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A Savagely Partial Look At The Films Of 2013

December 31, 2013

In what threatens to become a tradition, today is another big day for those who enjoy the imperfectly glimpsed and almost certainly incorrectly processed – welcome to a review of the year in film which is limited to the things I have been able to see as a human man who moved house, changed jobs and ate enough to stay alive during the 12 months constituting 2013.

The-Last-StandJanuary was its regular self, an overflow pipe of awards season self-flattery which started spectacularly when I accidentally saw the numb sub-De Palma hattery of Gangster Squad instead of catching up on last year’s The Master. Then a procession of grovelling worth – Les Misérables included a moment of face-smudging emotion from Anne Hathaway but was dominated by Russell Crowe looking like a bearded pastry and the camera leaning at every fucking angle except level, and Lincoln was hattery on a languid, self-important scale that can’t be described as bad, but can’t be described as interesting or fun either. Django Unchained made a nice pairing with Inglourious Basterds of films exploring controversial moments of history with all the sensitivity of a brick with its cock out, while also proving Tarantino still has the untouchable urgency that forged Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, though he may never have the discipline to make anything that good again. Zero Dark Thirty was a furiously myopic account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden that span the propaganda machine in reverse in order to not have any opinions about anything, and the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger in knockabout modern western The Last Stand fractured the robot-skeleton invincibility of my generation’s thick Austrian-accented John Wayne by being rubbish. Above all January shall be remembered for crimes against Hugh Jackman: for every lash of fortune that fell upon him in Les Mis, nothing beats stitching a pair of CGI bollocks to his throat in the worst film I only managed 10 minutes of in 2013, Movie 43.

cloud-atlas03In February Sylvester Stallone provided the sinewy correlative to Arnie’s stiffening dotage, appearing in uneven revenge thriller Bullet To The Head as an angry pink tangle of veins in a laudable but presumably exhausting rejection of both softness and time. Hitchcock was a kinder look at director Alfred’s reputed trouser-rubbing than the BBC’s The Girl but also a ridiculous exercise in unperforming in which a prosthetic-swathed Anthony Hopkins seemed to leave all the actual work to his silhouette. Wreck-it Ralph almost said something really interesting about the lasting value of design over the sheen of technology but then didn’t, A Good Day To Die Hard demonstrated a bewilderment with genetics by creating John McClane’s son as a miniature of the hairless action lump Bruce Willis has become rather than the charismatic smirker he once was, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was at least more insistently violent than the suffocating cycle of PG-13 horrors Hollywood has fallen into. The best film of the month was Cloud Atlas, which was preposterous in a dozen easy ways but extraordinary in dozens more, and dared to dream a little bigger even if that dream was sometimes Tom Hanks doing a terrible accent.

good_vibIn March Mark Wahlberg wrestled invisibly with Russell Crowe to see who could be the most boring in un-thriller Broken City and they both won. Or rather they tied with Jason Statham even though he was in a different but equally unremarkable film, Parker, in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Statham wears a hat for a little bit and then takes it off. The month saw fairy tales take their turn occupying the hole in Hollywood’s brain where originality used to live, with Oz The Great And Powerful so busy nodding vigorously towards the original Oz it forgot to not have James Franco in or to be any good, and the rather better Jack The Giant Slayer proving to be ‘diverting’, which is another way of saying “this film exists in a tough to describe critical space where I could have gone for a walk and thought about the emotional complexity of dogs instead of watching it and my life wouldn’t be any better or worse”. Steven Soderbergh released the floaty pharmaceutical mystery Side Effects which was compelling but also a good example of the speed-over-precision priorities which have made his last decade of work distant and difficult to love. Forming a monstrous Channing Tatum double-bill with Side Effects was the delayed GI Joe: Retaliation, which refused to be the disaster everyone insisted it should be despite ditching its entire principal cast (including Tatum) like toys it was bored of playing with, confirming something Fast And Furious has already told us about how the rules of Hollywood sequels – especially featuring The Rock – have changed forever. To finish the month James McAvoy had his own double-bill of nasty London noir Welcome To The Punch and amnesiac art thriller Trance – the films were fine, he was fantastic – and then everything was made better by the release of Good Vibrations, a story of the punk scene in Belfast during the Troubles which was good enough to catch the energy of the movement and let its political significance speak for itself.

PLACE BEYOND THE PINESTwo of the worst things currently happening in cinema manifested themselves during April. Firstly Jason Blum took his extraordinarily successful microbudget formula (“make a shit horror film for 12p and sell like it’s powdered Jesus”) and made the almost-identical-to-everything-else-he’s-made-even-though-it’s-science-fiction Dark Skies. And then Harmony Korine not only continued to exist but made a film called Spring Breakers with James Franco who attempted a savage satirical assault on the vacuousness of Mickey Mouse culture by wearing gold teeth and threatening to put a gun up his bottom. Everything else mankind has ever done that was this stupid has resulted in instant death. Adding to the pile of unnecessary waste, Evil Dead attempted to remake Sam Raimi’s classic apparently without realising it was a comedy as well as a horror, leading to unleavened unpleasantness posing as entertainment. If The Place Beyond The Pines had been 90 minutes of Ryan Gosling riding a motorcycle set to this music it would have been a triumph, but it reached for the epic with unnecessarily length and complication and is the lesser for it. Oblivion set the tone for original science fiction in 2013 – there was a lot of it, and it was striking but flawed – before Olympus Has Fallen set the tone for Die Hard derivatives set in the White House for 2013 – there were two of them, and they were rubbish. The month was rounded out by Iron Man 3, a blockbuster of range and character directed by Shane Black that, like last year’s Avengers, gets the people and the words right and lets the action take care of itself.

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_HD_Cast-CopyFor my birthday in May I got lots of parties but none of them were real and mostly they were awful. The Hangover Part III was avarice burnt onto celluloid, a hollow mechanical reflex lacking the memory-recovering structure of the earlier films, any kind of hangover, or indeed any reason to exist except money and the momentum of greed. Predictably the best bits of The Great Gatsby were when Tobey Maguire was reading directly from Fitzgerald and the worst bits were the overwhelming use of CG sets which made everything look smaller when it was trying to look bigger. 21 And Over was a generic Hangover-lite about ending college that did at least prove, as Pitch Perfect initially suggested, that Skylar Astin is very watchable, and that’s more credit than can be given to The Purge, a Jason Blum-produced thriller that has a Carpenter-esque hook but no budget to see it through (there’s enough coherence to cut a good trailer, which I suspect might have been precisely the aim). For different reasons I enjoyed Epic, a story as much about dads and daughters as it is about tiny leaf warriors, and Star Trek Into Darkness, although if I look at them too closely I’ll find Epic’s use of decay as a villainous force ecologically unsound and Star Trek empty aside from the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, so I won’t do that.

behind-the-candelabra-facebookThere were loads of films in June. The Will and Jaden Smith-starring After Earth continued the flawed sci-fi theme except with extra flaws, not least of which was their spaceship seemed to be made of pasta and Jaden isn’t very good at acting. Steven Soderbergh said goodbye and really meant it this time with Behind The Candelabra, which struck an awkward balance between flamboyantly funny and emotionally earnest, while Tina Gharavi’s I Am Nasrine was a quietly effective drama of immigration and integration. Man Of Steel went big on Superman’s sci-fi side, which meant Russell Crowe flew a big space bird (he still had a head like a fucking savoury palmier, mind) and our hero’s journey of self-discovery was difficult to engage with, something not helped by the fact I would take Christopher Reeve fumbling for his glasses over Henry Cavill’s lumberjack shirt and tits forever and ever. Snitch and Despicable Me 2 were both films about fatherhood, only one was a minor social issues drama given unexpected (and literal) weight by Dwayne Johnson, the second was an animated sequel that was good but also relied on small yellow clowns above story and character in a way that suggests Despicable Me 3 won’t be nearly as much fun. This Is The End was an apocalyptic comedy set in what by this point in the year seemed the suitably hellish location of James fucking Franco’s house, although happily it was stupid and likeable and the actor seems very nice when he’s pretending to be himself. Finally the world ended again in World War Z, a film which robbed us of another anticipated fiasco in favour of being starkly shot and quite good (even if, like 28 Weeks Later, its opening sequence would stand alone as a far stronger short film).

a-field-in-englandJuly was really good, partly because everyone watched Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England on television and enjoyed not having a fucking clue what it meant together (whatever else, it had something to do with Wheatley’s ability to amplify the dread thrum of English midland banality). Pacific Rim caught flack for being a stupid expensive film about robots, which it was, but it also had a sophisticated sense of humanity thanks to Guillermo del Toro that’s totally alien to the likes of Transformers (plus those robots kicked ass). Pegg, Frost and Wright reunited for The World’s End, which couldn’t stitch genre film scenario to character drama as successfully as the mighty Shaun Of The Dead, and Hugh Jackman returned without a second pair of bollocks for The Wolverine, a film which if nothing else proved the ruthless appetite for superhero movies as I was sure this one had already been made once. Two female-led comedies saw the month out – The Heat was by-the-numbers buddy cop nothing given guilty pleasure substance by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, and Frances Ha was, quietly, one of the best films of the year, a neurotic Manhattan tangle of awkward youth stumbling into whatever comes next.

Upastream ColorIn August Only God Forgives came as a shock to people who presumably thought Nicolas Winding Refn only made films about cool guys in shiny jackets and had forgotten the one he made about vikings staring at hills for two fucking hours – which is to say it was interesting in an obstinate way but also casts doubt on Refn’s ability to tell stories that don’t involve men looking at stuff and then punching the stuff. More enjoyable – and, honestly, a sharper study of masculinity – was Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which was as tightly focused and minutely observed as The Lone Ranger was a big fucking bollocks.Getting worse before we get better, Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain was an emotionally illiterate flex of ego and ugliness, hesitantly, clumsily presenting real-life murders and extortions as a comic grab at the American dream, delivering empty tastelessness where it aims for profundity. Perhaps its worst crime was wasting both The Rock and Mark Wahlberg, both physical stars at their best being funny, as Wahlberg got to show in the otherwise nonsense 2 Guns later in the month. Also largely nonsense were Kick-Ass 2, sequel to a film which had already said its piece and exhausted its controversy, even if Hit Girl – and Chloë Grace Moretz – are still amazing, and The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, which wasted a Neil Gaiman-ish supernatural underworld on tedious infatuation with a pretty boy and reminded me that I was annoyed nobody’s made a film of the far superior Mortal Engines books yet. Three very different film round out the month – Elysium brought us back to Neill Blomkamp’s wonderfully tactile vision of how fucked up we’re eventually going to make everything, even if this time he told us a lesser story than he had with District 9. I enjoyed One Direction: This Is Us as a study of instant fame, and was surprised by both the awareness of the boys and the touching interviews with their parents, who were adjusting to the loss of success even as the band were contemplating the end of it. Finally, there was Upstream Color, which was carefully elliptical and meaningfully fragmented, apparently allegorical but defiantly, bizarrely coherent, and a film about which I am still not sure what I think, but sure I like because at least I am still thinking.

ain-t-them-bodies-saints01Luckily from September onwards I didn’t see very much, and I began with Riddick, which showed an understanding of its hero by returning him to the wilderness, and then comic misunderstanding of what you Earthlings call ‘women’ with Katy Sackhoff’s terribly written, awkwardly objectified, unnecessarily naked space lesbian. Thank every shade of fuck, then, for Casey Affleck, who is brilliant in everything and especially in dark southern crime dramas like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which was shot like an accomplished Terrence Malick forgery and was rather fine besides. Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty was excellent, a good approximation of what Fellini might have made of Berlusconi’s Italy, and it was just as well because all the rest of the month had was horror: White House Down, which was a replay of Olympus Has Fallen only with a car chase sequence on the lawn where it’s entirely possible I did the fucking effects myself; RIPD, which on paper was a strong Men In Black-style effects comedy with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds which onscreen became unending death; and The Call, which gains points for reminding me very slightly of the Judge Reinhold TV movie Runaway Car, but then loses them all again for being Rear Window on wheels meets rubbish revenge porn.

GRAVITYI saw nothing at all in October, and just two more films all year. In November, Gravity made me grateful all over again that I’m not a shrinking white speck spinning away from Earth and into the cosmos, and did so by tethering us to detail and magnifying the importance of process and practicality. It’s meticulous, and earns its sentimentality with a long hard look into the abyss. Finally, in December I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, which I somehow enjoyed less than last year’s Hobbit even though I’m sure it’s the better film. I’ll be honest here because I can and say my compass is shot when it comes to these movies – I suspect it’ll be years before their actual worth separates itself from the expectations set by the Rings trilogy and my joy that they’re being made at all.

And that’s everything. The things I feel stupidest for not seeing are Before Midnight and American Hustle, and the best film I’ve caught up on is Night Of The Hunter. The most fun I had seeing movies this year was a Lynch all-nighter at the Prince Charles Cinema, because even (especially) with Lynch seeing a film with a crowd is a different experience altogether: The Elephant Man is unbearably sad, Blue Velvet shocked me after all these years, and Wild At heart might be fucking terrible.

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