Thursday, 3 April 2014

A Year of Film

Around Christmas I made a list of all the films released in 2013 that I managed to see. Then, as is the natural response of someone like me, I tried to rank those films (all 34 of them). Overall it was a strong year for film, though there were some major disappointments and duds along the way. For many of them the positions are a little arbitrary, the difference between 27th and 28th for example is marginal. Partly due to that I’m going to break the list into three parts in an effort to be more manageable, but be forewarned, this is a long post.

It is also not a list of the “best” films of 2013. It’s a list of my favourite films of the year and as such reflects my preferences, hopes and prejudices, sometimes above technical merit.
So I’ll start the countdown, beginning with numbers 34-20.

·         34 – Kick Ass 2
·         33 – Oz – The Great Powerful
·         32 – Monsters University 2
·         31 – Despicable Me 2
·         30 – Olympus has Fallen
·         29 – The Impossible
·         28 – Anchorman 2
·         27 – Oblivion
·         26 – Man of Steel
·         25 – World War Z
·         24 – Now You See Me
·         23 – Thor 2
·         22 – Cloud Atlas
·         21 – Star Trek: Into Darkness
·         20 – Les Miserables

Now you’ll notice a few sequels in amongst there and it definitely wasn’t a strong year for part 2’s. Only two made it into the top 20 and they were both based on pre-existing novels, rather than attempts to cash in on the success of an original (a harsh generalisation about sequels overall, but fairly accurate of this selection.)
World War Z was better than I expected, especially once I managed to get over the fact that it only shared its name with the far superior Max Brooks novel. It had some great moments, particularly the bold approach of choosing a lower key, subtler final act, but overall it never rose above average popcorn action fare. The same goes for Man of Steel, Olympus Has Fallen and Thor 2, all fun but largely forgettable.

Les Miserables and Cloud Atlas both impressed me with the ambition, even if the execution didn’t fully convince.

I’ve written about Star Trek: Into Darkness in the last blog post, so check that out for why it ranks so low despite its strengths.

So onto 19-11

·         19 – Side Effects
·         18 – Iron Man 3
·         17 – Trance
·         16 – Django Unchained
·         15 – Gravity
·         14 – Warm Bodies
·         13 – Before Midnight
·         12 – Much Ado About Nothing
·         11 – Pacific Rim

All these films have a lot going for them and I’d recommend you watch, but I’ll pick out a couple for further comment. Firstly Gravity ranks there because despite being indisputably spectacular as a visual and technical exercise, it never moved beyond that for me, the birth and death motifs not doing much that 2001 didn’t do better many years ago. Cuaron is a supremely talented director and he deserves all the plaudits he has got for the lengths he went to filming this, but it felt a slightly hollow achievement to me without a stronger plot.

If you are a Shakespeare or Joss Whedon fan I can’t recommend Much Ado strongly enough. It’s a modern master of dialogue working with the original’s words, low key and beautifully filmed. It could hardly be more in contrast to the pick that sits one above it in this list.

There is nothing subtle about Pacific Rim and that is deliberate. My affection has always been split between so called “worthy”, complex films and summer blockbusters. Pacific Rim satisfied the side of me that wants to see childhood fantasies writ across the largest screen available. I mean, a robot hits a monster with an oil freighter for god’s sake. It was like watching the greatest ever episode of Power Rangers and I loved every minute.

For the top 10 I’ll go into a little bit more detail on what made them achieve such heights.

10 – Catching Fire

The second Hunger Games book/film is a prime example of how a sequel should be done. It builds on characters and wider context while maintaining what captured the audience’s attention in the first film. Jennifer Lawrence continues to be superb as Katniss and it is largely down to her character that this film places so highly. It is impossible to view anything to do with the Hunger Games franchise in a Twilight-less vacuum. As a teen fiction phenomenon it is infinitely preferable.

Here is a female lead that fights for her own and her family’s survival. Who is intelligent, resourceful and challenges authority. She is not emotionless or detached, as is so often the case when writers make “strong female characters”, but doesn’t let emotions become her sole motive. She’s not perfect and the writing in the series at times leaves much to be desired, just as the direction did.

However this film ranks this highly for me because alongside being a damn good film full of enjoyable action and impressive world building, it shows that authors and film makers can aim higher when working for a teenage audience. That the message they send to young people is important and that a world of little Katniss’ is unquestionably superior to a world of budding Bella’s.

9 – Lore

This is definitely a contender for the most visually beautiful film I watched, with long sequences putting the best of the BBC’s nature output to shame with its celebration of the glory of spring and the rebirth of life.

It is the context that that beauty is set within and often against that sees this film end up 9th. Lore, is the story of a teenage girl, daughter of an SS officer, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, trying to get herself and her siblings across post-war Germany.

It is a film about adolescence, indoctrination and desperation. Saskia Rosendahl, who plays Lore, is incredible for such a young actress, communicating in subtle facial expressions a young woman trying to make sense of a world she’s been sheltered from.

Lore is a harrowing journey, steadily staying the right side of preachy, letting the character’s journey tell the story in subtle beats rather than hammering you over the head with the morals. Films about WW2 are ten a penny, but films about German civilians in and around WW2 are rarer and this is a great addition to that limited genre.

8 – Wreck It Ralph

Monsters University represented a real disappointment for me. I have adored almost everything Pixar has done (I try to ignore the Cars series for this reason) and loved Monsters Inc, but the sequel fell flat.

However my faith in Pixar was only briefly shaken because an original project of theirs blew me away. I went in for a fun, video game referencing experience and left rating it as one of the studio’s best.

As with many Pixar films, themes of parenthood and children’s dreams are central, and as usual they’re superbly presented.  Visually it is as engaging as anything outside of the Toy Story series, every frame packed with background jokes. There are laughs for children and adults alike throughout.

When Pixar are on form there are few better film experiences for me. They offer ambition, creativity and optimism, consistently rejecting cynicism.

It is also preceded by one of the best Pixar shorts so far, a wordless tale of fate that shows just what the animators of the studio can achieve.

7 – Place Beyond The Pines

This was a slow burner for me. When the credits rolled I was mildly impressed but also somewhat underwhelmed. It took a couple of days of thinking about the film to realise just how much I’d truly enjoyed it.

The first realisation stemmed from the simple fact that I was still thinking about it days later, not the case for many of the films below it on this list. I found myself reflecting on visual elements, character moments and plot structure.

I think a lot of my initial issues with the film stemmed from me expecting a generic crime thriller and the bank robbery scenes shown in the trailers are much more visceral and engaging in full, eschewing Hollywood drama for a more gripping, gritty approach. However, without wanting to stray into spoiler territory, Place Beyond The Pines has much grander aspirations.

It is a film about fatherhood and responsibility, beautifully filmed and superbly acted. The more I considered the character’s decisions, the more I went back and forth over their motives, the more I realised just how strong this film was, and the more I appreciated its depth.

6 – The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

This was the last film I saw of the 2013 releases and it was perhaps the most refreshingly optimistic. That outlook is a major factor in why it ranks so highly for me.

It is a film entirely about dreams; their power and their limitations. It encourages the audience to dream big but cautions them against failing to act on them. The majority of the events are low key compared to the excitement of most films you might see at the cinema, but they are imbued with importance by Ben Stiller’s journey as the eponymous Walter.

Now it is no surprise that I related to a film about a man who day dreams too much attempting to act on those fantasies. Walter Mitty as a character, first created in 1939 by James Thurber, is much closer to me than the reams of super heroes, geniuses, villains and fuck ups that populate most films.
It is spectacular to look at, several key scenes filmed in the cinematic wilderness of Iceland and ambitious in its story telling.

I left many films that year feeling entertained, several moved, some full of adrenaline, but I left Walter Mitty feeling inspired. I’d only attribute that particular feeling to one other film on this list and I think too few films aim for it.

5 – The Hobbit – The Desolation Of Smaug

I still remember my dad reading The Hobbit to me as a child. He was reading from a copy of the book given to my mum when she was a child. Tolkien’s world was a major influence on my childhood and so far Peter Jackson has done an incredible job of transferring that to the screen.

I still have issues with the attempt to stretch the story of The Hobbit into three films, but to Jackson’s credit the second instalment manages to pick up momentum rather than feeling dragged out. Part of that is due to being freed from the efforts of establishing the various dwarfs and their motives that occasionally stalled the first film.

Much of the rest of the success is down to, as Empire’s review of the film pointed out, the story now taking them into locations not yet shown in Jackson’s take on the world.

Some unrest from fans has been directed at Jackson’s changes to Tolkien’s story, but I don’t have a problem with any of the additions. I suspect most controversial will be Evangeline Lily’s Tauriel. I’m all for that particular addition. Another female character who can handle herself in a fight is a very welcome addition to a world that Tolkien had limited interest in populating with strong female characters.

Smaug himself when he appears on screen is yet another triumph for the men and women of WETA digital, as impressive as anything yet rendered in Middle Earth and unsurprisingly fantastically voiced by Benedict Cumberpatch.

By this point Martin Freeman is Bilbo, as perfectly cast as anyone in film history, capturing his reluctant and uncertain bravery.

I feared going into this film that it might puncture my enthusiasm for Jackson’s take on Middle Earth, but if anything I am now even more excited for the final chapter this winter. Six films in and Jackson still has me absolutely hooked in Tolkien’s world.

4 – Zero Dark Thirty

Outside of the top 2 I probably debated this one’s position more than any other.

On the one hand it is brilliantly executed thriller. On the other it strays close to glorifying the “War on Terror” and a number of the methods used. Celebrating an individuals death, no matter how horrible always leaves me a little uncomfortable.

However in the end I decided that because Kathryn Bigelow goes out of her way to make it clear that the crucial information comes from more traditional surveillance methods and never skirts around the ugly side of the search for Bin Laden, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I choose to believe that her intentions were to tell an entertaining spy thriller in the most responsible way.

Amidst all my uncertainty about the film, one thing is clear. This is the film that establishes Jessica Chastain as one of the most promising talents in Hollywood. Impressive in The Help, Lawless and, by other’s accounts, Tree of Life, this could be the role that launches her career. She is superb throughout, a nuanced portrayal of an individual obsessed with a cause.

Zero Dark Thirty has a strong supporting cast but it is her film from start to finish, she dominates every scene she is in and is surely destined for a whole host of awards nominations in her career.

Outside of her performance, the other element of the film that secured it 4th spot is the raid on Bin Laden’s complex. It is up there with the bank heist in Heat as an example of a perfectly executed action sequence. It wrings impressive amounts of tension out of a scenario where the audience already knows the outcome and highlights how slow build tension and bursts of action can be much more effective than the excess of explosions and activity that characterises most action films.

A lot of how you respond to Zero Dark Thirty hinges on how you choose to read its intentions. For me it is an action movie that never pretends the “good guys” white hats aren’t coated in dirt and avoids many of the genres clich├ęs, creating real tension along the way.

3 – The World’s End

The final offering of the Cornetto Trilogy was always likely to rank highly. The trio of Wright, Frost and Pegg is a potent one, already proven by two of the funniest comedies in my lifetime. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were two of the most quotable films of my teens and though the third instalment was a while in coming, The World’s End was worth the wait. This was a film which combined the incredibly sharp comedic writing and quotability of the first two films with a depth of emotion that exceeded what many would have expected.

Pegg’s Gary King is instantly up there in the higher echelon of truly flawed heroes. An individual so stubbornly in his own way that it has become a twisted point of pride. His character makes you laugh with his enthusiasm and idiocy, outrages you with some of his lines and then slowly breaks your heart with the revelation of the tears behind his clownish persona.

As always Pegg is at his best alongside Frost, their strained friendship utterly believable throughout. Frost is superb as Andy, trying desperately not to be dragged down by a friend he thought he’d seen the last of. This is certainly the darkest and most complex friendship in the trilogy, but is also the most heartfelt.

The first two thirds of the film are good, full of brilliant word play and inventive action sequences, but for me it is the final act that elevates this film to the point where it is perhaps my favourite Cornetto film. I intend to write a more in depth and spoiler heavy review where I’ll explore why I connected with the film so much, so keep an eye out for that in the next couple of weeks.

What I can say is that the final showdown is one of sheer verbal brilliance; defiant, idiotic and inspiring all in one.

The World’s End is a fitting send off for a trio of films, from a trio of comedic geniuses.

2 – Short Term 12

The decision between 1st and 2nd place was tough, perhaps tougher than any of the other choices on this list. Eventually I could only give Short Term 12 the silver medal spot, but it was damn close.

An American indie drama it garnered surprisingly little buzz over here despite having won the SXSW Film Awards grand jury prize and receiving strong reviews almost everywhere (Empire gave it 5 stars). I went because of that particular recommendation and my love of Brie Larson.

Set within a residential treatment facility where kids waiting to be fostered stay, this film blew me away. The heart and humour that runs throughout it were both refreshingly grounded and genuine.

It is a film with some heart-breakingly sad moments and as many uplifting ones, the impact coming from the fact they all felt genuine and earned to me. The characters are believable, complex and fragile, their actions understandable rather than forced. The strings never swell, the montages never roll, and the film hit me so much harder because I never felt I was being heavy handedly manipulated towards certain emotions.

It deals with dark, angry emotions and actions, never shrinking from them or trying to gloss over them like some more twee indie films might have. It is a film about responsibility and the people who abuse theirs. Points of this film made me as sad as anything I watched last year; one music based moment involving one of the oldest children in the facility should have been nominated for best original song at the Oscars without a shadow of a doubt for me.

However it’s also a film about hope and trust, and like Walter Mitty I left this film feeling inspired and uplifted, reminded that for all the bad in the world there are so many more people struggling to do good and that’s a message more films could do with showing.

In my opinion it was unfairly ignored come award season, because though it was unlikely to win, I believe nods for Brie Larson as Best Actress, the original screenplay and as I said above, original song, would all have been well deserved.

There are many major films on this list, big names with bigger casts and arguably more critical acclaim, but if you see one film based off this list, choose Short Term 12.

1. Lincoln

That being said, I did eventually side with Lincoln for the number one spot for several reasons.

As an American history nerd (and hopefully future student), a big budget drama about a crucial moment, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis was bookies favourite for my personal best film from the moment it was announced.

Telling the story of the political manoeuvrings in the build up to the House of Representatives vote on the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States, it is a film of grand scale set largely in small rooms.

There are brief visits to the Civil War that was tearing the nation apart, but they are always simply to remind the audience of the stakes. This is not a war movie, closer to House of Cards than Saving Private Ryan.
Daniel Day-Lewis deserves every single plaudit he was given for his portrayal of perhaps the most famous president of all time, putting all his method actor madness to great use. He is supported by a superb cast, Sally Field especially stands out as his wife and Tommy Lee Jones has great fun as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (a man who would still have seemed progressive had he been born a century later).

The film also does well to avoid painting too black and white a picture of Lincoln’s motivations and methods around the 13th amendment. There is, and most likely will always be, plenty of debate about the strength of Lincoln’s conviction against slavery. Whether it was a moral act or one of political necessity and expedience is contested to this day.

What is true, and what the film focuses on is that he was the right man at the right moment, someone with the vision, rhetoric and pragmatism to see America take a faltering step towards equality, a destination it would sadly take another century to truly begin to arrive at.

Spielberg shoots the intense arguments and subtle manipulations of the White House with all the skill one expects from such a master, Lincoln’s many monologues and anecdotes drawing us in just as they do the characters he is talking to.

I am strongly in favour of big budget films, starring top calibre casts, choosing to explore major historical moments not from a battlefield perspective but from a personal one, and if we do see more follow in its wake, I suspect Lincoln will long be held up as the level to aim for.

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So that was my 2013 in films and it was a great year. I've already seen some great films in 2014 and I suspect I'll spend just as much time geekily obsessing over which should be 16th and which should be 17th in around 10 months time. 

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