Top 10 films of 2013!

July 15, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

This is probably the best year for cinema in the three years I’ve been doing best and worst lists. Of the 131 films I watched, most were in the middle of the pack, but there were also an incredible 18 that I rated above 4 stars (not including 4-star films) and 12 that I rated 4.5 stars, making it very difficult for compile this list. Fortunately, there was only one 5-star film, so the top spot was never in doubt.

Here we go. 2013. 131 movies. The 10 best. In my humble opinion.

Missing the cut: Films that came very close and might have made my best-of list in most other years — World War Z (best zombie movie in years), The Conjuring (best horror of the year), Iron Man 3 (best action blockbuster of the year), Philomena (one of the most heartfelt true story of the year), Captain Phillips (one of the most thrilling true story of the year), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen’s best in years), Blackfish (superb documentary), Nebraska (most surprisingly awesome movie of the year)

As per usual, click on the film titles for my full reviews.

 10. American Hustle

We did pretty well, didn't we?

Woo hoo! We made the top 10!

A superb “true story” script, razor sharp dialogue, skillful direction from a director in his prime (David O’Russell), sensational performances from a cast full of my favourite actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner) and just a whole lot of fun. For many critics, this was the best all-round film of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but American Hustle was an absolute delight, with an energy and vibrancy few other films of any year can match. The other films ranked ahead of it on this list affected me a little more emotionally or otherwise, but I can’t deny that this was a high a top-notch production deserving of all its accolades.

9. The Place Beyond the Pines

Hey girl

Hey girl

This was a really unconventional film that put me off guard with its unusual structure, but I ended up loving every minute of it. I predicted in my original review that it would make my top 10 list and it has made the cut despite there being many other more highly touted films. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are both electric in this ambitious epic drama that drew me in and refused to let go. I was blown away by its raw emotional power and its shocking ending. Definitely one of the most memorable films of the year.

8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Time to go full retard

Time to go full retard

This Ben Stiller project was released to mixed reviews, though in my opinion it’s one of the most magical film experiences of the year. If you’re a dreamer with ambitions of grandeur then this is a film that will appeal to your sensibilities. It might be overambitious and overlong, but there’s something about Walter Mitty’s story that shot straight to my heart. And besides, it’s genuinely funny, with some moments of comedic brilliance sprinkled throughout. I was caught up in his magical world and didn’t want to leave.

7. Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-Color-2

Hey girl, part 2

French film (ie subtitles), comic adaptation, lesbian theme, controversial sex scenes. I was sceptical when I watched Blue is the Warmest Color, believing I would come away underwhelmed despite the positive reviews. I ended up feeling like I had my heart torn out of me. Fueled by two of the most amazing performances of the year from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, this is possibly the best romance I’ve seen on depicted on the big screen. It’s raw, it’s realistic, it’s heartbreaking. This is a coming-of-age story anyone — irrespective of your sexuality — can relate to and fall in love with.

6. Before Midnight

Still lookin' good, 18 years later

Still lookin’ good, 18 years later

I loved Before Sunrise. I loved Before Sunset even more. And so I probably had unrealistic expectations for Before Midnight, the finale in Richard Linklater’s magnificent trilogy. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, wrinkles and all, deliver the least romantic but most grounded experience in the series, with moments of hilarity interspersed with gut-wrenching drama. It’s an absolute delight that will make you question the essence of true love and the perfect ending to one of the greatest film trilogies of all time. You don’t need to have watched the other two to enjoy it, but if you have then you can’t afford to miss out on this gem.

5. 12 Years a Slave

Haven't you seen Shame? It's bigger than that!

Haven’t you seen Shame? It’s bigger than that!

The year’s most difficult film to watch, but also undeniably one of its best. Powered by what should have been an Oscar-winning performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (damn you, Matthew McConaughey) and the sublime, understated direction of Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is confronting, violent and emotionally draining — but it’s also a movie experience that leaves its impression on you like no other. Combining beautiful images and the ugliest side of humanity, this is a rare motion picture experience that beats you down and lifts you up all at once.

4. Her

I'm not crazy

I’m not crazy

Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance about the relationship between a man and a computer might be the smartest movie of the year. Not many films can be described as clever, eerie, romantic, heartbreaking and poignant, but that’s exactly how I would label Her, a modern day masterpiece where all the pieces come together in a neat little package. From Joaquin Phoenix’s pained protagonist and Scarlett Johansson’s perfect voice performance as the operating system of his dreams, to the realistic future vision of our electronics obsessed society, Her just works on so many levels. The best type of sci-fi is that which tells a compelling story of its own while also providing reflections on the life we live today. Her does that in such a moving way that it’ll be blasphemous for me to leave it off this list.

3. Rush

I'll race you for it

I’ll race you for it

This will probably be the biggest surprise of the entire list. While most would agree that Rush is a superior drama, I’m not sure many would call it the third best film of the year. But hey, I’m probably as stunned as you are. For someone who knows nothing of and cares little for car racing, Formula One and all that crap, I never expected Rush to provide one of the most engaging, thrilling film experiences of the year. Featuring two outrageously effective performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, the usual brilliance of director Ron Howard, and one heck of a riveting true story that even the best fiction writers would have trouble coming up with, Rush completely annihilated all expectations I had, and for that it nabs a spot in my top 3.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

I'm the king of the world!

I’m the king of the world!

This “true” story polarized viewers with the excess it portrayed on the big screen, but for me, The Wolf of Wall Street is simply the funniest movie of the year. I love black comedies like Fargo, Pulp Fiction and American Psycho, all of which are some of my favourite movies of all time, and now this Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration will join them on my non-existent mantelpiece dedicated to dark humour. Say what you want about the inappropriate and immoral gags, sex, drugs and the record number of “F-bombs”, but if you ask me there’s no harder task than finding a film from last year that had sharper dialogue, funnier characters and more classic scenes of comedy gold. It’s a carefully planned and executed mess, one that’s too long at 3 hours but feels like it’s not long enough. While it might be far from perfect, there’s only one film I liked more than The Wolf of Wall Street last year.

1. Gravity

Why are we in such an awesome movie?

Why are we in such an awesome movie?

I’ve realized that I don’t give out five stars very often anymore, having doled out the perfect score exactly twice in the last two years out of around 240 movies. And so it follows that it takes a special film to achieve that honour. It takes a film that doesn’t just tick the right technical boxes on paper and/or appeal to my mind and my heart, but also has that extra something to elevate it to a different level. In my view, there’s only one film in 2013 that does that, and that film is Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi masterpiece, Gravity. This is a unique motion picture that creates new ground in terms of special effects and ventures into unchartered territory with its risky storytelling. Kudos to Cuaron for sticking to his guns in the face of pressure from studios to change his approach because everything paid off in the end, resulting in a very different, explosive, memorable and thought-provoking experience that’s unparalleled in 2013.

Movie Review: Nebraska (2013)

February 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

nebraska-poster02

Of all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year, Nebraska was the one that interested me the least. Shot in black and white, it looked like a boring movie for oldies about a confused geriatric who is convinced that he’s won a million dollars after receiving one of those sweepstakes letters and is determined to travel nearly 1,400km to collect his prize in person (can’t trust the mail, you see).

Well, Nebraska turned out to be an awesome film, arguably my “surprise hit” of 2013. It’s not for everyone, but at the very least audiences will get a great laugh out of it because it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. And looking past the laughs, it’s actually also a poignant and nuanced road trip drama about family, relationships, and the sad reality of middle America.

The insufferable geriatric described above is Woody, played by Bruce Dern, who is a very outside chance to grab the Best Actor gong this year. He’s stubborn as an ox, can’t hear very well and appears to be in the early stages of dementia. When he refuses to listen to his family that the sweepstakes letter is a scam, his youngest son, David (Will Forte), decides to take Woody on a road trip from Montana to the issuing marketing office in Nebraska just to shut him up.

The trip then takes a detour back to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where he reacquaints himself with his family and old friends. He is joined there by his wife, played by June Squibb, and his eldest son, played by Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul!”), who have both taken the trip down from Montana to join him for a rare gathering. And what began as a farce would turn into an unanticipated family bonding session.

Nebraska is one of those films that slowly grew on me. I never doubted the quality of the filmmaking in the first place, but I didn’t expect a family drama shot in black and white to be very entertaining to watch. However, the wonderfully developed characters and their hilarious conversations eventually won me over. In particular, June Squibb, who is up for Best Supporting Actress (a dark horse among favourites Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave), is simply magnificent as the snarky wife who is never short of a razor-sharp comment. I laughed at almost everything she said and really hope she wins.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte

Bruce Dern and Will Forte

Will Forte, a Saturday Night Live veteran, is also excellent as the forgiving son. His father is an alcoholic who never gave a shit about him, and yet he can’t help but look after him with a tenderness and patience that I found really moving.

The film says a lot about the dynamics of family relationships, from father and son to husband and wife, but also distant relatives you haven’t seen in years – who suddenly swarm in because they think you’ve struck it rich. I was impressed with all the characters, even the minor ones, each of whom left their own stamp on the film. It paints a cynical portrait of middle America, where the men of small towns have little to do except drink, while the stagnant economy leaves them with few options in life. But all of this is done with a gentle subtlety and the requisite humour so that none of it feels in-your-face or manipulative.

By the time the credits rolled, I realised I had fallen in love with Nebraska. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet film powered by wonderful characters and performances, a great script full of laughs, and a genuinely poignant story full of life’s uncomfortable truths. I think it’s director Alexander Payne’s best film yet.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Escape Plan (2013)

February 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Escape_Plan_2013_Movie_HD_Wallpaper_39985743

If you want a lot of shooting, explosions and incoherent mumbling, then Escape Plan is just the film for you.

Sly Stallone is a sly man who is a master at breaking out of high security prisons. He’s like Michael Scofield, except he gets paid for it and doesn’t need to tattoo the prison’s entire floor plan on his body every time (plus he’s really old and ugly and pumped with steroids).

Anyway, he gets a great offer to break out of an insanely secured private prison, but as soon as he gets there he realizes he might have bitten off more than he could chew. Fortunately for Sly, there’s another clever dude in the prison with him played by the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and together they have to figure a way out of the prison despite the evil warden, Jesus (ie Jim Caviezel), doing everything he can to keep them there.

Look, I was under no illusions Escape Plan was going to be The Shawshank Redemption 2.0. I knew it was going to be silly and cheesy, but I also hoped it would be fun and entertaining. The first half of the film, at least, was exactly that. I had a great time watching Sly figure out ingenious ways to overcome prison security and him slugging it out with Arnie in good natured tussles.

As the film progressed, however, it became clear that the brilliantly concocted “escape plan” was actually just to kill everyone and blow everything up, which when you think about who the lead actors are it suddenly becomes perfectly logical. In that sense I was disappointed because the beginning of the film suggested they would have to come up with something extremely clever, but in the end they just went for the dumbest, and as it turned out, most effective route. That said, Sly strutting around in massive platform boots so that he looks nearly as tall as Arnie made the mission exponentially more difficult.

One major problem I had with the film was trying to decipher what Stallone was trying to say throughout the entire movie. It was already hard enough trying to understand Arnie’s accent, but Stallone was just impossible. All I kept hearing was “ruburuburuburubu” and possibly the occasional “Adriaaaaaaan!” The man needs subtitles, or dubbing, or preferably, both. Accordingly, some of the film’s convoluted plot also went right over my head, though by the end it was easy enough to work backwards and figure it all out.

The verdict? Despite the lack of surprises, Escape Plan delivers in terms of popcorn entertainment, cheesy lines and star power. I just wish the escape plan itself could have been cleverer.

3 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part II

February 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

Percy-Jackson-Sea-of-Monsters-Cover

 I for one thought the first film Percy Jackson & The Lighting Thief, was underrated. Berated as a Harry Potter clone, I thought it was a fairly solid action-adventure flick that differentiated itself with its Greek mythology angle. Nothing special but certainly not horrible.

Given that it was a box office success, it’s no surprise that they went on to make a sequel, based on the second novel in the Rick Riordan’s series. This time there’s no world discovery phase as Percy Jackson (Lerman Logan) is already living at CampHalf-Blood (the offspring of Greek gods).

The story focuses on this special force field that protects the camp after a girl sacrificed herself and became a huge tree (yeah, I didn’t get it either). Of course, the tree is dying and Percy and his friends need to track down the Golden Fleece from the Sea of Monsters to heal the tree. There are raging mechanical bulls and predictable prophecies and other naughty half-god kids getting in Percy’s way. Oh, and Percy discovers her has a half-brother who only has one eye (he’s a Cyclops).

It still feels derivative, but like its predecessor, Sea of Monsters offers sufficient entertainment, humor and special effects (though the effects are barely passable because they look video gamey in several places) for fans of the series. There’s plenty of running around and pretty magic-fuelled action sequences, though I have to admit I had a bit of trouble keep track of the convoluted plot and the plethora of characters.

Regardless, pretty much anything with Alexandra Daddario (who plays Annabeth, the Hermione of the series) is worth watching in my books.

3 stars out of 5

Monsters University (2013)

Monsters_uni_post_2

It’s quite unusual for an animated sequel, or any sequel for that matter, to come 12 years after the original, but that’s what they’ve done for Monsters University, which is actually a prequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc.

I saw Monsters Inc when it came out at the cinemas but don’t recall it being particularly good, certainly not in the same league as Toy Story. Which is why it surprises me to say that Monsters University is an excellent animated film and a strong prequel that outshines its predecessor (or is that sequel?).

Set at an undisclosed number of years before Monsters Inc, Monsters University details how one-eyed green monster Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and huge dotty monster Sulley went from rivals to best pals and from students at a “scare” university to owners of the company we know they will one day run.

The film is driven by the stark contrast between our two protagonists – Mike is ambitious and determined but lacks the physical attributes to be a scarer, while the privileged Sulley has all the attributes of a wonderful scarer except he lacks motivation and desire. Naturally, the two clash heads early on, but circumstances force them to work together as they participate in the university’s annual Scare Games.

Despite my bias against animations, the bottom line is that Monsters University is very funny and is a film that can be enjoyed equally by both children and adults. The writers do a great job of taking advantage of the comedic opportunities and stereotypes offered by the university setting and display witty creativity in the monster designs and the overall concept of the Scare Games.

The voice performances are brilliant. Crystal and Goodman go without saying but I was also impressed by the great supporting cast that included the likes of Steve Buscemi, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, Bill Hader and Helen Mirren.

Definitely one of the better animated films I’ve seen in recent years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Run (2013)

run

Run is a gimmick movie about the growing phenomenon known as “Parkour”, which is basically free running. I could explain it, but you’re better off watching this video below.

In short, Parkour is insane stuff, so you can imagine that a movie about it would be pretty cool. Run’s Parkour sequences are choreographed very well, but that’s about the only strength of the movie because everything else about it, from the plot to the acting, was frighteningly bad.

The story revolves around a 17-year-old kid played by William Moseley (Peter from the Narnia series!) who is a Parkour expert on the run with his criminal father played by Adrian Pasdar (yes, the dude who flies in Heroes!). He hides his identity at his new school but still ends up making friends with a bunch of kids who are, surprise surprise, also into Parkour!

There’s some juvenile stuff, some teen romance, and eventually when the bad guys (headed by Eric Roberts, brother of Julia) catch up to them they must use their Parkour skills to escape and defeat their enemies.

I guess if you watch the film simply for the Parkour sequences and ignore the laughable acting, the cringeworthy romances and the contrived plot, then Run is arguably a fairly entertaining movie. But then again, there are so many great Parkour clips available on YouTube now that you don’t need to watch a movie to see these amazing acrobatics. That said, having not been familiar with Parkour before, I didn’t mind it too much.

2 stars out of 5

Don Jon (2013)

don jon

I have a sizable man-crush on Joseph Gordon Levitt like most heterosexual males, and so I was really looking forward to Don Jon a project written and directed by the man himself.

Gordon-Levitt plays an Italian-American stud, Jon, who loves the ladies but loves whacking off to porn even more, even when he starts dating the drop dead gorgeous Scarlett Johansson, a 10 out of 10 according to Jon’s crude rating scale.

The film is more or less a critique of the modern superficial male, who objectifies women and can’t figure out why they don’t feel physical or emotional fulfilment even when they dating a girl most men can only dream of being with. It also says something about the modern superficial female, who holds men to an impossible standard by comparing them to the perfect male characters from unrealistic rom-coms.

As cynical as that is, Don Jon does offer up some hope as Jon begins to undergo changes after meeting a mature-age classmate played by the wonderful Julianne Moore. But can he stop jerking off to porn in favour of real sex? That’s the real question.

I really wanted to like Don Jon, and there are indeed things to like about it, such as the performance of Gordon-Levitt and some witty interactions between the characters, including with his father (Tony Danza!). But as well-made and edgy as it is, it’s just not quite good enough to be great. The film is promoted as a comedy-drama, but the jokes are more “nice observation” or “I can relate to that” rather than stuff that will make you laugh out loud. And much of it is so brutally honest that it becomes extremely uncomfortable, especially if you are a guy, but my guess is that cringe is exactly what Gordon-Levitt intended.

It’s a nice little directorial debut for Gordon-Levitt that showcases the talent and potential he has as a filmmaker, but Don Jon falls short of being the memorable smash hit I hoped it would be.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Last Vegas (2013)

February 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

kinopoisk.ru

The idea’s not too bad: a bunch of old friends (emphasis on “old”) catch up for one final hurrah in Las Vegas. Throw in four huge stars — Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Klein — as the leads, toss in a few old jokes (again, emphasis on “old”), and that’s Last Vegas in a nutshell.

I didn’t have a huge problem with Last Vegas, but there was really nothing to like about it either. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure 1 & 2, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), it’s a very safe, mildly amusing comedy driven by the star power of its four leads. On the other hand, there’s not much to sustain the film apart from the gimmicky old jokes, and the result is a frequently lame, utterly forgettable experience that you’ll likely erase from your memory in a hurry. It’s a film that wouldn’t have been contemplated without its stars, and is in any case probably best reserved for the straight-to-DVD rack.

Douglas, De Niro, Freeman and Klein are childhood friends who grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn and remain in touch today as seniors dealing with their own separate problems. De Niro’s character is still mourning the loss of his wife, Freeman’s character is battling an array of physical ailments and his overbearing family, and Klein seems to have lost interest in life. In comes Douglas’s character, seemingly the most charismatic of the group, who is about to get married to a woman less than half his age, and decides to throw a bachelor party in Vegas with his three oldest friends.

So as you might have guessed, the whole fish-out-of-water scenario is designed to put four old guys in a place they’re not expected to be comfortable with, and having us watch them have fun drinking, dancing, splurging and having the time of their lives. The Hangover for Geriatrics is essentially the idea, and it’s not a bad idea, except that it doesn’t work for very long. The running joke throughout the film is that old people are clueless and not cool, a schtick that just keeps getting rehashed again and again. But given that they are the protagonists, the film then tries very hard to convince us that they are, after all, very cool indeed, and young punks who disrespect them will come to regret it. And of course, all four of our heroes will learn important life lessons when it’s all said and done.

I’ll have to be brutally honest here. After a nice setup, the film devolves into cliches and becomes painful to sit through. The jokes are obvious and repetitive, and despite the best efforts of its stars (including the adorable Mary Steenburgen as the love interest), the film is inescapably bland and predictable until its merciful conclusion. It’s not horrible, it’s just…meh.

I am probably making Last Vegas sound a lot worse than it actually is. If you are in the mood for a streamlined plot, obvious jokes and 105 minutes of stereotypical icky Hollywood feel-goodness, then Last Vegas is borderline enjoyable. If you expect more than that from a film with four screen legends, like I did, then chances are you’ll end up bitterly disappointed.

2 stars out of 5