The Best Films of 2013

So this year I inadvertently conducted an experiment, writing reviews of everything I saw (including stand-up and music, but centred around films). I didn’t intend to do this when the year started, but that’s how it turned out. By the end of the year it was a bit of a slog. I didn’t always have things to say about films and, at various times, I got behind and had to blitz a few to get back up to date (witness my delayed best of year list!). I won’t be doing the same in 2014, though I will still post the occasional review when I feel I have something to say. A Wolf of Wall Street post will follow this shortly. In the meantime, here’s a quick run down of what I thought were the best films of the year, in reverse order…

10. Behind the Candelabra

A camp classic. I was completely unaware of the story of Liberace and this was a brilliant film getting me up to speed. Funny, scary, twisted and heart-breaking at various junctures, and the kind of thing you rarely get to see on screen.

9. No

Another true story I was completely unaware of – the advertising campaign that ousted a dictator. That dictator being Augusto Pinochet in 1988. Imaginatively shot to bring the era to life, and shot through with the kind of humour borne of the oppressive regime. Uplifting, fun and informative.

7 & 8. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa & The World’s End

I’m not separating these two brilliant British character comedies. Both spin incredible stories out of the familiar, be that familiar characters, familiar ensembles, familiar settings. Both show Hollywood how to make good comedies – something Hollywood has been pretty bad at in recent years. Strong characters, strong stories and let those naturally bring the comedy forward, rather than forcing it.

6. What Richard Did

An antidote to American high school movies. A realistic portrayal teenagers coming of age. Likeable kids give fantastic performances, the film then throws in a heartbreaking twist, literally what Richard did. This film offers something that’s all too rarely seen and deserves a far wider audience.

5. Zero Dark Thirty

An enthralling telling of the hunt for and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which gets stuck into the both the process and the moral stand points of the global hunt, culminating in a stunningly realistic visualisation of events at Bin Laden’s compound which serves as a thrilling and tense counterpoint to almost every espionage and action film of th last few decades.

4. All Is Lost

Daring and highly original film of man versus nature. Robert Redford is all at sea, battling his boat and the elements as he tries to survive.

3. The Sessions

Both heart-warming and heart-breaking, this is the story of poet and polio sufferer Mark O’Brien and his quest to lose his virginity. This is a film of touching and rare humanity that makes you think about life and the role sex plays. An incredible central performance from John Hawkes is complimented by Helen Hunt as his sexual surrogate and William H Macy as the priest Mark seeks counsel from.

2. Gravity

Yes, it’s a B movie with a B movie script, but it also does things on screen that you’ve never seen before. Tense, exciting, breath-taking – literally and metaphorically. The kind of film that needs to be seen in the cinema, and the first film that really merits the use of 3D.

1. Cloud Atlas

Insane on many levels and I’m still not entirely sure it works, and yet I was blown away. It’s like nothing else. It’s ambition is off the charts and for that alone it deserves to in the top 10, but then there’s what it actually accomplishes. It tells 6 interlocking stories, which don’t really interlock. It uses actors to play multiple roles across those stories, often unrecognisable. It has Buddhist undertones but leaves it to the audience to draw conclusions. It’s not for everyone but it is most definitely for me. Outstanding.

What’s interesting (to me) is the wide variety in there. Aside from numbers 7 & 8, the Britcoms, there’s a huge range of topics, styles and genres. There really is no film like any other on there. ven Alpha Papa and The World’s End are only really united by being British comedies, the films themselves are very different beasts. Looking back over the list, I saw 64 films at the cinema in 2013 and 26 of them I rated at 8/10 or better. That’s a really impressive hit rate. But it does bring me round to the other question. The worst films of the year. Here is my list of shame, the 5 worst films I saw this year and to save any confusion, the worst is the last one I list…

5. Elysium
4. To The Wonder
3. Kick Ass 2
2. A Good Day To Die Hard
1. Parker

Parker

Payback was a good film. It will only cause confusion if they rename it.

Payback was a good film. It will only cause confusion if they rename it.

My feelings about Jason Statham are similar to those I hold for Mark Wahlberg – there is something about him as a screen presence that holds the attention. His films may not be the greatest but they are usually entertaining and it’s usually his role that manages to tip the balance in their favour. Alas this is not so with Parker, though Statham is the only good thing about it.

That’s a shame, given the other cast members – admittedly Jennifer Lopez has done nothing worthy on screen since Out of Sight, but that film, one of my favourites, will always give me hope. Alongside Lopez and Statham we have Michael Chiklis of The Shield and Wendell Pierce of The Wire, two of my favourite shows, and two of the reasons why they were so good. However, there’s nothing they can do with this script.

But let’s rewind to the promising opening of the film. Parker (Statham), dressed as a priest, is part of a team robbing the Ohio State Fair of $1m in a sequence which promises more of the film than it can deliver. It doesn’t promise a lot, just more than can be found later. The sequence displays control but mostly works because no one really has to say anything.

Things start to go wrong, both for Parker and the film, in the car leaving the event. Chiklis wants Parker to play a part in a much bigger score they have lined up, one potentially worth $10m, and he needs Parker’s share of the Ohio robbery as seed money. Parker refuses and, after a brief kerfuffle, is left for dead at the side of the road. This would be all well and good, except the dialogue in the car is excruciatingly bad. The type I’d have been laughed out of university for producing. There is no sense of character in there – not even an attempt – the words are there to solely drive the plot forward. While I didn’t take notes in the film, it would not surprise me if this was an accurate recreation:

“Woo. One million bucks. That’s two-hundred thousand each. So Parker, we’ve got this job that could be worth ten times that. You want in?”

“No, I’ll just take my money and leave.”

(Aggressively) “But we need your money to pay for the planning of the job.”

“”Sorry, I’m not interested. Give me my money.”

“What would you do to a guy who turned down my proposal?”

“Give him his money.”

“And if that wasn’t an option?”

“I’d kill him first chance I got.”

[Fight in car].

There’s no nuance to it. The writer came into the scene thinking I need these guys to turn on Parker and (try to) kill him. There’s no sense of trying to persuade him. The attitude of the character turns on a dime. And there’s no subtext. Everything is writ large.

This is how the dialogue goes throughout. Perhaps this is the reason why everyone, Statham aside, overacts every chance they get. If they make it big and bold perhaps that will imbue the writing with some character, but instead it only serves to ridicule it further. It often feels like amateur dramatics, with people waiting for other actors to say their bit before they come in and turn on the (overdone) emotion. Statham, by contrast, dials everything down. His is a still performance while everyone around him is dialled up to 11, including a bizarre, growly performance from Nick Nolte as his father-in-law.

Anyway, this turn of events sets Parker on a revenge mission. He doesn’t want anything except his $200,000 (except later he’s offered that money, plus 10% to say sorry) and he turns it down in favour of getting revenge. It makes no sense.

Even with all of these problems, the film could’ve been a fun 90 minutes. If it had kept rocketing along, never worrying about the plot not making sense or the dialogue lacking style, if it had never let up it could’ve gotten away with it. But this film is 117 minutes. It has a long dull middle section where Parker gets better and then tries to track down the gang and their big score. This is enlivened by the one good line in the film, when Parker attacks the brother of one of the gang (a no-good mobster in his own right) with a chair:

“[If you don’t tell me where to find him] you’ll have the posthumous humiliation of being killed by a chair.”

Lopez turns up at around the hour mark as a downtrodden Florida real estate agent whose role is initially unclear. She ends up showing Parker around expensive Palm Beach properties (he takes on the guise of a super-rich Texan businessman, complete with atrocious accent) as he is searching for the property purchased by the gang. How he knew they’d have bought a house isn’t clear. Why they bought the house isn’t clear. Why a real estate agent would show him houses they had recently sold isn’t clear. How he knew they’d have used that real estate agent isn’t clear. One might almost say that the plot doesn’t make sense.

As I said, if the plot was rattling along and we had some good action sequences to keep us going, none of this would matter, but we don’t. It’s so tedious and so drawn out that you have plenty of time to be asking all of these questions as the film plays out without missing anything.

Anyway, once he’s tracked down the gang it plays out in largely predictable fashion and we can all go home. But there are a few other things I’d like to pick out and comment on.

I think Jennifer Lopez’s character was supposed to give us an Elmore Leonard type feel to the film, along with the Florida location, perhaps in some way reflect Out of Sight. It failed on that count, though she is the only person in the film to have anything that could remotely be described as a character. The problem with trying to give something an Elmore Leonard flavour is that you need to back it up with some smart and snappy dialogue.

Parker is based on a book by Richard Stark. The same character was used as the basis for both Point Blank back in 1967 (in which Parker is renamed Walker) and Payback starring Mel Gibson (Parker becomes Porter). Both of those are vastly superior films. Vastly.

There’s a very strange shot in the film that I guess is supposed to be subverting the typical view. When Lopez first takes Parker out to view properties she is attracted to him. When he gets out of her car and walks to his, she looks at his arse, which means we get a close-up. Fair enough. Except that he’s wearing a suit which has become rather wrinkled from sitting in the car. The wrinkled suit jacket is covering the majority of his arse, so she can’t be actively admiring it, she can’t see it. It was just very strange.

Taylor Hackford is the director. He’s not one of the greats but he’s far from a journeyman who just takes whatever check is coming his way. His credits include An Officer & A Gentleman, The Devil’s Advocate and Proof of Life, as well as Oscar winner Ray. Maybe he needed the money or owed someone a favour, because I can’t think of any other reason why he’d sign on to make this film with a script in the state that this one was in.

I have a theory about the acting and the quality of the script. The script is really bad – a negative – so the actors think they need to overact to make it work – a positive. The positive cancels out the negative. However, this seems to produce a negative. Perhaps it’s actually a multiplication rather than a sum. Statham underplays an underwritten role and it works. Two negatives. When you multiply two negatives you get a positive. Multiply a positive and a negative and you get a negative. It’s a terrible theory, and it’s explained awfully. Sorry.

Anyway, I hope this doesn’t stop Statham from making more of the kind of action films we normally associate with him. The best ones – The Transporter, Safe, The Bank Job – are really entertaining. But as for this one…

F