Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 Post-Mortem Special 1b: The Obligatory Top 10

Previously at The Third Row:
... what? It's right there! What possible reason would I need to recap something that's RIGHT THERE?
...Okay that came off a little hostile...

Yes, I took a week between. I wanted to give a bit more of a flex window to try and play catch-up. The results weren't perfect, but I do feel at least a bit more comfortable with this second list than I did going into this.

So let's bring this part of the 2013 autopsy to a close so I can then get to the part I'll REALLY regret.

-Fruitvale Station

I'm gonna be honest. I've already written and rewritten my thoughts on this movie several times over. It's one that's been particularly hard for me to wrap my thoughts around, and it's in no small part thanks to the proverbial elephant in the room that came with the timing of this film's release. I tried to balance it on several levels, making it part of the larger writeup, and as a separate paragraph at the end. But it's just not possible. A good friend and fellow reviewer, Elessar (over at Moar Powah!) actually put it best last night when I was discussing this with him - it's not the kind of elephant you can meet halfway. You either ignore it entirely, or you throw yourself at it head-on. While I have many reservations with taking it head-on, most notably my concern that doing so causes it to overshadow the movie's other strengths - which are very commendable ones - I also don't feel like I can just leave the point unaddressed.

So, please bear with me on this.

Anyway, this is one of those movies that came out at both the best and the worst possible time for it. An account of the life and final day of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, who is continuing to prove the potential he showed in Chronicle was only the tip of the iceberg), a man who was killed on New Year's Eve 2008 by Bay Area police in an act of excessive force and what some argue was racial profiling, is on its own an interesting idea for a film regardless. The fact this then saw its wide release over the summer in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict both made the film's message ring that much clearer while simultaneously hurting its performance with audiences.A film calling back to an event that further reminds us that things like what happened to Trayvon Martin are sadly NOT uncommon in our society is a very harsh thing to have to face, and I can't blame people for not wanting to be reminded of that - especially that shortly after the incident. Which is unfortunate since, as I said, even outside of the social relevance of it, it's a very well-made movie in its own right. Writer/director Ryan Coogler approaches the final day of Oscar's life with a surprisingly even hand. Through Jordan, he shows us a man who isn't perfect - we see very frankly that he's made mistakes in his life, but also that he's trying to make up for them. The movie does a good job at showing us the tragedy while also not trying to make Oscar seem like an idealization. For all his strengths and his faults, Coogler and Jordan help us see him as a human being, whose only real crime that night was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This buildup is what really makes the moment when the fateful encounter comes hit that much harder. We know it's coming from the start, of course - the movie starts with the cell phone footage of the actual incident before beginning its own re-enactment, but once that's established, it takes its time letting us get to know Oscar and the people in his life before that night. In another surprise, Coogler doesn't try to overly villify the police, letting their actions speak for themselves. The movie certainly doesn't approve of what they're doing for good reason, but given how many films fail to emotionally stacking the deck, I was surprised to see this movie actually acknowledge the realization by the police that they screwed up, even if it was too little, too late. Again, it's an even touch that really helps give this movie's account of the incident real weight. The one other standout in this in terms of helping maintain that human element goes to Octavia Spencer as Oscar's mother, Wanda. In the first half of the film, she primarily serves as sort of a personification of Oscar's conscience - most notably in a flashback of her visiting him in prison. It's in the last act, after Oscar has been shot, that she steps up to maintain the human heart of the story, grieving for her son while also trying to keep his death from turning into something far worse.
...and despite my best efforts, I still try to balance the two. Sorry, guys. This is one of those movies where I genuinely feel that, even outside of the timing of its release, it has a lot to speak for on its own, and didn't want to sell it short.

In any case, I still find it a bit of a shame that factors beyond the film's control on its release and the tendency of the industry to stack the deck at the end of the year mean this film would later get lost in the shuffle once the the initial impact eased off. If you haven't seen it, and you feel you can handle it, it's a genuinely good movie.

-Blue is the Warmest Color

This was a film I went into not fully knowing what to expect on several levels. I had seen the promising reviews, and had had some previous experience with the filmmaker care of seeing Games of Love and Chance back in college. Otherwise, I hadn't really heard that much on this movie when I decided to check it out. The resulting film surprised me on several levels. Using the Dogme 95 style of filmmaking (much as I hate to be that guy, I'm just gonna leave this as give it a quick Google/Wiki, these writeups are long enough without me explaining that as well,) director Abdellatif Kechiche has put together an emotional and ultimately frank look at the overall lifespan of a relationship (the alternate name for the film being 'The Life of Adèle - Chapters 1 and 2.') I do stress the lifespan aspect - and I should warn anyone who hasn't seen it/looked up the information on it now, the movie is just a few minutes shy of three hours long - as the movie follows protagonist Adèle (Adèle Exarchopolous in a very impressive turn) from her first casual relationship to her first real relationship, with artist Emma (Léa Seydoux.) It's the performances for Exarchopolous and Seydoux that really help sell this movie above everything else. Kechiche's direction is certainly a strong element of it - albeit one that left the movie with some considerable controversy in its wake - but at the movie's core, it's the strength of the two leads that would make or break its story. Luckily, the two both have the talent and the chemistry to maintain that center. So you know now, though this movie is a romance, this isn't to say it's in the same vein of happy that the genre is often saddled with. There are some parts of this film that are genuinely intense and somewhat painful to watch just for the emotional territory they go into. In this regard, Kechiche's use of the Dogme style is an asset, as it means nothing feels overly stylized or softened up - we're left with the raw emotions of the two leads, which hurt like Hell at points. About the only real drawback I can see to this film is with regards to its length. Now, I'm not complaining about the length just as a baseline here, but the movie does feel like it overstays its welcome in several scenes (in one of those rare statements one doesn't expect to see on the internet, the scenes of lesbian sex do run on a good while. Not quite as bad as the ten-minute orgy in Caligula, but it WAS enough that the sense of intimacy in the scenes was starting to wear off.) Strangely, it's not a case where anything necessarily needs to be cut per se. The story itself is pretty complete, but rather it feels like some of the sequences could afford to be tightened up some. The fact it made the cut here clearly shows it didn't prove enough of a weakness to completely undermine the movie, but it was still a minor setback. If you can handle that, however, it's still a surprisingly well-made look at relationships, and one that does manage to pull at the heartstrings at points.
...and this is coming from a jaded and bitter old bastard like me, so THAT is saying something.

-Pacific Rim

I love these sudden shifts in theme and tone, don't you?

This is one of those where I will admit, my reasons for choosing it are two-fold. The first, and most obvious, was the sheer enjoyment factor. Like I'd said in the previous write-up on it, this movie came out in the middle of a summer that was really stumbling on the blockbuster front. Even after, the blockbusters have been kind of ups and downs, but keeping that in mind, this still holds up as one I walked away from all-around satisfied with. Yes, I will admit there are some bits I would have liked to see expanded on (something which director Guillermo Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham both acknowledged was a conscious choice to give the world more of a larger, lived-in feeling) but those are the rare kinds that leave me wanting more rather than feeling like what's there was squandered. Yeah, it's not exactly a piece of high art, but then it was never trying to be. It's a giant love letter to giant monsters and giant robots. In that regard, it was one of the few blockbusters of the summer that actually accomplished exactly what it promised it was going to.
The other reason, and the one I didn't really get into in the write-up (and this is the part where I stop just reheating what I already told you) is the fact this movie managed to become something of the underdog of the summer movie season. It had a lot of elements going against it - it was competing against many established brands, it had a rather lackluster ad campaign (in part thanks to Warner Bros not really having anything to gain or lose from the movie's success, leading them to drag their feet and instead dump their efforts into their own tentpole Man of Steel,) and the pending Legendary-Warner Bros split had led to some speculation of a media campaign to see the movie fail in order to devalue Legendary's brand. Suffice it to say, there was a small storm brewing around this movie's success. Further, its first weeks did look pretty disappointing - despite some generally favorable reviews, the movie was financially outgunned by the critically reviled sequel Grown-Ups 2. Then, as time went on, the movie began to gain something of a vocal and determined following. What was first looking to be another 'creep in, creep out' swing and a miss movie instead was slowly building to become a sleeper hit. Then the overseas numbers came in - and then things got really surprising. The movie went on to be a hit in other countries, including breaking box office records in China (soundly outgunning the China-directed alternate cuts of Iron Man 3 and World War Z without having to alter any of its content.) These numbers would go on to give the movie a spot on the top 10 grossing movies of 2013 for a time - making it the only live action original property to do so at the time (which made the fact it was only at #10 depressing in a whole other regard, but I digress.)
So I'll admit it - alongside the fact I just found it a very fun blockbuster in its own right, I was rather impressed to see it manage to make good despite the odds stacked against it. In a culture where it seems as if original property films are being treated as riskier concepts more and more, it is encouraging to every so often see one manage to succeed and remind us they can still do so (speaking of on that note, congrats to Gravity for being the only original property film to make the final cut by the end of the year. While many of the other films were good, the fact only one wasn't based on existing property means after I finish this article, I'm probably gonna go talk film with a bottle of booze...)

-Much Ado About Nothing

Okay, slightly awkward. I go from grumbling about the lack of attention to original property films to praising an adaptation.

Welp, no sense turning back now!

This was a mix of two things I tend to have mixed results on compared to some other parts of the world, by my own admission: while I do like some of the work of Joss Whedon, I never quite got the massive he has garnered in some circles. Don't get me wrong, he's certainly a good writer and director, but I never quite found that spark in him that others seem to find. On the other hand, there is also the transplanting of the works of William Shakespeare. Again, there are sometimes where I actually like these attempts (of what I've seen, I'd still give the gold standard here to Kurosawa's feudal Japanese reskin of Macbeth, Throne of Blood,) but in a lot of other cases, I just look and go "...really?"
This was one of those times where both elements actually worked very well for me. Transplanting the bard's classic comedic tale of mix-ups and matchmaking gone awry to modern day Santa Monica, Whedon has put together a stylistic retake on the story that's genuinely pretty fascinating both in how it's played as well as how it reinterprets some of the concepts. Even more impressive is the realization this movie was made over a twelve day period as a side project while filming Marvel's The Avengers. In many ways, Shakespeare's comedies are actually a very good fit to Whedon's strengths as a director: he has put together a top notch cast-including several veterans of his other productions-and his ability to handle the quickfire, humorous dialogue means the humor of this play is given a very capable group to deliver the lines through. I've always found the updates where they just transplant the Bard's dialogue to another setting to be a bit of a tricky prospect - simply because if you're not careful, the result can feel an awkward fit. In this case, everyone takes to the lines like a proverbial duck to water, making nothing really feel out of place. This also makes the movie's style - shot in black in white with a relaxed, almost jazzy use of ambiance music, also fit naturally. It's a film that feels like it could have backfired on several levels, but instead excels at them.
and I'll admit it - this has me wanting to dust off some of the classics to give them another look.
...OK, I was going to do so anyway, but really, I have enough of a backlog without you guys stacking revisits onto the pile.)


It seems like 2013 was the year of pleasant surprises for me. I went into this movie not fully sure what to expect beyond: a) Spike Jonze's direction, b) another solid performance in Joaquin Phoenix's strong career comeback, and c) a story that could either be a surprising hit or at least have the movie work despite it. What I got exceeded my expectations all-around, but in particular on points 2 and 3. To start with the easier to address now, I continue to find it interesting that, prior to his quasi-retirement, I wasn't that taken with Phoenix as an actor. I didn't dislike him, and what I saw him in showed skill, but I was never really sold on him. Then he came back from his 'retirement' with The Master and I was actually really impressed with him. When I heard the advanced talk on this movie, I was intrigued to see if this meant last year's movie was a fluke, or if he really planned to come back guns blazing. Luckily, it was the latter. Whereas last year Phoenix handled a human trainwreck with the gloves off, this movie's role as Theodore, an introverted man recovering from a messy breakup who eventually strikes up a relationship with his surprisingly personable computer's operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, in an impressive role for what's all voiced over). It is a change of gears, but one he handles admirably. Even in some of the more humorous or odd parts of this movie, Phoenix makes Theodore someone who, while withdrawn, we still care about. Especially necessary given how many scenes in the movie he's really just left to act off of an off-screen voice.
Which brings me to point 3, and how this movie really surprised me. Like I said, this is the kind of story that could potentially backfire on itself in another set of hands. On paper, it almost feels like it had the potential to be a rather heavy-handed critique of the relationship between people and their computers. Jonze has no interest in telling that kind of a story here, thankfully. Instead, we get a surprisingly thoughtful science fiction story, where the technology is used to explore many of the aspects of a human relationship. When Theodore tells people about his relationship with his OS, the responses actually vary, with some encouraging, others curious, and still others condemning it. The film never fully forgets the man-machine divide, but is perfectly content to blur it on many occasions, which really helps sell the relationship. For a couple where we really only see one of the players, this movie's main romance is still arguably one of the best I've seen in a movie in a long time. Said romance also helps serve to advance, and be advanced by, the movie's secondary plot - exploring the growth and development of the various artificial intelligence units that the movie has introduced. The end result is a movie that manages to be, in various strides: funny, sweet, thought-provoking, and even a little heartbreaking. I'm actually really glad I was able to get to this one before I got to publishing the second half of this list. It may have held things up a bit, but it was well worth the wait.

There you have it.

Next comes the part I was dreading, but I promised myself was coming.

That's right. In the next few days comes the punishment movie of 2013.

Remember, it hurts me more than it hurts any of you.
In theory, anyway.

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