feels little new about the story or its handful of twists, and David O. Russell’s direction lacks the narrative drive or visual flair of many of his contemporaries. It’s undoubtedly in awards contention thanks to the quality of the performances and the large voting bloc that the actors make up in the Academy, but whether or not that support will carry Hustle to the big prize remains to be seen. It won’t quite be a Crash-level shock if it does, but it will be almost as unjustified.
Which is not as good as Philomena
I have to confess that I was checking my watch around an hour into Philomena. It wasn’t for any lack of enjoyment, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script was doing an efficient job of pitching up the cultural differences between Coogan’s journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as the titular Catholic mother looking for the son taken from her decades earlier, but it had never quite caught fire. Treading a tricky line between serious issue drama and gentle Brit comedy, it wasn’t so much that it couldn’t decide which to settle on, more that it was content to be a reasonable example of both.
But the power of Philomena comes in the last third, when the true nature of events has unfolded and the gentle events of the first two acts actually work to blind side you to what’s coming. Dench is, unsurprisingly, outstanding but Coogan also proves his dramatic chops and shown that he can be more than just Alan Partridge. It was a good year for Coogan, with Partridge’s big screen foray also being well received, and stranger things have happened than Philomena picking up a screenplay award in the big shakedown.
Which is not as good as Nebraska
Alexander Payne is becoming a reassuring brand of quality, but after the slight dip of The Descendants – hamstrung by too much repetition of scenes of explaining that someone had died – Payne has once again found his groove with a slice of family life in the American Midwest. Pulling in a wide variety of family members, it’s a slightly skewed road trip led by Bruce Dern’s befuddled father insisting that he’s come up trumps in the lottery. While Dern has drawn the lion’s share of the acting plaudits, June Squibb also has an Oscar nomination for her efforts and Will Forte has redeemed himself for a fair chunk of over-the-top comedy performances with his restrained showing.
But it’s not just the director that’s pulled his weight. Bob Nelson’s script feels so in tune with Payne’s sympathies I did a double take when seeing Payne didn’t write it as the end credits scrolled. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography also avoids cliché and justifies the decision for monochrome shooting, and Nebraska is beautifully paced and allows you to fall in love with its characters despite their flaws. It looks as if nominations are the best that Nebraska can hope for, but against the quality of the opposition, there’s no shame in that.
Which is not as good as Captain Phillips
It wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a huge and unfair omission from the list, and probably the person most justifiably allowed to bear a grudge – even though he already has two shiny gold man-shaped bookends at home – would be Tom Hanks. Stoic and restrained for the majority, his performance in the denouement is gripping and fearlessly honest, and to not even take a nomination is a shame. Paul Greengrass also does his usual bang-up job with the direction, and if that award wasn’t filled with so many strong contenders he would have also been worth a nomination.
Captain Phillips is taut and compelling in all the ways that Greengrass’s earlier features, from United 93 to the Bourne films, were and that his previous film Green Zone wasn’t, so if nothing else it’s just a relief to see Greengrass back on top form. He’s also pulled some great performances from his Somali novices, and Barkhad Abdi is a standard bearer for that part of the cast. Captain Phillips avoids any feelings of exploitation and gives a balanced view of the story, as is so often the case with Paul Greengrass, but it’s not quite at the level of those earlier classics.
Which is not as good as Her
Observation 1: Joaquim Phoenix and Amy Adams should always make films together, if The Master and Her are the benchmark of the quality of their collaborations. They get a lot more screen time together, and while Scarlett Johansson’s OS is the object of Phoenix’s affections, it’s Adams that gives him a warm, balanced human interaction. Observation 2: Spike Jonze, we’ve missed you. Only one film since Adaptation in 2002, let’s hope that Jonze can find more stories that inspire him, especially as Her shows that the quality of his writing is easily the equal of his directing and feels in tune with his earlier work from other writers.
Observation 3: Even five years ago, it’s difficult to imagine a film like this working as well as it does, but Jonze’s timing is impeccable, our acceptance of technology now enabling us to accept such a concept so readily. Despite being saddled with the most unlikely name in the history of movies and facial hair that verges on comedic, Theodore Twimbly draws in your sympathies and you find yourself rooting for his and Samantha’s relationship to work. Observation 4: What keeps this from true greatness is the slightly fudged ending, which while being brave enough doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as the rest of the film.
Observation 5: Any film that can actually make me start to like Arcade Fire is doing something clearly right.
Which is not as good as The Wolf Of Wall Street
It’s three hours, Matthew McConaughey is relegated to an extended cameo and it’s been accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victims while its misogyny poorly serves the female characters. Does that stop it being one of Martin Scorcese’s top tier films? Not in my view. The length works in its favour, giving true scope to the true excess that defined Jordan Belfort’s era of ultimate debauchery. It would have been lovely to have more of McConaughey, but there’s enough in the other characters, from DiCaprio’s physical comedy to Johan Hill’s cheesy grin and a whole array of entertaining supporting turns.
The sympathy for the victims is trickier, as we only see one person being sucked into the scheme, but whereas the comparisons to Goodfellas are well founded, that was an indictment of a lifestyle on the fringes of society. The Wolf Of Wall Street is more of a condemnation of the culture that arose, and where the desperate needs of so many allowed them to be so easily exploited by Belfort and his cronies. As for the treatment of female characters, this is a realisation of Belfort’s view, and to attempt to give a politically correct balance to the characters would have undermined the callousness of Belfort’s world. It isn’t quite Goodfellas, but frankly, what is? When Scorcese’s legacy comes to be written, this should deserve a decent paragraph.
Which is not as good as Gravity
Watching the making of videos for Gravity serves to underline quite what a technical achievement Alfonso Cuaron’s film is. The sheer level of new techniques, melded with established practices pushed to their very limits, creates a cinematic experience unlike any which have gone before and despite the success of space-based epics such as Avatar and 3D improvements like Life Of Pi, Gravity is immersive and impressive in ways that truly haven’t been seen before, and as much as I’m about to rave about 12 Years A Slave in the next section, I can’t help but feel for his breadth of vision and the clarity of his purpose, Cuaron deserves the best director award this year.
The story is painted with broad strokes but deals in metaphor and has slightly alienated some; there are no shortage of character moments, and Sandra Bullock has overcome the technical challenges imposed by the role to deliver a sympathetic study in loneliness. It will be remembered for what’s seen – and to a certain extent, what’s heard, as the music and sound design complement the visuals perfectly – but the quality of the other departments, in both writing and acting, doesn’t in any way let the side down. Gravity is one of a number of films touring cinemas as part of awards season, so if you haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, don’t let the chance pass you by, and make sure to see it in 3D.
The Best Picture Of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave
I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen’s cinematic work since his first film, Hunger, and I rated Shame as my film of the year in 2012. You can understand that I then approached 12 Years A Slave with a little trepidation: as McQueen edges ever closer to the mainstream, would his vision be compromised? Could his third film possibly live up to the hype? Such questions seem almost trivial once you’ve seen the film, and McQueen has once again delivered a near perfect blend of his own direction, coupled with an acting masterclass and a script that judges just the right moments to deliver a searing portrayal of life in the slave trade.
I’ve been known to cry in the cinema before, from the heartbreak of the final meal in Of Gods And Men to the tragedy of a life told in montage in Up. It is fair to say that I am in touch with all of my emotions once I’m in the darkened environs of a cinema. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years A Slave completely destroyed me. Rather than sobbing, tears just streamed down my face at regular intervals, I had to sit in the car for best part of half an hour while I composed myself afterwards and required a beer at the hotel I was staying at for work afterwards to enable me to sleep.
McQueen’s shot composition is from the man of a mind that grew out of art galleries but is now equally comfortable in cinemas. Here he proves beyond any doubt that he’s equally invested in his characters, portrayed as they are so devastatingly by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. John Ridley’s script has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of the era, and 12 Years A Slave is supremely dramatic and heartbreaking without ever feeling overwrought. The only misstep might be the inclusion of producer Brad Pitt in a small role, but that’s easily forgivable given the offscreen influence he’s likely to have been able to bring to getting this made. If 12 Years A Slave wins big, then McQueen shouldn’t have any difficulty attracting whoever he wants for his next project.
12 Years A Slave is an aspect of slavery rather than a complete picture, as last year’s Django Unchained and Lincoln also explored different facets. But it exceeds either of those films in its insight into both human suffering and ultimately compassion, tinged with hope as much as it is burdened by suffering and anger. In my view, Steve McQueen has now made the two most compelling films I’ve seen this decade, and I can only hope that Hollywood shares this feeling and duly rewards it tonight.
2013 might just be another year in terms of film, but it’s been a landmark year in terms of my own contribution to the world of local film. If you’ll indulge me before we get down to business, just a few thank yous I need to put out there. I’ve continued to contribute to Cambridge 105 radio show Bums On Seats, and this year hosted the show three times as well. Huge and hearty thanks to the legend that is Toby Miller, captain of the good ship Bums and the man whose robust editing has come close to making me make sense for the first time in my life, and to all of the other reviewers who’ve had to put up with me throughout the course of the year.
I’ve also had my first reviews published during the Cambridge Film Festival on proper Cambridge film website Take One, and thanks to Rosy Hunt, Gavin Midgley and the team at Take One for embracing me so warmly. (Take One give a writer’s guidance which includes avoiding long sentences; I hope they’re not reading this post too closely.) I also hosted a Q & A at the Abbeygate Picturehouse and four during the Cambridge Film Festival as well as appearing on a panel earlier in the year, so thanks to Jonathan and Pat and the rest of the team at the Abbeygate, Keith, Jack and the rest of the team at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and Tony Jones, Verena, Claire and Emily and all those from the film festival team who supported me through the good times and the Honour Q & A where I ended up shouting questions from the sidelines after my microphone packed up and we only had ten minutes.
2013 will also be remembered as the year that we fought the fight against the Competition Commission’s decision that three cinemas owned by Cineworld need to be sold off, two of them being in the two places (Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds) where I see 90% of my films each year. I’ve written more words on this subject than I care to think about and appeared four times on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and once on the BBC’s national local radio network to discuss and challenge the position, and also freaked a few people out in the village when my radio friendly face popped up on BBC Look East’s nightly news, and the fight – while taking a brief pause while Cineworld Group continue their battle with the Commission – will undoubtedly rumble on into 2014 once the outcome becomes clearer.
When that happens, you will probably see a lot more words from me in both print and in other media, but for now I’d just like to thank all those who have helped and supported the fight and helped to put together the 15,000 strong petition, including Hugh, Mike, Anthony, Amanda, Becky, Jim, Janis, many of the aforementioned and literally hundreds of others who gave time to the debate in some way, including Cambridge MP Julian Huppert and Lord Clancarty who respectively raised the debate in the House Of Commons and the House of Lords and MPs Sir James Paice and Sir Malcolm Bruce who took the time to write with updates, and Chris Mann and the team at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire who put up with me calling from a meeting room in Preston on one occasion. If I’ve missed anyone at all in any of those lists, then please know that your contribution and support was just as valued, there’s just no room to name everyone.
EDIT: In what’s known in film circles as “doing a Hilary Swank”, I forgot to thank my wife, whose tolerance, patience and general humouring of my obsessive compulsive tendencies continue to make all of this possible. For the record her favourites of the year, of the 15 films she saw with me, were Les Misérables (just outside my top 40), Despicable Me 2 (I laughed, but it’s really just minions) and Frozen (see below). This edit has thankfully saved me from not only a divorce, but also having to buy her a kitten.
In among all that, I still managed to see some films. For the first time since starting this blog, half a dozen of those were watched at home, either as screeners or DVD catch-ups for films I’d missed. I also saw 167 films at the cinema, of which 14 were re-releases. I’m also including in this consideration the three films I saw at the London Film Festival in 2012 that I held over from last year. That leaves a total of 162 films that I saw which were released in cinemas either this year or appeared at FrightFest or the Cambridge Film Festival and may yet get a theatrical release in 2014. This top 40 is the cream of that particular crop, and everything on the list scored 8/10 or better when I reviewed it.
As always, there were a few gaps, which included the likes of Gangs Of Wasseypur, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, both of Alex Gibney’s documentaries, I Am Nasrine, Child’s Pose, What Maisie Knew, In A World…, Compliance, Metro Manila, Kill Your Darlings and a host of others. I am always open to recommendations, so let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed something, or where you can berate me for not selecting Stories We Tell, Frances Ha, Rush, Zero Dark Thirty, Blancanieves, No, Blue Jasmine, Les Misérables or any of the other films I did see but that didn’t make this list.
Right, without further ado, here are the forty films which most entertained, challenged, touched or delighted me in 2013.
40. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
We start the list with a film that’s left me feeling somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, Walter Mitty is ragingly predictable, occasionally clumsy and – thanks to Ben Stiller’s gift for making expensive, non-commercial films – packed full of more product placement than two or three Bond films. On the other, it’s deeply felt without descending into mawkishness, has some beautifully constructed moments and I was this far from getting a Cinnabon when in town yesterday afternoon. Stiller manages to make his Mitty sympathetic and his transition believable, and for all his and the film’s faults it was a post-Christmas treat.
I’m not sure of any other culture that could get away with someone as totally abhorrent as James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson, at least not in the sense of his character being so spectacularly unpleasant. But it’s a role that James McAvoy tackles head on, not shying away from either the more deranged excesses or the deeper flaws that embody the nature of Robertson’s personality. It’s nice to see that Trainspotting wasn’t a one-off in being able to transfer an Irvine Welsh novel to the screen successfully, but for all of the good supporting work from the likes of Eddie Marsan and Imogen Poots this is McAvoy’s film, and he’s a mesmeric force of nature.
I would love to be able to say that, growing up, I had regular access to the BFI and a subscription to Sight and Sound, which has made me the cultured cinephile that I am today. But I’ve taken a rather more circuitous route to film fandom, one which has its roots in a rather dingy dungeon with no windows filled with VHS tapes below a corner shop which provided much of the film watching of my teens. Rewind This! is a loving exploration of how VHS changed the landscape of film, both for better or for worse, and was a thorough and fascinating look at those still keeping the format alive against all the odds. I’m now cherishing my last few VHS tapes with even more fondness.
37. Dead Cat
One of those Q & A sessions at the Cambridge Film Festival I mentioned was with Stefan Georgiou, director of this British film which played there three times. Having seen the film on a screener, I introduced Stefan at the start of the film and then stayed in for around 15 minutes, watching the audience try to work out what to make of a film which opens on a shot of a dead cat (thankfully from natural causes). I came back for the last twenty minutes, by which time I found an audience fully engaged with the film and appreciating both the well-constructed laughs and the poignancy of the central relationship, which considers second chances in love and if you can ever go back. The Q & A afterwards ran to around 40 minutes and was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever hosted, and the inclusion of this film is in no way reflective of any bias at all, honest, probably not, well maybe a tiny bit, it’s my list and I can do what I want, shut up. Still touring festivals, hopefully you’ll see more of both Stefan and his dead cat in the future, and I look forward to seeing it again. (I may just not watch it with my cat.)
Prince Avalanche is the intersection of two slightly bewildering career paths. Paul Rudd has found fame in Friends and Anchorman, but has become slightly pigeonholed into comedies of the likes of the dire Wanderlust when not showing off the contents of his wall cabinets of perfume and condoms. David Gordon Green made his name with small, independent dramas before branching off into broad, alpha-male comedies such as Pineapple Express. Put the two together, and they’ve created this delightful slice of life in the American countryside. Rudd and Emile Hirsch are both hiding from real life by painting road lines in the wilderness ravaged by forest fire, but what they find – including real life survivor Joyce Payne who lost her home in the fire – has a touching beauty and sense of loss that complements the offbeat humour, with Tim Orr’s cinematography making stunning use of the burned-out landscape.
35. Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon can probably do anything. From taking the charred embers of the failure of his Buffy film script and turning it into not one, but two, successful TV series to managing to make The Avengers a box office behemoth that has guaranteed the future of Marvel films for another decade, he’s had the magic touch and if he put his mind to world peace, he’d probably give it a good go. In a manner that’s almost showing off, he regularly gathers actor friends together to read Shakespeare at his house and committed this production to film in his back garden. It’s got a lightness of touch and glosses over some unlikely Shakespearean plot twists with its winning performances. If you’ve got a kitten stuck in a tree or see a school bus with its brakes cut, Whedon’s probably your go-to guy.
The Place Beyond The Pines justifies a place on this list based on the first of its three acts. Derek Cianfrance’s experiment to focus on three different perspectives of the same story (Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper and Dane De Haan respectively) works less well as time passes, but is nevertheless to be commended for the attempt. What works, works like gangbusters and from the intense opening tracking shot, whenever Gosling’s on screen he proves he’s got detached brooding down to a tee. Cooper and De Haan are good and supported well by a cast including Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelssohn and Ray Liotta, but ultimately it falls short of being the classic promised by the early scenes.
33. The Way Way Back
One of two summer holiday, coming of age films on the list and the more financially successful of the two, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s screenplay for their directorial debut is a world away from their Alexander Payne collaboration The Descendants. It’s not afraid to cast Steve Carell against type or Sam Rockwell very much in type, and it’s anchored by an evolving performance from youngster Liam James. Happy to confess a soft spot for Jim Rash thanks to becoming hooked on Community (where he plays the overenthusiastic Dean Pelton), it’s nice to see that he and Faxon – who also have small supporting roles – are capable of making it on their own. While there’s a host of great support from the likes of Alison Janney and Maya Angelou, it’s Rockwell who marches off with every single scene he’s in.
32. I Wish
It’s taken two years for Hirokazu Koreeda’s eighth narrative feature film to make it into UK cinemas, so long that his ninth (Like Father, Like Son) also made it to these shores this year. I still feel like I’m dipping my toes into Japanese cinema, but the waters around Koreeda seem warm and embracing and my toes feel quite comfortable on this evidence. Centred around the adventures of two groups of children, each with a child from the same family divided by their parents separation and by geography, Koreeda didn’t finish the script until he’d cast the children and their delightful innocence is well contrasted with the world-weariness of the elder generation of their family. A loving examination of the nature of family, friendship and growing-up.
I might only play games on my iPhone these days, the PS3 now a dusty relic in the corner of the room after it stopped serving its sole purpose (to me) of playing Blu-rays earlier this year, but I’ve been enough of a gaming fan over the years to recognise a fair chunk of the cameos and references in Disney’s latest animated delight. In a year when the only Pixar film was a solid but slightly disappointing return to the Monsters Inc. universe, it’s good to see that John Lasseter’s desire to return Disney to the values of old-fashioned storytelling is still paying dividends. Good voice casting across the board helps and famous cameos from the arcades don’t hurt, but it’s the narrative arcs of Ralph and Vanellope that leave the most lasting impression.
Watching the trailers for The Wolf Of Wall Street and Interstallar, it’s hard to work out why it’s taken so long for Matthew McConaughey to become one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Maybe A Time To Kill and his earlier work came too early; now slightly more aged, he’s matured like a fine wine or a well hung steak and is now turning in performance after performance of the highest calibre. While Jeff Nichols’ tale of two children and their adventure around the banks of the Mississippi isn’t quite at the level of his stunning Take Shelter, it’s still made worthwhile by McConaughey’s magnetism; additionally, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the two youngsters, in what’s turned out to be a good year for coming of age stories, are both excellent. Can’t wait to see what Nichols comes up with next, especially as it’s suggested to be sci-fi with shades of John Carpenter.
Given that it’s both the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature from a female Saudi director, you could be forgiven for thinking that Wadjda might arrive with a few rough edges. But instead, director Haifaa al-Mansour’s film arrives fully formed, clearly influenced by the neorealism of other world cinema but nonetheless providing fascinating insights into the life and culture of this middle-Eastern kingdom. It’s not quite a coming of age story for another impressive young actress (Waad Mohammed), more a catalogue of her entrepreneurial frustrations as she attempts to attain the bike she desires but that society would frown upon her having, and it illustrates Saudi society without ever sitting in judgement.
Giving an unusual perspective on a conflict well documented in film, Lore follows a group of children attempting to make their way to safety through post World War II Germany. Indoctrinated into believing the lies of Hitler’s Germany, Lore is a journey of self-discovery for Lore herself (the impressive Saskia Rosendahl) and a fascinating perspective shift on a well-worn subject. Despite its German subject matter, it’s been made by an Australian director with British funding, and Cate Shortland makes excellent use of her landscapes – both the beauty of nature and the fractured buildings in the war’s aftermath – to supplement Lore’s internal conflict. Sadly this one got lost in between the end of the awards season and the start of the blockbuster onrush, but it’s certainly worth another look.
27. Blue Is The Warmest Colour
I stand by my view that, at three hours, this is a story that could have been told more succinctly without losing its raw power and sensitivity, but nearly two months after seeing it many of its images still haunt my memory – and I’m not just talking about the beyond infamous lesbian sex scenes. You’ll not find many better performances all year than those from Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux and for all of the controversy in the wake of its release – not least from the director and the actresses about the methods of filming – only the hardest of hearts will fail to be touched by this exceedingly thorough examination of the nature of love and relationships. (It’s a sad loss to cinema that three hour films now get shown without an intermission, and we’re just a couple of weeks away from another three hour endurance test for your buttocks with Martin Scorsese’s latest.)
You’d think that seeing Edgar Wright’s latest so relatively low on this list would be a disappointment (his last film was my top pick of 2010 and this is his first feature not to get a full 10/10 from me), but I have a suspicion that this is one film which needs time to breathe. I’ve seen this film more than any other over the course of the year, making three trips to see it at the cinema, and if it’s not quite the film many people were expecting then it doesn’t skimp on hard decisions and doesn’t settle for being a lazy retread of its Cornetto trilogy brethren. The fight scenes are breathtaking, choreographed by Brad Allen from Jackie Chan’s stunt team, and Wright’s filming style manages to keep then in sharp enough focus. One to re-evaluate in a couple of years, I think, possibly once Wright’s Ant-Man is upon us.
25. Short Term 12
To see a short film expanded to feature length always carries a risk of a lack of substance, but it’s a pitfall avoided by Destin Cretton’s adaptation of his 2008 short. In the process of that move, Cretton’s also taken the decision to switch his protagonist from male to female. Brie Larson’s excellent performance – strong, conflicted and empathetic by turns and never following predictable patterns – is surrounded by a variety of similarly layered efforts from a young cast showing a maturity beyond their years. It loses points slightly for snipping off every single one of its loose ends before the close, but that shouldn’t detract from the the power of many of the earlier scenes.
A strong year for Disney animation, this is a return to classic values in every sense. As well as being a very loose adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story, it’s an old fashioned musical with catchy Broadway-style tunes and one of the most appealing sidekicks in years in Josh Gad’s naive snowman Olaf. Kristin Bell shows hitherto unseen musical talents and provides a worthy counterpoint to Idina Menzel’s angsty warbling. While the animation is solid without being showy, the evidence of the two audiences I saw this with (once alone for reviewing purposes and a second time with Mrs Evangelist) showed that the younger members of the audience were fully invested and absolutely entranced. With enough knowing humour to keep adults interested as well, this is Disney’s best for some time and while it’s not a daring revolution, it does have the occasional unexpected story wrinkle which drew audible gasps both times I saw it and had one small child shouting at the screen. Love it.
23. A Story Of Children And Film
It feels totally apposite when applauding so many great performances from young actors in film this year that this latest documentary from Mark Cousins should also make the list. Due for a wider release later this year, it’s an absolute must for anyone looking to expand their understanding not only of the role of children in cinema but of cinema as an art form in general. Cousins takes a twelve minute shot of his niece and nephew with a marble game and, with the help of editor Timo Langer and researcher Neil McGlone, weaves a compelling tapestry with clips of dozens of films, from the American mainstream to the outer reaches of world cinema. It helps that I don’t think I could ever grow tired of listening to Cousins’ relaxed brogue talking about film, but if you could then this is an ideal bite-sized chunk of film education.
(Incidentally, I had one of those marble games as a child and it was one of my favourite toys ever; if anyone knows where I can get one cheap without me having to go to the trouble of Googling it, do let me know.)
There’s no bigger thrill for me than seeing a film with a large audience that’s totally into it, and I saw Cheap Thrills as the late night screening in the Empire Leicester Square – an auditorium holding over 1,000 people until recently – and Cheap Thrills was absolutely worth the drive home from Leicester Square at half past one in the morning after a long day in the cinema. Once you’ve got past the novelty value of David “the other one from Anchorman” Koechner actually being given a decent role, an opportunity he grasps with relish, then Cheap Thrills judges the escalation of its simple scenario perfectly. It’s a high concept – rich man gets his kicks by offering two men desperate for money for completing increasingly twisted tasks – but one that provides laughs, drama and had 1,000 people clenched on the edge of their seats by the final act. It’s getting a limited US theatrical release in March after touring the festivals, and I hope it makes it to a cinema screen again in this country as it’s worth seeing with as big an audience as possible for its darkly comic thrills.
The first film I saw in 2013, and an excellent benchmark by which to judge the rest. I love photographic documentaries, and it’s an art form I’d love to explore in more detail. The richness and deep emotion of Don McCullin’s single frames are perfectly captured on screen, and the use of archive footage and new interviews also gives a valuable insight into McCullin himself, a man never content to be a passive observer of the horrors of the world he did so much to document. In an age when print media, the foundation for four decades of his work, is under threat, it’s to be hoped that there area still opportunities for the McCullins of this world to get their work seen, but this is a gripping examination of the power of the camera lens and its ability to shock and to challenge the viewer.
20. Beyond The Hills
Cristian Mungiu’s latest is an examination of the place of the church in contemporary Romanian society, and what comes over initially as a condemnation of the facile view of the church and the potential effect on its believers, it gradually reveals itself as something much more complex. It’s drawn comparisons to Mungiu’s previous 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, favourably for both its two strong female protagonists (in this case Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur) and for Mungiu’s striking use of framing, superbly backed up by Oleg Mutu’s stark, earthy cinematography. It’s initially static and may be only for those willing to let their films breathe and find their space, but by the end its descent into a reality bordering on horror (all the more so for its inspiration in fact) is worth the effort for those with the patience.
Many people were taken this year with Park Chan-wook’s first English language film this year, although a fair few were also alienated, either by the extensive drawing on the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock – Wentworth Miller, the unlikely screenwriter, has admitted the influence of Shadow Of A Doubt – or by finding the film style over substance. When the style’s this good, you could be forgiven for not being too concerned about the rest, but Park has a strong cast on top form willing to nudge a few boundaries and I fell into the camp in love with this quietly disturbed thriller. Clint Mansell’s brooding score helps the mood no end, but it’s Park’s powerful construction of imagery that lingers longest.
One performance towered over every other this year, with Daniel Day Lewis deservedly picking up a third Oscar for his portrayal of America’s finest elder statesman. Having started my 2014 cinema year yesterday with Idris Elba’s Mandela, it provides two interesting contrasts: firstly, where the Mandela biopic attempts to shoehorn fifty years of his life into a two hour run time, Lincoln shows the sense of focusing on a much shorter period, in this case the battle to bring in the Thirteenth Amendment. It also shows that, as good as Elba’s performance is as Nelson Mandela, it’s still recognisably Idris Elba acting. Day Lewis, infamously method and none more so than here, disappears into the role completely it feels more akin to time travel than watching a performance. Spielberg’s direction is satisfactory without being showy and John Williams’ score is predictable, but this is a showcase for yet another towering performance.
A step up for Alexander Payne after the somewhat morbidly obsessed The Descendants, it came as a shock to me at the end of the film when the credits rolled and Payne wasn’t listed as the screenwriter. However, the material is a perfect fit for his sensibilities and his casting is impeccable; it would be difficult now to think of anyone other than Bruce Dern or Will Forte filling those roles, despite the likes of Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson (for the father) and Bryan Cranston and Matthew Modine (for the son) being shortlisted. The black and white cinematography is a good match for Payne’s tale of squashed optimism in the American midwest, a collection of tortured souls with a still-beating heart that binds them together.
16. Captain Phillips
In reviewing films, I always aim to come to a judgement based on a single viewing, and often have a figure in my head for the final score out of ten very early on. It’s safe to say that the last fifteen minutes or so of Captain Phillips may have put as much as two points on the final score of Paul Greengrass’ latest, and if there was an award for Most Valuable Player in film this year, Tom Hanks would be a strong candidate. He gets a variety of opportunities to remind you why he’s got two Oscars in the trophy cabinet back home, but Greengrass builds an atmosphere of unbroken tension amid his military fetishism to give Hanks’ performance the platform it needs.
My favourite horror of the year, which first played at Frightfest and which I caught in their stream at the Cambridge Film Festival this year. It’s an almost pitch-black comedy with undertones so dark they have their own gravitational pull, as two Israeli film makers, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, take three horror or drama stock characters – the father out for revenge for his daughter’s death, the suspected perpetrator and the bent cop willing to go outside the law to bring him to justice – and throws them together in unexpected ways. Frequently tense and with flecks of absurdity, it’s a fantastic calling card for Keshales and Papushado and is recommended for anyone who likes their horrors tart and uncompromising.
14. Upstream Colour
In my earlier list of films I’ve not seen, I didn’t mention To The Wonder; I’ve struggled so much with Terrence Malick’s last two films that it may be the only film I consciously avoided this year. Upstream Colour drew comparisons with Malick’s work for the composed beauty of many of its shots and for the sparse dialogue for much of the running time, but in terms of it’s plotting it couldn’t be further removed from the deliberate obfuscation of Malick’s constructions. Imagine instead a lengthy Malickian epic edited down to a breezy ninety minutes and with only the relevant information from any scene retained. Challenging but ultimately rewarding, it’s in direct contrast to Shane Carruth’s previous film Primer which was far more enjoyable to think about afterwards than it was to watch. Thankfully Upstream Colour succeeds both in the moment as well as lingering and provoking for days afterwards.
One of the biggest disappointments of my year as a member of a cinema audience is the complete lack of people who came to the first screening of Lucy Walker’s latest documentary at the Cambridge Film Festival this year, perhaps put off by the thought of a collection of dunderheaded snow jockeys eulogising their sport for an hour and a half. But The Crash Reel is something entirely different, a cautionary tale and a crushing indictment of the culture that surrounds snowboarding and the pressure on its participants to perform increasingly dangerous stunts for entertainment, often at the risk of their own health and all too often at the cost of their own life. At the core of The Crash Reel is the story of Kevin Pearce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury just prior to the last Winter Olympics and the struggles of his family, including his father and his brothers (one of whom has Down’s Syndrome) to get Kevin to come to terms with what’s happened. Impossible to watch extreme sports in the same light once you’ve seen this.
12. The Kings Of Summer
Yes, it’s another teens in summer movie, but what helped The Kings Of Summer to stand out from the crowd was the tight script, with some of the year’s most quotable dialogue, and the excellent performances. Nick Offernan and Megan Mullally are particular highlights among the parents but the year’s best comic creation has to be Moises Arias’ Biaggio, with his talk of disillusioned bears and his unconvincing camouflage. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ direction and Chris Galletta’s script capture sublimely both the attempts to avoid the ennui of the summer holidays and the frequent, compelling absurdity of childhood that is often lost as we pass through adolescence.
The trailer made it look like another generic Hollywood thriller, but anyone familiar with Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Incendies will have expected more, and hopefully won’t have been disappointed. An all-star cast all get at least a moment for their acting showreels, but its the tortured yin and yang of Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall that propels Prisoners forward. Never feeling overstretched at two and a half hours, Villeneuve’s confident and gripping thriller isn’t afraid to look into its own soul and to grapple with what it finds in there, capped off with an ending that retains ambiguity without feeling a cheat.
10. Side Effects
Dear Steven Soderbergh, if you have retired from directing then thanks very much for one of the most varied and enjoyable careers of the last few decades. If you decided to leave people wanting more, then Side Effects was the best way to go about it, a psychological thriller with more twists and turns than a Curly Wurly left out in the sun and just as much of a deliciously naughty treat. It manages to use big themes and turn them into window dressing, but never at the expense of them or the plot. If you feel you might still have it in you for one or two more films of this calibre, even a few years down the line, we’d remain most wholeheartedly interested. Yours faithfully, your audience.
I caught a few minutes of the Tim Allen film The Shaggy Dog on TV over Christmas, with a hyper and excited Robert Downey Jr. slumming it in a criminal role (in more than one sense of the word). It seemed as if Kiss Kiss Bang Bang wouldn’t fulfil its potential in reviving Downey Jr’s career, but here we are just seven years later, reunited with Shane Black and now one of the world’s most bankable stars, thanks in no small part to ol’ Shiny Helmet himself. Iron Man Three is not only the best of the Iron Man movies (standing equal with the first hour of the original), but overall betters anything so far to come out of the Marvel machine since the Avengers programme started and if any of the slate of the next two years matches this quality, we should be loudly satisfied.
8. The Great Beauty
I turn 40 next month, and Mrs Evangelist has some form of surprise up her sleeve. It will have to go some to top my thirty-fifth birthday, a week spent in Rome and a visit to the Vatican on the day itself. (The next day we went to the Coliseum, only to find it closed due to strike action. That’s Rome for you.) The Great Beauty captures a variety of facets of this cosmopolitan city to startling effect, and as a whole becomes greater than the sum of its not insignificant parts. Hands up, as part of my film education programme I’ve still not seen any Fellini – hopefully this year – so I may not have the basis for comparison of a learned film critic, but The Great Beauty thrilled and tantalised me in equal measure.
The most divisive film of this or many other years, it appeared on both The Guardian and Little White Lies top 10s of the year, but also popped up in Empire’s worst of the year list. It’s a completely different beast to Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous run-out in Drive, although the uberviolence, Ryan Gosling and a throbbing, pulsating score from Cliff Martinez all make a return this time. They’re joined by a heap of Thai-themed style, a dragon-like Kristin Scott Thomas and an angel of vengeance with a magically appearing samurai sword. It’s a film to be absorbed rather than enjoyed and its pleasures are none more guilty, but I gleefully drank in every seedy frame.
When I first started blogging, I had a private concern that some of my opinions were too far from the mainstream to be of any use. (Actually, my choices do tend to line up with the general public and with film critics, so if anything my concern should be that I’m not differentiated enough to be of value.) But in the final analysis, all you can do is be true to yourself, and in that I was completely smitten by the relationship between a cantankerous, barely retired thief and his unlikely artificial manservant. Frank Langella is outstanding as the forgetful septuagenarian who forms a begrudging bond with his iButler, and Jake Schreier’s direction and the supporting cast complement rather than detracting. It might not be well remembered by later generations, but it found a firm place in the heart of this one.
5. Before Midnight
Never having seen them before, I consumed all three parts of the Before trilogy in the space of a single day this summer. Taken together, they form one of the most compelling movie trilogies of all time; on its own terms, Midnight shows that Richard Linklater and his stars aren’t too attached to the magic of their earlier work to allow a welcome dose of reality to intrude. Hawke and Delpy are both a little more weathered and abrasive, both now verging on unsympathetic at times, and once again we are presented with a moment in time in the lives of these two which leaves a feeling of hope, this time tinged with a touch of sadness but all the stronger for it. I for one wouldn’t object to another catch-up in nine years if it can be as honest and open as this.
Yes, it’s giant spaceships exploding in 3D in a manner which Michael Bay probably fantasises about every night in bed, but it’s filtered through the keen eye and expertise of Alfonso Cuaron, now master of the long take, and built on a seemingly simple tale of clinging to life that seeps itself in metaphors of discovery and rebirth. I might still be having nightmares about falling out of space thanks to the dramatic opening sequence, but the character moments – such as Sandra Bullock’s desperate attempt at conversation with a fisherman – are their equal and Bullock and Clooney defy the technical straitjackets imposed upon them to deliver compelling performances. But how many more films will need to be released that claim to prove the benefits of the 3D format before other directors start to learn the lessons of how to shoot in the format?
3. The Selfish Giant
The best British film of the year, and a clear sign that Clio Barnard is now a force to be reckoned with in British film making. Coupling the social realism that’s such a staple of British cinema with both a sense of beauty, turning the British countryside into an ethereal wilderness, and at times a sense of urgency. There’s tragedy here, and it’s the only film of the year that had me properly in tears – a far cry from 2010 when I would practically weep at the opening of a bag of popcorn – but there’s also a gleefulness and a celebration of the exuberance of youth. The Selfish Giant is a towering achievement (sorry) and yet another film that stayed with me for days, if not weeks, afterwards.
2. Django Unchained
When seeing a link to it online earlier this year, I was amazed by just how much of the Django script didn’t make it to screen as by what did. There’s no doubt that Tarantino’s scripts are up there with the best of them, every line of considered dialogue having a point to make and nothing wasted, but this might be the best cast yet put together for a Tarantino feature, with Jamie Foxx just undergoing the right journey in the title role and with Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson all worthy of awards consideration for my money. If you can overlook Tarantino’s two cameos, the second of which – saddled with an Aussie accent of sorts – is especially fourth wall breaking, then for my two cents Django stands right up there alongside Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 with the top tier of Quentin’s films.
1. The Act Of Killing
Over the course of the previous thirty nine films on this list, we’ve considered the varied power that film can exert on its audience. But my top choice this year goes much further than that, having exerted a profound and astonishing effect on its subjects and one which may, in the fullness of time, have an impact on the very nation it portrays. Joshua Oppenheim’s documentary… actually, there may need to be a new word for whatever this is because the dictionary defines a documentary as, “using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject” and this goes so much further, as very few documentaries have ever done with such power, passing beyond the objectivity of documentation and staring directly into the heart of its subjects, then directly challenging them to the very core of their beliefs.
If all The Act Of Killing succeeded in doing was documenting the appalling atrocities of the Indonesian genocide that started in 1965, it would be an achievement. To then show how the perpetrators not only go unpunished but effective still see their actions influencing the politics of modern day Indonesia is shocking. To get those perpetrators to act out their crimes in a manner varying from gangster film to hallucinogenic musical is deeply compelling. But then to bear witness to the dramatic effect that achieving an understanding of their crimes has on them is by turns angering, sobering and perversely gratifying. The Act Of Killing is a stunning achievement and richly deserves all of the plaudits so far applied to it, and it is by some distance my film of 2013.
Comparison of this year’s films
As a footnote, this table shows the UK box office (where available), the IMDb user score and the Rotten Tomatoes critic score for each of the films in this year’s list, so you can see how my judgement compares to popular and critical opinion.
Will keep the preamble short here – this is my annual trawl through the legal (and slightly less legal) clips from the year’s best movies from a video website that rhymes with ZooLube. (I’m not sure what you’d use that for, but hopefully there’s no clips of it.) Some of these might get taken down, they’re not all great quality, a few contain MAJOR spoilers – this is your only warning if you don’t want to know the cameos in Thor or This Is The End or the plot twist in Iron Man 3, for example – and there might be the occasional use of strong language and a man with his privates in between his legs, so apologies in advance. I do tend to update these whenever I can if better versions become available. Get ’em while they’re hot.
It’s time once again to consider the on-screen talent, those men and women who inhabit creations of writers and directors so effectively as to transport us into their world. Once again, I’ve made no distinction between men and women, or between lead and supporting roles (although I have picked out ten notable performances from younger actors), these are just the 25 performances I felt did most to enhance the films in which they appeared.
The one notable separation does come down the line of the sexes: in the past two years, men have made more appearances than women, winning 15-10 in 2011 and 17-8 last year. This was offset by the top performance being female in both cases. Sadly this year, the boys make it a hat-trick of wins with a 15-10 win, and as you’ll see once you’ve got to the bottom, they’ve taken three of the top five spots as well, including the number one. Here’s hoping that, next year, there are enough decent female roles to give the fairer sex a chance of winning this list for once.
25. Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion
We’ll start with the only person to appear on all three of my best performance lists, one of this country’s finest actresses who dipped her first toe into the blockbuster pool this year. Not surprising, given that Tom Cruise has shown a consistent career pattern for matching himself up with high calibre opposition in the acting stakes, and Riseborough acquits herself beautifully as the wife who turns out to be more than meets the eye; she’s the standout in a cast of fine actors delivering so-so performances.
24. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Whatever you think of the politics, and to my mind the most generous view is that ZDT fudges the issue somewhat, the solid iron core of Kathryn Bigelow’s latest is Jessica Chastain’s hypnotic performance. Determination shines through, but there’s never an opportunity to descend into histrionics; instead, Chastain has a controlled urgency and steel that will carry the film through. Would have been interesting to see how this panned out had Bin Laden not been killed during the film’s development, thus creating an entirely different ending.
23. Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back
You want easygoing charisma, but with someone who can deliver heart as well? Sam Rockwell’s your man, baby. With Steve Carell playing against type and most of the rest of the cast delivering solid work, the standouts are the park workers who take Liam James’ Duncan to their hearts. While both Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film’s creators, deliver noteworthy performances in support it’s Rockwell who’s the main man, in every sense.
22. Simon Pegg, The World’s End
One of the most notable facts of the Cornetto trilogy is how much the actors appearing in multiple films have been able to vary their characters between films. The reluctant heroism of Shaun Riley and the relentless orderliness of Nicholas Angel have here been replaced by a Simon Pegg that’s scruffy, unkempt, fairly loathsome and somewhere past redeemable, but Pegg still manages to find enough greasy charm to keep him at the heart of this apocalypse in waiting, and by the end you’re rooting for him despite yourself.
21. Will Forte, Nebraska
It’s the two older members of the family, Bruce Dern and June Spirgg, that are so far getting all of the awards attention, but you only need to go back and watch MacGruber – Will Forte’s ill-advised Saturday Night Live sketch upgraded to the big screen – to realise what a stretch David Grant could have been. Instead, Forte imbues his devoted sun with a world-weariness but a commitment to his family and gives Dern and Sprigg the chance to walk away with the bigger moments. Hopefully this won’t be a one off for Forte now he’s proven he can do it.
20. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Enough Said
While James Gandolfini has been taken from us too soon, and his performance here is a fitting close to a great career, the biggest achievement of Enough Said is to get me to like Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I don’t know what it’s been about her performances in the likes of Seinfeld (and admittedly I haven’t seen Veep), but here she’s charming and affable, despite her character’s more misguided choices at various junctures. Might be time for me to revisit some of her earlier work.
19. Robert Redford, All Is Lost
When you’ve got one actor in your film with just a handful of lines, you’d better make sure he’s worth looking at. You’d probably struggle to do better than J.C. Chandor did in getting Robert Redford on board, strong enough to be able to build his performance from tiny gestures and small actions. Oh, and getting to bellow the f-word once near the end. But I could stare into the weathered crags of Redford’s face all day.
18. Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Once again, stealing away the true honours from underneath Chris Hemsworth’s necessarily more showy performance as James Hunt, Daniel Bruhl’s Niki Lauda is the – if you’ll pardon the pun – driving force of Ron Howard’s typically emotional but surprisingly effective look at when Formula One was a bit more interesting. It’s to Bruhl’s credit that your sympathies don’t all sit with Hunt, and he manages to retain his bristly edges while having the more interesting relationship. (And was it just me, or did you not recognise Olivia Wilde as Hemsworth’s wife?)
17. Matthew McConaughey, Mud
2014 looks like being another peak in the Matthew McConaughey Career Renaissance™, from Dallas Buyers Club to Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But the last few years haven’t been so bad either, and McConaughey follows up last year’s deliciously evil turn in Killer Joe with this more amenable, but still layered, turn in Jeff Nichols Twain-like exploration of the characters around the Mississippi river. He’s backed up by a great cast, with everyone from Michael Shannon to Reese Witherspoon turning in decent work and the young actors (saluted in that top 10) both excellent. Yet McConaughey still manages to steal the show.
16. Ben Kingsley, Iron Man Three
On the off-chance you’ve not yet seen Iron Man Three or been spoiled by reading the internet, I won’t blow the game here, but Ben Kingsley’s performance was one of the most unexpected delights of a mixed summer of blockbusters. While everyone was keen to see the pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Shane Black reunited, and it didn’t disappoint, it was Sir Ben who helped elevate this to the position of the best movie yet to come out of the Avengers franchises.
15. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained
Given the heightened sense of reality that exists in this, as much as any of Tarantino’s epics over the years, it’s no surprise that the actors really get to go to town. In a wider field than five, it would have been easily conceivable to see the names of both Leo and Samuel L. Jackson nominated alongside eventual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. All three performances are remarkable, but for me it’s DiCaprio, continuing his run of films I actually like him in (stretching back to 2010’s Shutter Island), his was the most memorable role for my money.
14. Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
While I didn’t completely fall for the charms of Frances Ha, with neither enough knowledge of the French New Wave or the subsequent films which inspired this, Frances herself still had an undeniable charm, even among the anarchy of her disintegrating life. Gerwig has graduated from the mumblecore but still retains an element of fragility, but this is a Frances who would like to put her life back on track – if only she could work out which track.
13. Kristin Scott Thomas, Only God Forgives
Thanks to the vagaries of distribution, I probably see more French films in a year than I do British films. That said, I probably see more French films with Kristin Scott Thomas in a year than I do British films. While both she and the films are normally well worth watching, it’s been great to see Kristin out of her comfort zone this year, and sinking her teeth into the role with such relish. Her memorable shrew dominates the film, and while Ryan Gosling elevates brooding to an art form, it’s Scott Thomas that most will remember of the English speaking actors when the credits roll.
12. Jude Law, Side Effects
It’s been a year when people have been willing to set aside their preconceptions, most famously when Mark Kermode admitted Gravity should be seen in 3D. I will hold my hands up and say that I would have put money on going my entire life without seeing Jude Law in one of these lists. Thankfully putting the dodgy Australian accent of Contagion behind him, his latest collaboration with Steven Soderbergh sees him filling out the kind of role that Cary Grant or James Stewart would have taken six decades ago. Law is magnetic as he seeks to claw back his life, and Rooney Mara’s also worth a mention.
11. Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Welcome to the blog of seemingly the only person in the universe who didn’t enjoy Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine. There are plenty of performances of note in the film, from Andrew Dice Clay to Bobby Cannavale, but in the midst of them Blanchett felt too earnest, too actorly for me (and I know many would say I’m missing the point, that that’s what she was supposed to be, but it didn’t engage with me). The one performance which really did is Sally Hawkins’ more naturalistic turn as Jasmine’s sister Ginger. I was surprised to discover Hawkins is two years younger than me, but I mean that as a compliment.
10. Brie Larson, Short Term 12
More top quality performances than you can shake a stick at in Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, although I do wish Cretton hadn’t quite wrapped everything up with such neat bows at the end. That doesn’t detract from any of the performances, but Larson takes her opportunity to showcase her talents. While I appreciate what he was going for in Don Jon with the silent sister, when you see what Larson’s capable of here it’s a crying shame that she didn’t get more to do there.
9. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
We may never truly know the extent of the challenge Sandra Bullock faced here, but with the acting constrained to hitherto unseen levels by the technical demands of making the space environment realistic, it’s to the testament of Bullock that she still manages to deliver a gripping performance within the confines of Alfonso Cuaron’s technological bubble. She’s well complemented by George Clooney, but Bullock proves that her The Blind Side Oscar was no fluke. (We’ll overlook The Heat and the possible proof that her Razzie was no fluke either.)
8. Hugh Jackman, Prisoners
His most memorable turn might have been as Jean Valjean in award-bothering warblefest Les Misérables, but Jackman managed to channel the same amount of raw power into the unlikely named Keller Dover. Denis Villeneuve put together a cast of wall to wall quality and most of the adults – including Jake Gyllenhall, Maria Bello, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo – deserve a mention, but Jackman takes the honours. Special mention also for looking the most buffed of anyone ever in The Wolverine, in what’s been a good year for Jackman.
7. Michael Douglas, Behind The Candelabra
I’m old enough to just about remember Liberace appearing on our TV screens, and also just about old enough to witness my elderly relatives being utterly charmed by him. Michael Douglas captures perfectly the effervescence of Liberace’s public persona, but also carries off a compelling portrayal of the man out of the limelight. Matt Damon and Rob Lowe give variously solid and entertaining support, but this is Douglas’ show.
6. John Hawkes, The Sessions
When portraying a disabled real-life figure, the actor often has to go to extreme lengths to capture that, and John Hawkes risked permanent disfigurement in his attempts to portray poet and journalist Mark O’Brien. If that wasn’t enough, all O’Brien’s looking for is to see if his atrophied body is capable of having sex. Hawkes succeeds in making O’Brien sympathetic, his humanity shining through despite Hawkes’ performance being so limited by the restrictions of the physical disability he was portraying. In another year, this would have won a hatful of awards.
5. Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
She’s on screen for barely ten minutes, but her performance dominates the film, almost unbalancing the first half, and wipes away any doubts that anyone might have had about Hathaway being a proper actress. In all the debates about whether or not Russell Crowe could sing (he can, he just doesn’t have the stage vibrato of the likes of Jackman), the one performance that took all the credit was Hathaway’s. We should all be thankful that the definitive I Dreamed A Dream is no longer Susan Boyle’s.
4. Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
In the terms of the old footballing cliché, it’s a performance of two halves, Saint. The majority of Hanks’ performance is the defiant captain, attempting to keep his crew calm and to react as best he can to the invasion of Somali pirates. It’s all decent enough, but Hanks can do this stuff in his sleep. It’s the last fifteen minutes where Hanks truly reminds us why he’s already the holder of two Academy Awards, with a performance that quite literally took my breath away. It’s also testament to Paul Greengrass’ continuing ability to match big spectacle with quality performances, but it wouldn’t have worked without Hanks in the title role.
3. James McAvoy, Filth
Ever since he came to prominence on TV’s Shameless, James McAvoy has been looking for a showcase for his vast talents, and in Filth he may just have found it. Let loose to be as abhorrent as possible, McAvoy is a magnetic screen presence, always looking to up the shock factor and as comfortable with the black humour as the even bleaker drama. Also memorable in the slightly disappointing Trance, hopefully McAvoy will get a chance to add more layers to his young Charles Xavier this year in Days Of Future Past.
2. Adele Exarchopolous, Blue Is The Warmest Colour
You have to feel slightly sorry for Lea Seydoux, giving an astonishing performance but still managing to be slightly overshadowed by Adele Exarchopolous’s incredible portrayal of the twists and turns of young love. To be stripped bare physically is one thing, but the naked emotion that Adele shows in her relationship with Emma is the all-consuming heart of the film. I still maintain the same points could have been said in less than three hours, but if Exarchopoulos doesn’t get some recognition for this come awards season, then something is seriously wrong.
1. Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
So, for the first time my performance of the year is won by a man, but there is a suspicion of cheating here. It’s difficult to believe that Steven Spielberg didn’t hop in a souped-up Delorean and head back to the 1860s, bringing back with him possibly the most revered American president with him. That Daniel Day Lewis is a great actor would never have been in question, but that Spielberg pursued him for almost a decade shows just how essential his performance is to the success of Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic.
It doesn’t feel enough to even say that Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln; Lewis inhabits every fibre and pore of Lincoln, and his usual meticulous preparation and method (no-one was allowed to talk to him in their natural accent on set, all having to effect their character when talking to him), but it results in a performance that was without equal over the course of the year. From acting in 20 films, he’s had five Academy Award nominations and three wins and he must surely qualify as the finest actor of his generation. Daniel Day Lewis IS Abraham Lincoln IS my top performance of 2013.
For the past two years, I’ve included a round-up of the top 25 performances of the year, regardless of whether it was an actor or an actress, and with no distinction between leading and supporting roles. I’ve always found it a little odd how Hollywood and others categorise their performances, with leading actors often shunted into supporting categories in the hope of recognition. However, having made no distinction myself in previous years, this year I’ve taken the decision to introduce a new category for young performances.
This split between younger actors and their adult counterparts isn’t a split made so often in the film world, but is one that occurs regularly in the fields of sporting endeavour. For me, it’s a chance to recognise up and coming performers, who will hopefully be making regular appearances in the adult performance rankings for years to come. It’s also, if I’m being honest, a sneaky way of having the opportunity of calling out performances of younger actors where an adult in the film has also made an impression, so you will see a few of these films appearing again in the top 25 performances of the year.
Other than that, the rules remain the same as the adult category: any film with narrative released in UK cinemas for the first time in 2013 is eligible, including any festivals I attended, but only one performance from each film is chosen and I make no distinction based on the duration of the contribution. Here’s my list of the 10 most impressive performances from actors and actresses under 21 at the time of production of each film.
10. Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass 2)
Chances are, if I’d been doing this list for a few years now Chloe Moretz would have been on it every year. She also popped up in the Carrie remake at the end of the year and was most likely contractually obliged to Movie 43 at the start, but her best role this year was as the heart and soul of the disappointing Kick-Ass 2. Her story arc was the more interesting of the film, and she even had a good go at making it look like she’d gone gooey-eyed over Union J, for which she probably deserves a medal. Not resting on her laurels, she’s got five films on the way next year, including new films from Lynn Shelton and Olivier Assayas and The Equaliser with Denzel Washington.
9. Ty Simpkins (Iron Man 3)
No easy task having to hold your own in scenes with the king of charisma Robert Downey Jr. but Ty Simpkins managed it. There’s always a risk that such child roles can feel fake, mawkish or insincere, but Simpkins managed it, helped just a little (OK, a lot) by the fact that his interplay with Downey is so effective. He’s also squeezed in a return to the Insidious franchise this year, and his next role will be facing down the velociraptors and T-Rexs in Jurassic World.
8. Liam James (The Way Way Back)
More of a TV actor than a film one up to now – his last film role was as John Cusack’s son in 2012 – James took his most prominent big screen role yet in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s warm tribute to the difficulties of adolescence. Seen through his eyes, James carries most of the film and gradually converts his sulky teen into a winning underachiever. In a film full of strong adult roles, it’s a tribute to James that he remains the centre of attention.
7. Saoirse Ronan (Byzantium)
Another actress, like Chloe Moretz, on whom sit Jodie Foster-esque expectations of converting a strong child acting stint into a long and successful career. Since her breakout in 2007’s Atonement she’s remained consistently busy, also cropping up in The Host and How I Live Now this year, and it never feels a stretch to believe that she’s lived half a dozen lifetimes. She also has a believable relationship with Gemma Arterton, and Byzantium is much more successful than Neil Jordan’s last young-girl-in-a-vampire-flick Interview With The Vampire. For more of a Ronan fix, you can catch her next year in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut How To Catch A Monster and Wes Anderson’s latest The Grand Budapest Hotel.
6. Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12)
Difficult to pick a single performance from an exceptionally strong young cast (although made slightly easier by Keith Stanfield as Marcus being too old to consider for this category), but I’ve plumped for Dever’s peformance as the deeply troubled girl who forms a difficult bond with Brie Larson’s carer. Rising above moody teenage stereotypes, her Jayden is at once strong and fragile and Dever’s performance perfectly complements that of Larson. Dever will be back on screen alongside Chloe Moretz in Lynn Shelton’s Laggies in 2014.
5. Moises Arias (The Kings Of Summer)
The forgotten film of the summer, which was a shame as I found its coming of age story more affecting and also more entertaining than the more widely seen The Way Way Back. The central trio were all great, but while Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso excel in the slightly more traditional roles of Joe and Patrick, it’s Arias as Biaggio that steals almost every scene he’s in, and probably a couple that he isn’t, but his superbly oddball creation is all the more effective for never unbalancing the story. Having served his TV apprenticeship on Hannah Montana and The Middle, hopefully this is his breakout movie performance. He also managed to squeeze in a voice performance in Despicable Me 2 and exuded menace as Asa Butterfield’s rival in Ender’s Game.
4. Eloise Lawrence (Broken)
Making the transition from primary school play to starring alongside Tim Roth look annoyingly easy, Eloise Lawrence comes from an acting family (her father is Larry Lamb) but she was hand-picked by Rufus Norris to play the diabetic Skunk in this British highlight from earlier in the year, successfully dealing with being bullied, finding her first boyfriend and suffering the consequences of her illness. Lawrence’s parents are keen for her take a break from acting until she’s 16, but if she’s keen to come back then this is one heck of a calling card.
3. Tye Sheridan (Mud)
Notwithstanding the continued career renaissance of Matthew McConaughey, the highlight of Jeff Nichols’ Mud are the two central young performances. Jacob Lofland is winningly entertaining as sidekick Neckbone, but it’s Tye Sheridan who anchors the film. Building on his appearance in The Tree Of Life, Sheridan’s Ellis undergoes a loss of innocence on several fronts and Sheridan always keeps it believable. He’ll be appearing on the same cast lists as both Chloe Moretz and Caitlyn Dever in different films during 2014.
2. Saskia Rosendahl (Lore)
Getting slightly lost due to its lack of proximity to awards season in this country, this powerful story of a group of children attempting to navigate their way through post-war Germany after the loss of their Nazi parents captivated in no small part thanks to Saskia Rosendahl’s defiant performance as the titular Lore. Quickly becoming the matriarch to the group, she’s both defiant and saddened, struggling to come to terms with events but willing to do whatever’s necessary for her family and Rosendahl’s portrayal is compelling.
1. Conner Chapman (The Selfish Giant)
Again, difficult to choose between the two, but the highlight of the year in British cinema featured two outstanding performances. Shaun Thomas’s Swifty is almost the dependable straight man of the two, but it’s Conner Chapman as Arbor who gets my award for the young performance of the year. From his early unpredictability through the affects of his attention deficit disorder to his wheeling and dealing and the tragic nature of the story’s resolution, Chapman lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. The Selfish Giant was the only film to have me in tears this year, and it’s a credit to the performance of both youngsters, but especially Chapman. Conner Chapman is my young actor of 2013.
Each year, as part of my review of the year, I list a number of the most prominent features of the year. In addition to the likes of films, actors and trailers I look to highlight one specific feature. Two years ago, it was redheads that dominated the cinematic landscape; last year, I felt that cinema had become stuck in a rut and it was the middling films – those that generated the most “meh” of responses from me – that drew my attention. This year, the overriding theme of the last twelve months in the cinema has been flat out, balls-to-the-wall stupidity.
Maybe it’s always been there, and I just haven’t noticed, or maybe someone’s been putting something in Hollywood’s water. But there does seem to me to be a trend towards plotting which doesn’t concern itself with joining A to B in a convincing manner. I’m not talking here about the kind of goofs that the likes of the Internet Movie Database catalogue, in astonishingly precise levels of detail. Take, for example, this excerpt from the goofs for Gravity:
Er, fascinating. But it’s not this level of astonishing pedantry that I’m concerned with here, but a far more fundamental lack of understanding of the basic rules of life, logic and physics. Read through this list, and let me know whether you think 2013 marks a new low in terms of movie braininess, or if actually this level of film-based nonsense is par for the course. I’d also be more than happy for you to point out any gaps in my own logic in the comments section, before I reply as politely as possible through barely gritted teeth.
Warning: major spoilers follow for some of the year’s biggest releases. Scroll down slowly, so you can skip on past the picture if you’ve not seen a film and want to remain spoiler free.
To get us started, consider the basic set-up for massively slated Ryan Reynolds flop R.I.P.D. If you’ve not seen it, the basic premise is that Reynolds and his former partner Kevin Bacon have acquired a mass of gold from a previous bust, and then split the proceeds. Reynolds then grows a conscience and decides to hand his in, so Bacon kills him. It transpires that Bacon requires the gold for some previously unmentioned purpose, which begs the question: why didn’t Bacon kill Reynolds before they split the gold? He spends the entire film attempting to recover Reynolds’ share, which could all have been avoided had Bacon thought about the plan at any stage.
19. The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Bit of rollover stupidity here: we are, of course, talking about the eagles, which once again are summoned by Gandalf at the end of An Unexpected Journey. Gandalf, seemingly feeling the dwarves needed more of a challenge, gets them dropped off just in front of a forest infested with giant spiders, providing much of the challenge of The Desolation Of Smaug. If that’s not enough for you, don’t forget that Bilbo has a magic ring of invisibility which he keeps taking off at key moments. There is, at this stage, no suggestion of any consequence of using the ring for any length of time, so why ever take it off, or keep it secret from the dwarves? (Because the movie would be a lot shorter if he did keep it on.)
It’s refreshing to know that the future still holds the promise of advanced technology. Ignore the fact that the space shuttle programme has ended and that it’s going to take another thirteen years to build another railway between London and Birmingham, apparently in just four years we’ll be sending manned missions to space with technology to put people into suspended animation. The future’s bright indeed. Oblivion is one of those films that works a lot better if you don’t think about it to any great extent, otherwise you may find yourself asking questions such as how the Earth becomes so desolated that the 86th floor of the Empire State building is at ground level, why the aliens bothered cloning so many humans that looked identical, why those humans all retained the memories of their hosts or why the Scavs ever bother to hide from the clones as it serves no real purpose. It’s a great vision of the future, just not a hugely believable one.
17. White House Down
White House Down commits a sin that so many other big blockbusters have committed in recent years, namely that the plans of the bad guy are heavily reliant on specific actions committed almost incidentally by others and leaves far too much to chance. Again, the reliance on tropes from earlier action movies such as Die Hard seems to fundamentally misunderstand how Die Hard’s bad guys had planned their heist to rely on much more certain responses and by keeping people in an enclosed location. But there’s plenty of more specific craziness on show: the techie brought in by the bad guys, Tyler, sets up a booby trap bomb in a corridor to ensure no-one escapes through a particular tunnel. He later wanders into that exact same tunnel and is destroyed by his own bomb, when there are any number of other less or equally risky options available to him.
16. Thor: The Dark World
Thor sits in a unique place in the Marvel universe where magic is possible and we shouldn’t just rely on science. However, a relationship with geography would have been nice. Early on in the film, Jane and Darcy find a mysterious portal to who knows where in a warehouse in the London Docklands. Much later, Thor, Loki and Jane arrive on Svartalfheim for a confrontation with Dark Elf Malekith. They lose the confrontation and are stranded on the distant realm, only to subsequently discover that the other end of the London portal comes out in a cave about ten feet away. Svartalfheim must be really, really tiny.
15. Kick-Ass 2
Not going to dwell on this one, but the idea that a teenage girl who’s brutally murdered criminals and spent a good part of her adolescence as a vigilante would suddenly go weak at the knees and act like a complete idiot at the sight of Union J on the TV is somewhere in a suburb of Offensive City. There’s also the question of why, once his father has been murdered and Dave makes a promise never to wear the costume again, he’s so easily convinced to turn up for a confrontation in costume, given that his outfit has no special powers or properties and he breaks his promise totally needlessly.
Elysium’s problems are mostly focused on space travel. This runs throughout the film, from the idea of shooting down shuttles heading for the orbiting space platform using a rocket launcher from Earth – when the people of Elysium are so keep on keeping their world for themselves, surely they’d have some defences that Secretary Of Defence Delacourt could have tapped into? Or built some in secret on the platform? They’d have had a much better chance at shooting down the ships if they did – to the end of the film, where we see a small fleet of space ambulances head for Earth. There’s no reason anyone on Elysium would ever need them when every house has a magic healing bed, and they’ll take years to get round the number of people on Earth in need of their help. Still, at least Matt Damon didn’t die in vain.
13. The Purge
Basic plot failing here: apparently in the America of the future, everyone lives lovely happy lives as long as they can murder, rape and pillage to their hearts’ content once a year. But they don’t get to do it to anyone really important, and everyone’s fine with that. Riiiiight. Apparently, you also can’t stress the deadliness of this situation enough to your children, as despite everyone in the world being allowed to murder you without consequence, the moment someone turns up on your doorstep in trouble, your child is likely to open the doors and let them in. I suggest killing the children when the Purge starts to avoid any such future problem. Don’t also expend too much thought on why people intent on killing you without the possibility of justice or retribution would bother with wearing masks.
12. Fast And Furious 6
The sixth entry in the Fast Furious Franchise has been somewhat overshadowed by the tragic and untimely death of Paul Walker. The general enjoyment of the last two entries are a fitting tribute to Walker, and it seems almost churlish now to raise the issues of illegal street racing in central London, where police officers routinely roam the streets firing machine guns from moving vehicles, or where apparently you can leap off a moving vehicle and catch someone in mid-air. But possibly one of the most famous pieces of movie non-thinking this year occurred with the climactic runway scene, which internet boffins estimate was somewhere between 25 and 30 miles long, or about two-thirds of the distance from Manchester to Liverpool. Genius.
11. This Is 40
Approaching the age at which life it supposed to begin? They you too, I’m sure, will appreciate this story of two attractive and successful people who are worried about entering their fortieth year despite having attractive children and no real problems, ho even when their businesses get into trouble spend money with abandon and whose plan to recover one of those businesses is to sign world famous recording artist Ryan Adams to that failing business. It’s also slightly mystifying as to why no-one, at any point, points out how utterly ungrateful these people are for everything they have to their faces and promptly disowns them. (If they’d like a volunteer, more than happy to oblige.)
10. Bullet To The Head
So, you’re a world class hitman (called Bobo, for unfathomable reasons) and you’re on your latest job. There’s a dodgy politician that you need to murder, except when you’ve killed him you discover a material witness in the form of a prostitute in the apartment. So you decide to leave her alive so that she can identify you to the authorities, but thankfully you recognise that despite being required to sell her body for sex she’s also a woman of honour who will tell the authorities it was a hit, but thankfully won’t identify you in person. This will later provide a valuable lesson for Bobo’s crushingly naive police office partner, who will effectively offer the same service of non-naming when several people are killed in a violent shoot-out / antique axe fight. Good work, Bobo.
9. Promised Land
Promised Land is a worthy film on the subject of fracking, and it would have brought it to light in an admirable way had it not been for the condescending attitude to the audience, where the reasons why fracking might be bad are explained to the audience using a class of schoolchildren as a proxy. Maybe they’d assumed the intelligence level of the audience would be around that of the fracking company, who employ an “environmentalist” (John Kraskinski) to dupe their other employee, Matt Damon, into discrediting the environmental movement. When Matt Damon finds out he’s been duped, he then tells the town not to sign up. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Matt Damon in on the plan, so that he doesn’t blow the whole plan when he finds out? Or, if he’s not that trustworthy, to send one of the thousands of other employees of the company to take that role?
8. Escape Plan
If you’ve ever seen Face / Off, you’ll know that Nicolas Cage is incarcerated in a dangerous futuristic prison that turns out to be set on an oil rig. In a cunning twist on that particular set piece, Escape Plan is set on a dangerous futuristic prison that turns out to be set… wait for it… on a giant container ship! Incroyable. The only thing is, this comes as a surprise to the residents of the ship when they attempt to escape. Guess the designers of the prison must have worked out to get a ship not to move about at all in water. They also managed to design a prison where all of the cells are transparent to prevent prisoners getting up to no good, but where solitary confinement is darkened cells with only tiny security cameras to enable prisoners to make easier escape attempts once there. And, for people that seemingly go out of their way to attract attention, both Arnie and Sly have managed to conceal their identities, despite Stallone spending a career working in the same industry and despite Arnie actually being his own boss for reasons that don’t make a lick of sense.
7. Pacific Rim
Putting the four year futuristic spurt of Oblivion to shame, Pacific Rim begins in 2013, where humanity comes under attack from giant monsters from under the sea. Our almost-in-the-past-already-future-selves face attack from these giant beasties who can destroy buildings with a single swipe, so respond by building massive robots which require two neurally linked pilots to operate. (I look forward to that technological innovation in the next year or so.) After ten years of failing to defeat the sea-dwelling monsters with their giant robots, humanity gives up and their plan is to build a 300 foot high wall along the entire length of the Pacific Ocean coast. Presumably while the monsters sit and wait the several hundred years it will take to finish.
But fear not; humanity is evolving to deal with the Kaiju threat – at least, if Ron Perlman’s Chau is any indication, having been eaten by a baby Kaiju before hacking his way out of its belly in the film’s closing moment. If we can survive being eaten and not having oxygen, maybe there’s hope for humanity after all! Maybe these new found abilities will help them build the wall faster if the aliens come back.
Space. The final frontier. A frontier as crowded as the only town on “Get Your Free Gold” day, judging by Gravity, which manages to position a telescope and two space stations in the same orbit and within barely a mile of each other. Maybe it’s just the best spot to be in orbit, safe from all that debris which also manages to be in exactly the same horizontal and vertical plane as the telescope and the two space stations. Maybe the intention is that those space stations are available for everyone, because it seems really easy to fly them; unlike when you get a hire car and it takes you half an hour to work out how to work the windscreen wipers, thankfully the Russians and the Chinese build their space stations in such a similar manner that any passing astronaut can work out how to get them going with just a quick flick through the manual. All of a sudden, space travel doesn’t seem that complex, does it?
5. Jack The Giant Slayer
This retelling of the Jack And The Beanstalk manages to walk straight into all of the narrative problems of its source material – only one set of magic beans, giant that manages to get painfully outwitted by a small person or two – but tops them off with a collection of further, brand new issues, such as why the giants choose this particular moment after so long to attack the world below, why they haven’t come up with a better attack plan if they’re so keen to overthrow the world below. We should all hope they never come up with that plan, as apparently the giant’s kingdom is in the sky right above us, as indicated by the crown of the film now residing in the modern day Town Of London. Yes, apparently giants are still living in the sky above us, and that’s why it’s always cloudy in this country. Whatever.
4. About Time
Don’t get me wrong, time travel is notoriously difficult to keep straight in films; my all-time favourite (Back To The Future) isn’t exactly perfect on that front, but it does have a relative amount of internal consistency. The same can’t be said for Richard Curtis’ time travel shenanigans, which involve men in a family who can travel in time going into a cupboard and clenching their fists, before sometime arriving back in time in that cupboard and sometimes not, and then sometimes going back to the future in the same method and sometimes reliving life from the point of emerging from the cupboard originally, and somehow never managing to create two people in the past. Remarkably, if you weren’t in the cupboard in the past, you (sometimes) end up in the nearest available cupboard when you travel back. Only the men can travel in time, unless a woman is holding hands with a man, which seemingly the men know instinctively will work without ever being told, and you can only travel within your own lifetime and backwards, unless you travel backwards in your life, at which point you can then travel forwards to the point you travelled back from. With me so far?
If you travel back before your children were born, you will completely and irrevocably change the nature of those children, but you can then travel back again and undo this and put your child back as it was, because in some fashion time travel affects which sperm and egg gets fertilised and with enough time travel you can eventually find a way to revert this process if you get it wrong. You can also avoid this if you travel in time with your father, which will have no effect on the nature of that process. Apparently all of the men in the family can time travel, but no man’s temporal interference ever has any appreciable effect on the life of any other member of the family and none of them ever make any attempt to use their powers for good, such as preventing accidents or natural disasters or catching people from trees or learning the piano or punching Ned Ryerson.
3. After Earth
Apparently if you want to train yourself to fight monsters who smell fear, the best thing to do is to take one of them on a spaceship with you so you can release it and fight it in an unpredictable environment. It’s a good job those monsters can only very specifically smell fear and not any other pheromones, or smells, or see anything, or hear anything, because then you can train people not to be afraid to the extent where they don’t give off these pheromones, rather than using the advanced technology to invent some form of clothing or spray that contains or suppresses pheromones. Don’t forget to transport these beasts on a ship that, when it crashes, will selectively keep all members of a family alive while killing everyone else.
Should you arrive on Earth, then be careful, because evolution will have accelerated (for some reason) to cause creatures to mutate in unexpected and unpredictable ways. The only upside of this will be giant condors who’ve become sentient enough to sacrifice themselves on your behalf should you run into trouble. Most of the other animals will have evolved specifically to become deadly to humans, despite the fact that all of the humans left because it got too dangerous. Should you have to fight the phereomone-smelling beast, then don’t worry: if you suddenly do work out how to stop feeling fear, any pheromones you have previously expelled will instantly disappear and the monster will suddenly be unable to find you, even if you’re fighting in a small, confined space. Anyway, good luck. You’re probably not going to need it, as the crew of the ship you crashed on almost certainly sent a mayday signal before you crashed, so don’t feel the need to send any additional distress calls.
2. Man Of Steel
If you’re a space-faring race and your world is in trouble, don’t worry about attempting to evacuate any significant number of the residents. Instead, hold trials and attempt to apportion blame and point fingers for what’s happening. Instead, send one child to a planet where he will have superhuman powers, but with any luck his adoptive parents will force him to keep his powers secret, even at the expense of their own lives if it comes to it. (They will most likely have no evidence that this secret getting out will cause any problems, even though everyone in their home town already knows about his powers and anyone of them could blab the secret at any time.) Also, don’t worry if an award-winning journalist tracks your son down and finds out his secret, no-one will believe her despite the fact she’s an award-winning journalist.
She might also arrive at your house and yell out your secret identity name while you’re in costume in the presence of the police, and the army might find your spaceship on your parents’ farm, but again no one concerned will ever put two and two together, or be bothered to reveal your identity if they do. Your son’s secret identity can also be concealed by wearing a pair of glasses, despite most of the staff of a major news organisation seeing him both with and without the glasses. You might want to be careful that the superpowers aren’t catching; the journalist will be able to wander around in sub-zero temperatures in a thin coat and be struck with superweapons that cause your son to bleed and will survive quite happily, not to mention avoiding being sucked into a black hole, suggesting that she has caught superpowers. You might also find that editors of newspapers suddenly develop the ability to outrun falling skyscrapers.
Your son will then be able to take the confidence in his abilities and the fact that no-one can see through the world’s most basic disguise, and use his powers for good. Well, mostly good. (This is despite the fact that his powers evolved slowly and painfully over the course of his adolescence, and the powers of other adult Kryptonians will work immediately as soon as they arrive on the planet.) Should your son be required to kill one of these, make sure he knows that they will be unable to move their eyeballs as soon as he has them in a stranglehold, that could come in useful if he’s attempting to kill innocent bystanders with laser vision and almost succeeds.
Contrary to the views of Richard Lester, it’s not necessary to lure those Kryptonians to a secluded location before removing their powers and then casually and brutally killing them, as in Superman II; you can just break their necks in plain sight and people will still love you and not fear you for being a homicidal superbeing who kills your fellow Kryptonians rather than seeing them face justice. Also him fighting with those Kryptonians in a battle on Earth that causes massive destruction and loss of life also won’t have any bearing on his position in society, and nor will him casually shooting down expensive military equipment.
If you want your son to wear an outfit to draw attention to his superpowers, it may be best to put one on a spaceship that crashes on the same planet anything up to 18,000 years earlier, just in case. Also, the people of that world shouldn’t worry too much, as despite suffering few ill effects of their superpowers, the master plan of the Kryptonians will be to terraform the new planet to a replica of their own so that they don’t have superpowers any more. Outstanding.
1. Star Trek Into Darkness
Here follows the synopsis from Wikipedia for Star Trek Into Darkness, edited to highlight stupidity. Deep breath…
In 2259, the starship USS Enterprise is on a survey mission to the planet Nibiru, studying a primitive culture by hiding their spaceship in the sea where it shouldn’t be able to go, somehow getting the ship into the sea without the planet seeing yet not then being able to fly it out again without the planet seeing. Captain James T. Kirk and First Officer Spock attempt to save the planet’s inhabitants from a volcanic eruption, in the process breaking the Prime Directive of non-interference. When Spock’s life is endangered, Kirk violates the Prime Directive a second time in order to save him, even though he thinks it’s the first time, exposing the Enterprise to the native inhabitants, a decision with which Spock disagrees, although Spock hasn’t noticed that by now the Prime Directive has already been broken several times.
Returning to Earth, Kirk loses command of the Enterprise and Admiral Christopher Pike is reinstated as its commanding officer, because Starfleet ranks are given out like chocolates and last about as long. Pike manages to convince Admiral Alexander Marcus, who has models on his desk of a collection of starships, including a secret warship he’s building near Jupiter (yes, really), to allow Kirk to continue as his first officer on the Enterprise, rather than being sent back to the Academy, instead of being demoted to second officer or something, because apparently the only two choices of rank for Kirk are trainee or captain. Meanwhile, a secret Section 31 installation in London is bombed by a renegade Starfleet officer pointlessly calling himself Commander John Harrison. During a meeting of Starfleet commanders to discuss the situation convened in a building with poor security and ideally positioned for a full frontal assault, Harrison attacks in a jumpship, killing Pike. Kirk pointless risks his life and disables the jumpship, but Harrison uses a prototype portable transwarp transporter device to escape to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld, knowing Starfleet would be unable to follow, and in the process rendering starships unnecessary by being able to transport himself effortlessly between planets. Meanwhile Spock does a mindmeld on the dying Pike to learn a cheap lesson about death he could have learned without invading the mind of a dying man.
Marcus orders the Enterprise to kill Harrison, arming them with 72 prototype photon torpedoes, shielded and untraceable to sensors, which should be suspicious as why would normal photon torpedoes not be enough to kill one man without a starship, but it’s apparently not. Chief engineer Montgomery Scott slightly overreacts and resigns his duties in protest when Kirk denies Scott’s entirely sensible request to examine the weapons for safety reasons. Pavel Chekov, who has never worked in engineering but occasionally operates the transporters, is promoted in his stead ahead of numerous better qualified engineers, and Dr. Carol Wallace, a weapons specialist, joins the crew, despite everyone knowing she’s really Carol Marcus because it was in the promotional material. Spock, Dr. Leonard McCoy and Uhura convince Kirk it would be better to capture Harrison and return him to Earth for trial, rather than killing him, because for some reason Kirk needs to be convinced of this as mild revenge has turned him into a homicidal maniac.
En route, the Enterprise suffers an unexpected coolant leak in the warp core, disabling the ship’s warp capabilities. Kirk leads a deniable operation to Kronos in a confiscated civilian vessel which doesn’t have a cloaking device, because this universe is no smarter than the last one in handing out cloaking technology, something apparently Starfleet doesn’t believe in apart from the time they gave the starship on Deep Space Nine a cloaking device. Approaching Harrison’s location, they are ambushed by Klingon patrols that don’t look like either the original or Next Generation Trek Klingons, and despite an episode of Enterprise – which exists in the same universe as this reboot – turning Klingons into the ones that look like the original Trek without the ridges. Harrison easily dispatches the Klingons, then unexpectedly surrenders after learning the exact number of torpedoes locked on his location. On the Enterprise, Wallace is revealed as Dr. Carol Marcus, the Admiral’s daughter, who inexplicably has an English accent when her dad sounds American, who along with McCoy, the chief medical officer and apparently the only other person spare to disarm a dangerous bomb despite having less than no experience, opens a torpedo at the behest of Harrison, revealing a man in cryogenic stasis. At some point around this time, Carol Marcus also takes almost all of her clothes off because the writers thought if they gave the teenage boys a hard-on they wouldn’t notice how stupid the film was. They also filmed a scene with Benedict Cumberbatch taking his clothes off, but then cut it out, inadvertently making them look like chauvinist arseholes.
Harrison reveals his true identity as Khan, because that wasn’t explained in the promotional material yet still didn’t come as a surprise, in a scene where he acts everyone else off screen and makes you wish Martin Freeman was playing Spock. Khan explains for the benefit of no-one except the crew that he’s a genetically engineered superhuman awoken by Admiral Marcus from a 300-year suspended animation, which apparently started in 1959 based on the current stardate, even though the original Star Trek put it at 1996 and this has to be the same Khan as it all happened before this universe branched off in the reboot. Khan reveals his crew was held hostage by Marcus to force him to develop weapons and warships for Starfleet in preparation for a war between the Federation and the Klingons, but doesn’t mention the cosmetic surgery that’s stopped him looking like Ricardo Montalban. Khan attempted to smuggle his crew out in the torpedoes he had designed, but was discovered. Thinking that Marcus had killed his crew, he instigated his attacks to avenge his family, rather than looking into it carefully before going on a mad revenge binge. Khan reveals Marcus had sabotaged the Enterprise‘s warp drive, intending for the Klingons to destroy the ship after firing the torpedoes at Kronos, giving him a casus belli for war. Acting on information from Khan, Kirk asks Scott to investigate a set of coordinates within the Solar System, because if you were building a top secret superweapon starship you’d do it in our own solar system, wouldn’t you?
The Enterprise travels from the Klingon homeworld to Earth in about three minutes, which should be around warp 9.99999999, but is intercepted by a larger Federation warship, the USS Vengeance under the command of Marcus. Marcus demands that Kirk deliver Khan, but Kirk refuses. The Enterprise, with a
hastily conveniently repaired warp drive, flees the rest of the way to Earth to expose Marcus, however the Vengeance intercepts and disables it. Kirk offers to exchange Khan and the cryogenic pods in exchange for sparing the lives of his crew, because apparently the needs of the many Starfleet officers outweigh the needs of the many supersoldiers from 1959 who might all be nice and nothing like Khan. Marcus refuses, transporting Carol to the Vengeance and ordering the Enterprise’s destruction.
The Vengeance suddenly loses power, having been sabotaged by Scott, who discovered and infiltrated the ship during his investigation, thanks to it being built just down the road from Earth where he was sulking like a spoiled child rather than attempting to continue to reason with his captain.. With the transporters down, Kirk and Khan, with the latter’s knowledge of the warship’s design, space-jump to the Vengeance, in a manner that looks exactly like the space jump from the last film and is consequently less exciting. Meanwhile, Spock contacts his older self on New Vulcan because the script writers are idiots and have no better way of making Khan seem dangerous, who informs him that Khan cannot be trusted. After capturing the bridge, Khan overpowers Kirk, Scott, and Carol, killing Marcus and seizing control of the Vengeance, but not killing the other officers yet. Apparently.
Khan demands from Spock the return of his crew in exchange for the three Enterprise officers. Spock complies, but surreptitiously removes Khan’s frozen crew and arms the warheads, despite the fact that torpedoes are matter and anti-matter explosives and you shouldn’t be able to transport anti-matter because established rules of the universe say you can’t, but apparently we don’t give a shit about them any more, and I forgot to mention that the whole film has developed a bit of a potty mouth in places. Khan betrays their agreement, critically damaging the Enterprise, however the Vengeance is in turn disabled following the detonation of the torpedoes, so it’s a good job they could be transported after all. With both starships powerless and caught in Earth’s gravity, despite being much higher up than anything in Gravity that was successfully in orbit, they begin to fall toward the surface, because gravity works in space, duh. Kirk enters the radioactive reactor chamber to realign the warp core, managing to kick it several times in the wrong direction until it inexplicably slots into place, saving the ship at the cost of his life. Kirk’s death sends Spock into a rage, in a manner identical to Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, except with the two main characters switched round. For f***’s sake.
Khan defiantly crashes the Vengeance into San Francisco to destroy Starfleet headquarters, brutally killing thousands of people in a manner subsequently glossed over entirely. Khan survives the crash and flees the scene, and Spock transports down in pursuit, because you can apparently transport things down but not up at this point. While experimenting on a dead tribble, because there are no bombs to be diffusing by sheer luck at this point, McCoy discovers that Khan’s blood has regenerative properties that may save Kirk, including restarting circulation in dead creatures so that the blood works, because the writers stopped caring about an hour ago. Spock, with Uhura’s help, is able to subdue and capture Khan (and Kirk is revived in an entirely unsurprising fashion because it was signposted so dramatically expect the writers expected us to feel something about Kirk’s death which is the biggest insult yet to our intelligence) at which point we now have a magic cure for death and the crew should be immortal. About one year later, Kirk addresses a gathering memorializing the events, where he recites the “where no man has gone before” monologue. Khan is resealed in his cryogenic pod and stored with his crew, in a way that’s not at all likely to see him quickly revived and reunited with them in a future film, probably the next one as we’ve had to revive Khan only two movies in because we’re that short of new ideas, unless they do the one with the whales next, while Carol joins the crew of a recommissioned Enterprise, and will probably be made to wear Counselor Troi’s cast-offs from the Next Generation as she’s a hot girl and look at her and gawp, as it departs on a five-year exploratory mission, which is what we thought they were doing last time.
In two years time, the man who helped ruin this simply because he liked Star Wars and this was the nearest equivalent in production will release an actual Star Wars film based on a story treatment from the man who ruined the last three Star Wars films. Beam me up, Scotty.
The mark of a good film critic should be their top 10 of the year (or however many they feel is an appropriate number). It gives you a reasonable guideline as to whether or not their kind of film is your kind of film, and if you can reliably take their opinion as a guide when choosing the films to see on a regular basis. The mark of a good film blogger, on the other hand, should be their bottom 10 of the year. Unlike a critic, who is contractually obliged to watch everything, a blogger is typically picking and choosing and their bottom 10 should be a reflection of how often they’ve put themselves in harm’s way. Now, it’s fair to be said that reviewing a poor film in often significantly more fun that critiquing a good one – and more fun to read as well – and the same can be said of anything from restaurants to bicycle pumps, but there are only so many times any sane person should put themselves in the path of tedium and banality in the name of the gratification of their readers.
So in that sense, it’s been a great 2013 for me. Rather than last year, where my bottom 6 were all one star films, this time that can only be applied to the bottom two, and the remaining eight in the list make up all of the two star films I saw this year; anything else in the 150 or so new films I saw in the cinema, plus re-releases and films seen at home, were all worthy of at least two and a half stars. Consequently I would only really suggest the top – or bottom – four should be completely avoided; all the rest are more of an “approach with caution” warning, and you may well find more of merit in them than I did. I will, as always, provide my justification for seeing it, and any full reviews have a hyperlink on the title.
There is another way of looking at this: even though it was a TV movie, so wouldn’t appear on this list, I found one film this year utterly trashy and poorly made, yet still some admittedly clichéd fun. So these are the ten films this year that I enjoyed less than Sharknado.
Reason I watched it: it was the gala opening of the Cambridge Film Festival, with the man himself in attendance.
There’s nothing hugely bad or offensive in Hawking, other than the fact that it gives about as much real insight into the world’s most prominent living scientist as looking at a postage stamp gives you insight into the Queen. There’s nothing of any real meat or consequence here and most of it misses the point by a wide margin, and the tantalising glimpses into what drives Hawking are all the more frustrating given their lack of context. Some topics are sensibly glossed over to a point; I don’t believe there’s much to be gained from delving into Hawking’s marriages and their break-ups, but actually the viewpoint of his first wife Jane provides some of the documentary’s best moments.
Reason I watched it: because I grew up in the time the film portrays.
Maybe the reason I didn’t take to Computer Chess was exactly that: it felt like an hour and a half in the company of some of my less interesting computer science lecturers from the early Nineties. I did computer science at GCSE, A-level and as part of my degree, and while others saw a great amount to appreciate in this mock doc of nerds from the Eighties, to me it felt like a reasonable ten minute short stretched way beyond breaking point, familiarity breeding contempt well before the end. The characterisations are all one note and with too little variation, the plot runs like treacle and the ending feels tacked on. Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan.
Reason I watched it: The Planet Hollywood boys all had a film out around the same time, and I wanted to compare and contrast.
The winner of that particular competition, by a considerable distance, was the Arnie comeback movie The Last Stand, which had no pretensions other than being a good deal of fun and succeeded admirably on those terms. Bullet To The Head, on the other hand, is tedious in the extreme and director Walter Hill at his least inspired; those who know much of Hill’s work will know that’s not a good sign. Stallone mumbles his way through a turgid script that feels as if direct to video would have been a compliment, the action’s completely uninspired and it all attempts to morph into some form of half-hearted buddy movie with less chemistry than a Junior Chemistry set with half the pieces missing. Sadly, it wasn’t the worst of the three Arnie / Sly / Bruce movies from the first quarter of the year, by a long, long way.
Reason I watched it: because the trailer actually looked reasonable.
There’s no harm in attempting to invert the tropes of the romantic comedy; why should it always be sunshine and light? On paper, the attempt to start with a marriage and then watch the comedy spring from seeing that marriage on the downslope to catastrophe should provide more laughs than the normal romantic comedy. On screen, it became a collection of insufferable oiks who deserved everything they got and the general sense of unease sapped the fun quicker than you can say “decree nisi”. The ending is nonsense, but by then I was well past caring.
Reason I watched it: I still cling to the increasingly forlorn hope that M. Night has one good film left in him.
It’s not this one. M. Night will always hold a place in my heart for the simple reason that Unbreakable was the film I saw on my first date with Mrs Evangelist, back when we were both much younger and I was less wrinklier. (She isn’t more wrinklier, in case you were wondering.) After Earth manages to retain the nonsensical plotting of later Shyamalan while retaining the forced stoicism that passes for acting in his films, and it all comes across as slightly laughable when it’s intended to be threatening and tense. At this point, I’d be too afraid of the often requested Unbreakable sequel for the fear he’d screw it up.
Reason I watched it: because I’m a card-carrying Trekkie.
When I saw Star Trek Nemesis, the last of the four Next Generation excursions into cinemas, I felt – and Paramount agreed – that it was time to give the franchise a rest for a while. I didn’t expect to be revisiting those feelings just two films into the reboot of the franchise, especially when I’d enjoyed the 2009 film so much. But my enjoyment of that film was based in part on giving some of the dumber elements of the script a pass, and sadly all of those elements are back with a vengeance this time, given more screen time with some additional stupid layered on with a space trowel. Recruiting Benedict Cumberbatch was a bad move as he acts everyone else off screen, not ideal for your leading men, and the film clings to past elements of the franchise to almost desperate levels. It’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who’s ever seen, well, anything, and the fact that one of the three writers is returning for the next film is one too many for me.
Reason I watched it: because it was showing at FrightFest.
My second trip to the annual FrightFest, held in London’s Empire Leicester Square over the course of five days around the end of August. This year there were four screens in operation, and your day pass entitles you to see anything in the main screen, plus the option to claim tickets for other screenings. This was the one time of day when I couldn’t manage to get into a smaller screen when I didn’t fancy the main screen film, and sadly my concerns were borne out. Director Farren Blackburn has a strong background in British TV, from the likes of Luther and Doctor Who, but he never manages to find the right tone here, the po-faced thrashing about barely enlivened by occasional flecks of humour. Character actors of the likes of James Cosmo populate the background but are given little to do, and if the Vikings were this dull in real life maybe it’s a good job their time has long since passed.
Reason I watched it: because I’m about to turn 40 myself and I thought it would be useful to know what’s coming.
Except no-one in the world is like these people. No one. These aren’t first world problems, they’re – and I’m being extraordinarily generous here – upper middle class first world minor inconveniences, and after an hour I was ready to try to force my way into the screen, grab both Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann’s characters by the shoulders and to attempt to shake some sense into them. Possibly also to scream at them, “YOU’RE RICH AND REASONABLY SUCCESSFUL AND YOU’RE UTTERLY UNGRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE. TAKE A LONG, HARD LOOK AT YOURSELVES AND THEN GROW UP!!!!!!” I will not complain once about being 40 as long as someone buys me a copy of this on DVD. So that I can BURN IT.
Reason I watched it: it was showing at the Cambridge Film Festival and I’d heard of the director.
If you see over thirty films in eleven days, most of them chosen on the basis of a short paragraph in the festival brochure that gives you very little to go on, there’s bound to be the odd misstep. I only made two this year: I managed to see an Iranian film called Taj Mahal without realising that it was a direct remake of a French film called The Snows Of Kilimanjaro that opened last year’s festival, and while I preferred the remake it wasn’t a film I ever felt the need to see twice. The other mistake was this, chosen simply by recognition of Richard Jobson’s name, which turned out to be one of the most poorly produced films I’ve ever seen in a cinema. Low quality production values, sometimes obscuring dialogue or rendering scenes unwatchable, laughably bad flashbacks and a script which made me pine for the drama and quality of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, which this appeared for large parts to be foolishly attempting to imitate. A depressing example of how independent British film can, just occasionally, get it badly wrong.
Reason I watched it: I’d thoroughly enjoyed all of the other Die Hards, and despite the bad reviews and disastrous PR campaign I’d hoped there was some redeeming feature somewhere in this.
They brought back Mary Elizabeth Winstead for about two minutes. That’s literally all I’ve got.
Oh Bruce. You knew that this was a pile of rancid turtle faeces, didn’t you? That’s why you appeared dead on the inside for large parts of the promotional tour, wasn’t it? You knew that this was a collection of diabolically shot action scenes, anaemic and uninteresting characters, jump-the-shark plotting that’s so wafer thin it’s a miracle it was spun out to an hour and a half, even with padding, and lacking all of the hallmarks of the series that made all of the four previous instalments so enjoyable. Like watching someone else describe parts of an uninteresting video game to you, it’s the film equivalent of when a tennis player goes 4-0 down in a set and then throws the last two games just to get to the next set so they can start again, and by the end all involved are barely going through the motions. It was never in doubt that this would claw in enough money to make a sixth episode viable, but if another Die Hard does ever make it into production it would take an achievement worthy of the Nobel Prize For Stupidity to make something worse than this. (Incidentally, that’s not a challenge, Bruce.)
Earlier this month, I saw the original Die Hard in 70 mm at my local cinema, so both my favourite and least favourite films seen in the cinema this year have been Die Hard films. Yippie-ki-yay, mother fumbler.
Time to start my fourth annual review of the year, and where better place to start than where most cinema screenings also begin: the trailers. (Yes, technically most cinema screenings start with the adverts, but even I’m not desperate enough to pick out my favourite bits of non-cinematic commercial advertising.) At the start of the year I wrote a post called the Corridor Of Uncertainty, looking fondly at the various ephemera that make up your pre-film entertainment as well as the adverts and trailers and I then tracked that with each review I wrote for three months. The pattern that emerged was that the multiplexes were typically running at around 25 – 30 minutes, where smaller cinemas were coming in at a more leg and bottom-friendly fifteen minutes. It would be nice if what you’re expected to sit through before the film worked on its own terms, but that seems less and less the case.
What has become apparent over the course of the year is that, to quote an old cliché, they don’t make ’em like they used to. Take for example this trailer for The Innocents which is currently in cinemas on re-release.
While there’s certainly an efficiency to modern promos, with their two and a half minute running time, their teaser trailers, their trailer teasers and their ruthless marketing campaigns designed to take no prisoners, I can’t help but feel that something of the character of trailers of years gone by has been lost forever. Finding trailers that I feel make the grade this year feels as if it’s becoming increasingly difficult, but here are what are I consider to be the year’s dozen best films that have been brutally edited down into pocket form for promotional purposes. As always, because this is a cinema blog, some of these trailers may have been on t’internet last year, but you would have been seeing them in cinemas this year.
Best Trailer For A Not Very Good Movie: I Give It A Year
There’s plenty of laughs in this trailer, and often that’s a warning shot to anyone then moving onto the full film that the trailer might contain all of the film’s laughs. What was particularly impressive in this case is that the trailer actually contained more laughs than the film, many of these moments proving less funny in context than they were in isolation and the sour, narcissistic and generally unpleasant tone that permeated the film itself ultimately made it about as enjoyable as hearing a doctor give you a detailed report on the contents of your lower bowel.
Best Trailer Featuring Almost The Last Shot Of The Movie: You’re Next
If you see as many films as I do, then chances are that you’ll end up seeing some of the same trailers over and over again. I still have nightmares about seeing the trailer for Brendan Fraser film Inkheart what must have been over twenty times in the cinema as the release date kept getting pushed back (never did see the film) and consequently I could have played it out word for word. I caught this trailer for You’re Next several times over the summer, and a few moments stuck in my head to the point I was waiting for them to appear in the finished product. I’ll never know if this reduced my overall enjoyment of the film, but there were enough other moments that this was an unnecessary move on the trailer maker’s part.
Best Trailer Earworm: Stoker
Really enjoyed Stoker, so don’t be surprised when you see it in the Top 40 of the year later this week. I also remember coming out of the cinema with the track from this trailer, Dirge’s “Death In Vegas”, still playing in my head; all the more impressive when you consider that it doesn’t actually feature in the finished film. Not to knock Clint Mansell’s score for Stoker, as it’s one of the best of the year, but Dirge had embedded itself so deeply in my brain that when I started putting this list together, it instantly started playing in my head again on a loop.
Best Trailer Earworm Honourable Mention: Frances Ha
If I was a director, then I’d love to be able to pay such obvious homage to the works of others and be lauded for it, other than being accused of simply ripping off the original. I sat through all of the end credits of Frances Ha simply to listen to David Bowie’s classic Modern Love, but didn’t realise until afterwards that the scene is a direct reference to this scene from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang.
Excuse me, back in a moment, just off to run jauntily down the street. It’s infectious.
Best WTF Trailer: Only God Forgives
So Drive. You really liked Drive, didn’t you? Yes, I did too, putting it number two in my Top 40 of 2011. So Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film has got Ryan Gosling in again. So yes, you’d expect it to be a lot like Drive again, wouldn’t you? So… ah. Ah right. (Warning: contains violence, karaoke and general weirdness.)
Best Trailer That Actually Contains The Post-Credits Sting: The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology
Having watched this on the last day of the Cambridge Film Festival this year, director Sophie Fiennes was present for a Q & A. On these occasions, often the credits are allowed to play out in the background silently so we can get straight to the discussion; Sophie asked to have the sound back up so we could watch the post-credits sting in all its glory, only to then discover that the whole thing is on the end of this trailer anyway. Still, the trailer does give a flavour of the insight available into Slavoj Zizek’s unique thinking.
Best Trailer That Accurately Represents A Film That No-One Saw: The Kings Of Summer
So, there have been 430 films so far to receive a cinema release in this country, of which I can lay claim to having seen just under a third. Two of them, The Way, Way Back and The Kings Of Summer, felt thematically similar and that’s the only reason I can think of that The Kings Of Summer struggled to find distribution. I caught it at the Prince Charles Cinema in London after a work trip to the capital, and it seemed to be one of the few cinemas showing it. While The Way, Way Back played across the country and took in just under $2.5 million at the UK box office, sandwiched on the list between Sammy’s Adventures 2 and Hitchcock, The Kings Of Summer didn’t fare quite so well.
Yes, that’s $0.024 million dollars. If you’ve seen more than one film on that list, well done you.
Best Editing: Don Jon
Yet another case of the promise of the trailer not being borne out in the film itself, but you feel it’s likely Joseph Gordon-Levitt was probably more hands-on in the process of compiling this trailer than many directors would be. Still don’t get the Scarlett Johansson thing, sorry.
Best Trailer For A Film Not Out Until Next Year: The Wolf Of Wall Street
Stiff competition in this category this year, with many of the later releases including Godzilla having impressive promos, and some of the earlier releases of the season such as American Hustle dazzling with their starry casts. I can also cheer myself up whenever slightly down by watching the Grand Budapest Hotel trailer again. (Card-carrying Wes Anderson fanboy, I guess.) But actually the most interesting promo for a film not due until 2014 is this, the first trailer for Martin Scorcese’s latest; Marty having fun is a none-more-appealing prospect.
Best Trailer Featuring A Scene Not In The Actual Film: Frozen
It’s like a little short film all its own. Sit back and enjoy. (The actual short film that precedes Frozen in cinemas, Get A Horse with Mickey Mouse, is also great, even if it is to actual Mickey Mouse cartoons what The Artist was to silent cinema.)
Best Trailer Of 2013: Gravity
When I saw the film, I spent most of it in terror of dodging debris and of my fear of heights trying to tell me that I was actually 372 miles above the earth and could fall at any moment. However, the trailer manages to capture that feeling of fear in under two minutes. For being able to send me whimpering from the cinema, wanting to scream “Grab the DAMN SPACESHIP!” at Sandra Bullock at the end of the trailer, and for expertly capturing the overall mood of the film without giving too much away, Gravity’s first trailer is my winner for 2013.
The Pitch: Breaking news.
The Review: You know that thing? That thing where you’re at a party with some close friends, and you throw out an off the cuff remark that everyone finds unexpectedly funny, and you then spend the rest of the evening trying to match that comment and occasionally coming off as both funny and clever but never quite living up to that first comment? That.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’re an…
What, you want an actual review? Oh, go on then.
This isn’t going to hold too many surprises. So, I could spin this out with fancy words, possibly even a graph or a poem, but if you’ve seen the original, you’ll probably like this. It is two hours more of Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell being Ron, Brian, Champ and Brick. If the sound of Ron Burgundy’s man child is like nails down a metaphorical blackboard, then this is just going to be a bunch more nails on a highly polished blackboard. If your not an Anchor-fan, move along, nothing to see here.
There is both a plot and a subplot of sorts. The plot revolves around Ron Burgundy’s initial fall from grace, which sees him fired from the network by intimidating anchor Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) while his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is promoted. Down on his luck and in a dead-end job commentating on dolphins at a water park, Burgundy is offered a lifeline by producer Freddy Shapp (Dylan Baker) at new 24 hour news network GNN. Burgundy and his reassembled news team come instantly into conflict with hotshot anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) and feisty producer Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). Ron also has to deal with the consequences of his separation from Veronica, her new partner Gary (Greg Kinnear) and their son caught up in the separation, as well as newfound romantic feelings for Linda. If that wasn’t enough, Brick is also forming a romantic attachment to like minded simpleton Chani (Kristen Wiig).
Everything you liked about the first film is back here, from unexpected songs to rapidly escalating fights. You’ll not be surprised to hear Brick still doing his best impersonation of a live action Ralph Wiggum with added shouting, Champ behaving generally inappropriately and ignorantly, Brian keeping more stores of lovemaking material in his secret wall cabinet and Ron frequently misunderstanding the most basic of situations. Despite his many and varied flaws, Ron remains the glue that binds the group together and the group works as well as ever, the four leads slipping effortlessly back into their roles. Rumours about that there exists a second cut of the film with different takes of all the jokes, but the random improvisation feels slightly more forced this time out (compare and contrast “Great Odin’s Raven!” with “By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!”). Despite a reputation for this kind of improv humour, it’s the big set pieces which often work best here, including a trip to the city in a Jesus-covered Winnebago and an extended sequence on a lighthouse.
There is a little innovation here, mostly in the supremely broad satire suggesting that Burgundy and his crew were inadvertently responsible for the state of rolling news today. The voiceover is more heavily used than in the first film, Bill Curtis’ deep tones explaining the simplest of plot points for anyone who sees Brick as an intellectual role model. Mostly though, Anchorman 2 gets by on new riffs on old material and certainly feels very familiar: for example, the battle of the sexes between Ron and Veronica in the original is instead replaced by a culture clash between Ron and Linda’s family in a spectacularly offensive dinner table scene this time around. Sometimes that familiarity works against the film, but when it works in its favour (such as in the climactic anchor fight, taking the original and amping it up by a factor of 10, and well handled by director Adam McKay) then Anchorman 2 is very funny indeed. It has no real pretensions to anything other than very silly, and it achieves that goal often enough to be considered a reasonable success. Did the world need more Ron Burgundy? Probably not. Does it feel marginally more laboured than the original? Undoubtedly yes. Should the world breathe a heavy sigh of relief that they managed not to screw it up completely? Definitely. You stayed classy, Ron Burgundy. Just.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’re an Anchorman fan, then see it with the biggest crowd you can to make the most of the laughs. Ideally, before someone spoils all of the surprises for you.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for infrequent strong sex references and hard drug use. Remember kids, taking crack is bad, mmm’kay?
My cinema experience: Took a half day from work to catch this at the first screening of the day in the Cineworld Bury St Edmunds. There was a surprisingly large crowd, no doubt due to the close proximity to Christmas, and the crowd were all clearly well up for it given their heavy laughter at the Last Vegas trailer (which I’ve now seen around a dozen times). Thankfully this laughter carried over into the film itself and enhanced my viewing pleasure no end. You stay classy, Bury St Edmunds.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Middle Earth Episode II: Not Yet There, And Back Again Next Year.
The Review: Last year, audiences around the world were treated to the first of a new trilogy of Middle Earth films after a nine year break. Showered with awards, the originals are generally held up as pinnacles of modern film, but An Unexpected Journey arrived last year to a noticeable measure less of acclaim. There were problems, some with the 48 FPS experiment but not least because a film just shy of three hours had been spun slowly and painfully out of five chapters of what was ostensibly a children’s book. While the look and feel of Middle Earth was as magical as ever, nothing felt hugely fresh and the roster of returning characters from the original trilogy – seven in total – and the return to original trilogy settings such as Rivendell, coupled with the relative lack of forward momentum from the plot, made watching significant stretches of part one feel close to a chore, an accusation that could never be levelled at the originals (despite being shorter than any of them). The Riddles In The Dark climax gave the trilogy a sense of propulsion, but the question remained as to whether Peter Jackson could recapture any of that old magic.
So last time we left them, Magneto and John Watson once again set off with Guy Of Gisbourne, Rebus, the one I always confuse with John Hannah, the bald one, the fat one, the young fit one and his brother, the one inexplicably still wandering around withwith an axe in his head and probably about five others that I defy any rational person to distinguish from one another unless their name is an anagram of Jeter Packson had just escaped from the caves with Gollum in and had a ride on some convenient eagles. (I think. It’s been a year, leave me alone.) Where the first instalment creaked along, The Hobbit Part II fairly rattles along at breakneck pace from the start and never lets up. Gandalf decides to disappear off and do his own thing once again, leaving the vertically challenged remainder to tangle with elves, men and a giant, fire breathing dragon.
Where the previous episode felt almost apologetic in its reliance on familiar elements, The Desolation Of Smaug strikes more of a balance. Many of the franchise faces seen last time don’t recur, and the only new / old character to come back is Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, coming across more than ever like a cross between a Vulcan and a ninja. He’s pitched up against Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel in a slightly daft love triangle involving them and the young fit dwarf (Kili, Aidan Turner) and it’s just one of the plot developments that highlights how much this chapter has veered away from Tolkien’s narrative; you could almost refer to this as “inspired by” rather than “based upon”. I’ve no issue with that if it’s providing solid storytelling, and thankfully interspecies crushes are a minor distraction. Desolation is a chance to explore further facets of Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth and the likes of Lake-Town, and the men Bard (Luke Evans) and the master (Stephen Fry) and while the continued pursuit of Azog (Manu Bennett) drives them forward, what the group are encountering is eminently more interesting than the first part of their quest on almost every level, from character to action.
There are minor gripes: Weta’s CGI seems to be going backwards rather than forwards and in particular anything around water has taken a trip through the uncanny valley and is now standing on the other side, hanging its head in shame. Although Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is necessarily sidelined by his excursion to see what lurks in Dol Guldur, there are points in the second act when it also feels as if Bilbo has been forgotten in his own story, and it’s never as clear as it was in Lord Of The Rings exactly who we should be rooting for. There’s also no getting away from the oddness of the title, especially when the only real appearance of the Desolation is the dwarves waving at it from a distance as they wander past. (It almost feels a bit, “Let’s not go to the Desolation. It is a silly place.”) Finally, while there aren’t the painful longueurs of its predecessor, Desolation did make me look at my watch once, oddly in the Smaug section which feels about five minutes too long. But that shouldn’t detract from the genuine magnificence of the beast, ominously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, or indeed the success of both that sequence and some earlier action sequences such as the barrel ride down river. Jackson continues to take the slender Hobbit tome and recast it in the image of his masterpiece, but that’s more successful second time out, even with a slightly portentous tone that has only flecks of humour. Despite its flaws The Desolation Of Smaug is a much more entertaining ride and while still not quite at the level of the Rings films, come the cliff-hanger ending you’re more likely to be relishing the third part than you would have been three hours earlier.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’ve seen the previous four Tolkien adaptations, you’ll know what to expect, and this is no less epic. Particularly impressive is Lake Town, but the big screen is also the only way to really appreciate the true magnificence of Smaug.
Why see it in 3D: More positives than negatives, in 24 FPS (the way I chose to see it) there’s not a huge brightness issue, even in the murkiness of Mirkwood. Jackson’s good at depth of field and throws in a couple of cheeky in-your-face moments, but still hasn’t quite learned that quick cuts in action editing don’t work in 3D as your eyes don’t have enough time to focus.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Again, fans of the trilogy won’t have any nasty surprises here, although arachnophobes who struggled with The Return Of The King might be advised to take a valium before heading out. (Thankfully I lived in Leicester when I saw The Return Of The King at the Odeon there; hopefully the several families who brought very young children will not have been replaced by a new generation there, or indeed anywhere else.)
My cinema experience: A work trip to Exeter saw me taking in the comforts of the Exeter Picturehouse. A beautiful bar in a lovely location complements the venue, and the spacious screen 1 is well set up with a bank of sofas at the back and well spaced rows of seating. I was nervous about booking a seat in the middle of a row, done to minimise ghosting and other odd effects on the 3D, but the ample legroom – even for someone 6′ 3″ like myself – was very welcome and the reclining seats still had plenty of give. The projection and sound were also up to the normal standard I’d expect from the Picturehouse chain. An Apple Tango at just over £2 with my members’ discount helped to keep me hydrated through the lengthy running time, and I look forward to my next work trip there to sample the other screens. Random thanks also to the person who helped me look for my car key after the screening, which it transpires I’d left at the hotel. (Sorry.)
The Score: 8/10