For some film reviewers, 2013 was one of the best years for movies in quite some time, and there is merit in such an argument. As always, my film viewing year was topped and tailed by 2012's Oscar contenders and 2013's crop of awards hopefuls. But was it a great year? It was certainly a very strong one but as with last year, for me it was the smaller films which won me over while bigger and more anticipated titles failed to impress.
2013 was a year where Gosling went 0 for 3 (I still love you, Ryan!), animated features reached a nadir, and I somehow managed to see just one Australian film (unless you count The Great Gatsby?). A year when one of my all-time favourite books became a far from favourite film (Gatsby again), and Cate Blanchett gave an award-winning performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. And yet, the best female performance of the year (Julie Delpy in Before Midnight) is unlikely to receive an Oscar nomination.
My Best of 2012 list actually cut-off at January 10, 2013, so after much to-ing and fro-ing, I have decided that my Favourite Films of 2013 would be limited to films viewed for the first time in 2013* (see list to the right of screen) regardless of Australian release date. (*Classics such as Badlands, The Godfather I and II, The Shining and Goodfellas, which were also viewed for the first time in 2013, are ineligible).
Much to the chagrin of some, I'm sure, I have made my list alphabetical rather than numerical. But to appease those sticklers for (arbitrary) rules, I have conceded to name a favourite film separate to my Top 10.
MY TOP 10
MY FAVOURITE FILM OF 2013: LINCOLN
Disagree with any of my choices? Fine, but I don't care to hear about it; this is a list of what I loved. But I'm happy to hear what you watched and loved at the movies in 2013. Comment away!
Sunday, 22 December 2013
In a year of highly successful onscreen couplings -- Delpy and Hawke (Before Midnight), Cotillard and Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), Douglas and Damon (Behind The Candelabra) -- the pairing of Judi Dench, the grand dame of British stage and screen, and comedian Steve Coogan, is neither the oddest nor the most perfect. But in director Stephen Frears' Philomena, it's a winning combination all the same.
Dench plays Philomena Lee, a devout Irish Catholic who, having been forced by her Church to give up her "sinfully" conceived son for adoption 50 years ago, has forgiven the nuns' trespass against her but has never forgotten her little boy. When Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), a journalist in search of a new project, hears of Philomena's plight to be reunited with her son, he begrudgingly takes up the human interest story -- sweet, elderly woman versus evil nuns -- before he soon realises that there is a far more serious and cruel narrative being unearthed.
Based on actual events, and adapted (by Coogan and Jeff Pope) from Sixsmith's own book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film traverses familiar territory and yet manages to spring the occasional surprise. The first being its humour; perhaps not as surprising given Coogan's involvement but laughs are not what you expect in a film about maternal anguish and the sins of the Church.
Naturally, a lot of that humour stems from the odd couple pairing of the little old woman of faith and the cynical, world weary journalist, particularly when their search for Philomena's son leads them to the United States -- all the way to the White House, in fact -- and a road trip of-sorts. But just as Philomena proves to be more canny than her homely, romance novel-loving persona would suggest, Martin is revealed to be far more sensitive to and protective of his travelling companion.
But what you also don't expect in the film is Philomena's defense of the Church and more specifically, the former Mother Superior of the Irish-based Order who caused her so much grief. While Sixsmith rages at the injustices on her behalf (Coogan delivering a blisteringly funny line about what Jesus would do), Philomena accepts that the nuns were doing what they believed to be right, for both the child and in the eyes of God. Although her faith is tested, she barely wavers.
The real Philomena Lee recently wrote a letter to an American film critic who accused the film of anti-Catholicism, wherein she praised the film's depiction of her story whilst reaffirming her devotion to her faith. Frears and Coogan's film eviscerates the Church's treatment of unwed mothers -- who, after being forcefully separated from their children were expected to work off their sin -- whilst simultaneously acknowledging the strength of spirit of Philomena; so often the film's only true Christian, even when surrounded by a convent full of nuns.
Dench (even though her Irish accent falters) can do this kind of role in her sleep. Still, she imbues Philomena Lee with both a requisite softness and steely grit, one developed over 50 years spent agonising over the loss of her child but never once regretting his existence. Coogan is good, too, providing Sexsmith with a dry wit but never making him a caricature. The pair play off each other wonderfully in a dramedy which celebrates devotion: a mother's to her son and a journalist's to the truth.
Saturday, 21 December 2013
To say the the second film in a trilogy is an improvement on its predecessor -- particularly when that first film was arguably one 2012's worst films -- is perhaps to damn it with faint praise. Yet that's exactly how one can best convey their response to The Desolation of Smaug, director Peter Jackson's second instalment in his unnecessary trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
2012's An Unexpected Journey was a tedious and over-long return to Middle Earth for the New Zealand director almost a decade after the conclusion to his much-loved and much better realised trilogy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The first film in that series, The Fellowship of the Ring, is arguably the trilogy's best whereas An Unexpected Journey could prove to be the least of its; what with its drawn-out opening hour, padded as it was with drunken dwarf songs and prat falls.
The Desolation of Smaug, with all the set-up out of the way, is, surprisingly, rarely dull and pretty much picks up where the first film left off: 13 dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), the wizard Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen), and the titular Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), are making their way across Middle Earth to reclaim Erebor; the former dwarf kingdom which was razed and then claimed by the dragon, Smaug.
But before they get there they'll have to pass through a forest filled with giant spiders, and then contend with some not-so welcoming elves (hello Orlando Bloom's Legolas, for no other reason than because), as well as the vicious Orcs who, under the command of some dark force (cue Firey Vagina), have been on the company's trail since early on in 'Journey'.
All of this, of course, is mere foreplay to the film's main event: the introduction of Smaug. Voiced by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, the dragon, who sleeps beneath the riches the dwarves were forced to abandon when they fled Erebor, has a sharp mind and an articulate tongue to compliment his fire-breathing abilities and his gargantuan size.
And yet, the face-off between Bilbo and Smaug doesn't boast the same level of thrill as the Hobbit's battle of wits with Gollum, which was the first film's one redeeming feature (Andy Serkis's magnificently vile creation is sadly absent from this instalment). Still, this showdown ends with a cliffhanger sure to have fans of these films and this universe highly anticipating the final chapter this time next year (as for me, I'll be watching for mere closure).
At 161-minutes (shorter than An Unexpected Journey by a mere eight minutes), The Desolation of Smaug is stretched if not padded but it's still too long. None of the Hobbit films need to be this long. Hell, they don't need to be more than one film. But I was less bored and irritable this time around, due in part to the film's emphasis on action and because (thankfully) the media screening was this time not shown in the god awful HFR format.
I'll readily admit that a lot of my dislike for An Unexpected Journey was due to having to endure the film in the distractingly ugly 48 frames per second, which rendered everything as though it were shot on the over-lit sound stage of a television soap opera. (You cannot immerse yourself in another world if you are made constantly aware of that very world's artificiality.)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug looks fine in regular 3D, though I suspect it would look just as fine in 2D. And fans of Jackson (and Tolkien) will no doubt be happy to undertake the adventure in any format available, ensuring this sequel rakes in just as much coin as its predecessor (which I imagine would somewhat resemble the treasure trove found in a giant dragon's den).
Friday, 20 December 2013
Walt Disney Studios Films
Continuing the trend of their recent animation revival, Disney's latest feature is, like The Princess and The Frog (2009) and Tangled (2010), a princess story. Or a tale of two princesses, as it happens: Elsa and Anna, two royal sisters in the kingdom of Arendelle whose loving bond is severely tested in Frozen.
Not by a rivalry for the throne (elder sister Elsa will one day be queen) but because Elsa possesses powers (the ability to produce ice and snow at will) which, during some late night shenanigans, almost fatally wounds the younger Anna. From that day forth, their parents decide it best that Elsa remain separated from her sister -- and the outside world -- until her powers can be tamed.
Or until she ascends the throne, which she does as a young woman (voiced by Broadway star, Idina Menzel) when her parents' royal ship is lost at sea. Elsa's coronation comes is a double celebration for Anna (Kristen Bell), who not only gets to finally see her sister up close and in person, but because the gates to the palace are finally opened to the outside world (Anna becoming an involuntary shut-in of-sorts as a result of her sister's isolation).
That would explain her immediately falling head over heels for visiting Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), who, as the youngest of several brothers and sent to attend the coronation on behalf of his nation, also seems deliriously happy to be striking out on his own. The pair are instantly smitten and before they've even caught their breath from singing their first duet, Hans has proposed.
But just as quickly, Elsa's powers are revealed to a less than welcoming royal court and visiting dignitaries which sees the newly crowned Queen fleeing into the mountains, setting off a not-so wonderful winter land in her wake. It also sends Anna, believing in her sister's goodness, in hot pursuit; on the way meeting an ice salesman, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer, Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad), a talking snowman with a jovial disposition who was conjured in Elsa's escape (and a terrific musical number about breaking free and self-acceptance, Let It Go).
And if you were to go by Disney's marketing alone, you would think Frozen, loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, was an adventure mostly concerned with the comical prat falls of Sven and Olaf (and throw in some cute woodland trolls for good measure). For whatever reason (the boy dollar?), Disney seem to have gone out of their way to hide the fact that Frozen is indeed a "princess movie". And a musical!
Not that Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, is your typical princess animation. Yes there's a 'happy ever after' but unlike The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, which also featured pro-active female protagonists, that happy ending isn't dependent on a romantic coupling. Sisters are doing it for themselves in Frozen, and that's quite refreshing.
It might not be quite the female empowerment film some have tried to make it out to be, but it's certainly a positive message young girls -- and boys -- can take away from this snowbound, fun-filled, and tuneful (with some impressive Broadway-ready songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) animation.
Indeed, Frozen is arguably the year's best animated feature, if only for a lack of any real competition: it's been a lacklustre year for animated films, on the screen if not at the box office.
And without any real competition this summer, it should perform just as nicely at the Australian box office as it has State-side: Elsa and Anna joining the likes of Sandra (Gravity; The Heat), J-Law (Catching Fire) and Melissa McCarthy (The Heat; Identity Thief) as proof-positive that sisters did indeed do it for themselves in 2013.
Note: preceding Frozen is a short film titled Get A Horse!, a rather loud and obnoxious mix of black and white and colour animation, as well as 3D (not that you need to see Frozen in that format to enjoy it), which seems to exist solely because it uses Walt Disney's voice for that of Mickey Mouse.
Thursday, 5 December 2013
Walt Disney Studios/Buena Vista
When we first meet Sutter Keely, he's in his suburban bedroom writing up his college admission application. In a smart, funny tone, he's telling his prospective university just what kind of a guy he is: carefree, no BS and living for the moment. It's a deceptively light beginning to a film, directed by James Ponsodlt, and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from a novel by Tim Tharp, which gradually goes deep and hits hard.
Sutter (an excellent Miles Teller) is charm itself. Always smiling, always on. And never a bad word to say about anyone, not even his recently ex-girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), or her new beau, the high school hero, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi), whom Sutter even gives tips to on how to be more 'fun'.
Not that that's what Cassidy wants. She broke up with Sutter because she sees no future with someone who only lives for the now and the day-to-day; who is never serious and is always slightly buzzed if not intoxicated. Yes, Sutter has a drinking problem: he's rarely seen without a slushy cup which he laces with the contents of his ever-handy drinking flask.
But The Spectacular Now is not a TV movie-of-the-week about the perils of teen drinking. There's no melodrama or hand-wringing, just as there wasn't in Ponsoldt's previous film, Smashed (2012), which was about a school teacher struggling with her alcoholism. And while there is the inevitable 'drink-driving' accident, it occurs slightly differently to how you expect and with far greater impact.
That's partly because it involves Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a fellow classmate of Sutter's who he's never really spoken to before. That is until she finds him sleeping on a lawn during her early morning paper route; a meet-cute which begins an initially beautiful but ultimately one-sided relationship: Aimee becomes his Geometry tutor and prom date, while Sutter views her as the wallflower whom he's coaxing out of her shell whilst he waits for Cassidy to come to her senses and take him back.
Just as Logan Lerman did last year in The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Miles Teller steps up to the plate and hits it out of the park. While good in both Rabbit Hole (2010) and the 2011 Footloose remake, Teller brings a whole other level of performance and character to Sutter Keely. Effusive charm masking a pain which is anaesthetized by alcohol, his happy-go-lucky nature is the front he puts on for the world: if he doesn't laugh, or make others do so, he may just fall apart. Like an alcoholic in a 12 Step program, Sutter's taking it one day at a time.
Shailene Woodley is excellent, too. Her Aimee is a 180-degree shift from her angsty teen turn in The Descendants (2011). Wide-eyed and honest, she has the nervous smile of an oft overlooked girl who can't believe that someone like Sutter Keely would be interested in someone like her. Aimee's a smart girl with a bright future, and Woodley deftly balances her mix of intelligence and trepidation.
They're an impressive double act in an impressive film. The Spectacular Now may not work the tear ducts so easily as the aforementioned coming-of-age tale, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, but there is real emotion and plenty of heart in this small indie.
Before the Beat poets -- Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs -- became a voice of a generation, they were a peculiar mix of idealists and dreamers, each with a rebellious streak and a vein of thinly-disguised homoeroticism. And in 1944, all of those elements fused in a heady cocktail of sex, drugs, and alcohol -- and murder.
That summation probably makes Kill Your Darlings, writer-director John Krokidas' feature debut, sound more exciting and salacious than it is, although on the hallowed grounds of Columbia University, 1944, it no doubt was. That's where a young Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) comes to study literature but is less enamoured with his professors' view of the world than he is with that of fellow student, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).
Magnetic yet enigmatic, Carr doesn't have time for rules -- of literature, the campus, or the law -- which is probably why he was expelled from his previous university and also why he and his mother (Kyra Sedgewick) fled Chicago. It would also explain his less than savoury association with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whose interest in Lucien seems to be a confused mix of mentor and predator. But it's when Kammerer is murdered (not a spoiler, it's the opening scene; the film then circling back), that the true nature of Lucien is revealed to Allen who until then is besotted with his fellow idealist in spite of the passive-aggressive nature of their friendship.
Although bespectacled, Radcliffe sheds his Potter alter ego (and his clothes on occasion) as the young Ginsberg; out to make his own way in the world away from a published poet father (David Cross) and a mentally unstable mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and navigating his sexuality in an America at war and still some 20 years away from the 'summer of love'. It's through Ginsberg's eyes we witness events, and even if it's a mostly passive role the former boy wizard Radcliffe acquits himself well.
But it's DeHaan's Lucien who pulls focus. Reminiscent of a young DiCaprio, DeHaan is all limbs, painful smile and sweaty complexion yet you can't take your eyes off of him. You can see why Ginsberg, Kammerer and even the college jock-cum-author Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) were drawn to him. Lucien was a rebel without a cause almost a decade before James Dean, and DeHaan makes him a live wire.
It's debatable if Krokidas' inability to infuse the rest of Kill Your Darlings with the frenzied fervour of its protagonists (including a barely recognisable Ben Foster as Burroughs) marks it as a failure; it certainly exceeds as a well mounted period drama if not as hot-blooded as such literary firebrands demand.
But never having read any of the Beat poets (for shame), perhaps I'm given to be more lenient; I'm one of the few who seemed to enjoy Walter Salles' sprawling 2012 adaptation of Kerouac's seminal On The Road. I certainly feel more inspired to seek them out, so that's some kind of achievement on Krokidas' and the film's part.