Saturday, January 11, 2014

2013 At The Movies

This is a list of the 2013 movies I saw, some in the theater and some at home. It was a decent year, though I didn't get out to see as many indies as I normally like. Maybe I can change that in 2014.

Let's get on with the reviews.

Zero Dark Thirty

Director Kathryn Bigelow's journalistic account of the raid on the compound in Pakistan that had been the hideout for Osama Bin Laden. The tension builds slowly but steadily as the intelligence services of the world's remaining superpower struggle to find the 9/11 mastermind. It's a series of dead ends until one female agent, played by Jessica Chastain, catches a break and follows the thread until she manages to find the terrorist's redoubt. Fascinating for its glimpse into the inner workings of America's intelligence infrastructure, and its depiction of the torture methods used to extract information. It gave me a sense of the great experiment in Democracy this country embodies suddenly going off the rails due to the actions of 19 individuals. This made a lot of 2012 lists, deservedly so, but in the Roc we sometimes get the good stuff later than the larger cities, so I'm finally including it for this year.

Side Effects

Notable for being Steven Soderbergh's last directorial effort on a feature film, or so he expressed at the time. So far, he's kept his promise. The story concerns the side effects of a fictional anti-depressant prescribed to a young woman who later murders her husband. I was hoping for more of a discussion about the epidemic of prescription psychotropic drugs washing over the country, but Soderbergh chooses to emphasize the thriller aspect. This was executed well enough that I was willingly sucked down the rabbit hole of a young woman's (Rooney Mara) twisted scheme. I got the sense that, after so much experience, Soderbergh would find it very difficult to make a truly bad film.

Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine's dark fever dream shot against South Florida's dayglo colors of a group of young girls, ineffably bored with their small town existence, who decide to turn criminal to facilitate an escape to the promise of spring break. There, they meet James Franco's white, corn-rowed rapper, a small time entertainer who fancies himself a true gangsta. Franco's performance is by turns hilarious and disturbing, as he begins his association with the girls having the upper hand, only to have it turned against him in the end. It pulls back the curtain to reveal the menace that can lie beneath the carefree party vibe of those sun-soaked beaches.

Iron Man 3

Robert Downey Jr. returns as the eponymous hero for a third go-round. Different director this time as Shane Black takes over, he of Lethal Weapon scriptwriter fame. The dialogue pops more in this installment, but for me, the Iron Man movies are probably one of the least successful franchises for Marvel's characters. I can't quite put my finger on it, but they don't really capture the essence of the hero. I thought he was better handled as part of the Avengers ensemble. It devolves into a finale which again reaches for excess, with Downey being sucked into and spit out of so many different Iron Man suits, to both comic and exhausting effect. Nevertheless, still probably the best of the three films, but I'm kind of hoping they don't make any more for a long while.

Mud

A modest, low-budget effort starring Matthew McConaughey as a drifting ne'er-do-well who involves a couple of kids in his scheme to win back an old love and escape the reach of the law. A well done film with very capable performances all round. It's a film which makes a star of its location, along the banks of the Mississippi, as much as any of its human stars.

Man Of Steel

The much-anticipated cinematic reboot of Superman, courtesy of producer Christopher Nolan (The Batman trilogy, The Prestige) and director Zack Snyder. A trailer released three months before the film opened had me salivating to see this new iteration of the iconic character. When I saw that Nolan shared a story credit on the film, that bolstered my confidence even more. Alas, the film is a mixed bag. The quieter moments are nicely executed, with Clark's powers slowly coming to the fore, and all the questions they raise about responsibility and purpose. Kevin Costner offers a neatly understated turn as Pa Kent. Once he becomes Superman though, and joins battle with General Zod (a one-note shoutfest from the usually brilliant Michael Shannon) the super-destructive battle sequences take over and drown out the rest of the film. More of the budget goes toward demolished buildings than any tactical flourishes in the fighting. There was much made about Supes taking a life in this one, which didn't initially bother me at first. But maybe that speaks more to the creators' lack of imagination with this story. Ah, what might've been had the film lived up to that trailer.

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola (the daughter of that other famous film Coppola) directed this little gem about
Hollywood teens who become obsessed with celebrities, and become a part of their world by deciding to rob their mansions while they're away. This movie was based on actual events that took place a few years earlier. Coppola is good at depicting the emotional malaise of the rich and famous (see Somewhere, a nice companion piece) and we get a glimpse into Paris Hilton's actual residence, as she agreed to allow shooting in it for the film. A grown up Emma Watson stars as one of the dimmer bulbs in the gang. This is what happens when all of those materialistic dreams-come-true just aren't enough.

The Wolverine

I never saw the first Wolverine film, and didn't feel I missed much since there were a slew of bad reviews for it. This one had James Mangold directing though, who had previously directed Cop Land, a film I really enjoyed. This was one of the better superhero efforts, as Wolvy travels to Japan to meet with a very old acquaintance, and consequently gets embroiled in a conflict which robs him of his ability to heal quickly. Wolverine is a character better used in a group context, at least for me, but I enjoyed this solo outing very much.

Kick Ass 2

The sequel to the successful 2010 film of the same name, this time with a different director. These are the further adventures of the DIY superheroes called Kick Ass and Hit Girl, in all their stylized, hyper-violent glory. While not quite as inventive as the original, this follow-up had enough energy, new characters, and comic edge to make it an interesting two hour journey. As in the first, Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl gives the film most of its punch.

Elysium

Matt Damon stars in another film about a dystopian future for Earth. This one's helmed by Neil Blomkamp, the South African director who made a splash back in 2009 with District 9. This is more of a conventional action film, with Damon as one of the unlucky many stuck back on a planet devastated by overcrowding and conflict. He wants to somehow get into Elysium, a huge floating space station that the rich have built to escape from the chaotic masses. He receives the help of an exoskeleton surgically affixed to his body which makes him stronger and better able to defend himself against the forces of the elite arrayed against him. Sharlto Copley, the star from District 9, has a hell of a time as the villain of the piece. It's been too long since a film has had a good South African villain.

The Grandmaster

Legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai's tale of the early life and career of Ip Man, the martial arts teacher who mentored Bruce Lee. Gorgeously shot, the film boasts great performances by Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang. The painstaking effort to craft every shot is evident in every frame, and it restored my faith that there are some directors who still know how to shoot a fight scene. A compelling and poetic glimpse into a long-gone era in China.

Rush

Ron Howard breaks away from the franchise films he's been making recently and tells an original story about the rivalry between Formula 1 racers Nikki Lauda and James Hunt during the 70s. Daniel Bruhl as Lauda is real find, an actor that I hope to see more of in the future. The racing scenes are slick and tense, and even though the ending is a matter of history, I still found myself on the edge of my seat, waiting for the climactic moment.

Prisoners

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal head the cast for a film about the disappearance of two children in a small Pennsylvania town, the confused circumstances surrounding the disappearance, and what happens when parental frustration boils over. This film skirted a little too close to exploiting the situation emotionally early on in order to provoke a reaction, but then refocused on the incident and the slow march toward its resolution. Strong performances from both the leads. It feels like a true story, but it's not. If it were true though, it would probably dominate the news cycle for days. Paul Dano also turns in a solid performance as a mentally handicapped young man who seems to stand at the center of the investigation. He was also an evil plantation overseer in 12 Years A Slave. I like his role choices so far in his brief career.

Gravity

The incredible film that you'll really believe they shot in space. Sandra Bullock is a scientist from a space station that's been destroyed by orbital debris. The next 90 minutes are her fight for survival, with little help, in the most hostile environment there is. It's a stunning technical achievement, and the movies says a lot about our reliance on technology, and questions whether it's made us lose sight of more important things. Bullock's emergence from the shallow lake back on Earth at the end seems to point to a rebirth for humanity, stripped of the gadgets that have divorced us from a close relationship with nature and ourselves. Alfonse Cuaron (Children of Men) directed this masterpiece. Perhaps an American director would have duplicated the special effects, but I doubt they would have included the existential seasoning, which makes the film truly great.

Thor: The Dark World

The second Thor film, as Marvel continues its annual colonization of the cinemaplex. The whole thing gets off to a rather lumbering, slow start, but quickly picks up steam. Thor faces a powerful villain, on top of dealing with the machinations of his wayward brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The conceit of the action traversing through different dimensions as it happened was an interesting twist, and made for some great setpieces. I think some of the warmer aspects of the character from the comic are missing, but Marvel's “Superman” does need big cosmic stories. Very satisfying, but mostly in a four-color way.

12 Years A Slave

For me, the best film of the year. The true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who's kidnapped by Southern slave traders and sold into slavery in Louisiana. It's based on the memoir he published back in 1853 about his horrible experience. I don't know why it took an English director (Steve McQueen) to make the most honest portrait of an institution that remains the shame of a nation. Maybe we still can't face what happened then, in all of its evil and brutality. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, and the pain that the man endured is indelibly etched on his face throughout the entire film. This is one for the ages.

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell returns with his story of the Abscam operation of the late 70s, when several congressmen were caught in an FBI sting operation involving fake Arab sheiks and large sums of money. This film boasts a great cast, led by the reliably fascinating Christian Bale, as he morphs into an overweight, neurotic con man who still manages to filch your sympathy. Russell's camera is fluid and the dialogue is rich and sinuous. The film ably captures a slippery decade and its equally slippery inhabitants.

The Wolf Of Wall Street


Scorsese is back in vintage form, with a film highly reminiscent of his classic, Goodfellas. Instead of the mob being the focus though, it's Wall Street. Leo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a small time trader who rose to heady heights when he began manipulating his clients through sheer force of a talent for salesmanship. The other star of the film is cocaine, which is snorted regularly and praised generously as an indispensable aid in doing the job. There are some hilarious moments as the inevitable downward spiral begins. Belfort's hubris gets the better of him, and consequently so do the Feds. It's another glimpse into the decadent world of high finance, which seems to be constantly fertile ground for this kind of story. We don't seem to learn anything from them however, as the party just goes on. This one clocks in at three full hours, and could've been edited down by about 20 minutes and lost none of its power. This is a small criticism at best though. At 71, Scorsese still has his gift.


There are some films I didn't get to see in time, such as Inside Llewyn Davis, and All Is Lost, but maybe I'll include those in later posts. I hope your cinematic choices offer as much satisfaction as mine did for me. Whatever you do, for God's sake, don't just limit yourself to the animated crap your kids want to lap up. Expand your horizons to the adult world!

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