The Review of the Year in Film and Annual Whitfield Awards 2013

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The Five Best Movies of 2013 (in no order of merit):

Click on titles for original reviews where available:

Before Midnight: Sometimes the simplest idea can yield the greatest bounty. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise brought Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy together for one night; a relationship blossomed before our very eyes; one invested with enough verisimilitude and insight to become a classic comment on the differences between men and women. Before Sunset picked up the story 9 years later, the actors nine years older, and this year we were privileged to have the third instalment, again 9 years after the last, in which the couple deal with marital strife during a trip to Greece. The strength of each film has been their ability to tune in to the realities of relationships at certain points – the beginning, the reprise and now, the inevitable flashpoint after many years together. Midnight is the equal of its predecessors, maybe even better, combining pin sharp observations on the pitfalls of long term unions – infidelity, resentment, diverging priorities – with an acute, part-improvised comic touch, leaving the audience in the company of two fully fleshed out, three dimensional human beings for two glorious hours. No fat, no bullshit, just great, involving cinema that invites you to reflect on your own life with the same intelligence.

Mud: “It’s a hell of a thing,” says Matthew McConaughey’s fugitive and he’s not wrong. Jeff Nichols Arkansas set Southern noir, stands out for being on the few movies of 2013 that could boast to being anthropological and ambiguous. One can praise the performances, the rawness and the sense of place, but the real reason to see Mud is to get involved in the debate about who the antagonist really is. Do we believe him when he tells us that he killed his childhood sweetheart’s boyfriend in a fit of rage when he walked in on the man beating her, or is he the bad boyfriend in question? The beauty of Nichols movie is that you can watch it both ways, the nature of the character’s long and destructive relationship with Reese Witherspoon’s Juniper, his bouts of bad temper, and his redemptive relationship with Tye Sheridan’s Mud in miniature, changing with each interpretation. It’s a rich and touching story, down and dirty as the title implies, but no less a film for that.

Stoker: “Some movies are designed to be read not watched: welcome to your 98 minute film school” said we back in March and we never argue with ourselves because we’re always fucking right. Park Chan-Wook’s wonderfully perverse update of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, is a feast of symbols and allusions; a glorious induction in the language of pure cinema. It’s finely crafted, morbidly beautiful and sexually deranged; the story an uncle and his niece that makes its Hitchcock forebear look like a Disney movie. Stoker won’t impress everyone: this is a flick that keeps you at arms length at all times, but for those who are prepared to be seduced by the craft on display and become entangled in its suggestive web, the reward is a workout for the eyes and brain that will leave you licking your lips for weeks.

Compliance: Craig Zobel’s drama about a man who calls a fast food restaurant pretending to be the police, convincing deferent manager Ann Dowd to be party to a sexual assault on employee Dreama Walker, has to be seen to be believed, not least because it’s based on a real event. The ability to question blind authority is surely the most important trait of a healthy society so it’s sobering to learn this happened in America, the so-called land of the free and home, we’re told, of the fully atomised human being. Zobel’s drama isn’t perfect, a few scenes are dreamt up to try help explain the seemingly inexplicable, but amateur psychology aside, the movie has an unquestionable power, thanks to fine playing from all the principles and the sheer, jaw-dropping insanity of what we’re witnessing. Canny in showing how, under certain conditions, even good people can rationalise highly immoral behaviour, Compliance is a vital watch: a movie that will make you wonder what you’re capable of.

12 Years A Slave: Steve McQueen’s chronicle of kidnap and enforced servitude might be thought of as his Schindler’s List; an exploration of ancestral injustice; but that would underselling it: it’s better than Spielberg’s holocaust chronicle. There’s no intrusive sentiment, no girl in a red dress here, or indeed, cathartic ending, just a dispassionate and perfectly performed document that explores the nuances of the slave/master relationship with a precision and critical distance that few other films on the subject have ever matched. Human nature doesn’t snap to fit a social system, unjust or otherwise. The strength of McQueen’s film, as one would expect from an artist, is showing the gradations: Michael Fassbender’s simmering sexual attraction toward his best slave, Benedict Cumberbatch’s sympathetic master, though not sympathetic enough to buck the system, a slave that’s gratefully released into his old master’s care like a pet bounding up to a kindly owner, and the derision heaped on those born into slavery from those blacks who’ve been shanghaied by predatory whites. Yes it’s worthy, how could it be otherwise? But when history’s brought to life with this keen an eye and an appreciation for unpalatable truths, it’s more than earned its place in the pantheon of essential movies.

Honourable mention: A Field in England: “Open up and let the Devil in!” demands a terrifying Michael Smiley and who’s going to argue? Ben Wheatley’s 17th century group hallucination may be too opaque to be truly satisfying but it’s still a bold and imaginative conflation of form and content in the Nic Roeg tradition. What would civil war era ideas and superstition look like refracted though the prism of magic mushrooms? If you’ve never asked yourself that question, shame on you, but Wheatley’s film does and the result is something unsettling, vivid and unashamedly cinematic: a film that combines great photography, eerie sound design and a playful score to great, mind-mashing effect. One of the year’s best.

Also see: Prisoners, Don Jon, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, No One Lives, Nebraska, The Paperboy, Trance.

The Five Worst Movies of 2013, bar none (in no order of demerit):

Click on titles for original reviews where available:

Star Trek Into Darkness: The warning signs had been there in the 2009 reboot but J.J Abrams’ obnoxious Trek sequel was a $190m unravelling of everything that used to make the long running franchise the thinking man’s alternative to Star Wars and its numerous dim-witted action adventure clones. In place of intelligence, moral conundrums and philosophical musings on the place of humanity in the universal firmament, we were offered yet another half-baked Wrath of Khan remake in which Peter Weller tried to protect the federation by provoking a war with the military superpower on its doorstep, while a villain whose nationality and ethnicity had been mystifyingly changed by a timeline altered 300 years after his birth, hid his men in torpedo tubes. Kirk died instead of Spock but came back using superhuman blood, Spock dropped out of character to become a street brawler, beating a grateful Benedict Cumberbatch to unconsciousness and Scotty casually killed a man and barely noticed. It was, in short, the biggest insult to Trek’s loyal fans since Patrick Stewart machine-gunned a holodeck full of Borg. At least one of the imbecilic crayon fumbling fanboys responsible for this expensive piece of funt fiction, representing that small corner of Trekdom that believes that the problem with Star Trek is that it’s never been violent or dumb enough, will return to “write” the next film, scheduled for the original show’s fiftieth anniversary. Abrams at least will be tied up with Star Wars, the movie he thought he was making here, which means the only thing that can save this latest iteration of Trek is a modern day Nicholas Meyer – someone who can take over everything, employ some cast-iron fundamentals and restore some lustre to a neglected alpha quadrant. What hope?

Big Bad Wolves: Sheep disguised as critics fell over their hooves to praise this Israeli black comedy that would mine laughs from the once tricky subject of child rape and murder. It’s wonderful, they bleated, how the filmmakers made such a witty and refreshing comment on the country’s culture of perpetual retribution in the name of slain kin, hatred passed from father to son, finished film to audience. Yes, this was a deeply affecting piece of satire, charting a bereaved father’s quest to capture and torture the man he thinks responsible for the violation and death of his young daughter. It’s only problem, noted The Ooh Tray, was that it was one of the worst comedies ever made: a film with a tin ear for tone and a total lack of understanding about what constitutes an effective joke in a difficult context. A film that clumsily lurches from bleak thriller to piss-poor Tarantino baiting Reservoir Dogs tribute act, ends up telling us one important thing about Israeli culture: namely that decades of war have warped the comic faculty of its filmmakers, desensitising them to the distinction between wit and jaw-dropping flippancy. It’s not the subject matter that offends, rather the glib and empty treatment offered, in which sadistic violence and the absence of anything approaching nuance or pathos leaves us with a movie that thinks bad taste is enough. It isn’t. One of those rare emperor’s new clothes pictures that has nothing to say for itself but tells you plenty about the people that roared with laughter throughout and praised it to the hilt in the hours that followed, while those of us not suffering from low level mental illness were busy in the shower, trying to wash away the memory.

A Good Day to Die Hard: “Yippee Kai-Yay, Mother Russia” read the tag to this fifth Die Hard. Little could patrons know that this was as good as it got for a sequel that’s only virtue was its inconsequential bent: a film so generic and lifeless that no one, bar the poor bastards whose job it was to review it, would ever recall a single thing about it. A special mention must go to its star and fuckwit-in-chief, Bruce Willis, a man who chose to desecrate his signature role and sully the memory of the classic action movie that made him, by signing off on a wretched, cliché driven script and a director whose only resemblance to original director John McTiernan is a Christian name. It’s ironic it should have been released on Valentine’s Day as it proceeded to break hearts with its hurried plot, mindless action and drool inducing, straight-to-DVD screenplay. It was set in Moscow, simply to appeal to the country’s undemanding moviegoers, but make no mistake, they would have been as bored as everyone else. Willis has threatened a concluding instalment but given how little respect he’s shown for the part here, and the lack of quality control on this production, a sixth film would be tempting fate the way a gun fired five times makes any game of roulette a bad bet. Less, “welcome to the party, pal”, more “I’m sorry, everyone else has gone home, you’ll have to mop up the vomit.”

Kick-Ass 2: The original Kick-Ass was a stylish and occasionally well observed movie about comic book culture and the dangers of confusing those worlds with our own, not least because you may get your ass kicked. The sequel is a superficial reprise in which the social commentary is pared back, that is to say removed, by a writer/director who didn’t really understand it the first time around, leaving just the vitriol and the violence. The result is a brutally ugly, witless movie that’s content to be cruel rather than considered and crude rather than comic. It makes foul mouthed and callous pricks of the first film’s more nuanced characters and manages to be both profoundly charmless and generically shot and edited. In short, because even thinking about it makes life seem empty and meaningless, it’s a prize exemplar of a highly talented director and screenwriter, in this case Matthew Vaughn and Jane “the tits” Goldman, who understand tone as well as visual flair, bequeathing a property to a simpleton who understands neither. A terrible movie that rightly bombed at the box office, we can but hope that part 3 remains an abstraction, just as this sequel should have.

Pain and Gain: Abandon all hope all ye who treat themselves to a screening of Michael Bay’s true crime story, that innovatively tells the tale employing the same fascist bent as its principle antagonists. In adding gloss to the story of bodybuilders Daniel Lugo and Paul Doyle, who blunder their way through extortion and murder with all the imagination and savvy you’d expect from two weight lifting meatheads, Bay was apparently unaware that the duo’s worldview, privileging physical and aesthetic perfection above all else and showing a casual, borderline sociopathic indifference to human life, may be considered immoral by the standards of ticket buyers. For Bay this is a celebration of an outlook he can get behind. Sure, his characters are idiots, but that’s not going to stop him from mocking the fat and ugly, adding bad taste comic shenanigans to his depiction of men playing with the corpses of real world victims, and employing his usual broad, “fucking the frame” mentality to the movie’s visual schema. In short this is true crime as reimagined by a child who throws stones at cats and attacks the girls at school, calling them “a bitch” when they won’t let him touch their Bermuda Triangle. Why is such a man given the opportunity to express himself at your local cinema, you may ask? Pain and Gain provides no answers.

Dishonourable mention: Run for Your Wife: A shocker that’s ostensive good nature meant it just narrowly missed the top five. Ray Cooney’s 1983 farce, that would have looked dated even then, mystifyingly became a 2013 movie, and not just a movie, but a thankful reminder that most of the “whoops, there goes my trousers” seaside toss enjoyed by undemanding adults in the age before political correctness allegedly ruined everything, was just as bad as we thought it was. If the Carry Ons and Perry and Croft sitcoms endure it’s because they had great comic actors, who understood that timing and delivery were everything when all you had to work with were stereotypes and puns. Run for Your Wife has Danny Dyer and Neil Morrissey, who collectively are about as funny as a cancer diagnosis in each testicle, caught in a thankless set up in which Dyer plays a bigamist who spends the entire running time trying to keep his two wives apart when a bang on the head threatens to expose his double life. Made for “the old codgers” according to Danny, a man who really knows how to charm his audience, the movie’s archaic view of men and women, the latter being simple-minded, flapping foils, might have been enough to dissuade its backers from making it, but the only thing worse than a ‘70’s throwback is a ‘70’s throwback that isn’t funny. It may be a mere 95 minutes but Cooney can’t manage a single joke in that modest running time. Sitting on chocolate cake, being hit over the head and getting your arse stuck in the floor is thought to be good enough, but curious ghouls, seeking this notorious bomb out online, won’t agree, especially when forced to sit through Morrissey’s excruciating “dick and fanny” conversation. Richard Briers, who has a cameo, along with every other British actor of the last 40 years, died 2 days after it was released. Seeing the finished film killed him. The Ooh Tray would like to be the first to call for Ray Cooney’s indictment for murder. That alone may prevent the threatened sequel, Caught in the Net, ever seeing the light of day.

Also don’t see: Texas Chainsaw 3D, Odd Thomas, Diana, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Playing for Keeps, Vendetta.

Now go to page 3 for the 2nd Annual Whitfield Awards!

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2 Responses

  1. tim earnshaw says:

    Don’t get too depressed by the standard of 2013 movies, Ed. It’s not just movies – the emptiness, the seen-it-all-before-ness is culture-wide. Big money whipping up excitement for product that’s past it’s sell-by before it hits the shelves. Music, books, possibly games (I wouldn’t know), art (does that happen any more?) – it’s all been mediocre at best, a desperate grinding of the gears for its own sake. We’re dumbed down so far it looks like up to us. There – feel better now? Happy New Year!