Only a few weeks left until I have to build my own Top Ten list, and I'm happy to report that it's shaping up into something special. Thanks to last week's Fantastic Fest, The Great Beauty, and the AFI's European Union Film Showcase, 2013 is going to go down with some personal classics under it's belt. Phew - cuz for a while it was looking pretty ugly.
Paranoia: This is the type of film you go into knowing it's just gonna be bleck or blah. Young hot stud branching out from a crappy teen franchise (Team Lautner!); playing smoochy face with Amber Heard while you desperately cling to a nostalgia for yesteryear's box office might. Harrison Ford & Gary Oldman....you love them, I love them. But don't let curiosity drag you down like it did me. Paranoia is not a terrible movie. It's not even bleck. But it most certainly is blah. I love Indiana Jones probably more than anybody else on the internet (FACT - not hyperbole, just trust me), but we all need to stop donating to his hospice fund. If he can't bother to show up, neither should we.......JUST SAY NO TO EPISODE VII! (As if any of us could stay away from the Star Wars beast - what else could we possibly bitch about?)
As I Lay Dying: James Franco is a fascinating animal. I am in total awe of him one moment (his insane bling master turn in Spring Breakers, the obscene lampooning of This Is The End) and loathing him the next (his flat goofy blank in Oz The Great & Powerful). And that's simply from this year! The man is a machine, cranking out one project after the next. This William Faulkner adaptation seems to stay fairly close to the original as far as content is concerned, but director Franco gets in the way a bit too much thanks to never ending soooo-cute split screens, and a lotta wannabe Malick-leering. The technique gets in the way of a tremendously depressing plot involving a family's epic quest to bury their long suffering mother. Some impressive performances and attractive scenery are squandered by Franco's batshit style.
A Single Shot: A young girl drops dead in the forest, a boodle of cash on her person. Sam Rockwell's divorced hunter sets about the routine of his failing life only to run afoul of backwoods gangsters led by the slobberingly distasteful Jason Isaacs. Since Moon, I pretty much pray to the alter of Rockwell, and I had high hopes for this deer hunter thriller. Sadly, the credits ultimately roll on a rather unremarkable film. Solid performance from Rockwell as always, and Geoffrey Wright's tiny role as the drunk buddy is a lot of fun, but, A Single Shot never ignited one wow from this audience member. All I kept thinking about as the film droned on was the far superior A Simple Plan.
Movie 43: Attempting to capture the charm and vulgarity of comedy anthologies like Kentucky Fired Movie & Amazon Women on the Moon, Movie 43 drags out a parade of celebrities to assault your senses. Actually, I had a lot of fun with this movie. Some sketches are sooooo not good (I'm looking at you Period Butt Chloe Grace Moretz!), but I unleashed several chortles during Hugh Jackman's testicle-neck and Elizabeth Banks's cartoon cat attack. Yeah, I'm ashamed. A little. But there should be no guilty pleasures in life. Own it. Love it. Deal with it......yes, Jackman has balls growing out of his neck, they dip in his soup, it's funny.
Planet of the Apes: "There has to be something better than man." The Wife & I have decided to tackle The Apes Franchise for the month of December. We're not gonna rush it. Probably do a movie a week, maybe double feature Escape & Conquest if possible. I've always loved these films, but since knowing Matt & experiencing several years of Hest Fest, my appreciation for the original film has skyrocketed. After every viewing I become more and more enchanted with the first twenty minutes of the movie. Heston's astronaut wondering the deserts of a post-apocalyptic earth, belittling every dumb comment from his crew, and laughing at their absurd clinging to the past. I'd love to see a proper prequel to this movie - with none of the ape stuff, just a glimpse at how (or why) Heston boarded that rocket to oblivion. He's certainly one of the all time great pricks of science-fiction, and it's that asshole nature that allows him to battle the madhouse of the apes. Science vs. Religion - the great debate as presented by Rod Serling's script & John Chambers's still incredibly evocative makeup.
Europa Report: I've been looking for this kind of found footage film since I first heard the concept. Europa Report is not simply the story of some chump following other chumps with a shaky-cam. Done up as a documentary (the way Cloverfield should have been presented), the film details man's first attempt to reach beyond the moon and discover life in the stars - obviously it's a bit of a bumpy ride. That being said, the script doesn't drag its characters down the typical narrative traps. Isolation does not lead to catastrophic insanity. Alien life does not equal snarling she-beasts....not exactly, anyway. The format made me hesitant, but Europa Report works the technique better than any other film I've seen. Seriously impressive.
Frances Ha: I hated this movie. I simply cannot fathom The Love it's receiving from the critical community, and I'll watch Criterion's Armageddon another fifty times before I ever watch their Frances Ha release. I do not care about the problems of a stumbling 20 something. Maybe it's because I survived that miserable decade with a smile on my face, and accepted adulthood as a joyous gift (says the man who owns more action figures than apartment space). I do not find Greta Gerwig to be adorable. Her awkward conversations and desperate grabs for friendship are certainly sad, but I felt no kinship with her pathetic plight. Despite co-writing two of my favorite Wes Anderson pictures, Noah Baumbach has directed his third picture to grate my nerves (The Squid and The Whale & Greenberg being the others) and I think I'm pretty much done with his cinema of the whine. I don't care how high on the Top Ten Lists they get. I'm done.
The Iceman: Not a great movie. Run of the mill mobster stuff. You've seen in all before. And it's not as scary as the talking heads documentary done by HBO several years back. Still, you can't help but get drawn in by Michael Shannon's intensity. You certainly believe that he could be responsible for the deaths of hundreds. Watching him operate a pistol gets me giddy for my Parker idea, Shannon is the guy who could do Richard Stark justice. Chris Evans has a nice small roll and a fun wig as the ice cream hitman. I wish the film focused more on their buddy-buddy assassination business. I wish the film went crazy with fiction rather than the drabness of "Based on a True Story." Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
I Declare War: It's no secret that I love the Alamo Drafthouse. If I had the option, I'd spend every waking moment inside that theater up the street from my apartment. Not only do they love movies, but they understand the "holy" aspect of the theater. Yeah, the No Talking/Texting thing is great. The Restaurant aspect takes a little getting used to, or at least you need to figure out a way to make it work for your experience. But at the end of the day, the reason I hold the Alamo above all other theaters is because they openly worship cinema via their pre-show entertainment (no damn commercials), and they're branching out into the film distribution business themselves. Some of their releases have been better than others, I'm still recovering from the disappointment of The FP, but others like A Field in England & The Act of Killing (see my upcoming 2013 Top Ten List for further detail on both) are outstanding works of art. They're pushing the best of fringe cinema to the masses - thank you. And I Declare War is certainly one of their top-tier projects. Two teams of children compete in an intense game of Capture the Flag; their imagination transforming their sticks & stones into semi-automatic machine guns & grenades. Things get messy. Yeah, it's tough to see children dispatched with such fervor. There's a good dose of Lord of the Flies in this film, but it's not simply about the savagery of man as I Declare War delves deeper into the seemingly tiny betrayals of youth, and the adulthood they inevitably birth. It's always an iffy project when child actors are involved, but thankfully, directors Jason Lapeyre & Robert Wilson bend these kids to the needs of the screenplay. Drafthouse Films might not be getting thousands of screens across the country, but they should own VOD. Hit your TV sets, check it out.
Twixt: "You are the ending you seek." This is directed by the same man that gave us The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now......whaaaaaaaaaat!?!?!?!? Hell, is this even the same guy who directed Jack? It is absolutely baffling to watch Twixt. And maybe it's totally unfair to judge a brand new work to films that have had decades to build an iconic status, but Twixt is sooooo insanely cheap and muddled that it's nearly impossible to feel anything but sadness when pushing yourself through the movie. Val Kilmer is a hack writer dragging through a book tour when he lands in a spooky little village possibly haunted by vampires. Bruce Dern is the nutty sheriff with an idea to feed, and Elle Fanning is the gothy blood luster. There's also something about the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe and a evil biker named Flamingo, but the plot points never develop into anything more exciting than the basest of Stephen King imitations. Sure, it's fun to watch Val Kilmer rant using his gay black basketball impersonation, but Twixt never elevates itself beyond train wreck cinema.
Drinking Buddies: Olivia Wilde & Jake Johnson are a couple of pals with too much chemistry, and Ron Livingston & Anna Kendrick are the significant others who must suffer. Much has been made about the film's improvisational manner, but I wonder if the film could have benefited from a stronger pen. All the actors seem to have a handle on their characters, and their conversations feel honest, but that honesty possibly deprives the narrative of a satisfying conclusion. But maybe I'm talking outta my butt. Maybe the anti-climax is just where director Joe Swanberg wanted to take these people. Still scenes play out, escalate in arguments, and are forced into resolution. On the fly storytelling is just not what I'm looking for in the movies, but I bet it was fun for the actors.
The Grandmaster: "Nothing lasts forever, and that's fine." I didn't bother with this in the theater due to all the hubbub about The Weinstein's butchering of the Chinese Cut, but I wish I hadn't listened to that fanboy chatter cuz Wong Kar Wei's kung fu artistry should be seen on the biggest screen possible and not a teeny tiny VOD box. That being said, I really loved the hell outta The Grandmaster, and I really need to check out the international edit. Sure, it's another IP Man story, and blah, blah, blah he trained Bruce Lee. That tiny bit of trivia has put a lot of asses in the seats, but Wong Kar Wei's film is more interested in the beauty of kung fu & less about the ass kickery. The Grandmaster deals in the doom & gloom of honor; the inevitability of conflict when one holds so stringent to their teachers and their teachings. It's all very badass, but it's miserable too. It's a side of martial arts that is often touched upon, but never as fully explored as it is here. The question becomes now, do I fork over the hard cash for that imported cut? Yeah, I think so.
Dirty Wars: "America knows war." Journalist Jeremy Scahill navigates "the hidden truths" of America's covert operations in Afghanistan as well as various other dark corners. It's the kind of documentary that tears at your soul for a couple of hours, but you can't help but question due to the absolute horror it dredges from underneath the Red, White, & Blue. I sit softly in my apartment, surrounded by dvds, blu rays, action figures, and comic books. What does such a posh life cost others? The answer is probably something I never want to confront, but what evil continues if I keep my head buried in the sand? Liberal agenda? Truth? Either way, I'm depressed.
Post Tenebras Lux: "All I had to do was exist." Not sure what the hell this one is about. A child wanders in a field as thunder & lightening crash around her. A husband beats upon a dog and demands anal sex from his wife. A cartoon demon wanders about the house at night. The husband & wife visit a sex dungeon. Scenes drift into other scenes and I wonder if they belong to the same narrative or if they're just a collection of weird ass shorts. Is this surreal cinema? Or just bullshit. I'm thinking bullshit. It's certainly not interesting enough for me to explore any further.
Upstream Color: A wicked little mindbender from Shane Carruth, the DIY director of the time traveler Primer. A woman is kidnapped and her body manipulated by a toxin grown from a flower and transplanted through pig organs. It's all very icky. She is not the first, but will she be the last? Upstream Color will require repeat viewings before I figure it all out, and maybe even then I'll be left scratching my head. There are bits in this film that call back to the dreamy visuals of David Lynch, Nicholas Roeg, and even John Boorman, but Upstream Color succeeds because its oddity is totally its own. At the very least it's the kinda film you want to rip high definition stills from and wallpaper your computer for years to come. Just gorgeous.
Cutie And The Boxer: "Art is a demon." A documentary love story between two elderly Japanese artists still desperate to strike it big in New York City. Ushio Shinohara gained a little notoriety in the 1970s for his splatterpaint boxing canvases, but it never amounted to anything more than a human interest story and a tiny apartment. In some respects this is a saga of the neverending artistic spirit, but in other aspects its a sad little tale of failed parenthood. I've never really understood the world of abstract art. Show me the Mona Lisa or Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer and I'll give you a thumbs up. Plop a Warhol soup can in front of me and I'll give you a quizzical expression. Cutie And The Boxer does not resolve my confusion, but it's a fun look at a couple in the know.
The Great Beauty: After his 65th birthday, one-time novelist & full-time manslut Jep Gambardella deconstructs his lifestyle and delves into the memory of a lost love. The Great Beauty is obviously inspired by the iconic works of Federico Fellini, but thanks to Tovi Servillo's captivating facial expressions, I emotionally connected with this film in a way I've never been able to with the Italian master. You at once want to party with Servillo and run screaming to the hills. The Roman Night Life is both dream and nightmare. A hedonistic display wrought with cheap relationships, impenetrable self-delusion, and the very best of Euro Disco. It's a Wonderland Gambardella has been lost in for decades, and one that will require massive amounts of introspection to pull himself out from the depths. The Great Beauty is one of the year's very best films and no one is more surprised by that then me.
A Field In England: Ben Wheatley's latest is as if a group of extras from Monty Python's Holy Grail wandered off set and into a Robert E. Howard short story populated by HP Lovecraft's Elder Gods, and directed by David Lynch's crazier kid brother. In short, it might be the greatest genre mashup ever crafted. To go too much into the plot would rob you of the experience; all I'm willing to offer is that four soldiers flee the battlefields of the English Civil War and discover something...odd in the countryside. And mushrooms. Sure, it's a head trip. Wheatley has a lot of fun with his camera tricks and those prone to seizures best stay away (the strobe warning at the start is no joke), but the film is not just an effect. It's a scary ass story of witchcraft, and a story absolutely worthy of Vincent Price and the arduous hunt to find it playing on a silver screen near you. Another Top Tenner for 2013.