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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Cinema of 2013 - "Welcome to Somerton" edition

Well it’s March again and we all know what that means… That’s right; it’s time for me to recap the cinematic year that ended a full three months ago…. I know I know… I do this later and later ever year. It usually takes me a while to catch up on everything and this year was particularly stacked with great films. I’m even having a hard time figuring out which is my favorite film featuring actors running on the poster and the number 12….

I should also mention that there are several key films from last year that I have still yet to see. I'm sure at least one or two of them would have made my list but I really want to get this posted so maybe I'll follow up later with an update of sorts.....
So, I hope you packed a lunch… There were just a lot of films that came out this year that I've wanted to talk about… Including these: 

The Worst:

Man of Steel - Comic books are not typically known for their subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, neither is director Zack Snyder. This Superman reboot has about as much subtlety as this blog post has sarcasm and the overwrought dialog moves the plot forward with all the finesse and delicacy of shoes in a dryer.

Frances Ha - Noah Baumbach's new movie is very well regarded and has made many people's top ten lists this year. I can't say that I hated it, I just can't seem to understand why it is so popular. Greta Gerwig's titular character spends the majority of the film spinning her wheels and wondering why everything is passing her by. I didn't find her to be a particularly likable or even interesting character and by the time that she is finally given an arc, I had long since lost interest....

Turbo - Oh Goody... So this is the part of the blog post that I make fun of the poor children's film.... I took my two younger children to see this one when Monster's Inc was sold out so I was a little extra perturbed when it was as bad as it was. I can deal with a silly kid's movie that has a ridiculous plot and a bad ensemble of weak characters. Just please don't take my hard earned dollars and then proceed to show me an hour and a half of advertising... The climax of this flick takes place at the Indy 500. That's right, not a fake auto race that Dreamworks made up for the world that this story takes place, the snail races in the actual Indy 500. I'm sure this allowed the film to be financed via its multitudes of logo and product placement... which should have made up for its flop at the box office. Fine.... whatever... I just wish I had not been one of the suckers that shelled out cash to see it... I'll file this one under Hollywood Dick Moves, Dreamworks...

The Honorable:

A Band Called Death - So, you think that listening to 70's punk bands like Crass, MC5 and The New York Dolls excuses you from the white guilt associated with supporting a style of music that was pioneered by minorities and capitalized on by the pasty and powerful?... Watch this documentary about the very first black punk band and then think again... Might as well go and get your Dave Matthews collection back out of hiding you fucking sellout....

American Mary - I think this is my favorite thing to happen in horror this year. The very talented twin directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska have finely crafted a very gory and disturbing flick about body modifications and revenge... They have also weaved together a beautifully sad story about a monster, created by a monster who creates monsters. Beauty is the Beast, Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster all rolled up in one...

Before Midnight - I guess I don't have too much to say about this one. I think that it may technically be the best of the "Before" trilogy but I don't think it's my favorite. It is extremely well written and the acting by both Hawke and Delpy keep you completely connected at all times. It is very possible that this film is far more of a masterpiece than I am giving it credit for. I'm interested to see how well it holds up over time...

Grabbers - This is just a very well made horror/comedy from across the pond. It is one of the funnest times you will likely have on your Netflix queue this year. The two main characters, played by Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley have a great chemistry together and the comedic dialog is exactly what I've come to expect from British writers...

The Hunt - This was about as uneasy as I have been watching a film this year. This film from Denmark starring Mads Mikkelsen, one of the best actors we have right now. It is a highly disturbing story that illuminates the destructive power of an innocent little lie... This was my third favorite Danish film this year.... 

Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coen Brother's newest film was just a little bit off for me. It was their first film since Miller's Crossing (1990) that didn't feature the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and their first film ever that didn't include a score by Carter Burwell... Instead, they employed Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) as DP and original music by T Bone Burnett... These are by no means bad choices but it was fascinating to be able to feel the difference in this film and it definitely shows how collaborative an art form cinema is... The classic Coen dialog took center stage with this one however and much like A Serious Man (2009), we are treated to a slice of Americana from years past as opposed to a more traditional story....

Kon Tiki - Maybe I should just make a list of kick-ass Scandinavian films that came out last year... This one is from Norway and it tells the epic true adventure story of Thor Heyerdahl crossing the Pacific Ocean in a balsa wood raft... It is exactly what you would want from an adventure film, amazing cinematography that sweeps the viewer up with the entire weight of the situation...

Stoker - Remember what I said about The Hunt making me feel uneasy?... Well, this film earns the runner up award for that category. And really, what do you expect from Oldboy (2003) director, Chan-wook Park? This film doesn't make my list for how disturbing it is however. It's here for how beautiful it is. This sick and twisted tale is set against an American Southern Gothic backdrop that exudes cinematic beauty and the Korean director brought along his usual cinematographer to capture and that beauty. It contrasts amazingly with the characters.... This is my third favorite film by a Korean director this year...

The Last Stand - And here's my second favorite film by a Korean director this year.... Please make no mistake. This is not actually a good film.... It's extremely campy, archetypal characters and a plot that really doesn't make much sense...Also, it takes place in Somerton, AZ.. a town I've been to many times and I know the area. This made all the ridiculous inaccuracies super evident to me... First of all, it was obviously not shot in Somerton. It's too hot there, shoot it in New Mexico... Second, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the sheriff of Somerton County. Somerton County doesn't exist, it is a very small town about fifteen minutes outside of Yuma.... in Yuma County.... Also, why the hell would the FBI send a SWAT team from El Centro, CA (a town that is roughly one tenth the size of Yuma, half the population and five times the distance away from Somerton)?.... Man... this movie sucks... I really really like it... I've watched like five times already... It does have it's good qualities. I think Jee-woon  Kim is one of the best directors of actions scenes working today and this flick has some insanely awesome shots... It's campy as hell sure, but unlike campy movies that I hate like Taken (2008), this flick knows exactly just how seriously it should be taking itself... If it makes you feel any better, we can just file this one under guilty pleasures.

The Best:

10. Blancanieves
Directed by Pablo Berger

Blancanieves is a silent black & white re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale in 1920's Seville. The seven dwarfs have traded in their pickaxes and shovels for lances and (google search "bullfighting equipment") banderillas as they travel through Spain as a comical side show to the bullfight. They pick up an young girl with amnesia and take her along on the road. This is not a perfect film but I love crisp, picturesque black and white cinematography and this flick was shot beautifully. Also, Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien & Pan's Labyrinth) is fantastically evil as Encarna, the step-mother. 

9. In The House
Directed by Francois Ozon

Fabrice Luchini plays a French high school writing teacher/failed writer desperate to recapture the passion he once had for literature. He finds his zeal in a new student whose research methods are far less than honorable. Knowing the student is up to no good but conflicted because of his obvious gift for writing, the teacher must choose whether or not to put a stop to the child's transgressions, and risk stifling his potential. The proverbial can of worms that is opened is not one that will shut itself.

8. 12 Years A Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen

This is Steve McQueen's third film and so far he's three for three. He got into cinema with an already very impressive resume as a visual artist and it shows. I was very happy to see that the material was handled with such a serious and dedicated commitment to the technical and artistic aspects of this film. I think far too often, filmmakers and other storytellers will assume that if the story is powerful and important enough, they will be given a pass when it comes to the technical. But McQueen is a true artist and this film shows that the only way to truly honor the story and its real life subject is by pouring yourself into it and demanding perfection. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o gave probably the best performance by anybody male or female this year.

7. Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher

This was a great year for documentaries as evident by the fact that my seventh favorite film is also my third favorite doc. This is one of the most unique subjects you will find to study. This is a film that explores numerous theories by different people about hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. Theories include subliminal messages protesting America's treatment of Native Americans, it's a film about the Holocaust, or it was Kubrick's way of secretly admitting to faking the Moon landing... The genius of this documentary is that every conspiracy theory is treated with the same weight by the filmmaker. And the running theme is that Kubrick never did anything by accident and never made a mistake therefore, all of the above MUST be true....

6. Short Term 12
Directed by Destin Cretton

Short Term 12 stars Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. as Grace and Mason, a couple of employees of a group home for at risk teens. A new girl shows up at the facility carrying some particular baggage that Grace finds very familiar. This begins the resurfacing of Grace's past and the subsequent tailspin ensues. At times quaint and charming, this film never forgets to pull at your heartstrings. The characters and settings feel extremely authentic which demands the audience's undivided empathy. The performances by both Larson and Gallagher are impeccable. Lakeith Lee Stanfield's Marcus is also of note. He is someone to look out for in the future. 

5. Upstream Color
Directed by Shane Carruth

I'll be honest. I'm not really sure what or how I feel about this film... I've only watched it three times so far and I think I'm actually starting to understand it. This is the second film by Primer (2004) director Shane Carruth. It only took me about five years to realize that Primer was a masterpiece and it may happen with this one as well. What gets me the most excited about this guy as a storyteller is how both of these very complex films unapologetically lack any sort of exposition. He gives you just enough to keep interested but not enough to keep up. It not only demands, it rewards your undivided attention and repeat viewings.

4. Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley

I've been a fan of Sarah Polley's acting ever since 1999's Go. Her first feature as a director was the very melancholic Away From Her (2006). This is her first documentary and I loved it. On the surface, she took the camera to her own family in an attempt to investigate a trail of unanswered questions left by her departed mother. What she succeeds in finding far surpasses any single family's story and explores and exposes the torrid relationship between truth, myth and recollection..... 

3. A Hijacking
Directed by Tobias Lindholm

The Danish have Hijacked my list this year. The negotiations are intense and slow and some of the films on this list are getting very sea sick... This is a film about a cargo ship that is attacked by Somali pirates and the negotiations with the ship's company in Copenhagen. This film is heart wrenching and very suspenseful but what I think blew me away the most was how there is really no true antagonist. The filmmaker does such a great job at distributing empathy throughout the characters... As Renoir says in the French masterpiece, Rules of the Game (1939): "The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons...."

2. The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous and Christine Cynn

This may not be my favorite film of the year but it is by far the most important on this list... It's probably the most important of the year but I'm not sure... I mean, exposing Indonesian death squads that have never atoned for their heinous acts of genocide is at least as important as profiling professional backup singers... right?... Isn't it?... Is this thing even on...? Alright so what I'm trying to say is watch this film now, then come back we'll all write the Academy a nasty letter together... This film is so much more than just an expose on injustices that happened half a century ago. The filmmakers gives the aggressors the ability to tell their story through cinematic reenactments. They happily oblige as if they have never had a moment of remorse.... Oh yeah... this one's Danish too...

1. Pieta
Directed by Ki-duk Kim

My favorite film of the year came from my favorite Korean filmmaker. I'm not going to say too much about it. I wrote a full review here... I will add however that I am very excited that the acclaim that this film has received has led to Alamo Drafthouse picking up the rights to distribute his newest film Moebius... This is great news because it will most likely be readily available on VOD when it comes out later this year....

Editors note: I am the editor too.... deal with it... FYI: Many of these titles (including 7 of my top 10) are available to watch on Netflix right now.... Check them out...

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