Thursday, January 2, 2014

The 2013 Dorkies- The Best and Worst of Cinema (Matt’s Picks)

                                       "The Year That Sucked…Until it didn’t."

    Following as it did on the disappointing 2012, 2013 was a long, hard year for this film buff.  Not a lot of the extreme ups and downs of last year, or even the crushing disappointments.  It was just so bloody blah.  It wasn’t until the very end of April that I saw a movie I enjoyed to any serious degree (Pain & Gain).  That’s bad.  Worse is that the movie, directed as it was by schlockmeister Michael Bay, dismayed me greatly by remaining on my ‘best movies of the year’ list as the months wore on.  Ugh.  The film snob in me simply never warmed to having a Bay film in my top 10.  Thankfully, as the Autumn came upon us, things started looking up.  I went from struggling to find ten movies I enjoyed to being able to make a top twenty with some movies left over.  Thank goodness.  (Take a look back at the Dorkies of the past: 2011, 2012).

Best Movies

10.  Europa Report:  Probably the best put together found-footage movie to date, this is handled the way I’ve been saying found-footage films should be for years.  It’s edited and presented as a documentary, with talking heads accompanying the events depicted.  The characters are good, not the idiots movie makers would normally put in situations like this (see: Sunshine).  The story itself is compelling and uplifting.  And to me, this feels like a tribute to those we’ve lost in the pursuit of progress, as opposed to the more typical ‘it’s so dangerous, why even try?’ attitude presented in space-based science fiction films.

9.  Oblivion:  Is Oblivion the most creative film ever made?  No.  Is it a solid, beautifully filmed story, fully immersed in classic science fiction?  Yes.  People kept comparing this movie to Moon, and I don’t think that’s fair for two major reasons.  One, only one of its many concepts is shared with Moon, and Moon, though fantastic, is not even close to the ‘original’ film it was held up as (see: Silent Running and Outland for proof).  This film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it makes the wheel look really good, and roll really smooth.  And no shaky cam!

8.  A Field in England:  Out of the frying pan (war) and into the fire (drug-fueled trip into magic and madness).  To say the absolute minimum, this movie isn’t going to be for everyone.  The characters are all quite mad, the film is shot in such a way as to heighten that feeling, and even before the characters ingest psychedelic mushrooms and tug a man out of a magic hole, the movie was quite bizarre.  Don’t stop here, man.  This is bat country.

7.  Why Don’t You Play in Hell?:  With all the weird and wild entries in the Gonzo madness of Japanese cinema, they finally got it right.  Funny, disgusting, wacky, and kinda amazing, nothing can quite prepare you for this movie.  The acting, even on secondary characters, is so good.  I found myself with a serious case of the giggles throughout, even during horrible scenes, because the whole thing just worked so darned well.  It made me almost dizzy, but I was loving every minute of it.

6.  Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie:  Better than the Avengers.  Bam!  Yeah, I said it.  The Avengers was largely lauded among comic nerds because it remained so ‘true’ to the comic source material.  And while I can’t argue that too strongly, I would say that it remained ‘surprisingly true,’ all things considered, but still took a great deal of liberty.  Not this movie.  This movie is what staying true to the source material is really about.  At no point was this sugar coated or re-packaged for John Q. Lucnchbox.  Ultramarines is a straight-up Warhammer 40,000 movie, and it makes absolutely no apologies and doesn’t give you one bit of help in engaging with it (beyond good characters and a good story).  I never much cared for Warhammer as a game (especially when alternative options came around), but I always loved the setting.  And this film gets it right, 100%.

5.  Journey to the West:  It’s a very, very rare non-English language comedy that I enjoy.  Not because of any anti-foreign sentiment, but because of all things, I think comedy doesn’t tend to translate well.  There’s so much culturally specific quality to what makes us laugh.  Most of the Chinese comedies I’ve seen have been somewhere between boring and…extremely boring, because I simply didn’t find the humor.  I was sure it was in there, somewhere.  But I didn’t find it.  Kung Fu Hustle was a rare exception, and it’s director, Stephen Chow, is back with this take on the classic mythological/fantasy adventure, Journey to the West.  This movie focuses on the coming together of the band of adventurers, and features lots of weird, wild, over the top action and well, weirdness.  And it’s just darned fun to watch.

4.  Inside Llewyn Davis:  Somewhere around the release of A Serious Man, I realized that I don’t just like some Coen Brothers movies, I love the Coen Brothers’ movies.  I think, if I had to pick just one (well, two) director as my favorite working today, it would be this team.  With only one real misstep (Intolerable Cruelty) in there repertoire, and no sign of loosing steam, they’re really the bees’ knees in my book.  This story of a shiftless folk singer, drifting through New York in the early days of what would be the folk revival of that time, is painful and funny in the way the brothers do so well.  A great cast of odd characters support Oscar Isaac as the titular Llewyn Davis.  A man with every opportunity to learn life’s great lessons.  Every danged opportunity.

3.  The Great Beauty:  The existential ennui of an aged Italian playboy, living a life of parties and petty social infighting.  How European, right?  How Italian.  And it’s an homage of sorts to art/foreign film aficionado golden boy Federico Fellini.  At this point, it would be difficult to put into words just how awful the film sounds to me.  But, it’s great.  It’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s sad, and it’s wistful.  And though obviously inspired by Fellini, it’s missing that certain something that makes me hate the director’s work.  Director Paolo Sorrentino has crafted a beautiful look into latter day party people, urban adepts who stayed in the game too long, and the wild world of those with too much money and not enough drive.  It’s really quite good.

2.  The Wall:  I saw a lot of films dealing with loneliness or loneness this year, and none was better than The Wall.  The premise is simple.  A woman wakes up one morning trapped behind an invisible wall, possibly the last living human.  How does she deal with that?  It’s profoundly moving and beautiful to look at seclusion.  The film manages to capture the romance of solitude hand in hand with the sanity shaking emptiness of forced separation.

1.  Only God Forgives:  Were you like me?  When you were watching Drive a couple years ago, did you keep saying to yourself, ‘man, won’t these people just shut up; can’t they just stare at each other for way, way longer?’  Well then, do I have a movie for you.  Oozing with mythological significance, the story is fairly simple.  A bad guy (whose mother may very well be Satan) wants to be redeemed.  To redeem himself, he wants to fight God.  God is a retired detective in Thailand.  Simple, right?  If you go to movies to see lots of action, or people talking, you can pretty much skip this one.  If you like to be challenged; if you enjoy visual feasts; or if you thought Drive was just to mainstream and ‘Hollywood’ and wanted something more like Valhalla Rising, then you must see this.  It’s one of the few times I felt giddy, felt the heady power of cinema, during this mostly uninspired year.

Best Actress:  Martina Gedeck (The Wall):  It was nice to find myself having to make a hard decision on who to pick for this category this year.  Too often there are too few interesting roles for women, and too few of those go to worthy actresses.  Gedeck has to carry the entire movie on her shoulders, and she does so while making it look easy.  Runner up: Amy Adams (American Hustle).

Best Actor:  Dwayne Johnson (Pain & Gain):  I don’t know from wrestling, but Dwayne The Rock Johnson is one charming bastard, and over the last few years he’s been climbing up the hill toward being one of my very favorite contemporary movie stars.  Pain & Gain brought him to the top to join George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, and Tony Leung.  His comic timing and loveable idiocy were so incredibly endearing that even when the most awful acts were being perpetrated, I couldn’t help but hope things would work out for him.  A genuinely excellent performance from an actor who puts a smile on my face whenever I see him.  Runner up: Michael Nyqvist in Europa Report.

Best Supporting Actress:  Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives):  Has anyone ever done quite this good a job of portraying manifest evil?  One of the most vile and terrifying movie villains of all time.  Do not stare too long into the abyss.  Runner up: Amy Adams (Her).

Best Supporting Actor:  Javier Bardem (The Councilor):  Watching Bardem’s face contort in terror as he looks into a sexual abyss was genuinely one of the best single scenes in 2013 cinema.  The movie wasn’t that great, but Bardem elevated every scene he was in as this sort of half-assed Tony Montana.  When he wasn’t on screen, I kept hoping he would be again soon.  Runner up: Shin’ichi Tsutsumi in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Best Director: Nicholas Winding Refn:  This guy is making a certain type of movie that very definitely appeals to me.  Quiet, slow (but not boring), highly visual, ultra-violent, and very challenging.  I know he’s referred to Valhalla Rising as a science fiction film.  But he’s also crazy.  I’d like to see him tackle something really out there, like Logan’s Run or The Incal.  Refn is one to watch.  Runner up: The Coen Brothers for Inside Llewyn Davis.

The Bottom 5 Films of the Year:

5.  Star Trek Into Darkness:  Almost everything in this movie is wrong.  As a long time Trek fan, the complete bungling (not to mention unnecessary rehashing) of an iconic character (Khan) was saddening.  But the fact that all the character and relationship development from the 2009 film was thrown out the window and everyone was back to square one, was unforgivable.  Add to that the idiotic villains, overly complex but totally stupid plot, and awful callback after callback to Wrath of Khan, and you’ve got a film that killed my excitement for this re-launched franchise.  At this point, I care almost as little about what happens with the next Star Trek film as I do with the next Star War, Transformers, or Avatar film (read: none).

4.  Oz the Great and Powerful:  From James Franco’s stoned bemusement to the rampant amateur hour CGI to the same-old-same-old Raimi bag of tricks (seriously, the guy’s been doing the same half dozen camera shots for 30 years), this movie is a colossal fart in the face of the surreal wonder of L. Frank Baum’s original books.  It gets everything at least as wrong as the beloved 1939 version, but also manages to fail as a stand-alone piece.  Just awful.

3.  Machete Kills:  No.  I didn’t think this was going to be a ‘good’ movie.  But I was not prepared for how danged awful it was.  After a mildly amusing opening, the whole thing fell apart almost at once, and for it’s excruciating runtime, Danny Trejo was literally the only thing that wasn’t terrible, and he had virtually nothing to work with.  I really like Trejo, and I really want to watch him do his thing.  But this film was terrible.

2.  The Host:  Stryder/Wanda (Wanderer) must fight Seeker and her Soul henchmen in this super subtle (yeah, that’s sarcasm) excuse for polygamy.  It’s more ham-fisted than a fist made of ham, more boring than a giant drill, and …well, it sucks.  For a long time I kind of thought this would be my number 1 worst film.

1.  Kick-Ass 2:  Sitting in the theater, watching the opening scene, co-Dork Brad and I looked at each other and flashed ‘oh, no’ faces.  And it never got better.  Every single ounce of charm the first film had was absent in this terrible follow-up.  The actors were bad, the script was worse, and everything felt like nobody quite knew what was happening.  Really, really bad.

Take a hike, Quality.

Runners up: World War Z, The Purge, and Jack the Giant Slayer.

Best Score: Only God Forgives

Best Soundtrack: American Hustle

Video Discoveries:

    As the Summer came to an end, and 2013 was beginning to wear me down, I found myself turning back to film history.  Always a fan of older films, I tend to pepper my viewing with all sorts of classics and not-so-classics from the Silent era, the Pre-Code days, the Golden Age, and more.  This Fall, however I began to grasp at them as a drowning man.  I even went Criterion Crazy in November.  So, what follows are a few of the really excellent finds from yesteryear.

10.  The Mercenary, The Great Silence, & El Condor: Three awesome Westerns, thanks to Brad.
9.  The American Astronaut: A very, very weird comic Western Sci-Fi film. And so funny.
8.  Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht: A really excellent remake of the classic silent film.
7.  Sulivan’s Travels:  A fantastic Depression era comedy.  Great script.
6.  Summer Interlude:  This helped kick off a Bergman feeding frenzy. I guess I’m a fan now.
5.  Challenge of the Masters & My Young Auntie: Two must see martial arts films.
4.  Marketa Lazarova:  Czech film?  Who’d have thought.  OK, show me more.
3.  Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: It’s my happening, and it freaks me out.
2.  Design for Living:  An absolutely hysterical and shockingly naughty comedy.
1.  Leave Her to Heaven:  I fell in love with Gene Tierney.  Hard.

Video Re-Discovery:

Chung King Express.  When I first saw this film back in 1999 or 2000, I just didn’t get it.  I think I was expecting some kind of action movie, maybe some sort of martial arts film.  I was interested in it for two reasons, it was being put out on Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder line and it had Brigitte Lin.  What I got was some kind of romantic comedy…or something, I don’t know.  And I didn’t like it.  After reading the weird memoir The Film Club, I was prompted to give the film a second shot, and I’m so glad I did.  To say the very least, I enjoyed it much more the second time around.  I’d changed as a person, my tastes had changed, and my expectations were different.  I found the film moving and deeply charming.

Actor of the Year:  Amy Adams (Man of Steel, American Hustle, Her) had a great year.  She’s an actress who’s been around for a while, and who I’ve enjoyed in a few films before.  But 2013 was a revelation for me.  She’s probably the only thing that didn’t suck in the second half of Man of Steel, and plays probably the only live-action Lois Lane I don’t want to push under a train.  She gives heart to American Hustle; and in both that and Her, she turns in subtle and nuanced performances I found captivating.  Do I have a new favorite actress?  Maybe not.  But she’s on my radar now, for sure.

Discovered Actors:  I made three particular discoveries this year.  Having now seen Greta Garbo in films, I get it.  I get why she was such a phenomenon.  She’s dynamite; there’s no denying.  I’d seen Gene Tierney in a bunch of movies and thought nothing of her.  Perfectly beautiful, but not especially memorable.  That’s because I’d been watching the wrong movies.  She left me absolutely breathless in Leave Her to Heaven, and I’ve since seen her in a bunch of excellent performances.  Almost supernaturally beautiful, your instinct might be to ignore her acting talent.  But it’s there.  And finally, watching a bunch of Ingmar Bergman films, I couldn’t help but appreciate the versatility and power of Gunnar Bjornstrand.  Be it a bastard of a pastor or a gregarious squire, the man brought the goods.

Moulder’s Beard (the only good thing in an otherwise unwatchable film): Scotty’s shirt from his drunken bar hop in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Most Unfairly Maligned Film: The Lone Ranger.  What did you people want?  It’s all the fun of a Pirates movie, but in the West.  Great.

Most Unjustly Lauded Film:  Gravity.  Like Children of Men, I can’t help but feel that the gimmicky long-shots are more important than telling a good story or creating compelling characters.  Worst astronaut ever.  I did love that final beach shot, though.  The movie as a whole?  Meh.

Glad to See You Again: Rosario Dawson.  An actress I’ve wanted to be a fan of for many years, but who keeps doing movies I either can’t stand, or won’t watch.  But with Trance, an otherwise forgettable film, Dawson finally sinks her teeth into a solid performance that I found myself enjoying much more than the rest of the picture.

Best Remake: Journey to the West

Worst Remake: Evil Dead

Best Quote:  “Jesus Christ has blessed me with many gifts; one of them is knocking someone the fuck out.” -Pain & Gain

“Hey, it’s better than Avatar.” (Movies that might not be great, but are still better than Avatar)

5.  Her
4.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
3.  Byzantium
2.  Furious 6
1.  Elysium

The Biggest Disappointments:

5.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  I was expecting more of the same, and I got it.  But the movie did leave me a bit cold, because of the desperate need for considerable trimming.  It's fine.  But not as good as the first part.  And yeah, as has been asked so many times, why is this a film trilogy?  Also how sad is it that the best Elf character was the one that didn't come from the book?

4.  Pacific Rim:  Del Toro just keeps missing the mark, and it’s getting depressing.  The movie is fun, and there are some very good sequences.  But the plot totally sucks.  I didn’t actually like Top Gun, so seeing it rehashed didn’t do anything for me at all.

3.  Star Trek Into Darkness:  For all the reasons I’ve already talked about.  And it’s just not fun to watch.  Is it Nemesis or Generations bad?  Time will tell.  But it’s not good, and killed my interest in this re-launched alternate universe.  Back to the original series for me.

2.  Elysium:  There’s so much good in this movie.  But the message is too heavy handed, and the ending feels totally false.  Still, if you’re a William Gibson fan, there’s a lot of stuff to love in the realization of the horrible future.

1.  2013:  Yeah, I’m picking the whole year.  While the last couple of months turned things around, so that I didn’t leave the year on a sour note, that still left 10 months of heart-sinking awfulness.  The fact that numbers 9 through 20 on my list this year are nearly interchangeable, and I only feel comfortable with 8 movies on my top ten list says a lot.  Even a lot of the bad movies weren't even bad enough to mock.  On top of that, so many movies that did look interesting never played anywhere near me.  And that’s frustrating and disappointing.  2013 looked amazing when it started, but movie after movie didn’t live up.  Here’s hoping next year turns it around.  Where’s my 2011?

Most Anticipated Film of 2014:

Godzilla:  Yeah, there are a few 2013 movies that don’t seem to be getting theatrical runs (if that even happens) until 2014, so I sure want to see them.  And there are a bunch of very cool looking movies coming as the year goes on.  But I’m a long time Godzilla fan, and I’ve been hoping for a good, serious take on the venerable beast for a long time.  From the director of the low budget Horror/Sci-Fi kaiju movie Monsters, this film looks like it might be amazing.  Sure, things could go terribly wrong and it might totally suck.  I can’t imagine anything like that dreadful 1998 version, but there is a lot of gray area between that film and ‘good.’  I’m hoping this new version doesn’t end up there.  Runner up: Guardians of the Galaxy (what world do we live on?!).

Top 20:

20.  Thor: The Dark World
19.  Upstream Color
18.  Renoir
17.  Stoker
16.  All is Lost
15.  Pain & Gain
14.  Computer Chess
13.  Lone Ranger
12.  The World’s End
11.  American Hustle
10.  Europa Report
9.  Oblivion
8.  A Field in England
7.  Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
6.  Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie
5.  Journey to the West
4.  Inside Llewyn Davis
3.  The Wall
2.  The Great Beauty
1.  Only God Forgives

-Matthew J. Constantine

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