December is traditionally one of my busier months in terms of watching as many recentish releases as possible, in anticipation of writing year end lists. A few early commitments meant it was a slow start, but in the end I saw a whole lot, a vast majority of which is worth checking out. Except for that one, lonely, crappy film not worth watching.
- Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Ridley Scott – There is a throwback sensibility to the scale of this film, which really does feel like a 50s biblical epic. The film certainly has issues: it’s too long, the pacing is out of whack and a lot of the symbolism clunks. But seeing momentous moments such as the plagues and parting of the red sea realised so grandly makes up for all that and at times wows. There are some good performances too, in particular from Joel Edgerton. Though the inclusion of kiddie God, whilst interesting from a theological and thematic perspective, doesn’t work on a narrative level.
- Nightcrawler (2014), Dan Gilroy – This is a very good film, though I think I like it less than most. Sets up a bleak cityscape and desperate economic times leanly at the start. But the first act is slow and never enraptures. Slowly though it reveals the character of Lou Bloom and the film builds as his character does. And the film is always more about his character rather than a focus on plot. Gyllenhaal is excellent as is Riz Ahmed as his offsider. I did find the treatment of the character played by Rene Russo pretty problematic, her actions at a number of points are hard to buy. A disappointingly drawn character in my view.
- They Came Together (2014), David Wain – Very self knowing and exceedingly silly. A combination that is endearing at first and more or less stays that way throughout. It is impossible not to love Amy Poehler and the material seems well suited to Paul Rudd. It’s not hugely original, but it is very funny and the casting right down to the minor roles is excellent. A really good comedy cast actually. Plus it has the best Michael Shannon cameo ever.
- The Purge: Anarchy (2014), James DeMonaco – This is a much more satisfying film than the first, which excelled only in fumbling a great premise. The action takes place in a very interesting near-utopia (for 364 days a year anyway), where the class divides of today are even worse. The broader, societal view taken in this film makes up for the shortcomings of the narrative and action. Smart casting (e.g. Frank Grillo), thematic commentary and genuine tension at times make this one of the better horror flicks of last year.
- Next Goal Wins (2014), Mike Brett & Steve Jamison – To follow what is literally the worst football side in the world is a wonderful idea for a doco. At times, particularly when focusing on the first trans player to play in a World Cup qualifier, the film rises above its premise. It is so interesting to see the natural acceptance of her in a Samoan context, especially when contrasted with how trans people are treated in the ‘west’. The team is a bunch of incredible characters and their faith and heart makes them a very welcome change from today’s world of heightened (and soulless) professionalism. By the end, you will be totally invested in the result and engaged by the ‘arc’ of the new coach at the helm.
- Child of God (2013), James Franco – He cops a lot of flack, but I like Franco as a director. His films show him to be an intriguing adapter of classic texts, here Cormac McCarthy. Scott Haze brings a raw, animalistic and unsettling presence to the main character. This is a very challenging film. Both necrophilia and seeing a man take a dump feature. Franco is also a lean, sparse filmmaker which slows the experience. But it always feels like he is out to challenge rather than repulse. A very different horror film – exploring the way that total ostracisation from society can result in a decent into madness.
- Paddington (2014), Paul King – Simple, classic storytelling done with a little stylistic flourish often goes a long way, as it does here. I love Sally Hawkins’ performance. Such a charm to her onscreen. The two kids are really good and the CGI bear is integrated seamlessly. Love that the villain is an evil taxidermist from the Natural History Museum. That’s dark. But can we put a ban on scenes where a man reluctantly dresses in drag and is then hit on by an unsuspecting male. So tired.
- Pride (2013), Matthew Warchus – This is a fun and quite powerful film about intersectionality as well as the importance of the union movement. It’s also a piece of gay history that it is great to see reaching a wide audience. It weaves in a lot: the arc of a young man coming out; emergence of the AIDS virus and problems and fissures inherent in all protest & social justice movements. But it never for a second feels like you’re being lectured to.
- American Juggalo (2011), Sean Dunne – Wow, what a subculture! Like with all of them, or religions, they attract followers for very different reasons and people take very different things from them. A lot of beauty to what is taking place, so much of it is about acceptance and accepting people no matter what they’re into. Hell of a lot of abuse though. Definitely a seam of misogyny running through it, but perhaps no more than in society more general. You can watch the film on Vimeo here.
- Orphan Black Season 1 (2013), John Fawcett & Graeme Manson – This is highly stylised both in terms of plot and style. I like how the main character in this is a total fish out of water, rather than the usual perfect super spy. There are some initial teething problems. It’s a little pedestrian early on and there are some logic issues. But that doesn’t last long and this is a pretty original piece of television. It is an awesomely bonkers premise that just keeps growing outwards. The different performances from Tatiana Maslany are bloody impressive.
- The Drop (2014), Michael Roskam – Liked this one quite a lot. Has the inner city focus that distinguishes a lot of Lehane’s best work. Didn’t love the fact it felt it needed a twist in the end. Overall though I love the specific world. Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace and a cuteass dog don’t hurt either. Also like the relatively small, confined story. Not everything needs to be grand and this film recognises that.
- Orphan Black Season 2 (2014), John Fawcett & Graeme Manson – Even better than season 1. This really ups everything – the conspiracy, the action and the complexity. Maslany inhabits her roles so completely, you actually forget they are all played by the same person. As well as continuing to expand the story out and out, this also examines in greater depth the questions of identity this clone tale is ripe for. The best aspect of this comes through the introduction of a trans character. It’s an admirably diverse show. The finale, whilst not totally landing, sets up a hell of an intriguing season 3.
Not Worth Watching:
- Horrible Bosses 2 (2014), Sean Anders – I mean it’s not horrible. But it’s not particularly good either. There is the occasional laugh to be had and the cast is pretty solid – with the exception of the usually decent Sudekis who doesn’t bring a whole lot here. But the main issue is the (lack of) story and the seeming lack of effort overall. It’s really just comedy sequel 101 with no distinguishing factors.
If you only have time to watch one Pride
Avoid at all costs Horrible Bosses 2