It’s that time of year again wherein I will be on full-on blitz to try and cram as many eligible viewings at the end of the year as I possibly can. Anything I see from here until 12/31 will have at least some mention here be it a short “capsule” review or a link to a fuller post. This post will update daily.
Enjoy the dash. Lists and awards to follow.
The shortlists will be announced on 12/24/2013 but viewings from that day to 12/31 are still eligible.
Nominees will be announced on 1/2/2014.
Winners on 1/9/2014.
To see what my ratings mean go here.
The Book Thief
The World’s End
This film came as a great surprise and, once again, is a case of knowing very little about it going in. Based on the commercials you knew the basic premise: an elderly woman seeks to discover the fate of the child she put up for adoption 50 years prior. It plays it up like it’s going to be all giggles and a heartwarming “human interest story” as Steve Coogan’s character would’ve derisively put it at the beginning of the film. But much like that journalist we are treated to, yes, some laughs, quite a few surprises (both good an bad) and some tears. The film has some touches to it like its montages of home video that foreshadow the child’s life being learned about and the weaving through time Philomena’s memory occasionally does. Judi Dench is positively marvelous, as is Steve Coogan who plays against type and wore many hats to help make this film happen.
I actually saw this film for the first time before this post went up. I saw it a second time during the Year-End Dash therefore I just wanted that noted and to state that Frozen is, no matter how you slice it, one of the best Disney films in years. I will elaborate more further down the line.
If you’ll forgive the simplistic analogy the way I can best express my feelings and thoughts about this film are via comparison to an analogous title. This film tells the tale of a woman going on a vacation in an alpine cabin who suddenly finds herself surrounded and isolated by an invisible barrier, a wall. In that regard it reminds me of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, more so the book than what I saw of the series. Therefore, it’s a tale not so much about the how and why but what occurs under the “dome,” or inside the wall while it’s up. There’s much exploratory voice over, nearly incessant amounts and not much by way of findings in the report that is being written; subtly surreal additions and interactions with new animals that through a lot of inner-monologue reveal less than something like Bestiaire. A well-acted and shot narrative, but not a very compelling one.
This is another case of my having seen a remake prior to the original. I attempted to watch the original once but Netflix had a very weird audio glitch that made it impossible to progress past the thirty minute mark. In that version I was marginally engaged at that point and things were starting to pick up. Here the film dives in headfirst taking much POV, a lot of talking to himself. This in a similar but far more intriguing and artfully shot way we’re in the mind of this madman. That and due to the way Elijah Wood portrays Frank there’s a disconcerting sense of understanding if not empathy that makes it a far more engaging tale. The score is a hypnotic as the images are lush and the film has a fairly good thrust as it scales through anonymous victims building a protagonist slowly on the side.
Only God Forgives
The fairly quick reaction here is that after many months and many reactions heard I was glad to come in fairly down the middle on this film. I understand but don’t agree with the frustrated, negative reviews, and if I take a look at the good ones I’m sure I’d center myself anew. This is a film that is unquestionably beautifully shot, and based on Drive unquestionably Winding Refn just not in as engaging and universally palatable way. One needs to be prepared for the violence, but I didn’t find it to be excessively out of place based on the narrative.
The Kings of Summer
The Kings of Summer has within it some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen all year, but also within it there is some great truth. In a new wave we’re seeing of insightful coming-of-age-dramas, or at least the element in films; this is a parents on the side story. What’s refreshing is that in a film where the kids voluntarily run off for a better part of the summer the parent-child conflicts are fairly normal and the exploration of character is first and foremost in the lead characters (excellently played by Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias) and their dynamic. It’s a very related unsentimental film that is very much worth discovering.
Headlong (a.k.a Corps perdu)
Typically in January when the release calendar is light of things really worth taking too long and hard a look at I get to browsing the IMDb for upcoming releases from the previous year’s standouts. That’s how I came to learn of the existence of this short film which stars Young Actor nominee Jelle Florizoone and co-stars Thomas Coumans, who worked with him in North Sea Texas.
Now being a short of about 17 minute I don’t want to discuss it too closely, but I can share two thoughts; one of my own and one from the film’s director. My biggest takeaway from Headlong is that it’s a lovely portrait not just of a fleeting encounter, but also of how a souvenir earns significance in a person’s life. The second is from the film’s director, Lukas Dhont, in an interview:
The main thing I tried was to make a film that could be interpreted as a love story but just as easily as something else. This tension between characters and openness in interpretation is the thing I’m still most happy with. I don’t really like gay shorts that evolve just around the gay eroticism.
I heard of this film quite some time ago as it featured prominently on My Radar. I recorded the CNN airing a while ago but was reticent to watch it. In the end I’m glad I did. There are a few graphic and disturbing images but the takeaway from the film is far more profound than that. The scariest, most stomach-turning thing is the pervasiveness of lies documented that Sea World spews as facts. Lies that I as a child believed to be true and still recalled learning there. What this film shows is not only that these massive mammals are smarter and more complex that we can yet understand, but also that there are dangers inherent to the people who attempt to keep them in captivity as glorified circus performers.
This is a film with a lot of good ideas aside from just the basic premise of being able to access people’s memories. The issues are mainly that all the kinks aren’t ironed out yet and the film’s reach exceeds its grasp in terms of production value. I staunchly avoid discussing budget most of the time. Budget does not dictate quality, unless you’re doing something outside the reality of your allowance. This film falls into that realm on occasion but it is clever and resourceful enough most of the time to avoid those issues, it’s really the finer points being corrected that would’ve brought it up some. It’s an entertaining enough watch, but doesn’t follow through on its promise.
In The House
This film deals with a fascinating premise of what occurs when a high school student is seemingly drawing from real-life experience about his insinuating himself in another family, and what his French teacher, a frustrated writer, does or does not do to encourage his talent. I sat with this film for a while because I knew I greatly enjoyed it. I loved it for most of the way through, however, I didn’t know how much I liked it in the end mostly because of how it concluded. A lot of that decision to me boiled down to how well I felt the film followed its self-prescribed rule about endings. I concluded that I think it did well. Essentially, you have to keep in mind that there’s a very self-aware narrative being told. There are times when the story may seem a little lost, but, of course, Germain, the teacher, says that very thing to Claude often. And who is molding the narrative ultimately but him? Sure, we’re not always witnessing a dramatization of his writing, but it tends to revolve around him, and he is manipulating those around him in one way or another. The film writes Claude intelligently and he’s acted deftly by Ernst Umhauer such that he’s an interesting character, one that you could at least understand may have a way of wrapping people around his finger, even if you don’t particularly care for him you’re engaged.
On the strength of a majority of the film, and my reconsideration of the end I give it 8/10; your take may have you rate it higher or lower, but it is worth seeing and judging for yourself.
It’s rather poetic justice that in a year when the old guard of the action film, namely Stallone and Schwarzenegger, would have some hard times opening films like they once did; or just providing serviceable action vehicles, that it would be Jason Statham in a script adapted by Stallone that would be in a film I could really get behind. It’s almost a symbolic passing of the torch. Statham has been around for a bit, and I’ve been tough on him; action stars need not be thespians but the films I’d seen were also not that great. This one, if you can get past a silly wig and a fairly clichéd set-up, delivers the goods. There’s of course the family man angle that helps give it some emotional pull. The fact that young Izabela Vidovic is fantastic and that Statham interacts well with her helps. However, another boon is that the inciting incident leads the aggrieved sister to call on her brother Gator (James Franco) who becomes the antagonist. He’s a really great in this film because there are a few facets to him, and his performance is magnetic, locked-in. All the build, even things that don’t seem like they’ll matter, follow through and the finale is really exciting. I tweeted that it may make a Statham fan of me, see his unseen projects, and just maybe revisit some. The first may happen if he has more upcoming like this because this movie really works and put him in a position to succeed.
I first mentioned Spring Breakers on my site when I wrote a post about a Facebook actor game I partook in. This was my selection as a film of James Franco’s I’d not seen but wanted to I believe. And sure enough when the Dash started it was a fairly high priority.
Oddly enough after so long, and hearing so many things and, I was pleased by the film in some ways and terribly annoyed by it in other ways. Most were ways in which I was not expecting. Sure enough it’s not completely exploitative and devoid of any content. However, there’s a tremendous miscalculation inasmuch as it feels like that without fragmenting scenes, excess of montage and repetitive dialogue either spoken onscreen and in voice over, there would not be a feature film here. However, even omitting that and taking the film as is making more aesthetic statements than societal ones. The score and the montage do have an effect of washing over you, which would be nice if not for the incessant earworms: “This is not what I signed up for.” “I want to go home.” “Look at all my shit!” “Spring break fo’ever.”
Berberian Sound Studio
I can’t say that there’s not a spark of creativity and ingenuity in the concept of this film and with some of the shots. There is a metamorphosis, however, it’s one you have to wait for and sit through many of the same kinds of scenes over and over again. In fact, I’m surprised I even saw it because I had quite nearly given up on the film. Even granting it that, after so much ennui, that payoff, too, failed, and angered me. It’s a film that quite honestly barely ever progresses past its initial concept, and when it does, does too little with it.
This film plays the part of a thriller well and even includes some intriguing professional ethics conundrums. It’s well acted and well-shot. Where it implodes for me, at least in the largest and most disastrous way, is in the motivation of one of the characters. The plot that’s weaved is a bit hard to swallow to begin with, assuming you stick it out past that point, the film delves into the why such an orchestration occurs and comes up with an idea so sophomoric that it reads like something rejected as a mid-’90s Joe Eszterhas/Sharon Stone project.
On this day I also revisited Broken. You can see my thoughts on it here.
I will say that this is a film that requires just a touch of stick-to-it-ness. It builds a worlds of these siblings first, one where their parents seem to be at least on the periphery, if not absent altogether. It fractures chronology and starts the kids making up a story that you know will reflect on their life just not how. Then the parents are introduced, how they interact with the kids, then what’s beneath the facade it takes a bit. However, the film would have lesser or no impact, and would be cheap, underdeveloped melodrama otherwise.
The performances by parents and kids alike are quite strong and its a great chamber drama worth searching out.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
When I discussed The Hobbit last year I spent a few too many words on the High Frame Rate because it was new. This time around suffice it to say I found the experience a bit better, however, still awkward at times. I don’t know if skipping on IMAX and sitting closer to the screen played a factor but it may have.
There’s an impressive thing that this one does is that even at quite close to three hours it does leave you wanting to continue. Sure, that has to do with where the “cliff” drops off, but no one was happy when The Devil Inside ended (save for the fact that it was finally over). There’s less filler here, which the first had a bit of but this one is unquestionably better, even to someone like myself who happened to like the first one just fine, and who still hasn’t read the book.
The Short Game
Netflix has been making waves this year in good ways, after a string of PR nightmares with its core services. Its role as distributor of original content to streaming platforms, first in television-formats, has been groundbreaking. However, it’s also dipping its toes in the film world picking up a few documentaries. This one debuted in theaters first and is now available to stream.
Perhaps what’s most important in a sports documentary centered on prodigious young athletes is having an interesting cross-section of personalities. Even if one is not familiar with, or a big fan of, a sport (golf, in this case) narrative and cinematic conventions and approaches should keep you engaged. The editing and scoring of this film, as well as the structural approach to the tournament that serves as the climax, is great. What keeps you interested and involved in the build-up is that while they all have golf in common they’re still kids at the core of it and quite different: Jed (A Filipino boy with autism), Alexa (a wunderkind who lives with her dad), Amari (A girl emulating Tiger Woods), Kuang (a Chinese boy who happened on the game by chance as an infant), Allan (A whiz kid who’s Anna Kournikova’s younger brother), Augustin (An intellectual French player of literary pedigree) Zama (A South African boy growing up in a different world than his father seeking a breakthrough) Sky (A Texan girl with a large stuffed bunny collection).
Combining all that, the unexpected twists and turns golf can take, and the volatility of a child’s emotions makes it an engaging, funny, suspenseful and at time even moving film.
Out of the Furnace
This is a film that almost seems as if it was adhering to some edict that it needed to run two-hours in length in order to be taken “seriously.” When taking a narrative as straight forward as this one waters it down tremendously. The interstitial montages only build so much ambiance and character, and the over-inclusion of fact and de-minimization of mystery makes it an exercise in the obvious. Some really good scoring, moments of empathy don’t pull it through.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
There has been the occasional resurgence of bluegrass music into popular culture via cinema over the past decade or so. Many of those instances, while they are films where I’ve heard the music, they are movies I did not happen to see.
Perhaps what’s most interesting here is that The Broken Circle Breakdown is a film that’s not even ostensibly about the music. The music is there, it plays a role, it functions as a part of the characters, it underscores the emotions of the story (usually counter-intuitively) but it’s only a musical quantitatively. The film is a fractured chronology of a couple’s relationship. It begins in a present where their six-year-old is battling cancer. The film then backtracks, and goes back and forth to tell the story of these two and where they head as new challenges face them.
The toe-tapping heart of the film is its pair portrayed by Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh. Through their earnest performances, and the music, you’re left on a tightrope walking through the end of this sad tail without spinning completely into despair yet completely absorbed within it.
What you have here is a tale of female arrested development wherein the protagonist Frances (Greta Gerwig) watches the world (i.e. her friends) grow up and move on around her, and she has to shape up or ship out in order to not be left miserable and alone. Shot in black-and-white, located in and around New York, save for some of her aimless soul-searching; it tries to hearken to Woody Allen in the ’70s but forgets to include the comedy, acerbic wit or insight. The protagonist isn’t even as dubiously engaging as an obviously-flawed Allen creation, merely annoying.
Mind you I’ve seen an even more immature man-child in The Almost Man. However, Henrik needs to be beaten over the head less often before snapping out of his fantasy life and starting his soul-searching and latter-life maturation; with Frances she’s not humorous, engagingly rendering, intriguingly portrayed or more complex, yet she takes more prodding and is more bothersome. “You’re bullshit,” Frances’ bestie snaps at her. Indeed she is, and it takes her far too long to agree and get her shit together, and even if that was excusable it’s not an engaging watch before then.
Certainly when the premise of a film is such as this: a Mormon girl listens to a cassette tape with forbidden rock music and has an immaculate conception; you’re wandering into a tale that will likely not tell its tale, or resolve itself conventionally. That would all be fine if there wasn’t a preponderance of coincidence later on that made it seem as if there would be a tidied, more clear conclusion.
Instead what you have is a journey that is is not completely devoid of enjoyment for the open-minded viewer but rather one that just feels like a beginning;it doesn’t feel like an opening ending but rather a not-quite-complete tale that reaches what it considers its ending a bit too easily.
Rest of December
Found footage as a technique is one that has been talked about ad nauseum, by myself included. Usually, it is the shortcomings that make us take more notice. However, we should not turn a blind eye to those films that do implement the technique well. This is one of those films. This is a film that has minimalist chills and scares that isn’t the slickest space-bound story this year, but has its strong points, moments of terror, moments of character and a very good ensemble at its disposal. It also takes a sci-fi tale just slightly beyond the current limits of science, but not that far into the distant future.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Anchorman 2 has been perhaps one of the more unrealistically anticipated sequels in recent years. What I mean by that, and I don’t claim to be not among them; is that over the years the reputation of Anchorman grew such that perhaps the bar started being raised a bit much.
My own experience with the first Anchorman was not love-at-first-sight. Sure, I laughed. I laughed a lot. However, I felt that the feminist theme while appreciated was handled clumsily and overtly. Yes, it’s a silly movie but the rest of it felt far more assured. My appreciation of it grew over time.
Fast-forward to this Anchorman and one thing that stood out before I saw it was the extra running time. Then you see Judd Apatow’s name attached and you wonder if it might be tremendously bloated. At nearly two hours as opposed to just scraping past 90 minutes last time. I don’t think it did feel extraneous, just a touch too much perhaps. I also think the commentary on corporate synergy and news media, while very on the head is more neatly folded in. Thankfully, there were also many new gags, and a lot more weirdness, as the riffs on the old jokes that worked because they were new didn’t really hit it.
To be brief, I didn’t expect a second coming of Ron Burgundy, he’s a character so perfectly buffoonish you can’t manufacture the surprise of first meeting him all over again; but I did think I’d be glad to see him again in a new story. I was and the fact that this story had point to make loudly that had more do with the modern day than the era it was set in is fine by me too.
I Killed My Mother
At long last Xavier Dolan’s debut feature came to the US this year. While you can take your pick between either of his first two films, I preferred this one. As someone who does like to dabble in a bit of auteurist critique I would’ve preferred to have seen this film before Heartbeats. There is a bit of Dolan’s visual flair and editing sensibility on display, and a certain lack of orthodoxy in his approach, at least to start that tells and introspective, interesting tale of a combative mother-son relationship that avoid facile resolutions, or even conflicts; and furthermore doesn’t make either really in a hero mold but rather antagonistic to one another.
Mad Mikkelsen plays a kindergarten teach who has been falsely accused via misunderstanding (when you watch you’ll quickly see how) of molesting a student. That’s established early on. There’s not cat-and-mouse mystery about that much because that’s not the point. The film’s really about the snowball effect of a misunderstood notion being repeated, how assumptions are made, hysteria spreads and a witch-hunt begins, and how it affects all those involved.
Mikkelsen turns in a marvelous performance (not that he’s alone in that regard) and the film ends on the right note, as opposed to one that might feel untrue. It’s chillingly, unnervingly realistic portrait of how such a thing can escalate, even without any basis in fact, and takes a naturalistic progression.
Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks does have its surprises in it, especially if you look closely enough. First of all, without getting too spoiler-y I do not think it paints an overly generous picture of Walt Disney. Sure, it’s a Disney film about the man himself, in part, and one of the studio’s classic films, so it may not be the most impartial but there are certain plot points that come up that you would’ve expected would be sanitized that aren’t quite as much as expected.
Perhaps the film’s most surprising aspect is really its bifurcated structure splitting its time between the story meetings between P.L. Travers and the Disney staff and reminiscences of her childhood.
The film tells the Travers’ story, and it’s one that’s a harrowing, tragic one that is rather un-Disney-like. In light of that, and Disney’s persistence and insistence, it’s not a wonder she’s a stickler even with a personal connection notwithstanding. The film avoids Disney understanding her in the end, and in some ways I think too avoids portraying Travers as being at peace with her decision, but rather willing to move on.
Stuck in Love
While the cast is talented and the characters are ultimately likable Stuck in Love unfortunately relies a bit too much on convenient plot devices. The kids have been raised to be writers and they all succeed at exceedingly early ages and with seeming ease. The conflicts are there and the characters arcs are there, but the big moments are bit too simply achieved, that and there was a generalized sense of predictability. Despite the characters’ quirks nothing too surprising occurs. Lastly, on the production end the selection of source music is rather invasive, annoying and a bit too on the head more than once.