Monday, December 23, 2013

Films of 2013: A Review

2013 will not be remembered as a vintage year for films (nor will 2012, now that I think of it), says the man who has yet to see most of the films that are tipped for Oscar success. For example, I have not seen Gravity, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Nebraska, Philomena, along with a couple of others (The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave) that have yet to be released this side of the pond. But that's enough about what I haven't seen. Here are some of the best and worst films that I've watched in the cinema over the last twelve months.

The Good

Side Effects

Smart, stylish, scary, pace, power, movement - these are some of the words Alan Hansen would use to describe Steven Soderbergh's thriller if he was a film reviewer. The story concerns a woman (played by Rooney Mara, whose Ain't Them Bodies Saints just misses out on a top 4 spot. Only room for one Terrence Malick film on this list, and I've gone for the one directed by Malick himself) whose husband has been jailed for some form of financial illegality. He (played by Tanning Chatum) returns to her from prison pretty much the same man, but she is an entirely different woman, depressed to the point of being suicidal, and prone to a very terrifying dose of sleepwalking. In her desperation she turns to a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes for her some new-fangled drug that has just come on the market. Things take a turn for the worst, however, and it is left to an increasingly desperate and dishevelled Jude Law to sort out what is actually happening.

Side Effects is a thriller that is genuinely thrilling, full of twists and turns and all sorts of other sharp movements. The performances are brilliant, especially that of Mara. Another Oscar nomination would not be out of the question, because she is so very convincing in an extremely demanding role. If you can access the U.S. version of Netflix, then I recommend giving this a watch over Christmas. Nothing says Christmas like a psychological thriller, right?

Princesas Rojas

Unfortunately for the Galway Film fleadh, the dates of this year's festival coincided with the best weather this country has seen since that famous summer of 1995. That would certainly go some way towards explaining the poor attendance at the matinee showing of some highly rated Lebanese shorts. Yet on a Friday afternoon, there was a surprising number of people packed into a small screen to watch Princesas Rojas (Red Princesses). Perhaps they knew what was coming.
This, as far as I can remember, is a Costa Rican/Venezuelan production. The story revolves around two young sisters whose parents are revolutionaries of the Nicaraguan/Sandinista variety. This is a family in perpetual motion, with no permanent home and none of the settledness that children are thought to need for healthy development. The children are often in danger on account of their parents' political activity, yet it is not the film's desire to show us how bad or wrong it is for children to "suffer" because of the convictions of parents. What we see is simply the way things are, as seen through the eyes of children who know of no other life, and who are indeed in some ways better off because of their own.

Films like this are made or broken by the acting of the children. In this case, the two girls undoubtedly make the film, with performances equal to or even surpassing of Hunter McCracken's in The Tree of Life. Watching their story unfold I found myself not looking on these sisters as a parent or an adult might, but looking on them as a comrade, feeling the things that children feel and adults, for better or worse, repress. This is not like watching cute kids perform at a talent show. This is like watching an old home video of yourself, and remembering what it was like to be you at the time. Of course my parents were not nor have they ever been political revolutionaries - they are Christians, after all! - but I (and many others) do know what it is like to sleep next to a sibling while parents talk about grown-up things in another room, to move home and school, and to be self-excluded from particularly Catholic rites of passage (in the film, it is interesting to see the atheists and the evangelicals side-by-side, with one of the most memorable scenes involving the oldest daughter's first experience of that act we call "prayer").

This is, in short, the best film I have seen this year. I felt every minute of it: the struggles and the joys, the adventures and the sacrifices, the loves and the losses. It did not leave me warm and tingly. It left me moved as I witnessed the sheer vulnerability and contingency of a child's life.

To the Wonder

It was never going to be as good as The Tree of Life. Few films have been or will be. This film has been described as the B-side to that masterpiece, and it comes hot on its heels, with only two years between it and The Tree of Life. Safe to say the Malick is no longer cutting hair in a Paris, then. Instead, he continues to cut most of the stars out of his films! There were quite a few big names who were supposed to appear in this, but didn't make the final edit. We are left with four characters played by Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem. Affleck plays Neil, the largely silent male lead who falls for a woman in Paris (or gets a woman in Paris to fall for him) and eventually brings Marina (Kurylenko) and her daughter back to Oklahama where they can live happy ever after...until her visa expires.

Rachel McAdams plays a hometown girl named Jane whose daughter has died and who in her vulnerability also falls for Neil. Neil, however, struggles to commit to either woman. Javier Bardem's Father Quintana has, in some ways, the opposite problem. He has obviously committed his life to the service of God and his people, yet he is no longer in touch with the desire that carries this commitment forward. While Neil sucks up the love given to him by Marina and Jane, but refuses the commitment that they desire of him, Fr Quintana offers his commitment yet feels no love in return. On one side of this film there is desire without commitment. On the other side is commitment without desire. Can these two meet?

This is perhaps Malick's most metaphysical work, even more "abstract" than The Tree of Life. He really goes to town on the voiceovers, which riff on the nature of love and spirituality and all those grandiose themes: "Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness. You gathered me up from earth. You've brought me back to life." Having a priest as a main character also gives Malick the chance to be, quite literally, preachy. Yet To the Wonder is also perhaps his most intimate film. The love and spirituality that is talked about is, in reality, never abstract at all. It concerns such things as visas and pastoral visits. And as for the "preachy" accusation that has been levelled at Malick in his last two films, these no doubt come from people who don't know anything about the beauty of good preaching, because they don't understand the nature of a conviction. The fear of commitment that haunts Neil evidently haunts those who review films. Father Quintana captures it well in yet another Malickean sermon borrowed from the thought of Kierkegaard (see The Tree of Life for the first one):

We wish to live inside the safety of the laws. We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk, is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.

With The Tree of Life and To the Wonder Malick has really committed to a particular vision of life, one that rightly or wrongly might be labelled "religious". Malick does not provide a soothing opium for the masses, however. Malick's religion is a way of seeing life that rests on the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. To the Wonder captures the delicate and mutable nature of this way of seeing with craft, care, and something else that begins with "c" that is a synonym for "beauty".

* Its 40-something percent on Rotten Tomatoes makes a lie of my theory that RT cannot be trusted with its good ratings but can be trusted with its bad.

Fast and Furious 6

It turns out that you don't need to have seen the other five to both understand and enjoy this feast of action. Aside from being tremendous fun, this film has given me some classic Vin Diesel lines that I pull out occasionally, robotic voice included: "That's the deal, take it or leave it"; "Some things you just have to take on faith". Memorable scenes include a quite preposterous car-chase (involving an army tank) on a bridge and, unsurprisingly, another car-chase, this time on a 500 mile runway (involving a plane).

Honourable mentions: Mud, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Bad

Anchorman 2

I am one of those people who think that Will Ferrell is at his best when consigned to a cameo appearance in an Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughan film. In other words, yes to Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers, no to everything else Will Ferrell has been in (with exception of The Campaign, whose first three words - "America. Jesus. Freedom." - provide a more hearty laugh than all the words of Anchorman 2 put together). With Ferrell, less is more. Unfortunately, Anchorman 2 gives us more and more of Ferrell's loud and stupid comedic sensibilities. Don't get me wrong. Loud and stupid can be funny. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is a favourite comedy of mine. Anchorman 2 (like the first one) is more When Nature Calls than Pet Detective, however. It is, quite simply, an appalling film on every level imaginable. Let me count the ways.

Steve Carell's "Brick" was the surprise package of Anchorman. Here he is reduced to a caricature of a caricature, kinda like Joey in later seasons of Friends. They've grabbed hold of the dial labelled "quirky and random" and twisted it to 11, giving us an especially painful romance story between him and his female counterpart (Kristen Wiig). Their dialogue goes something like this:

Carell - Do you have dreams about homosexual bears eating candy floss?
Wiig - Yes. Do you like drinking iced tea out of a shoe?
Carell - Yes [touches woman on the shoulder and runs away a la Napoleon Dynamite]

Comedy gold, right? And then there's the bit about Brick thinking his shadow is a black person following him! There is a wit to Harry and Lloyd's stupidity - "John Denver's full of s**t, man". There is none of that here. In Anchorman 2 the stupidity is just annoyingly offensive, or offensively annoying. Take your pick. I took my nephew to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and during the film he turned to me and said "This is the best movie in the world." If I took him to Anchorman 2 I can imagine him turning to me and saying "Can we go watch something a little more high-brow, like Daddy Daycare?"

Of course far be it from Brick to hog all the inanity for himself. There is a joke about an Australian being hard to understand, which gives us the very tired line from Burgundy: "Does anyone speak Australian?" Not to compare Anchorman 2 with Dumb and Dumber again, but here is another comparison with Dumb and Dumber: "Austrian? G'day, mate, Put another shrimp on the barbie." As Brent says of Finchy's jokes, "his work," whereas Neil's (nor Ron's) don't.

Then there is the rehash of the fight scene from the first film, except this time with extra cameos! People have asked me not to "spoil" this scene, but I honestly don't know what can be spoiled. The only thing redeeming about it is that it signalled that the film was coming to an end. That this absurd contrivance was the climax of the film is indicative of its complete lack of plot, a lack which in this case is a sure sign of laziness. Ironic, given the amount of work that has been put in to promoting the film. Perhaps the makers know what they are doing. Better to work hard at promoting a bad film than to work hard a making a good one. The former is no doubt much easier than the latter, and will prove far more lucrative. As DVDs become more and more obsolete, cinema is everything. They are not so stupid, after all.

If all of this sounds like the bitter ramblings of a self-styled contrarian, then that is probably exactly what it is. Disliking the first Anchorman definitely puts me in the minority. Disliking the second seems to leave me in the same place, though I have a feeling that with Anchorman 2 time will not be as kind to it as it was the first. I saw it with two friends who loved the first one. They hated the sequel more than I did. And judging by the amount of laughs it got in the cinema, there wasn't much love for it from the general audience, either. Perhaps it is like a bad stand-up comic. See him at night time when you're just out for a good time and you and everyone else will find yourself laughing along to jokes that don't deserve your money or attention. But see him in the cold light of day and all you're left with is a strange air of depression and a strong desire for the curtain to fall as you wait for funny moments that never come.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

I wrote about how bad this film was before. It is still that bad, if not worse. The only positive from it is that it got me to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Its 87% rating on RT is nothing short of a global scandal.

Kick Ass 2

Another sequel in my bottom 5. Like the other comic-book film that I saw this summer, Kick Ass 2 was nothing if not boring. The novelty of the first one has worn off, and all we are left with is uninteresting characters committing acts of violence. Jim Carrey was right to distance himself from this film, but for the wrong reasons. Gratuitous violence is the least of its flaws.

Man of Steel

Something I wrote in last year's version of this post:

Right now I have lost my faith in comic book films, with The Dark Knight being the shining exception that proves the rule. Next year's Man of Steel can either confirm me in my apostasy or cause me to repent in sackcloth and ashes.

I can no confirm that, when it comes to comic-book films, I am an atheist. I no longer believe in them. If I am ever to watch another one, God himself will have to appear to me and vouch for it. Otherwise, I'm just not interested in adding my 10 Euro to the billions that are being made from these bloated, insipid cash cows.

Gangster Squad

This is partly one of those "What could have been?" films that isn't so much bad as disappointing. But make no mistake about it - it is also bad. What happens when Ryan Gosling, Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone make a 1940s gangster film? Nothing that I can remember. Everyone appeared to be phoning it in, seemingly resigned to the mediocrity of the project. L.A. Confidential this ain't.

Dishonourable mentions: Elysium, Flight

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