Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Top 30 Films of 2013: 30-21

Yay! I have a working computer for the first time since August! Now I can get this end of year business underway...

After a fallow year for this blog, both in terms of the number of posts I've made (several hundred down on previous years) and the number of films I've actually seen (I haven't been to any major film festivals this year ad my cinema attendance in general is way down), my annual top 30 list for 2013 is looking much more US-centric than usual, with fewer gems and more blockbusters. However, I chose to stick with a top 30 format anyway, because I like the excuse to recap about a whole load of movies I enjoyed (10 just isn't enough) and remind myself what I liked this year.

Notable absentees from the list which have been rated highly elsewhere include 'Before Midnight' and 'The Selfish Giant', both of which I didn't see, and 'Django Unchained, 'All is Lost' and 'Upstream Color' - which I have varying levels of contempt for. So, without further delay, here are entries 30-21:

30) Elysium, dir. Neill Blomkamp, USA

What I said: "It isn't 'District 9' but Neill Blomkamp's follow-up is as ambitious and imaginative as it is clunky. There's a lot of ham-fisted, panto-quality, over-acting involved - notably from Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as "Spider" and Jodie Foster, who seems to be playing a Disney villain in a film happening in her own imagination - while the childhood flashback sequences are a bit cheesy and obvious and, I'll concede, its movement between irreverent, splatter-gore comedy and cloying, string-music backed scenes of children on crutches in peril speak of a tonal mishmash. But it's also got some decent dystopian world building and spectacular design work, as well as some interesting politics for a mainstream blockbuster - with our hero, Matt Damon, framed as an insurgent against the robot drones, unhinged mercenaries and satellite surveillance footage of the film's privileged bad guys - white, wealthy elites living far above a shanty town and predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles in the shiny, clean space station paradise of the title."

I'm under no illusions about this one: it's no classic and far from a perfect movie. Perhaps understandably, it doesn't live up to expectations that followed in the wake of modern genre classic 'District 9', but it also fails on its own terms, sometimes in fairly spectacular fashion. However it's also a rare animal in today's Hollywood: an original movie, not a sequel or based on any other property (however much it rips-off a half-dozen video games) and that does count for something. It's also an imaginative and bold movie in its way, packed with interesting concepts and with a laudable social conscience - even if the latter is undermined at times by the film's own sickly love of comic, cartoon violence. And for all the wayward performances, there's also Sharlto Copley's brilliant turn as a ruthless mercenary. Perhaps this one is destined to be forgotten, if it hasn't been already - and that'd be no big loss for cinema. Yet I still feel like tossing a bone its way for the things it did right.

29) Behind the Candelabra, dir. Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "Even as it follows Liberace in his twilight years, with his peak decades behind him, the film manages to show us the highs and lows of his life: giving us glimpses of his performances on Vegas stages, in front of adoring fans, as well as showing us the loneliness and pitiful sadness born of that mix of hyper-fame/wealth and keeping such a large aspect of his life a (admittedly poorly kept) secret. He's a paranoid figure and a man with few (arguably no) real friends - or meaningful connections of any kind, beyond the revolving door of pretty boys that he keeps in his "palatial kitsch" mansion. We can only speculate about how close to reality the film gets, being based on the memoirs of a man who unsuccessfully sued Liberace, but the film is quite perfect at plunging the viewer headlong into the despair and loneliness we can imagine comes with extreme celebrity."

Infamously afforded TV movie status in the US, after squeamish studios rejected the project apparently describing it as "too gay" before HBO stepped up to pay the tab, but luckily international audiences saw Steven Soderbergh's latest (his first film since supposed "retirement" earlier this year) in cinemas where it belongs. Michael Douglas would certainly stand a good chance of winning an Oscar in February if it weren't for that silly television business (though the Emmy Award should be in the bag, Mike!), with his vulnerable and downright tyrannical take on flamboyant entertainer Liberace. Though there's a sardonic tone to the whole thing, it's nonetheless a sincerely tragic drama about isolation and megalomania, and a universally relatable tale of love and loss.

28) Stories We Tell, dir. Sarah Polley, CAN

What I said: "Polley edits together disparate, sometimes contradictory accounts of her mother's life, to tell a nuanced tale that is equal parts sad and joyful in its depiction of a person's life and their secrets. The narration, written and delivered by Polley's (non-genetic) father, Michael, is especially poignant and even beautiful. It's less effective, however, when Polley takes a more proactive part in events - making her own observations and reading excepts from letters with a humourlessness that's hard to stomach. Especially as she brings the focus of the film onto the making of the film itself, drawing attention to some of the techniques and advantages of its construction in a faintly self-congratulatory spirit that almost spoils things. Almost, but not quite: because 'Stories We Tell' is a fantastic piece of work, even (at times) in spite of its director. A celebration of a person's life that never shies away from the complexity of their character: a humanistic film that explores a woman's infidelity without judgement and with uncommon understanding."

One of the year's most memorable and moving documentaries, Sarah Polley investigates the identity of her genetic father and uncovers a few long-hidden truths about her mother's life and marriage through editing together the (somtimes differing) accounts of family history as given through interviews with members of her extended family and friends. It's as much about memory and family history and childhood in general as it is about Polley and her parents, with it almost guaranteed to tug on each audience members heartstrings for one reason for another - though it isn't at all cloying. Perhaps Polley's own attempts to give meaning to events border on pretentious - no doubt they'd fall squarely into the category of what Werner Herzog's character in 'Julien Donkey-Boy' would call "artsy fartsy stuff" - but its modest shortcomings are easily overlooked.

27) Thor: the Dark World, dir. Alan Taylor, USA

What I said: "The film recovers from a fairly pedestrian (and overly serious) first act as soon as the fan-favourite, trickster is unleashed upon the movie in a big way, with Loki and Thor forming an unlikely and completely terrific buddy comedy partnership which (all-too-briefly) elevates the movie to a higher stratosphere. The rest of the film is entertaining, to be sure - especially when supporting characters under-served by the first film come to the fore, such as Jaimie Alexander's Lady Sif and Ray Stevenson's Volstagg - and the action is also suitably exciting throughout, especially during a London-set climax that borrows much from the finale of the original 'Monsters Inc.' to fun effect. It's overall a solid bit of action-comedy fare. But there's no denying it's only when Loki is on-screen that it really feels like anything genuinely special is happening."

It's Tom Hiddleston's movie whenever he's on the screen, which is really where the problem lies with Marvel's 'Thor' sequel : because the highly watchable actor - who plays the conflicted and ever-conniving villain Loki - is not the star and not in the film nearly often enough. Or maybe he's in it too much. Would the film overall be better had extensive re-shoots near release not increased the popular actor's role, overshadowing everything else? We'll never know. Though I suspect that more cohesive film might have been far less instantly gratifying. In the end it's little more than a bunch of great big set-pieces, filled with exciting action and populated by characters I love, made with a lot of humour and obvious affection from all involved - and with possibly the best ending of any of the Marvel movies to-date. 'Thor: the Dark World' doesn't always know exactly where it's going or what it's doing, but it doesn't really matter too much whilst you're on the ride.

26) In A World..., dir. Lake Bell, USA

What I said: "The voice-over industry squabbling is pretty funny, but the film's trump card is the presence of Bell herself as a confident, likable lead. Carol is the sort of silly, immature, wisecracking character women don't normally get to play in Hollywood - usually consigned to playing tutting shrews in comedies about 30-something man-babies and rarely getting the funniest lines. It appears Bell's answer to that particular imbalance has been to make her own damn film - and I'm glad she did. Especially as it means we have a female character whose relationships with her father and vague love interest (Demitri Martin) are demonstrably equally important as that with her sister (Michaela Watkins). In other words, she isn't defined exclusively by her relationship to male characters even if the film is about her relationship with a male-dominated industry."

A genuine surprise package, I hadn't even heard of this film, or its director/writer/star Lake Bell, until it appeared as a last-minute addition to the programme at the cinema where I work. Turns out it's one of the year's smartest and funniest out-and-out comedies, boasting such delights as Eva Longoria playing herself - sending up her own limited acting range by playing a cockney character in one of many enjoyable films-within-the-film - and taking place within the bitchy and ultra-competitive world of actors who specialise in voice-over work for movie trailers. It's gets a little heavy-handed in the last ten minutes or so, but the bulk of the movie is terrific fun.

25) Spring Breakers, dir. Harmony Korine, USA

What I said: "This is a shamelessly trashy and exploitative movie that just works. It entertains, amuses and shocks in equal measure, and with regularity, throughout its tight running time, not least of all when James Franco is on screen as self-styled hustler and d-list rapper Alien - a role he completely vanishes into and for which he deserves award recognition. Some bits are really spot-on at pinpointing the seedy, mutually destructive nihilism and cultural bankruptcy of the American Dream - such as when Franco and the girls gather around the piano for an earnest performance of a Britney ballad that all present really do seem to believe represents a high cultural watermark. Another great scene consists solely of Alien showing off his increasingly pathetic "shit" in his mansion: an itinerary that includes different coloured shorts, several aftershaves and "Scarface on repeat". His extreme, gormless pride at this haul is the perfect rebuttal to MTV Cribs and everything it represents."

Love it or hate it (and, honestly, I alternate between the two on a near-daily basis) 'Spring Breakers' was probably the year's movie that best captures the zeitgeist of our historical present. We live in vacuous, cynical times. Times when it often seems that commodities, hedonism and celebrity are more valuable than human life - that they represent the only version of success. 'Spring Breakers' is not really an outright attack on that notion, though it definitely sees the funny side, but a pure expression of those values and the feelings they can inspire - good and bad. Perhaps this is a vacuous movie, and one which grimly and nihilistically treats people (from its self-consciously exploited teen stars to the gangsters mowed down in the finale) like disposable cattle every bit as much as our society. But, to paraphrase the Nolan-Batman, perhaps 'Spring Breakers' is not the movie we need right now, but it's most certainly the one we deserve.

24) The World's End, dir. Edgar Wright, UK

What I said: "Simon Pegg plays Gary King, a middle-aged man who hasn't moved on since the greatest night of his life: attempting "the golden mile" - a 12 pub crawl across his home town - with his closest mates. However, decades later, everything has changed except for Gary. The pubs themselves are now identikit chain pubs and all his mates have moved on with their lives and moved away from the small town of their youth. Many of them, including Nick Frost's Andy, actively hate Gary - making things all the more uncomfortable as he pathetically attempts to get the gang back together for one last crack at the mile. It doesn't go well and only gets worse when the robots turn up. That was originally meant as descriptive, but actually forms a pretty good anchor point to start my critique because, for me at least, the film was far more entertaining and engaging before the science fiction elements kicked in. The "former friends coming back together in their sad little home town for a pathetic pub crawl" story was actually really well worked for the first half-hour, with nuanced characters and genuine pathos for Gary: a complete prick, but one you feel crushingly sorry for nevertheless."

A comedy that isn't all that funny. An action movie where you don't really care about or enjoy any of the fights. A sci-fi film where the sci-fi premise just serves to undermine the really compelling character drama of the first half-hour. Viewed in these terms 'The World's End' is a major failure. But that would be to overlook perhaps the year's stand-out character: Gary King. We all know our own Gary King, or perhaps we even sometimes feel like we are our own Gary King - chained to imagined glory days, clinging on to friendships years past their use by date and to the benefit of nobody. The character is well-observed perfection, as played by Simon Pegg with disarming sincerity. With his inadequacies - his lack of self-awareness, his immense sadness masquerading as this life-and-soul-of-the-party, tragi-comic Peter Pan figure - this shambling, pathetic manchild represents a triumph of acting and writing worthy of the countless awards it stands absolutely no chance of even being nominated for.

23) Wreck-It Ralph, dir. Rich Moore, USA

What I said: "It's sweet and tells its story smartly, but where 'Wreck-It Ralph' really sings is with the sight gags, inspired puns and myriad of game references. It's an out-and-out comedy in an age where a lot of the classier animated movies - vintage Pixar, 'ParaNorman' - are increasingly dramas-with-jokes (not a criticism) and it converts an unreasonably high number of jokes to actual laughs. (More than most live-action comedies released in the past decade - though I realise that isn't necessarily too much of a yardstick.) It's a joy from start to finish. A little slice of happy, but without being overly saccharin... well, the least it can be considering it's a Disney movie set predominantly in a candy land featuring an adorable little girl teaching a surrogate father figure how to be a better man. But it pulls it off, without being too earnest and without smirking. It's a very genuine little movie made with obvious love of video games."

Was 'Wreck-It Ralph' really released this year? Feels like several years ago, but maybe that's because Disney Animation Studios just released 'Frozen'. In a fairly crappy year for mainstream animation (Studio Ghibli's 'From Up On Poppy Hill' was pleasant but unspectacular, Pixar's latest sequel was instantly forgettable and 'Frozen' was no 'Tangled', though it transparently wanted to be) it's nice that 'Ralph' is representing the art-form on this list, with its breezy storytelling, likable characters and plethora of genuinely funny gags.

22) Much Ado About Nothing, dir. Joss Whedon, USA

What I said: "If the idea of a group of wealthy, LA pals, shooting a black and white Shakespeare film whilst on holiday sounds like a recipe for a slightly self-indulgent and incestuous love-in, then it is at least one that works. Not only is 'Much Ado' a really heartfelt and sincere version of the play, featuring stunning performances from [Amy] Acker and [Fran] Kranz in particular, it's also riotously entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny in a way most probably won't associate with 17th century iambic pentameter. Without deviating substantially from the original play, Whedon has created something that feels fresh and modern and, in part due to the naturalistic delivery of his cast, is very easy understand for a contemporary audience - giving the old English verse a new lease of life."

Filmed during Joss Whedon's downtime from making 'The Avengers', with a cast and crew comprised solely of past collaborators, there's a playfulness and laid-back charm to this adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing which is well in keeping with the spirit of the play. The verse is delivered with naturalism that makes it immediately, clearly understandable and in such a way that the comedy comes across - and not merely in a dry "I understand why that was supposed to be funny" kind of way, but in a way that's direct and belly-laugh inducing. Many of the performances from the assembled cast of TV actors are revelatory, with former 'Angel' and 'Dollhouse' supporting player Amy Acker standing out for particular praise as Beatrice.

21) Nebraska, dir. Alexander Payne, USA

What I said: "Though not written by director Alexander Payne (the film was penned by Bob Nelson) the film has a great deal in common with his other work, being most successful as a low-key character piece. Scenes involving the extended Grant family are especially funny, and feel very true, whilst [Bruce] Dern's guileless, bewildered character becomes heartbreaking as his son [Will Forte] uncovers more about his past and compromise of a relationship with his cantankerous mother (played to great effect by June Squibb). It hits a few bum notes along the way, with some of the more outlandish comic beats feeling out of place and with one subplot resolved in a way that jarred against the otherwise affable spirit of the piece, but Dern's performance is something special and there are moments of genuine greatness."

A few contrived moments of incident (a lawnmower stealing caper) and outlandish humour (June Squibb flashing her vagina to a tombstone) detract slightly from what is otherwise a really nice, low-key family drama, in which veteran actor Bruce Dern gives what might be a career-defining performance. 'Nebraska' is near-perfect whenever it's simply observing uncomfortable family moments, as estranged relatives struggle for conversation whilst sat in front of a television, whilst Dern ensures there's a real, three-dimensional character at the film's heart - an embittered and emotionally withdrawn old bastard whose layers are slowly pealed back to reveal the quiet, everyday tragedy of missed opportunity and bad luck.

Check back soon for numbers 20-11.


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