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

Frozen

The story of the Canadian folk hero, a moose, and his best friend the snowman

The story of the Canadian folk hero, a moose, and his best friend the snowman

Frozen, the new Disney film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, has been garnering rave reviews everywhere it goes and, to be honest, I’m struggling to see why. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it – it’s a perfectly entertaining film. It rattles along, has some laughs along the way, and has some strong female characters at the centre of it who don’t need to be validated by a man. It’s fine. It’s good fun. But nothing more. It’s not up there in the pantheon of great animated kids movies. For me, it’s a little behind Tangled, the 2010 retelling of Rapunzel, but it doesn’t get up there with the great films Pixar have produced (even if their standard has dropped the past couple of years) or the best of Disney from the past.

Still good fun though. Worth a watch.

B

Film length: 1hr 42mins – Feels Like: 1hr 50mins

All Is Lost

all-is-lost-poster2

In the past 12 months there has been a spate of sea-faring movies, starting with Life of Pi, through A Hijacking and Captain Phillips, and now we have what is perhaps the most remarkable of them all, All Is Lost.

Robert Redford players “The Sailor”, a man in a yacht in the middle of a deserted ocean. We join him when he wakes to find water pouring into his sleeping quarters and all over his computer and radio equipment. Heading outside to investigate, he discovers a rogue shipping container floating in the middle of the ocean that his yacht has drifted into. Redford sets about fixing things but it’s downhill from there. The remarkable things about the film are that a) it is played out as a virtually silent movie (about two thirds of Redford’s lines are said in voiceover before the film gets under way) and b) that Redford is the only actor on screen.

The nature of the film provokes questions about Redford’s performance. How much of what he does is acting? It’s a physical feat, one all the more impressive given his age (77), but so much of what we think of as acting isn’t required in this film. There’s no interaction and little or no emotion, beyond some minor exasperation at the predicament he finds himself in. But it’s pretty incredible, none the less.

At the same time, the technical aspects of the film are just as impressive. The special effects in the storm sequences are pretty incredible when one considers the scale of the movie. We all too often take these things for granted, especially in the big budget blockbusters, but this isn’t one of those and yet it remains immaculate.

Ultimately, this is a special film. It grips you throughout despite breaking all the rules for what you expect from a film. There is no conflict, beyond man versus nature. There is no emotion to draw you in. But from beginning to end you can’t take your eyes off the screen.

A-

Film length: 1 hour 46 minutes – Feels like: 1 hour 30 minutes

Saving Mr Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thomson cross rivers of blood. Only Liam Neeson can save them...

Tom Hanks and Emma Thomson cross rivers of blood. Only Liam Neeson can save them…

Mary Poppins is an all time classic film beloved by adults and children around the world, but it’s journey to the screen took over 20 years and the finished product wasn’t loved by the author of the book upon which it was based. Saving Mr Banks tells the story of the final stage of the jounrey from book to screen, with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pulling out all the stops to convince PL Travers (Emma Thomson) to sell him the rights to her story. It is a lovely film set around a brilliant performance from Thomson but being a product of Disney films, there are some questions that have to be asked about how truthful it is, specifically with regard to the final scene.

Before we get on to that, and the aspect of the story that I found of particular interest, I want to look at the story a little more. There are two strands which run throughout the film, the first concerning Disney’s attempts to buy the rights from Mrs Travers, and the second concerning Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia and her relationship with her alcoholic father. I understand the narrative need for the sequences in Australia but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite find the right balance in cutting between these sections meaning that the moment you leave Thomson you and yourself aching to get back to her part of the story and losing the impact of the earlier section. This could, in part, be due to the fact that Thomson’s performance is so strong that it casts a shadow when she’s not on screen, but I think it’s also down to the fact that the tone between sections differs wildly. Travers’ tut-tutting school-ma’am attitude has a lightness of touch that keeps a smile constantly on the lips, while the Australian sequences are melancholy and lack the lightness of touch and sparkle. While this is appropriate for the aspect of the subject these sections examine, it does mean they don’t fit the tone of the rest of the film, leaving an ultimately uneven experience.

Now, what interests me most is what this says about an author’s ownership of the story and characters. For me, the film portrays Travers’ wariness about letting someone else take control of her characters as being almost petty. Disney is a caring man who would never do any harm to her beloved Mary Poppins, and of course we, the audience, all know that an all-time great film will be the result. But of course that presents an unfair picture. What of all the good, personal novels that are ruined by Hollywood? Without the benefit of hindsight, how would Travers know what fate would befall her character? (And that’s setting aside the fact that she didn’t like what was done with the film ultimately). Look at, for example, The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. A film which tore the heart out of the source material. Or as Travers’ herself says in Saving Mr Banks, “Poor AA Milne”, whose Winnie the Pooh lost his soul at Disney’s hands.

The film seems to be saying that, while it understands her reluctance to sell, ultimately that is the right thing to do, which leads to the (is it or isn’t it) troubling final scene. This may be a spoiler, so you have been warned. Travers attends the premier of the film and, when it reaches its conclusion with Let’s Go Fly A Kite, a song which is given some emotional resonance earlier, Travers is shown crying. While she says “I hate cartoons” by way of explanation, the implication is that she has been drawn in and won over by what she has seen on screen and it has exorcised some long held demons for her.

I completely understand and accept this as a narrative device for telling the story, and I have no issue with true stories being tweaked to make them fit a narrative arc – it can be a necessary evil to make the story resonate – but I feel here the film is trying to have its cake and eat it. “She says she hates it” defenders can say and baldly, on the page of the script, that is true, but that is not what is shown on screen. I know I am not the only one to have drawn these conclusions from the way this scene is shot.

As I say, I don’t think, ultimately, this matters, but I do think an acknowledgement needs to be made somewhere. The story isn’t well known enough for it to outlive the film – this will, no doubt, become the definitive version, and that can be troubling. Hopefully the bluray edition will feature some documentary evidence which tells the *real* true story as well.

B+

Film length: 2hrs 5 minutes – Fells like: 1 hour 50 mins

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire

I don’t get it. This film has been widely and wildly praised and I just don’t get it. I quite liked the first film, although it was a good half an hour too long, With some good editing it could have been a rip-roaring young-adult thriller, but instead it was ponderous and yet still lacked a little context.

This second film suffers from the same kind of issues, but added to that, it also comes across as a cover version of the first film. In the first film, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark were chosen from their sector of the new world order’s version of America to be representatives in The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are a fight to the death between 24 teenagers from the 12 different sectors. Last one alive, lives on with immunity. It’s like Battle Royale, but with a weak romance instead of the chutzpah to follow through on the concept. So, when we left them, Katniss and Peeta and faked a relationship on national TV in order that they both might be saved. In Catching Fire, we meet them touring the provinces and living the lie but President Snow (Donald Sutherland, sleepwalking through the role of one of the most tedious villains around) sees a threat in Katniss and wants her done away with. For some reason he doesn’t just arrange for the train that carries her around to crash, but instead sets up a “QuarterQuell” – a 25th anniversary Hunger Games in which all surviving winners head back into the dome and only one can survive.

So we head back into the games, but this time, instead of a bunch of obnoxious teens, we’re also given a couple of old people to work with too. Now, the problem is that more than half the film is needed* to set this up and get them back into the games. Considering so little plot is dealt with it’s unfathomable that it should take so long on the screen. Then, realising that the they’ve already done the ‘kids killing other kids’ bit once, the games quickly dispense with that bit, and President Snow, via Games’ designer Plutarch Heavensbee (apparently that’s a name, and he’s played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman who kinda makes it seem like a paycheck role), unleashes some surprises. These surprises made me laugh out loud. They are ridiculous and the way they’re handled made them seem rather desperate. When a reveal comes they make a little more sense, but that just makes you think that the writing and directing could have done a better job.

Jennifer Lawrence does a very good job at trying to hold it all together. I’m a big fan of hers, but it’s just a shame she’s attached to all of this and can’t go off and make more interesting stuff.

Yawn.

Film length: 2hrs 26 minutes – Feels like: 3 hrs

C-

*That much time is not needed

Gravity

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Imagine you dislike cucumber. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but for the sake of this, you really dislike it. In your mind, it’s essentially flavourless and makes everything around it soggy, so while, in and of itself, it isn’t an issue, it makes everything around it that bit worse. Then imagine a friend cooks you a meal. They’re a really good cook and you trust that whatever dish they prepare for you will be delicious. They mention that a key ingredient is cucumber and you think about objecting before saying to yourself, “you know what, I trust my friend as a chef”. The meal is a revelation; you have rarely eaten anything so delicious. You have to acknowledge that the meal probably wouldn’t be quite so good without the cucumber. The cucumber is a vital part of this meal. It’s like Lebowski’s rug – it really ties the meal together. This is not to say that you like cucumber, this is to say that your friend’s cooking is brilliant. He is a brilliant chef.

3D cinema is cucumber, while (here’s the big reveal) Gravity is the meal and Alfonso Cuaron is my friend, the excellent chef*. The fact that Gravity is such a great film and is enhanced by the 3D doesn’t mean that 3D is a good thing in general. Generally speaking, in fact, it gets in the way and distracts you from the main event. Look, I even wrote a blog about it ages ago. In fact, as I can’t trust you to go back and re-read my old pieces, let’s excerpt the relevant passages here:

“It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert…

…It may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential…

…The test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it.”

Cuaron is the artist that 3D cinema has been waiting for, someone who understands how to use 3D as a tool to help his story-telling, rather than purely as a novelty that gets in the way. And that brings us to a simple fact. Gravity may be the most beautiful looking film you will ever see. The visuals are stunning, but more than that, the directing is stunning. There is a certain majesty to the manner in which the camera floats weightless around the screen, performing an intricate dance with the actors and objects. You feel both that you are there in the midst of space alngside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and you feel the effortless glide of the story pulling you along.

Ah yes, the story. This is very simple. A crew are repairing the Hubble telescope. George Clooney is the veteran astronaut while Sandra Bullock is a rookie making the repairs. They are struck by some space debris and things go wrong. Can they survive? You don’t need more than that. It is a B movie concept, cut to B movie lengths – a slim 90 minutes – and that’s all it needs to be. It has no pretensions and it understands that epic is something you are, not something you become by bloating a script.

The film is crafted to slowly ratchet up the tension, to draw the audience in, to make you hold your breath. The 3D is used to bring the weightlessness to life, to help the audience live this nightmare along with the cast. It’s subtle. Not so subtle as you ignore it, but not obvious enough to truly notice it. It allows you to become part of the film.

Beyond that there’s nothing else to say, except you have to see this film. And if you can, you should see it in IMAX 3D – the biggest and best way to see it.

Well what are you waiting for? Go. Now.

A

Film length: 90 minutes – Feels like: 90 minutes

*Disclaimer – Alfonso Cuaron is not actually my friend. I cannot testify to his skills as a chef.

Thor: The Dark World

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

The original Thor film was a curiosity of 2 parts. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh, the scenes on Asgard, the home planet/realm of Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth), were treated as weighty drama filled with Shakespearean import while the scenes on Earth were imagined as being somewhere between Hanna Barbera, Playschool and Charlie Chaplin. Suffice it to say, it was the latter sequences which stood out, while Asgard was stuffy, emotionless and ultimately tedious (as well as being a brilliant advert for Mr Sheen).

Thor: The Dark World looks to repeat the formula, though the lack of a Brannagh makes the Asgard scenes that little bit more approachable while the story sidelines the fantastic Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for the bland Makelith (Christopher Eccleston, who does his best in a thankless role), a trade off which perhaps balances the two sides a little better but still fails to produce a truly thrilling ride.

The story sees Makelith and his men imprisoned by Thor’s father some time ago, and escaping in the modern day to track down the magical Aether, a mystical power source which will enable Makelith to take over the world. Or something.

Meanwhile, Thor’s earth-bound girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles across the Aether because of a thing. I mean really – does it matter? Is it even explained? Not really. Does it make sense? No. Does that matter? Not really.

The pace of the movie is just about fast enough, though the scenes on Asgard still drag it down, but ultimately the film is redeemed with a fantastically fun end sequence using portals. No, that doesn’t make sense either, but it’s pulled off with enough comic panache that it gets away with it.

Fun while it lasts.

B-

Film length: 1hr 52mins – Feels like: 1hr 50mins

Escape Plan

Arnie and Sly get stuck in ITV's The Cube

Arnie and Sly get stuck in ITV’s The Cube

This should perhaps be considered an addendum to the B movies post of a few weeks back as it’s a continuation of that theme. It’s not quite the big dumb action movie that Sly and Arnie used to specialise in, but it’s close and it does represent the first time that these two have co-top-billed a movie.

The story finds Stallone as an expert at testing the security of prisons. He’s offered a big pay check to test out a CIA prison that is designed to be a more secret Guantanemo and dives in without a thought of the implications of getting involved with the CIA. So, in a matter of minutes he’s whisked away to an unimpeachable prison where, who should he find but Arnie. When his failsafe measures fail, he has to set about escaping for real, and Arnie latches himself on for the ride.

It’s a simple concept and it’s not without its flaws – if these prisoners are that of the grid why not just kill them? And why allow them to mingle with each other? – but you know what you’re getting in to. If you go along for the ride there’s plenty of fun to be had here. It’s a pleasantly dumb way to pass a couple of hours, and at no point does anyone make any stupid jokes about being too old for this shit, which makes for a pleasant change.

B-

Film length: 1 hr 55 mins – Feels like: 1 hr 45 mins

Sunshine on Leith

Make Glorious Sunshine for Imperial Leader on Leith

Make Glorious Sunshine for Imperial Leader on Leith

Everybody knows one or two songs by the Proclaimers. If nothing else, you could 500 Miles out of your locker, and probably Letter From America too. After that you might be struggling. I was a bit, I have to say. Watching Sunshine On Leith you quickly realise that somewhere in the deep recesses of your mind some other tunes have lodged themselves. Not only that, you also realise that you really should pay attention to their music more.

Sunshine On Leith is a jukebox musical, one of those creatures that tries to take the songs of one artist, hitch on a story and attempts to pull in nostalgic punters. The most famous of these is Mamma Mia, the Abba musical (which I have not seen), but there’s also We Will Rock You, the Queen musical which, despite miserable reviews, has been running in the west end for years now. And recently there was a Spice Girls musical written by Jennifer Saunders which fell flat on its face.

Based on the reputation of those which have gone before, one might not hold out much hope for Sunshine On Leith, but those fears are rapidly dispelled. The film feels down to earth and, despite being a musical, real.

The story starts with two young soldiers, Davy & Ally, returning from a tour in Afghanistan and tells the story of 3 relationships at different points in their journeys. Ally is in a relationship with Davy’s sister and has big plans. Davy strikes up a relationship with a colleague of his sister, and then Davy’s parents’ long marriage comes under some strain.

The three stories are, to varying degrees, flimsy, and in the case of Davy’s parents, not properly worked through, but ultimately the weaknesses inherent in the stories is papered over, and with no little joy, by the songs.

It’s interesting that you would expect the songs to feel crowbarred in but that actually they fit very well. In fact, in many cases they feel like they were written for the film and not the other way around. Perhaps it’s because of the folk background of the music means that many of the songs feel as though they should be sung in around a piano in a pub or similar that means that fit the environs of a musical better than, for example, the back catalogue of Abba. The singalong-ability of many of the tunes also draws you in as an audience and makes you forgive the other shortcomings of the film.

The performances are uniformly good, especially from the two leads and a surprising turn from Peter Mullan as Davy’s father, and the film is guaranteed to send you away with a smile on your face and, perhaps, a tear in your eye..

B+

Film Length: 1hr 40 – Feels Like: 1hr 30

And a special bonus video…

How I Live Now

how-i-live-now-poster

I think all the faults I could find with How I Live Now stem from the position of my perception and not from the film itself. And faults aside, it starts from a position of strength by blaring Amanda Palmer‘s Do It With A Rockstar over the opening credits, which was always going to win me over. Anyway, the story…

Saoirse Ronan plays Daisy (or Elizabeth), a surly city-chick from New York sent to the British countryside to stay with her aunt and cousins for the summer. She perceives it as being ditched, making room in her father’s house for his new wife and young child, and so (understandably) arrives with a massive chip on her shoulder. Her negativity is slowly worn down by her relentlessly positive younger cousins, all of whom are determined to enjoy all of the joys the countryside has to offer. She’s most effectively won over by the strong, silent cousin Edmund, to who she takes an unspoken shine from the first minute. Hovering in the background is an indeterminate threat, which suddenly comes crashing into the forefront when a country picnic gets hit by a nuclear winter from a massive attack on London. Martial law is declared and the children are whisked away from their country home and split up with the boys taken one way and the girls another. Daisy and Edmund promise to escape and make their way back to the house they’d been sharing and… well, let’s leave it there…

The film is shot through with the overpowering emotions felt during the teenage years, along with the absolute certainty of the right thing to do which I doubt many people feel all that regularly once they hit their 20s and beyond, and as such I can see how much more the film may have appealed to me when I was that age or, to an even greater extent, to teenage girls. Watching as an adult it’s difficult to view without seeing through the naivety of the decision making, without tutting or adding your own soundtrack of “Why didn’t you do…”, but that’s not to complain about the film.

The film is beautifully made, shot through with true characters – and it’s important to point out that all the decisions these children make totally ring true with who they are painted to be – and an uncomfortable feeling of authenticity. The foreshadowing is done perfectly, never truly drawing attention to the threats that exist in the background while equally never letting them disappear, and there are some genuinely terrifying moments.

The film has struggled at the box office but I can easily imagine it having a long life at home and being discovered by a new generation of teenagers each year.

B

Film length: 1 hour 41 minutes
Feels like: 1 hour 40 minutes