Monday, 6 January 2014

Top Ten Films Of 2013

This list represents the best new films I saw throughout the year and includes feature films that received a UK general release between January 1st and December 31st 2013, on any format, but doesn’t include festival-only showings

It also includes the 11-20 spots, for context:

20. The Paperboy (dir: Lee Daniels)
19. Behind The Candelabra (dir: Steven Soderbergh)
18. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (dir: Declan Lowney)
17. Cloud Atlas (dirs: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski)
16. Blue Jasmine (dir: Woody Allen)
15. Mud (dir: Jeff Nichols)
14. Beyond The Hills (dir: Cristian Mungiu)
13. Byzantium (dir: Neil Jordan)
12. Side Effects (dir: Steven Soderbergh)
11. This Is The End (dirs: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen)

The Kings Of Summer (dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-age tale that feels strangely unselfconscious in spite of a central premise that uproots it from the real world and a cast of characters that is peppered with deadpan quirks. At times it feels slightly like Wes Anderson, but without the visual tics; like Max Fischer from Rushmore joining The Goonies. What impresses most is the script which flits from raucous to tender without missing a beat. While Nick Offerman’s father character steals the film’s best lines, it is unquestionably the teenagers’ story and their development throughout the film is nuanced but streamlined. It looks beautiful with a hazy, romanticised aesthetic that fits the film’s title. For such a slight, seemingly familiar plot it feels pleasantly fresh and wry enough to punt the whole subgenre out of the doldrums.

Nebraska (dir: Alexander Payne)

The film’s hook – a crotchety old man travels with his son to collect on a misleading windfall – has all the hallmarks of a saccharine journey of discovery. By casting Bruce Dern as the old man, Alexander Payne neatly sidesteps the obvious and the sugary in his usual barbed fashion. It cleverly wrong-foots with each development as it lulls the audience into expecting homespun wisdom and sentimentality but delivers a darkly acerbic road trip that resolutely isn't a quest for redemption. That is not to say its characters are entirely one-dimensional assholes but they're not wholly loveable either. Dern is ably supported by an un-showy, but touching, performance from Will Forte as his son and Payne delivers his best film since Election. As craggy and unpolished as its protagonist, the script is prickly and sour without leaving a bad taste. The Straight Story with sharp edges.

The Selfish Giant (dir: Clio Barnard)

Taking an Oscar Wilde fairy tale and adapting it as a Kes-like tale of grim Northern English youth, it retains the fable-like air but imbues it with contemporary social commentary. With a washed-out palette of greys and a backdrop of industrial decay, it should be depressing but by viewing its characters and their world with a warm-hearted, humanistic approach Clio Barnard ensures there are shafts of light amid the greyness. The two child actors at the fore give a natural, powerful spirit to their characters and a seam of coal-black humour in their relationship with each other means the semi-improvised script is constantly lively. There is a lyricism to the bleakness and it makes the potentially distressing events of the film that bit more tolerable.

The Act Of Killing (dir: Joshua Oppenheimer)

Unlike any other film – fiction or otherwise – this year, this harnesses the power of cinema in unlikely ways and presents a disturbing insight into a nation’s recent past. By giving Indonesian death squad leaders the opportunity to tell their own stories and put them up on the big screen, we are shown both the horrors of genocide and the disturbing banality of those who perpetrated it. Through matter-of-fact interviews and re-enactments, what ends up on screen is surreal, provocative, insensitively lionising and ultimately distressing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer stands back and lets his subjects draw their own fate but what he assembles from that freedom is sickeningly potent. There is no guiding hand to lead you through the ethical morass and Oppenheimer leaves the audience to make up their own minds about what his subjects’ motivation and revelations, but it culminates in a scene that is haunting and irrepressibly vivid.

Zero Dark Thirty (dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

Zero Dark Thirty is compelling, thought-provoking cinema that also serves as a fully functional military procedural thriller about the manhunt for Osama bin Laden – even with the outcome of said mission being widely known. It is effortlessly paced as it zips through ten years worth of plot without feeling too full or too slight. It eschews the jingoistic in favour of questioning the morality, and the human impact, of modern warfare. It is anchored by strong performances, which is quite a feat because most characters, with the exception of Jessica Chastain’s Maya, don't have much screen time in order to establish themselves as fully rounded. It manages to portray a sense of urgency but plays out at a measured pace and, in spite of a near-160 minute runtime and without a wealth of action scenes to fall back on, the nerve-jangling tension is sustained. Maintaining the hi-octane and the cerebral alongside each other is difficult but this feels expertly balanced.

Stories We Tell (dir: Sarah Polley)

Broadly concerning her own personal history and, in particular, her mother who died when she was eleven, there was every chance Sarah Polley’s probing documentary could have been ego-driven folly. Instead, Stories We Tell is so much more than a self indulgent exercise. It is an attempt to cope with the subjectivity of our memories and that even the same story takes on a different meaning depending on the perspective of the narrator. The warmth that resonates from the screen makes her family’s bonds seem clear and universal, but it is invigorating because it is never mawkish. It plays with the documentary form in a conscious attempt to remind the viewer of the disconnect between stories and truth. It is at once both heartbreaking and life affirming. There is intrigue, there are surprises, there is tragedy, there are secrets and ultimately there is humanity. By playing with our perceptions throughout, Polley proves herself an adept, thought provoking documentarian. This filmic post-mortem has a powerful structure that questions the nature of empirical truth and showcases the beautiful intricacy of normality, whatever that might be.

A Field In England (dir: Ben Wheatley)

A mesmeric, dark and intriguing quasi-horror that is partly in the mould of The Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General but also, admirably, its own thing. It leaves motivations and the answers to the questions it poses disconcertingly vague. Reece Shearsmith holds it together with a chilling and tragic dramatic turn. He is astonishing here and the scene where he emerges from the tent in a manic fugue state is forcefully unsettling beyond belief. From cinematography to score, it is filled with flourishes that are liable to make every viewing an even richer experience. It is among the most extraordinary looking films of recent years and it builds like a crescendo to a symphony of triumphant editing and sound design. Just the little touches like having the overdubbed dialogue during the wind scenes intoned as whispers is simple and effective. Ben Wheatley cements his reputation as a purveyor of the darker side of the British psyche and his one-location English Civil War film takes a pinch of influence from this and that to create a quintessentially British headfucker.

Django Unchained (dir: Quentin Tarantino)

As close as adult-oriented films get to event cinema, Django Unchained is a juicy historical revenge fantasy with a strong central turn from Jamie Foxx, a warm supporting turn from Christoph Waltz and a delicious villain in Leonardo DiCaprio. While it might be nice to have the more considered Quentin Tarantino back in the near future, the joy of this is in just how full-on and unrestrained it is. What Tarantino likes, he does - and here it works. It is structurally sound and with an impressive balance of action and character development, it is an entirely pleasure-focused slice of pulp. It could certainly do with some trimming but it does not drag. In every section of the rambling plot there is something to admire from the performances, to the set design to little nods and winks which hint at underlying Tarantino preoccupations.

Before Midnight (dir: Richard Linklater)

Before Midnight is quite an achievement in its own right as well as in its position as the latest chapter of a decades-spanning romance. The format and tonal changes here both within this film and compared to the previous two entries in the saga are handled sublimely in such a way as to turn the series completely on its head. Romantic idealism is replaced with cynical reality and yet it does not feel cold. After spending two films rooting for Jesse and Celine to get together, the boldness of this film in pulling away the rug from that cosiness could so easily have backfired. In showing just how far Celine and Jesse have come since that night in Vienna nearly twenty years ago or that day in Paris nine years later, the richness of the creations comes to the fore. They are no longer just figureheads for romantic idealism but fully fleshed humans with a mess of conflicting emotions that are not always endearing. The venal, embittered arguments might be tough going but they are entirely necessary for the characters. This assures the three 'Befores' a place in the finest movie trilogies; the emotional movements throughout the three are in perfect harmony.

Frances Ha (dir: Noah Baumbach)

Shot in crisp black and white, Frances Ha is a love letter to the films of French New Wave but firmly rooted in contemporary urban comedy. The narrative is a series of vignettes – punctuated by the eponymous Frances’ various changes of address - with a through line of the refreshingly blunt relationship between Frances and her BFF Sophie. It taps into a zeitgeist-like reclaiming of the female arrested development subgenre with shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls. Frances herself is a charming mess and Greta Gerwig is astonishing in the lead role. She imbues Frances with an appealing fragility that wins over in spite of her foibles and trail of mistakes, with many of the film’s best scenes arising from conversational awkwardness and Frances’ relative lack of introspection. Frances’ character arc is handled in a way that is in keeping with the knowing, arch tone of the rest of the film and doesn’t jar because it stems naturally from a well written character. It manages to make someone who dances so close to being infuriating loveably endearing. This is American comedy filmmaking with a distinctly European sensibility and a wonderfully observed and poignant character study with underplayed dramatic weight.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Glasgow Film Festival 2013 Review: WELCOME TO THE PUNCH

Executive producer Ridley Scott’s presence is immediately felt with an opening credits title reveal which instantly recalls that of Alien. Unfortunately that is about the only place it is felt in director Eran Creevy’s follow up to impressive lo-fi geezer drama Shifty. The canvas is broader and it certainly makes headway towards rivalling its American counterparts, but Welcome to the Punch is a glossy British crime thriller that feels like Michael Mann's Heat turned down to Gas Mark 3.

Where Creevy must be applauded is in crafting a relatively lean thriller that not only looks stylish with its depiction of London bathed in a steel blue neon glow, but has its fair share of nicely handled action set pieces. There is a finely tuned sense of what makes an image dynamic and it plays with visual motifs throughout.

Lacking the profundity and underlying depth of other underworld dramas, everything here is surface level. It isn’t always a problem when that surface is so highly polished but it is missing a vital ingredient: characters we can invest in and get behind. With a slick running time of just over ninety minutes, there is never time to delve into what drives our lead characters. It keeps feeling pressured to hit that next action beat.

The full review is continued over at STV's website.


Glasgow Film Festival 2013 Review: THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES

The weight of expectation lies heavily on The Place Beyond the Pines. Not only is it co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to 2010’s lauded anti-love story Blue Valentine, it also marks his reteaming with that film’s breakout star, Ryan Gosling.

It transcends easy genre classification as it surges from frenetic crime thriller, to the bridled passions of a savage love story, to family drama about paternal expectation and the sins of the father.

It marks Cianfrance out as a major new force in American cinema and proves the masterful handling of the potentially depressing plot of his last film was not a fluke. He is just as adept handling even broader, less intimate themes here but manages to ground them in a film that, for the most part, doesn’t feel overblown. The energy and rawness in the action scenes is matched in every respect by the way he handles smaller emotional scenes.

The full review is continued over at STV's website.


Glasgow Film Festival 2013 Review: JOHN DIES AT THE END

With a title which might sound like the ultimate in movie spoilers, John Dies at the End is so consistent in its attempts to uproot viewing preconceptions at every turn that this potential warning klaxon is of no concern.

To begin to explain what it is about is both a futile task and nigh-on impossible. Don Coscarelli, the maestro behind horror-comedy classics Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, has constructed something so multi-layered and ambitious that it would be easier to list the things the film doesn’t touch upon. It is a clear cut case of chucking anything and everything at the screen and seeing what sticks. As is always the case with this scattershot approach much doesn’t work but, as is pleasingly the case here, much does.

It pitches itself somewhere between the cult movie conundrum of Donnie Darko and the freewheeling inanity of Dude, Where’s My Car?

The full review is continued over at STV's website.


Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Glasgow Film Festival 2013 Review: STOKER

The latest in a long line of successful directors from around to world to make their way to the US film industry is respected South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who directed the hugely respected Oldboy. Stoker, his English language debut, sees him working with an A-list cast and crafting an indie thriller which treads on hallowed Hitchcockian ground.

As an exercise in creating an atmosphere of tension it is an unrivalled success but it ultimately leads to nothing.

The full review is continued over at STV's website.


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Glasgow Film Festival 2013 Review: THE LOOK OF LOVE

Changing attitudes to permissiveness in British society since the 1950s are marginally shown through the prism of Soho property entrepreneur and mucky mag magnate Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) in this biopic. Or, as he succinctly puts it in his pre-credits introduction, “Welcome to my world of erotica.” Sadly this transgressive address direct to camera is one of the few moments which display the same irreverent verve as Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom’s last biopic together, 2002’s 24 Hour Party People.

Halfway between a British Boogie Nights and Carry On Titillating.

The full review is continued over at STV's website.


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Review: THIS IS 40

This is 40, the latest film as writer-director from comedic superpower Judd Apatow, comes laden with the double baggage of not only a bulging running time but also its status as a ‘sort of’ sequel to the hugely popular Knocked Up.

Following peripheral characters from the 2007 film, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), we are reunited with them on the brink of hitting the milestone age of forty. Pete is the boss of a small record label which specialises in celebrating bands of a certain vintage, while Debbie runs a fashion boutique which employs Desi (Megan Fox) – a fact which doesn’t help Debbie’s issues surrounding her body and aging in general.

The crux of Apatow’s plotting hinges on the couple’s divergent approaches to the impending milestone. Debbie chooses to bury it and lie about her age, while the laid-back (aren’t all Apatow males?) Pete takes it in his stride. They are having to cope with financial strain, problems with their fathers – in Pete’s case the dependent Larry (Albert Brooks) and in Debbie’s the absent Oliver (John Lithgow) – as well as the day to day family struggles of bringing up two daughters (Maude and Iris Apatow). All of which is taking its toll on their fraught, but loving, relationship and spurs a desire to take stock of what they have and make some required changes.

This biggest joy lies in the welcome fact that this is a comedy about adults, for adults, and not aimed solely at manchildren or teenagers. It harks back to films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which offered a mature angle on the relationship comedy. It is certainly occasionally puerile but it deals with adult relationships and doesn't skew towards a younger demographic like, seemingly, every other modern comedy film.

On a line-by-line basis, this is maybe Judd Apatow's most observant, consistently funny film. Pete and Debbie have the kind of sparky, blow-exchanging relationship which only exists in films but while it might not have a ring of authenticity, it does ring true comedically. Apatow and his performers just get comedy and there is little in the way of his usual fallback stoner stuff here, although he still can't resist every character being pop culture savvy enough to crack, for example, a J.J. Abrams gag when needed.

It cannot be emphasised enough that it is funny. Very funny. There is a recurring Tom Petty motif that slays in each of the multiple iterations it is used. There is an undercurrent of meanness to Apatow’s characters that exists, even within a couple as obviously forgiving of each other’s flaws as Pete and Debbie, but it is deftly counteracted by that underlying affection. It gets so much right about portraying a love that knows bounds but keeps pushing through them and strengthening for it. The lead performances from Rudd and Mann are pitched perfectly between fragile and sassy and even Apatow’s and Mann's own daughters (as the family's fictional daughters) have grown into surprisingly natural comic performers since their last appearance.

The family supporting cast is equally tenderly portrayed and never at the expense of seeming as if they are smash-and-grab, quick laugh cameos. Brooks and Lithgow get a few nice, rounded scenes but others fare worse. Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel barely warrant a mention based on how little they have to do and the less said about awkward, unnecessary appearances from musicians like Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Ryan Adams, the better. What it has to say about family, and aging, and relationships is beautifully rendered. But there is no reason a comedy with a plot as slight as this needs to be 134 minutes long.

Some of the film does feel like padding and characters like Megan Fox’s suffer. Her performance ranks as her best but her appearance here unfortunately boils down to simply a good-looking counterpoint for Debbie’s neuroses. With some plot liposuction to remove the unsightly subplots like this, which breed extended scenes of clubbing revelry and forced drama, the film would be all the better for it.

It encounters the age-old Apatow problem of being so in awe of his characters that he can't seem to let go of unnecessary subplots and situations he obviously cares for. Although the film's biggest problem is that the engorged running time is filled with a central plot that relies on believing in the strain the central characters are under because of financial pressure. It is just that it is really tough to take some of it when that largely amounts to shots of characters looking sad in a BMW or moping around their massive house as their vanity record label flounders. The way these faintly-patronising issues are casually tossed into the mix leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

There is plenty to admire, especially in the game performances of the leads. The improvisational script hits plenty of high notes and the Knocked Up connection is thankfully underplayed (although, it is occasionally notable by the absence of characters from that at key events - only Seth Rogen's Ben merits one mention.)

It is Apatow's longest film in relation to the scarcity of how much is actually happening, but does it feel as if he has pushed it too far? Maybe not quite, but it certainly could do with a bit of scaling back. This is funny, but this is also a bit ragged.