Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My Top 30 Films of 2013: 20-11

For the first part of this article, detailing 30-21, click here.

20) Philomena, dir. Stephen Frears, UK/FRA/USA

What I said: "It's a testament to star Steve Coogan's screenplay (written with Jeff Pope), Stephen Frears' light-footed direction and Judi Dench's nuanced lead performance that 'Philomena' isn't the most depressing film of the year, even if it's still a reliable tearjerker. It's based on the heartbreaking real-life story of just one of many teenage girls became indentured servants to nuns in 1950s Ireland after falling pregnant, many having their babies taken from them by the Catholic church - and sold to wealthy families overseas. It's a story almost tailor-made to provoke outrage, indignation and buckets of tears from an audience - and rightly so, but the strength of this film adaptation lies in its steadfast refusal to wallow. In fact it's frequently quite funny amid the weeping and ruminating on the pros and cons of religious faith."

From the cosy, yellow theatrical poster, the presence of Dame Judi and the "from the director of 'The Queen'" tag, you could be forgiven for avoiding 'Philomena' on the grounds that it's probably one of those middle of the road dramas, targeting grey pound as inoffensively as possible. But it isn't that movie at all, even it does nothing that would see it lose any appeal to that audience. It's both a tear-jerker and a crowd-pleaser, combining moments of crippling sadness (the true life tale it's based on is hideous) and gentle comedy to brilliant effect - each making the other more palatable. It also looks more deeply at the concept of "faith" than most movies do, that term usually being thrown about to imply great depth where there is none. Here Steve Coogan's atheist journo and Judi Dench's devout Catholic play against each other in a way which showcases how blind religious faith can be both a healing crutch and a stupefying form of self-delusion. For her part Dench is brilliant as the title character, apparently reveling in the chance to play somebody with such spirit and warmth after a great many years of being typecast as the opposite.

19) We Steal Secrets: the Story of Wikileaks, dir. Alex Gibney, USA

What I said: "An amazing piece of work: balanced, stylish, thrilling, sick-making - sometimes funny and never less than compelling. Alex Gibney takes on Wikileaks and Julian Assange in this revealing documentary that - like many of the contributors - is on one hand in awe of its subject and on the other immensely troubled by him. Bound up with the potentially world-changing and arguably heroic activities of Wikileaks itself - which, among other things, helped bring to light the ugly reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - is the increasingly odd story of Assange, the organisation's founder: whose behavior has been increasingly antithetical to the ideals the whistle-blowing website stands for in the eyes of supporters. It's neither a hatchet job, nor a celebration, but an examination of flawed human beings. It's a sad portrait of a man who seems equal parts a brilliant idealist, a paranoid loner, and self-styled international celebrity."

Walking a delicate middle-ground between respect for its subject, as a brilliant idealist standing for a great many good things, and disquiet about his character and recent behaviour, Alex Gibney's tense, gripping doc about the story of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organisation is compulsive viewing. The sort of documentary that leaves you sad, angry and better informed about the world in which we live. Ultimately the film transcends its subject matter and, to me at least, makes a more universal point about the problems inherent in binding political causes to fallible, human individuals, as Assange the person threatens to undermine the credibility of Wikileaks the organisation and the ideals for which it stands. A tough watch, at times, but a vital one.

18) Blue is the Warmest Colour, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, FRA

What I said: "The film's quieter character moments, as Adele deals with the different stages of her relationship with Emma, navigating interactions with her friends and family, are great work. Certainly the two "dinner with the in-laws" scenes, that do so well to contrast Adele and Emma's backgrounds, education, interests and aspirations, all through attitudes to food and parental interactions, are miniature masterpieces. However, the film falls down when it comes to some extremely long sex scenes that stretch the running time in an unfavourable direction and which break from the film's otherwise naturalistic tone by presenting sex in a way which suggests you've stumbled onto Channel 5 post-watershed."

The target of many fair criticisms about its portrayal of lesbian sex - the film even attracting criticism along those lines from the writer of the source graphic novel, Julie Maroh - 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' is a great film hiding within a rather baggy and overlong mostly-good one. Basically, if you cut (or merely edited down) the ridiculous sex scenes, you'd be left with a brilliant coming of age drama, boasting 2013's strongest single performance from an actor. Adèle Exarchopoulos is incredible portraying a character who goes from high school student to school teacher over a span of several years, subtly altering her posture and demeanor over the course of the film to reflect recognisable changes in age and character. Co-star, and co-Palme d'Or winner, Lea Seydoux is also really great (as ever) but this is Exarchopoulos' movie. One of several cases on this year's list where a strong central character, played to perfection by the right actor, has elevated an entire film (also see 'Nebraska' and 'The World's End').

17) Iron Man 3, dir. Shane Black, USA

What I said: "The script somehow blends all the best elements of a buddy cop movie (notably in Downey Jnr and Don Cheadle's team-up), a sort of Capra-esque Christmas movie (it'll sound shit on paper, but Iron Man's pairing with a smalltown kid is entirely winsome), an espionage thriller, a deft political satire (maybe overselling that a touch, but what the film does with Kingsley's villain is inspired) and a classic modern superhero movie. It's a 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' style deconstruction of action movie tropes and a faithful sequel to both 'Iron Man 2' and 'The Avengers' - which it references whilst also managing to be its own thing completely. It bravely takes Tony Stark out of the suit for most of the movie - putting him in more peril than ever before, and allowing him to be more genuinely heroic - whilst also still recognisably being a Marvel comics adaptation. It does a lot of things and it does most of them excellently. And it's probably the only superhero movie to have a satisfying "end boss" fight to boot."

Pure popcorn in the very best sense. Spectacular set pieces (like when captive Tony fights those henchman whilst in various stages of suited up) married to some of the year's best gags (the Ben Kingsley reveal, the buddy cop dynamic between Tony and Rhodey in the third act), 'Iron Man 3' has admittedly suffered on repeat viewing now that I know what to expect (a great part of the pleasure is that it isn't the film it was advertised as being), but it was a film I watched with a bloody, great grin on my face in the cinema. Though an avid Marvel comics fan, and broadly a fan of Marvel Studios' film output, 'Iron Man' has never been something that's excited me too much (even though Robert Downey Jnr is terrific in the role) and given that 'Iron Man 2' is probably the worst of the in-house Marvel movies, the fact that this one was so much fun was a really great surprise.

16) A Field in England, dir. Ben Wheatley, UK

What I said: "This bizarre, sometimes unfathomable, mix of pitch black humour and sleep-disturbing horror won't be a surprise to fans of Ben Wheatley's other films - or at least to those who've seen the equally macabre 'Kill List'. Set during the English Civil War, 'A Field in England' follows a group of deserters as they flee a battlefield, stumble upon some magic mushrooms and become embroiled in an unsettling, occult treasure hunt, whilst ostensibly looking for the nearest pub. The performances, from the likes of Reese Shearsmith and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, are enjoyably exaggerated and thespy, the sound design is magnificent and Laurie Rose's black and white cinematography yields wonders that belie the film's tiny budget - facts that all combine to create a unique sensory experience."

Ben Wheatley's fourth feature was arguably his strangest and (relatively speaking) least commercial to date: a psychedelic and characteristically macabre film set during the English Civil War and starring Reece Shearsmith and Michael Smiley. Though released on TV, DVD and online on the same day it hit cinemas it's also paradoxically his most cinematic movie, relying extensively on an atmosphere created by unsettling sound design, Laurie Rose's austere monochromatic cinematography and startling editing work done by Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. Like the best cinema, it demands to be seen on a massive screen in a dark room, with the volume cranked right up. Though the script is clever and full of funny lines, which beautifully mix the sacred and profane to comical effect, it's the haunting images and long takes that linger in the mind, burrowing deep into your subconscious. Earlier in this list I said 'Elysium' was a film destined to be swiftly forgotten by most who see it. 'A Field in England' is conversely a film most will struggle to forget, though many may try.

15) Pacific Rim, dir. Guillermo del Toro, USA

What I said: "Packed with jaw-dropping set-pieces, characteristically striking visuals and boasting gorgeous production design, it's a visual treat and the sort of thrill-ride you only get from the very best Hollywood fare. Even the 3D - post-converted, but apparently given more time and attention than usual - is a treat, adding texture to the rain effects in particular, as the Jaegers battle the Kaiju at sea. From a character point of view it's broad, but certainly not dumb or empty: the drama feels humane and ties into the action rather than being a perfunctory afterthought. It's also pleasing how international the whole thing is. Yes: it's an American movie, so the American pilot and American mech win the day. But, on the flip-side, rarely is an action movie of this kind less militaristic or nationalistic than this. There's a Russian mech, a Chinese mech and we're told the Australian mech is the best of the bunch - the most successful and effective around - allowing a sense that this is truly humanity fighting together in its darkest hour."

Let's settle something right now: 'Pacific Rim' is a really good film. I've seen it dismissed out of hand, but worse still I've seen it receive the faintest of praise: as a guilty pleasure or a decent movie of its kind. Yet Guillermo del Torro's monster versus mech blockbuster is stunning, from the fully-realised setting, to the designs of the various fighting creatures and robots themselves - it's a masterful and entirely complete movie on almost every level. As I said in the review excerpt above, the human characters are indeed broadly painted, exaggerated archetypes, but that doesn't mean that the film is stupid or that the writing is bad. 'Pacific Rim', and I mean this in an entirely non-condescending way, knows exactly what it is and what it is trying to achieve and succeeds on its own terms. And, in its own small but meaningful way, it subverts many grating genre cliches, for instance, by downplaying the antagonism between the military types and the scientists (who ultimately respect each other and work towards the same goal - seriously, how often do you see that?!) and by having a main character in Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket who isn't a macho, meat-head douchebag. He's a calm, respectful and introverted character as seen in a half-dozen small character moments that most people won't notice because they've already decided a film about giant mechs fighting even bigger monsters is beneath their contempt. Well those people are missing out on some pretty great cinema.

14) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, dir. Francis Lawrence, USA

What I said: "This is a teen-focused blockbuster in which riot police shoot a helpless old man in the head for whistling, in which handsome bore Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is bloodily flogged to within an inch of his life, and in which a frail old woman is corroded to death by a cloud of poisonous gas. So being able to care about the central relationships, and take a certain amount of pleasure in them, is a huge plus. [Jennifer] Lawrence is terrific again in the central role, playing a Strong Female Character TM whose strength is not solely found in her toughness and aptitude with a bow, but in the fact she is written with considerable character flaws. She's stubborn, calculating, sometimes extremely cold, but no less a hero, and that combination unfortunately warrants pointing because multi-faceted female characters are still so rare in mainstream blockbusters. Katniss likes bows and hunting and boozing with Haymitch [Woody Harrelson] and tormenting her country's sinister president (Donald Sutherland) on national TV, but she also enjoys dresses and hunky boys and adores her young sister. She's a wonderful creation and one that seems particularly well suited to Lawrence's strengths as an actor."

A friend of mine saw this and described it to me as being "as good as 'The Empire Strikes Back'!" I immediately dismissed that notion out of hand at the time, but watching the film (in IMAX) a week later it didn't seem like such an outlandish claim. 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is not destined to have the same cultural standing as the first 'Star Wars' sequel - along with 'The Godfather Part II', probably the best direct sequel going - but it is a huge step-up from the original movie (which was decent but unspectacular) in every way. The world is more fully realised, the games themselves are more intense, the characters are at a more interesting point in their arc, the social satire comes right to the fore this time around and the scale of the thing just feels much more epic. Is it as good as 'Empire'? Of course it isn't. But the fact it merits serious comparison is praise enough. Grimy, moody and tough as nails, tweenage entertainment doesn't come any better.

13) Blue Jasmine, dir. Woody Allen, USA

What I said: "To my mind, it's his most perfect movie since 1999. Its closest contender for that accolade, 'Midnight in Paris', is easy-going, charming, inventive and often very funny - but 'Jasmine' vaults over it by virtue of genuine dramatic heft and, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, a lead performance for the ages. It's rare for a Woody Allen film - even a vintage 70s/80s one - to be so tragic, sad and consistently tense as this. It made me uncomfortable and anxious throughout, and the funny lines don't feel like jokes or witticisms in the Allen style, but are born of great characterisation. There's a lot of heart and feeling in this one and no easy answers about life's troubles, nor is there an Allen surrogate figure making sardonic wisecracks to soften the blow. It's a brave and disturbing movie, whilst still feeling like a Woody Allen film - unlike some of his previous attempts at prioritising drama over comedy, such as artistic misfires 'Match Point' and 'Cassandra's Dream'."

The latest in a long line of loudly touted critical "returns to form", 'Blue Jasmine' is the first to really warrant that tired old line. By far, the best Woody Allen film in over a decade - and there have been some decent ones in that time - and one that genuinely deserves a place in his pantheon alongside the classic dramas of the 70s and 80s. Though funny in places, in a dark, uncomfortable way, this is one of those occasions where Woody in serious Bergman-esque dramatist mode has decided to eschew his usual comedic style and go for something more bleak and hard-hitting. And it's maybe the only occasion where that approach has completely worked - at least since the "serious" half of 1989's 'Crimes and Misdemeanours'. I've never felt so unsettled or emotionally devastated by one of his films, with his classics usually working on an analytical and intellectual level, even in their approach to love and death. Yet Cate Blanchett sells the hell out of this self-absorbed, self-destructive, alcoholic force of nature, giving one of the best performances in a year of great individual performances.

12) A Hijacking, dir. Tobias Lindholm, DAN

What I said: "Even-handed and intelligent, director Tobias Lindholm's film doesn't lay the blame at the feet of the corporation - it doesn't present the board as villains for not immediately caving in to all the pirates demands - and doesn't even really vilify the pirates (even if they are often quite frightening and capable of great violence). Instead it seems to simply present the experience as what it is: something terrifying and life-changing for everybody involved, right down the anxious families of those held captive. [Søren] Malling's CEO is shown as a man under great pressure, who - though not subject to the appalling conditions of the ship's crew - has his life upended by events to a very similar degree. What the film doesn't do is explore any of the political or economic conditions that have made piracy increasingly common, but that's the subject for a preachier, less visceral movie: one potentially less devastating, shocking and emotional."

If 'Captain Phillips' wins any Oscars at all it'll be a massive joke. Not because it's a terrible movie (though it's not a good one), but because - for all its militaristic, gung-ho bombast - it isn't even this year's best movie about Somali piracy. Step forward 'A Hijacking', which isn't the tale of one brave, selfless hero outwitting a host of pirates with wily schemes and 'Home Alone' style death traps, but rather a traumatising little human drama about a group of very ordinary men who are held captive for the best part of a year on the open ocean, whilst their harried employer haggles dollar by dollar for their release with a penny-pinching boardroom and a hostage negotiator who's presumably paid by the hour. Whether you're in the boardroom with the increasingly stressed CEO or on the cargo ship with the captured crew and almost equally morale-sapped pirates, 'A Hijacking' is tense and gripping because of the strange banality of the day to day instances we're shown. There are no hi-octane gun battles here: just ordinary people separated from their families with no way of knowing when they get to go home. With empathy that should be enough.

11) The Act of Killing, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, NOR/DAN/UK

What I said: "What makes the film so extraordinary and thought-provoking is that this isn't the story of a group of mad individuals, but seemingly something that runs much deeper and across the entire country. It's a reminder of many things, not least the fact that it doesn't take much to vilify a group of people and encourage a state-sponsored pogrom, but also that there's no such thing as "good" or "evil" people - that, unpalatable as it may be, most of us are capable of either in almost equal measure, guided by the hand of history as it shapes the society around us. These are men who talk of their love of dancing in the street after watching Elvis Presley movies. Men who collect crystal Tinkerbell statues and wear pink fedoras in earnest. Men who give as much thought to how to choreograph a musical number as they did to finding the most efficient ways to kill. It's also a monument to the power of art to help people better understand themselves, to encourage empathy and as a vessel for exploring existential questions."

Why is art important? Does it really enrich the soul? 'Act of Killing' seems to provide a definitive answer to those questions, as a bunch of state-sponsored mass murderers - to this day celebrated for their crimes, killing suspected communists in 60s Indonesia - come to feel something like remorse (or at least a shred of empathy for their victims) after being asked to reenact their brutal crimes against humanity - ostensibly for a movie commemorating their deeds. If the directors (one of whom, like much of the crew, remain anonymous in the film's credits for their own safety) had approached these men with a microphone in the traditional way, and simply asked them to account for their crimes, they would simply have been met with long-ingrained anti-communist rhetoric, indignation or even a complete refusal to participate in the film. But through art - through some tacky, garish re-enactments staged by the participants for the film - these men are cleverly led to a place where they seem to truly reflect on their crimes, perhaps for the first time. They are forced to think about their deeds and, in a crude way, watch them back as a detached audience member. They come to consider their actions for the first time and, as best exemplified by one extended scene of retching that's hard to watch, begin to understand the magnitude of what they've done to other human beings. It's too little too late for the families of those who were slain, who have still never been acknowledged by the regime. It won't satisfy those who hunger for Old Testament style justice for crimes such as these. But on a humanistic and spiritual level, what this film achieves is a total triumph.

Check back soon for the final top 10!

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.

Monday, 16 December 2013

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire', 'Blue is the WarmestColour', 'Jeune & Jolie', 'All is Lost', 'Diana', 'Nebraska', 'KillYour Darlings'; and 'Frozen': review round-up

Not got a functioning computer at present, so here's some belated reviews as written on an annoying touchscreen keyboard on a tablet... for that reason they will be short.

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' - Dir. Francis Lawrence (12A)

The first film in the series was a solid, if unremarkable, adaptation of Suazanne Collins' teen fiction novel The Hunger Games, which succeeded mostly due to the marriage of a highly watchable, young star (Jennifer Lawrence) with an engaging high concept (a dystopian future sees poor communities forced to sacrifice their children to a Battle Royale-style deathmatch, which is then served back to the populace as a gaudy reality TV show) - further boosted by memorable supporting turns from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. However, this follow-up - based on the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire - is much improved, providing a superior dose of hi-octane blockbuster entertainment, cranking up the stakes far beyond just the survival of the principle cast, and doing a lot of interesting world-building along the way.

As with the novels, this is the chapter in which the wider world of Panem is fleshed out and the political ramifications of Katniss' defiant attitude during the last games are explored - and it makes for more interesting viewing as a result. With Katniss now touring the various dishevelled districts of her world as a reluctant, all-conquering champion, the book's first person narrative - and in turn the film's - can now take in a far broader world view. And now that her arena rival/love interest/neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), well-meaning PR guru Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and alcoholic mentor Haymitch (Harrelson) are established characters she's known for a year (as opposed to sources of varying levels of irritation), there is more room for fun and warmth amidst the story's oppressively bleak setting.

This is a teen-focused blockbuster in which riot police shoot a helpless old man in the head for whistling, in which handsome bore Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is bloodily flogged to within an inch of his life, and in which a frail old woman is corroded to death by a cloud of poisonous gas. So being able to care about the central relationships, and take a certain amount of pleasure in them, is a huge plus. Lawrence is terrific again in the central role, playing a Strong Female Character TM whose strength is not solely found in her toughness and aptitude with a bow, but in the fact she is written with considerable character flaws. She's stubborn, calculating, sometimes extremely cold, but no less a hero, and that combination unfortunately warrants pointing because multi-faceted female characters are still so rare in mainstream blockbusters. Katniss likes bows and hunting and boozing with Haymitch and tormenting her country's sinister president (Donald Sutherland) on national TV, but she also enjoys dresses and hunky boys and adores her young sister. She's a wonderful creation and one that seems particularly well suited to Lawrence's strengths as an actor.

'Blue is the Warmest Colour' - Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (18)

Loosely adapted from a well regarded graphic novel by Julie Maroh, this tale of the rise and fall of a romance between two young women garnered the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Fittingly Steven Spielberg's jury took the unusual step of giving the prize to the lead actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, as well as director Abdellatif Kechiche, and it's easy to understand why as both are superb. Particularly Exarchopoulos, who plays her namesake Adele over a span of several years - taking her from naive, teenage schoolgirl to lovelorn, primary school teacher, subtly adapting her mannerisms and posture along the way. Seydoux is comparatively under-served by the story - as the blue-haired Emma she's a tempestuous object of affection, as seen through Adele's eyes - but she's nonetheless an engaging presence.

The film's quieter character moments, as Adele deals with the different stages of her relationship with Emma, navigating interactions with her friends and family, are great work. Certainly the two "dinner with the in-laws" scenes, that do so well to contrast Adele and Emma's backgrounds, education, interests and aspirations, all through attitudes to food and parental interactions, are miniature masterpieces. However, the film falls down when it comes to some extremely long sex scenes that stretch the running time in an unfavourable direction and which break from the film's otherwise naturalistic tone by presenting sex in a way which suggests you've stumbled onto Channel 5 post-watershed.

It feels as though (perhaps commendably) Kechiche has sought to confront viewers with a lot of quite graphic sex so as to honestly portray this on-screen homosexual relationship, without presenting this passionate love affair as chaste or being seen to shy away from the subject matter. But that approach backfires spectacularly when sex ends up being presented in such a perfectly posed and idealised way, without a hair out of place or merest suggestion that bodily fluids are involved. As a result it's a far from perfect, Jekyll and Hyde of a movie, that goes disappointingly from intense, emotional and immaculately acted scenes of dramatic honesty to tedious and downright laughable depictions of the physical act of love. Adele Exarchopoulos might have given the year's best performance, but the film itself falls some way short of her greatness.

'Jeune & Jolie' - Dir. Francois Ozon (18)

Perhaps this one's 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' in reverse, as frank depictions of and attitudes towards sex are undersold by a lacklustre drama which feels a little too detached and bloodless. Writer-director Francois Ozon's portrayal of an underaged prostitute named Isabelle (Marine Vacth), whose apparent indifference to love and sexual intimacy leads her to exploiting her obvious sexual power for quick cash (or perhaps in a self-destructive bid to feel something), is certainly non-judgemental and interesting enough to sit through, but there's definitely something missing. A bit of commentary or satire or maybe even a bit of fun.

My podcast co-host Toby King commented that it wasn't trashy enough to have much fun with or serious enough to really satisfy on a dramatic level, and there certainly is a strange tone to the piece that makes me wonder if there's a bit of sly, nuanced humour involved here if you're a native French speaker. Something lost in the translation perhaps? I certainly wouldn't put that past Ozon, a director who usually crafts much more cerebral and provocative films than this, such as this year's incredible 'In the House'. There's an interesting opening shot which sees Isabelle's brother ogling her on a beach through a pair of binoculars as she bathes topless, hinting at something about voyeurism and the gaze of male audience members, themselves invited to gawp at this gorgeous and frequently-naked 22 year-old model, portraying a girl just turned 17. Yet there's nothing in the rest of the film which seems to suggest an ambition to challenge the spectator in any way. Not a failure, but an unsatisfying watch in retrospect.

'All is Lost' - Dir. J.C. Chandor (12A)

I'm generally a great admirer of movies like this. Little movies that feel like exercises in discipline and restraint, with a couple of limited sets and a few characters. Polanski's 'Carnage' was a terrific example last year, with four great actors arguing in a New York apartment for just over an hour. A few years back 'Moon' similarly entertained me with its two Sam Rockwells, old fashioned special effects and the disembodied voice of Kevin Spacey. This time it's veteran Hollywood star Robert Redford alone on a small boat for a whole movie, trying to survive tidal waves and hold off the inevitable suggested by the title. It's a solid premise, backed by a seasoned screen actor - a bona fide movie icon. There's no dialogue or contrived human drama: it just begins with a random accident and we follow the steadily worsening aftermath. It sounds brilliant.

It isn't.

Being a tight, disciplined little movie of this kind only works if you have enough compelling story to tell or enough of a character to develop over 90 or so minutes. 'Moon' packed in a high concept and a devestating emotional twist, to go with an interesting aesthetic. 'Carnage' uses four variously bitter and unlikeable human beings to explore social mores, affectations and middle class hypocrisy, with a savage wit. By contrast 'All is Lost' is, for the most part, a man in tan chinos looking increasingly grumpy as he stares out to sea, eating beans from the tin. Director J C Chandor, who also made the execrable Wall Street drama 'Margin Call' (a film similarly concerned with the plight of the wealthy and the WASPy), has so little to actually say in this film that several different scenes play out multiple times in a way which would be a veritable screenwriting crime in a movie with more business to take care of (note the two identical scenes in which Redford sees a big ship, fires a flare, shouts, and is not rescued).

It opens with a little monologue in which Redford talks about a life of mistakes and wanting to make amends and achieve forgiveness and ends (SPOILER) with a flash of white light as he's (take your pick) rescued by fisherman or taken into the afterlife by God. So there's a bit of strained religious guff in there if that floats your boat - pun very much intended - but otherwise this film, marketed as being about "endurance" and "survival" is really just an extended, unwelcome glimpse into the life of an uninteresting older chap as he looks very confused at sea.

'Diana' - Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel (12A)

From the director of 'Downfall' comes another drama about the final days of a mad person with a strange cult of personality, as Naomi Watts joins a no-star cast for mass career suicide in 'Diana'. A film so bad and so funny that it caused me to reevaluate my position that so-called "funny-bad" movies don't exist. It's tone deaf (strange Richard Curtis style rom-com that ends in a fatal car crash), absolutely bonkers (Diana becomes a stalker and, at one point, disguises as a scouser she calls Rita Johnson), gravely offensive (British people stop whenever she enters a room and gawp at her, with a maddening degree of reverence. One man even says "cor blimey!"), and very likely entirely made up. "Wall to wall 22-carat bollocks" to quote Watts' Diana, and surely it must be as one of the world's most famous, continually followed people (whose death was perhaps even caused by the hounding of paparazzi) spends every other sequence alone in a London park or wandering around a public hospital talking about how operations are "exciting". At one point she stands outside her lover's house shouting in the middle of the street. I would bet my 22-carat bollocks none of this ever happened. It's pretty funny though. Destined for cult status, perhaps.

'Nebraska' - Dir. Alexander Payne (15)

A late-career highlight in the career of star Bruce Dern, 'Nebraska' sees the veteran actor taking on the role of Woody Grant: a retired, cold and hard-drinking Montana resident who develops an unhealthy obsession with a sweepstakes letter that claims he's due a $1 million prize, to the consternation of his concerned family. After several attempts to walk to Nebraska on foot - in order to collect his winnings from the company that sent the letter - his extremely meek and kind-natured son, played by comedian Will Forte, agrees to drive him to the offices himself. Along the way Grant Snr passes through his hometown, running into old acquaintances and seldom seen relatives, all of whom suggest they are due a portion of his winnings.

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 Dern's guileless, bewildered character becomes heartbreaking as his son 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.

'Frozen' - Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (PG)

Taking obvious and direct cues from the recent success of 'Tangled' - arguably the first computer animated movie to really click for Disney Animation Studios following a string of mediocre (and consequently forgotten) duds - 'Frozen' is the tale of a another princess who is forced to grow up locked away from the outside world by her parents. This time, however, there isn't a wicked crone in sight, with this film's kindly monarchs spiriting away Elsa, their eldest daughter (and heir to the throne), because of fear about her magical ice powers. Meanwhile their younger daughter Anna, who's (through no fault of her own) also been raised in this slightly abusive 'Dogtooth'-esque set-up, is a perky, Manic Pixie Dreamgirl type who longs to marry a prince and can't understand why her older sister is so remote and serious. Then the ice powers make a mess of coronation day, people freak out, Elsa runs away and a succession of Broadway-style power ballards of variable quality begin. There's a toyetic talking snowman called Olaf and a reindeer named Sven, because Disney animated musical.

If I seem uncharacteristically dismissive here - given my love of quality animation (which this undoubtedly is) and classic Disney musicals - it's because 'Tangled' and 'Wreck-It Ralph' have raised the bar after years of relative disappointment and 'Frozen' doesn't quite hit the mark. It feels like a nakedly cynical attempt to replicate 'Tangled' and cross it with the runaway Broadway success Wicked (about a good and a bad witch, the latter having been most famously portrayed by Elsa voice actress Idina Menzel). I love a good musical, when the songs hit their mark, but I left 'Frozen' humming the songs from 'Tangled' and honestly couldn't remember how any of the many power ballads went if pressed. That's not to say it's a bad movie. In a disappointing year for animation it's probably the pick of the bunch, at least out of Hollywood's output. It's also fair to say that the ending is satisfying and fairly progressive.

'Kill Your Darlings' - Dir. John Krokidas (15)

Chronicling the beginnings of the Beat Generation of writers and poets, from the early meeting of the key figures up until David Kammerer's murder at the hands of Lucien Carr, 'Kill Your Darlings' focuses on the relationship between Carr (played by the unsettling young Michael Shannon that is Dane DeHaan) and Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) - though it also makes a feature of their friendship with William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). It's solid and unspectacular stuff about a group of interesting people though, as with that recent abysmal adaptation of 'On the Road', it does make all involved seem like irritating pricks as opposed literary pioneers or great wits. That's not to criticise the performances though, with Radcliffe, DeHaan and Foster all putting in a good shift. It's just not that stunning a film, despite revolving around a bunch of 20th Century celebrities and their involvement in a grizzly murder.

There's a little bit of half-hearted stuff here about anti-semitism (Ginsberg is mocked for being Jewish, whilst WWII lurks in the background, as gleaned from radio bulletins) and homophobia (gay men being arrested in clubs and Carr using a hideous "honour killing" law as his defence against having killed his male lover) but it never comes to anything particularly and the film doesn't ultimately feel as though it has a point it wants to make about anything. Just another bit of "weren't the Beat Generation interesting?" guff and, to be honest, I'm starting to doubt that they were...