January was another predictably massive month for me in terms of film numbers. Some of these you will have already seen in my top and bottom films of 2013 lists. But there is plenty of other really good (and terrible) stuff in here as well. Apologies this is much later than usual. Have had my old man around doing some work on the house and also, it took me a while to write so many freaking reviews. Be sure to let me know what you agree and disagree with in the comments section below.
- As I Lay Dying (2013) James Franco – Even though his films are barely ever seen by anyone, I like Franco as a director. This is really interesting visually, use of split and half screens throughout. Really like how it looks. The film nails the rural, pastoralist tone. The performances are mostly good – Franco, Danny McBride in a small role, Jim Parrack, Ahna O’Reilly and Logan Marshall-Green all excel. Only Tim Blake Nelson with a distracting turn lets the team down. Overall, despite not setting up the abrupt change in one character at all, this is really well made and definitely unsettling (as it should be).
- Welcome to the Punch (2013), Eran Creevy – There is probably no better screen bad guy around than Mark Strong. This is a really good, solid cops and robbers flick. James Macavoy who I don’t always love is good in this too. Nice to see a genre film willing to have complex characters on both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Whatsmore, without jeopardising all of the killing and snappy crime film dialogue, the film also really examines these notions of criminality and ‘goodness’.
- The World’s End (2013), Edgar Wright – I perhaps did not have the same level of anticipation for this as most. This is a comedy about yearning for something that had long since past… oh and aliens. It also shows that Simon Pegg has some real drama chops, as his is the character that opens up all of these concepts around destiny and how to cope with an ordinary life. The film is charming and funny, perhaps a little less so initially when the aliens are brought in. But the over the top action set pieces that involve them turn into one of the film’s chief joys.
- Antiviral (2012), Brandon Cronenberg – From the very get-go this is all about the creeping, sterile imagery. A near future where people pay to be infected with viruses of famous people, including STDs. I am a massive fan of Caleb Landry Jones who stars in this and who is I think the most promising young actor I’ve seen for the last couple of years. Whilst the script gets a little wordy making its points, this is a good slow burn film. A really impressive combination of body horror and sci-fi with one major criticism – way too many needles.
- Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), Takashi Miike – Never know what you are going to get with Miike and this is another surprising entry into his filmography. It’s not as action packed as many a samurai film, preferring to examine ideas of honour and the place of ritual within that life. After a slow start it settles into a nice gentle rhythm with some heartbreaking plot points. Ebizo Ichikawa gives a heartbreaking, knockout performance in the main role.
- Gangster Squad (2013), Ruben Fleischer – I was quite a fan of the visual style of this which really emphasised the LA setting. It’s all very neo-noir with shadows and sharp edges everywhere. It is not the most original gangster flick, but the cast are mainly good with Gosling and Brolin making a crack double act. This helps to make the film watchable, given the rest of the film, especially the undercooked script, is pretty slight. Watchable enough though.
- The Crash Reel (2013), Lucy Walker – This doco focuses on Kevin Pearce, a snowboard hopeful for the 2010 Winter Olympics who suffers a major head trauma in training. Concussion and serious head injuries are a major issue in many sports today and this film uses one athlete’s story to show just how seriously the issue should be taken. The aftermath of his injury is pretty confronting, as is the arduous emotional journey that it causes his family to go through. It is always a good sign when a doco is prepared to show its subject flaws and all (in this case a selfish obsession to compete again), and that helps to make the film all the more powerful.
- Anchorman 2 (2013), Adam McKay – Most of the plot and best jokes in this film are recycled wholesale from the first film. But with the talent involved, there is no reason that cannot be hilarious – see the news team brawl iteration #2. Large swathes of the film miss completely though. The jokes about Ron’s African American boss for example fail. It hits just enough though and when it hits, it is inspiringly good.
- Epic (2013), Chris Wedge – It is refreshing to see an animated film with interesting and adult ideas about biodiversity. And these manage to be addressed throughout the film, even as they become more buried underneath a cliché storyline. Some cool use of colour, not just bright as well, there are some blacks and greys in there too. It’s not innovative, but in the end it is good enough. It helps that I am a sucker for a cute animal sidekick and a three legged old pug is as cute as it comes.
- A Hijacking (2012), Tobias Lindholm – Moreso than the more famous hijacking film of recent times, this gives a window into a world we all rely on but never really consider. I absolutely love the focus on head office. Showing the business side of things and the high stakes negotiations that are going on. Really interesting. I think the approach from two angles is a real point of difference for the film. Plus, it manages a really satisfying ending.
- Frozen (2013), Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee – I think it is clear that Disney are making better films than Pixar at the moment. An early love story is weak, but it builds and the main narrative about a young woman who cannot control her incredible power is satisfying. All of this is on the backdrop of some excellent, fantastical world building. My one quibble is that I was not a fan of the songs. They were annoying and too frequent.
- Philomena (2013), Stephen Frears – An exceptional film and was pretty close to my top 10 for last year. Coogan and Dench have the most wonderful chemistry. Props to Coogan as well for writing a script that balances the humour that comes from this ‘buddy’ relationship with the devastating, based on fact story. This approach elevates material which may have otherwise have been unbearably bleak. The film manages to tell at lease three nuanced and engaging character arcs which is no mean feat.
- Amour (2012), Michael Haneke – More than a little reminiscent of Umberto D (1952) this is a film about what it means to be old and how that feels on a daily basis. The breakdown of the human form, both physically and mentally is difficult to witness and it is on frank display here. The two leads Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give very real, very nuanced performances. As well as all that, this is a film about how love remains and how it is remembered long after everything else is gone. Haneke is a director assured enough to not feel the need to force or overstate emotion. He knows the emotion is intrinsic to his material.
- The Human Scale (2012), Andreas Dalsgaard – I never knew a doco about architectural theory could be so interesting. The film explores ideas related to how you measure, and improve, the happiness of an entire city. The role and preference for, the car is a central theme. It is incredible how opening up the city for human, on foot interaction can make such a difference. Would be great to see the reclaiming of public space ideas espoused here take off. An interesting watch if you can get your hands on it.
- Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), Kenneth Branagh – Wow, what a fun throwback spy film. Has all the elements – a ticking time bomb at the end, the Russians are the baddies, the CIA, covert meetings in a cinema and so on. Driven along at a good pace by cracking performances from Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Chris Pine and Kenneth Branagh. Branagh, also on directorial duties, has done away with unnecessary exposition and plot twists which results in a refreshingly zippy running time of well under two hours.
- Thieves’ Highway (1949), Jules Dassin – For a Dassin film this starts off strangely and off-puttingly melodramatic. What begins as a revenge thriller evolves into a strange love story of sorts. Gets by thanks to some good performances and sharp editing. There is also some really good tension created. Not Dassin’s best but there is no shame in that.
- Her (2013), Spike Jonze – I liked this a whole lot more than I was expecting. There is so much that really should not work, but thanks mainly to the screenplay, it really does. The performances are really great. Phoenix deserves all the plaudits he is getting and if those responsible for dishing out awards wanted to be bold for once, Johansson would be cleaning up too. A great film that manages to be a sexy smart sci-fi laugh out loud comedy about a man falling in love with an operating system. Quite the subgenre.
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Ben Stiller – Filled to the brim with rare originality for a big studio release. A couple of lapses in tone but aside from that tis assured direction from Stiller. I love the journey of the main character, from someone who must daydream to a guy who lives his dreams. And it does it without being too cliché. Balances a bunch of different worlds very well. Stiller, Penn and especially Kristen Wiig are all really good.
- Silver Linings Playbook (2012), David O. Russell – Bradley Cooper is exceptional at a guy struggling with mental illness and I think the depiction of mental illness is vastly better in this film than most. There are moments of very funny comedy mixed in with the heartfelt. So well performed, Lawrence is wonderful and it is nice to see Chris Tucker in something that isn’t a Rush Hour film. A very good non-traditional love story that examines the place of things like dance and football in life.
- The Conjuring (2013), James Wan – Without a doubt one of the scariest films I have ever seen. Wan is so good at atmosphere and this is terrifying from minute one. An old school haunted house set-up with doors creaking open and things going bump in the night. Wan has that rare ability to both pay homage to, and update genre tropes in the same film. The young female cast are all really good in this too.
- We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), Alex Gibney – Gibney once again shows that he is probably the cleverest doco maker around these days. This is a worthy examination of the propaganda war that swirls around Julian Assange and Wikileaks. It delves into the Chelsea Manning aspect of things, which is interesting, but I can’t help feel that the film would have been better served focusing just on the Assange side of things. Very interesting insights throughout though, especially on the differing ethical worldviews of journalists and hackers. It also looks at how Assange’s personal flaws have really hurt his website in the propaganda war. The film does lose its veneer of objectivity at times and I found the treatment of Manning by the film problematic. But it is still a worthy entry into Gibney’s filmography.
- West of Memphis (2012), Amy Berg – The West Memphis Three, victims of the most infamous case of wrongful imprisonment in America’s history are the focus of this exceptional Peter Jackson produced doco. It starts off focusing on the victims, which is good because they are often forgotten in this kind of film. If you need yet another illustration of how those in power despicably manipulate, look no further. The emotion of horrific crimes breeds misjudgement, both consciously and unconsciously. This is a bleak but important film. I do warn you though, some of the footage is quite confronting.
Not Worth Watching:
- Trance (2013), Danny Boyle – This didn’t make the usual dent in filmgoer consciousness that Boyle films do. Can kind of see why as well. A clumsy setup for a twisty heist film. Once Rosario Dawson’s hypnotist arrives things do get a little interesting, mainly because she is the only character that is at all interestingly written. The occasionally fascinating character motivations and psychology were not enough to make me buy into this silly film.
- Frances Ha (2012), Noah Baumbach – This is much hyped. It has gone straight to Criterion I believe. For me, it was just covering the same material as Lena Dunham’s work, without any of her charm or humour. The characters are annoying, not helped by the forced performances whilst the dialogue veers into eye rolling territory far too frequently. Mind numbing and very difficult to actually bother finishing.
- Conan the Barbarian (1982), John Milius – Arnie is a terrible actor and this may be his worst performance of all. The entire film is almost comically bad taking place in the most 80s looking middle ages ever. Almost worth watching to laugh at some of the choices they have made. James Earl Jones wears what is comfortably the worst wig I have ever seen. Possibly the only script to ever have negative character development too. Unfortunately there are some interesting themes about the nature of violence, but they are totally buried under the much.
- Stoker (2013), Chan-Wook Park – Taking cues from Terrence Malick, this is real arty n shit. I am a massive Mia Wasikowska fan. I think she is a major talent who can convey a lot without words. Some of the high style and performances were good. But I didn’t really get anything they were going for here. The usually excellent Matthew Goode is poor, mainly because of how he is being asked to play it. They are going for tonal and atmospheric but it fell flat for me, with holes in logic and a woeful last 30ish minutes. I also think the connections with Hitch’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) are fairly overstated.
- Only God Forgives (2013), Nicolas Winding Refn – I absolutely hated the most divisive film of last year. Unlike the brilliant Drive (2011), there is nothing here to sink your teeth into. Rather, it just feels like Winding Refn is trying too hard, whereas his last effort seemed so natural. A nasty film, irredeemably so. Drive achieves everything this film is aiming for so much better.
- Side Effects (2013), Steven Soderbergh – This has it’s moments. Rooney Mara is really good and it effectively nails the patter of real life early on. But it flushes that away with a repeated jarring of believability. It switches very abruptly from drama to thriller and fails totally to set up its grand conspiracy ending. Mainly because by the time they get around to it, you are far past caring.
- Pain and Gain (2013), Michael Bay – Michael Bay… lol. This has an absurd script and tone for something based on fact. The Rock is the most charismatic action guy in the biz tody, but he is crippled in this by his character’s garbage back-story. Bay peppers his film with a lot of racism and misogyny and feels that it is appropriate to laugh at things we really shouldn’t. There is absolutely no one to root for in this overlong, tiresome and just plain terrible film. It seems no matter what he is trying to do, Bay cannot escape his crassness.
- American Hustle (2013), David O. Russell – A massive disappointment. Nothing really happens. Yeah the performances are decent underneath the silly hairdos, with Lawrence far and away the pick of them. But I was totally uninvested in both the characters and the story. Something about the design was a bit silly for me. Big let down after O’Russell’s wonderful previous effort. Having a screenplay that felt half finished doesn’t help.
- Anna Karenina (2012), Joe Wright – The interesting stylisation worked for me initially. The story was not that arresting though, but I’m not sure if that is the source’s fault. The staid nature of proceedings made it hard for me to invest emotionally. Anna is a strange character, simultaneously sympathetic and not. And I don’t think the film came to grips with that at all. Maybe it is not possible. When a subplot (that of Kostya and Kitty) is more interesting than the main story, you have issues.
If you only have time to watch one Her
Avoid at all costs Only God Forgives