camcarlson

miscellaneous commentary

Favorite films of 2013 (Part 2)

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A few months ago I wrote about the films that I had enjoyed up through November 2013. As in most years, many studios hold onto their Oscar-calibre films until December, sometimes only rolling them out in limited release before the end of the year and then expanding their screen presence throughout January. A prime example of this would be “Philomena”, which I have not seen — it has been nominated for numerous Oscars this year, including Best Picture, but due to its limited release it only came to the Cedar Valley a couple weeks ago… February 2014… though it is nominated for 2013.

Anyway, a bit of housecleaning first: I forgot to mention on my prior list that I had seen “The Croods”, “Despicable Me 2” and “The Heat” during the first 11 months of 2013 and enjoyed them all. “The Heat” is what “Identity Thief” wishes it was: funny.

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Of the two dozen or so movies I’ve seen in theaters or rented in the past few months, only two have left a big impression on me. Those were “Fruitvale Station” and “Her”. The former is a story about a day in the life of Oscar Grant, who was assaulted by BART police officers on New Years Day in Oakland CA. I am careful to write that description as not to reveal what happens in the film, though it is based on real events that occurred in 2009. The first hour or so is a well-told story about a man who seems down on his luck who, when faced with morally questionable opportunities to get ahead, chooses the harder, right path instead. Then the final half hour takes place and I was left frustrated and angry with what happened. Frustrated because I have been conditioned through years of feel-good stories to believe that if you do the right thing, life will be fair and just to you in return. This film was reality crashing down on that foolish assumption. Life does not weigh our actions and dispense with luck or sorrow accordingly. Life happens at random, sometimes due to the stupid decisions of others, completely outside of our control, completely independent of what we do or say.

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The latter (“Her”) is Spike Jonze’s latest film, which he also wrote, about a man who falls in love with his OS. Sounds kinda silly what I write it out like that, but the film is anything but. It’s thoughtful, sweet and tender, though realistic, highly observant to human behavior, especially in regards to introverts, and puts the entire relationship arc on display through the lens of a not-so-distance future where technology is even more heavily embedded into our daily lives then it is now. Joaquin Phoenix did a great job as the lead character, and Scarlett Johansson provided the best voiceover work in a movie since Andy Serkis voiced Gollum (but since he’s still doing that in the Hobbit series, let me instead compare it to Ben Burtt’s work in “Wall-E”).

Other new-release films I’ve seen since December…

The Hunger Games Movie Number 2: Catching Fire – a good movie. Slightly more entertaining than the first. Made a shit-ton of movie, which was the goal I suppose. Two more films will follow, based on the third book in the series. Yes, two film adaptations for one book… they’re splitting the book up into a 5-hour film epic, because it’s just that good! Or maybe because the studio can make more money from charging customers twice for tickets to see how it all ends. (see “The Matrix” sequels, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, and also the TV series endings for “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad”, amongst others…

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The Desolation of Smaug – it was okay. I was very impressed with the CGI work for Smaug, and Benedict Cumberpatch does a great job bringing the sinister dragon to live via voiceover… but I still feel three three-hour films were not needed to tell the simple story containing within Tolkien’s book. It’s only two hundred-some pages long… not the epic The Lord of the Rings was, which was already divided into three segments anyway. But I will echo the praise of Søren Hough in regards to the high frame rate (HFR) 3D process. The film was  shot at 48-frames per second, which makes it look so incredibly crystal clear on a big screen. Visually, the second best film experience of 2013 (behind “Gravity”).

American Hustle – there were some good scenes in this film, but as a whole, I just didn’t get into it. Which is a shame, because I really liked “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook”, David O. Russell’s two previous films. I was more entertained by the cameos of Louis CK and Alessandro Nivola (lead actor of “Junebug”, also featuring Amy Adams) than by any of the lead performances. I may see it again, later this year, but after one viewing I wasn’t in love with it. Some people have compared it to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” but I definitely don’t see that in this movie, aside from the double character narration.

Frozen – saw this the same day I saw “American Hustle” (that was my pick for Xmas Day theater viewing; “Frozen” was Viet’s). It was entertaining. I was happy to see Disney going against convention with having a charming prince come to the rescue of the princess/damsel in distress; in this film, the prince is a deceitful villain, and it’s sisterly love that saves the day. Good job with the twist there, Disney. HOWEVER… I thought the visuals and the overall story of “The Croods” was better.

The Spectacular Now – better-than-expected film about high school romance. The lead male character’s charm wore thin after a while though, but I loved the female lead.

Blue Jasmine – a good Woody Allen movie, but not nearly as entertaining as “Midnight in Paris” or “Match Point”, his two best films since the 1980s.

Behind the Candelabra – rented this HBO film last month. I knew next to nothing about Liberace going into the movie aside from his skills at the piano and his love for anything that sparkled. Pretty good story, solid performances from both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It’s a shame this didn’t come out in theaters, but it goes to show how willing cable television is to pick off the talent that Hollywood won’t suppose anymore.

The Wolf of Wall Street – this film seems to have some solid support from film reviewers that I respect, but I just didn’t get into it (see also “American Hustle”). It went on and on… and on… and on… so much hedonism and greed and drug use and excessive profanity, occasional nudity, violence, and general madcap insanity… I guess there’s a point to be made there, about Wall Street behavior in the 90s, but I’ve also read conflicting tales from Wall Street traders from the 90s who said they spent 16 hours a day glued to spreadsheets on their desktop monitors, not snorting coke off a hooker’s twat. But hey, three hours of business types glued to their monitors is not entertainment. The film’s screenplay supposedly employed the word “fuck” over 500 times, more than twice as much as the screenplay for “Pulp Fiction” (which for nearly 20 years had held that dubious honor).

Dallas Buyer’s Club – Of all the also-rans on this list, this one was my favorite, though I do not feel inspired to watch it again anytime soon, that being the benchmark by which I determine how much I like a movie. Excellent performances from Matthew McConaughey (yes I had to look up his last name to spell it correctly) and Jared Leto (knew that one). I read somewhere online (wish I could provide the link but I don’t have it anymore) that the real life Ron Woodroof may actually have been bisexual, not the homophobe he’s portrayed as. Hmm… that would shake the narrative of the film up a bit, eh? But no matter. It’s still a good movie. My respect for it has only been cemented since having just finished watching the 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague”.

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Blue is the Warmest Color – a well made French film (last year’s Palme d’Or winner) that explores one teenagers first serious relationship with another woman: her coming to terms with her own sexuality, the initial denial amongst her friends, falling in love, evading her parents, embracing the routine of a long-term relationship, jealousy and doubt, affairs, confrontation and breakup, heartache, attempts at reconciliation. The film depicts sex between the two women very frankly and explicitly, but not in a tantalizing way. It’s sensual, not pornographic. Still, I thought of the late 90s Swedish film “Show Me Love”, also about two teenage girls who fall in love and deal with the inevitable taunting of their high school classmates. Not as expansive in scope, but a good film nonetheless. Props to the two young lead actresses, Léa Seydoux and Adéle Exarchopoulos.

Other non-theatrical films (2013 or prior) I’ve rented:

-the 1923 silent film “Souls for Sale”
-a trio of films by master Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda: “Ashes and Diamonds”, “Kanal” and “A Generation”.
-the archival footage used to make “For All Mankind”, about NASA’s Apollo program; especially entertained by the many shots of astronauts tumbling over in the Moon’s weak gravity.
-early Miyazaki film “Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro” with its engaging story and beautiful artistry.
-the maddening illogic of Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of “The Trial” starring Anthony Perkins.
-the haunting beauty of the Japanese horror film anthology “Kwaidan”. Favorite segment: ‘The Woman of the Snow’. The end of the ‘Black Hair’ segment is wonderfully chilling. And then there is the ‘Hoichi the Earless’ scene, based on a retelling of the Battle of Dan-no-ura, which I studied extensively in my Prehistory of Japan course at UNI. Watching that segment brought back a lot of what I had read and written about that famous naval battle. Okay, let’s just say I loved this entire film.

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Films I wanted to see but didn’t get a chance to include “The Art of Killing”, The Missing Picture, “Nebraska”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “Dear Mr. Watterson”, “Prince Avalanche”, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” and “Upstream Color”.

And finally, though not worthy of being mentioned in the same post as these aforementioned fine films, but I have to proclaim “Admission” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd as perhaps the most boring film of 2013 I saw. Perhaps… it’s pretty close to “Identity Thief” in terms of how badly I wanted to toss the DVD out the window not even an hour into the movie. Not funny in any substantial sense, and no noticeable chemistry between the lead. Just… ugh. Waste of time. Please don’t waste yours on either film.

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Written by camcarlson

March 2, 2014 at 8:18 PM

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