Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 Post-Mortem Special 1a: The Obligatory Top 10 (1-5)

With 2013 now laid to rest, we come to the time when everyone out there with an interest in film looks back at what they considered to be the best offerings of the previous year.

In this regard, I am a sucker for peer pressure and I will own up to that.

Of course, given I will admit doing ten of these could run very long (just look at my Halloween entries) I'm splitting this into a two-part piece, as the title indicates.

So this marks my first five picks of the year.

Standard provisos apply:
-This is based on what I have seen up to this point. There will inevitably be gaps in that list.
--Incidentally, I'd like to thank/flip the bird to the short memory spans at the Academy that have lead to so many films being held back and stacked at the end of the year in order to have a fair shot at being considered. Yes, I know you guys have a lot of titles to go through in a year, but your tendency to stick to the freshest stuff means we get inundated with a LOT of great titles within the space of a few weeks (and between travel and rising ticket costs, that adds up. I'm only human, dammit!) Plus, that also tends to shaft some of us who aren't within the NYC or LA areas for certain releases (still waiting for wider release on Inside Llewelyn Davis, and for the studios to finally release The Zero Theorem.)
-These aren't particularly ranked beyond being part of the top 10. If I list something over something else, chances are I'm not ranking it higher. It's just the way the list came together.

There. Now that I've washed my hands and covered my backside, let's get this started.

-12 Years a Slave

[Previous writeup to be found here.]

Okay, so I lied a little. THIS honestly holds my pick for best movie I have seen this year. That said - damn. This is also probably one of the single most unpleasant movies I think I've seen in well...ever. Like, this is up there with the first half of I Spit On Your Grave in terms of discomfort (THERE are two movies I never expected to tie together. [Editor's note: Nah, I can see it]) That said, it's supposed to be, so points to Steve McQueen for pulling it off. Based on the actual account of Solomon Northup, he has put together one of, and maybe the most frank and unflinching looks at  American slavery in film to date. Alongside McQueen's willingness to look in the places where many others wouldn't, he's got a phenomenal cast to tell this story. People aren't exaggerating when they say this year's Best Actor Oscar is Chiwetel Eijiofor's to lose. His performance in this is one of those standouts where he arguably conveys as much or more in a single expression as he does in his words. Alongside him, we have Michael Fassbender continuing his work with McQueen and delivering one of the single most horrifying performances in a film this year as one of Solomon's masters - a brutal man who relies on force in all manner of dealings with his slaves. Where Eijiofor's strength lies in the unspoken conveyance, Fassbender's turn is a guns-blazing portrait of a short-tempered, controlling, obsessed man is incredibly disturbing to watch. This is one of those movies that is definitely not going to be for everyone. It's incredibly hard to watch, as it was intended to be. In fact, I feel like having seen it once, I'm good for having seen it for a while yet. It's one of McQueen's biggest strengths, in a way - you may not constantly feel the need to go back to his films on a regular basis, but then you don't really need to. They will stay with you even after just one viewing, and this one is no exception. If you think you can handle it, by all means, watch this movie. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it.


[Previous writeup to be found here.]

This year has done some very good things for my opinion of Park Chan-Wook. Going from having only seen Oldboy prior to this, seeing his segment of Three Extremes this October and this, his first English language movie, I'm becoming rather impressed by him. This is definitely not a film everyone's going to like, but in some ways, I think that was part of the appeal for me. Chan-Wook is a director with a very distinct style, and his first US film is no exception. It's a bit of a puzzle going in - you can tell from the get-go that not everything is as it appears, and in some ways, piecing things together is a part of the draw here. And true to Chan-Wook's style, what we think will happen is nowhere near how disturbed the actual outcome will be. Further adding to this mystery, we have a great cast involved as well. Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode both play fun inversions as to who is the 'good' authority figure (they're both somewhat bad, but in different capacities) and it adds to another way the movie plays with your expectations. But the performance that really helps hold this movie together is Mia Wasikowska as protagonist India (hey, it's Chan-Wook's film. You learn to ride with his logic.) She is herself something of a cypher, and Wasikowska makes her an interesting one as the movie's events unfold. As we begin to see more of what she is like, the result is equal parts compelling and disturbing - much like the rest of this movie. A memorable, somewhat nightmarish little puzzle in its own way that has me looking forward to what Chan-Wook has planned for the future.


[Previous writeup to be found here.]

Yes, yes, we've all heard the debates. We've seen the arguments. We've taken sides, and read Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Twitter feed. This film isn't a perfect depiction of science. It's unfortunate it isn't, but what's arguably even more unfortunate is the fact that, despite those glaring holes, it's still closer to the mark than a LOT of science fiction is about space by a considerable margin. Which really more of a sad sentiment about the overall state of things than any indictment on just this movie. That said, I still maintain it is somewhat heartening to see people debating these scientific holes, even though I do feel it's become rather overblown as a result. Technicals aside, this is still a very fascinating and enjoyable movie, and one of those rare films that I can honestly say I'm still uncertain about watching outside of theaters. Half of what made this movie for me was the fact it's a film that really makes the most of the movie theater it's in. While its narrative has a lot going for it otherwise - Sandra Bullock's actually turning in a surprisingly good performance on this one, especially given she's left to her own devices without anyone to play off for much of it- a big part of the draw of this is, corny as it sounds to say, the experience. The strength of this movie is the incredibly immersive experience director Alfonso Cuaron - more than welcome back with this as his first film since the visceral and bleak Children of Men - gives us. For as many faults as its technicals may have, it's still one of those rare movies we've had in a long time that really does justice to just how vast and empty space is, as well as how deadly it can be. This is part of why I can't help but feel it may be a theater only ride for me - an experience this immersive really needs a big screen, optimal sound, and as few distractions as possible to really get the most out of it. I hate to sound like a cliche, but this is the kind of movie that the theater experience was made for.

-The World's End

[By now, you should have figured out the pattern...]

For as many big sequels and reboots as we saw come out this year, this was the one I found myself looking forward to the most. Six years after the release of Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost finally bring the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy to a close with The World's End. After the smash successes of Shaun of the Dead and the aforementioned Hot Fuzz, this movie's buzz was riding pretty high. The resulting film, while perhaps disappointing to some, still delivers quite admirably in its own right. I'll concede to some of the criticisms, this isn't anywhere near as gut-bustingly funny as either of the first two movies, but something is certainly gained in the tradeoff. By comparison, this is a considerably darker movie than the first two - and I don't just mean in the sense of direct subject matter (cause I'll be the first to admit, SotD and HF both had some black humor and heavy moments in them) but I mean in terms of some of the thematic elements the movie addresses. While there's a lot of humor to be found in the idea of a group of friends reuniting for a pub crawl years later, the movie also provides a surprisingly frank look at getting older and reconciling who you were with who you are now - in particular in the case of Pegg's Gary King - arguably the best role he's had in ages - a character who plays like a dark middle finger to the 'man child' character that's become a comedy staple in the past decade. The science fiction plot in the movie is certainly a fun take on the idea of the alien invasion - in particular The Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a proof label attached - but in this case arguably more than its two predecessors, it's the more down-to-Earth human plot that outstreaks the genre tweaking this time around.
Now, I'll grant one concession on the criticisms. I have to agree that the epilogue DOES run longer than it really needs to. But otherwise, the movie is still a fitting send-off to the trilogy. It's not as openly psychotic as the first two movies, but considering what is gained in trade, it was worth the exchange.

-Dear Mr. Watterson

I'll admit it - part of the reason this made the cut for me was bias. Like a lot of people, the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was a big part of my childhood. So when I learned earlier this year that someone was working on a documentary about the comic and its appeal, I was already on board with the idea even before it had been confirmed as happening (it was still a pending Kickstarter.) When the movie finally came out, I checked theaters here hoping to find it with little luck. It was in part thanks to my brother that I finally got to see it, care of receiving the movie on disc for Christmas (and a big thanks to him for that!) Imagine my relief to find my anticipation hadn't been for naught. Now, I can see where some of the criticisms of disappointment could come from, most notably the fact that Watterson himself never makes an appearance. However, I can understand why it happened the way it did. Yes, I would have loved to see Bill Watterson himself make an appearance to discuss his comic and the effect it has had, but like they establish within the film, he was never really a man who asked for fame. He's content to be left alone to live his life, and honestly, the fact the movie respects that wish is something I see as a disadvantage turned strength. So it's a missed opportunity, but for a good reason. In the meantime, in his absence, the comic is free to stand up for itself, ultimately. We still get some pieces of Watterson's mind along the way - there are several segments devoted to the internal politics of the comics page, with several other industry names sounding off on it as well (some of Berkley Breathed's sentiments are actually pretty fascinating, especially as he was a fellow veteran of the years Watterson ran) - and even though he never appears directly, this does still help paint a little bit more of a picture of the cartoonist whose mystique has become part of his draw (as one cartoonist jokingly describes him, he's the Sasquatch of cartooning.) When the film isn't going into what the comic has to say about Watterson, it in turn explores why it became, and still is, as loved as it is even nowadays. The stories run from the fascinating, to a few with nice personal touches (perhaps nothing life-changing, but still rather nice to hear.) In a lot of ways, the movie is a very well-intentioned love letter to what some have called 'the last great comic strip,' and even if it doesn't always put it in words, it still manages to convey that love just by virtue of its existence. It's a sweet little movie with a lot of heart going for it, and I'll admit - it made me want to break out my collections and give them another read for old time's sake.

Five down, five to go.
The second half will be coming up soon.

Till then, keep an eye out. We'll be collecting more organs from 2013's corpse soon enough!

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