My Top 20 Movies of 2013 – The List: Part 1
Previous: 2013 Preamble.
2009: Top 10
As of now, Prisoners inexplicably sits in the IMDB top 250. Inexplicably, you say? But it’s here on the list? That it is, and for the first hour or so, it’s the tense, weighty thought-piece about the ethics of torture, and the lengths to which desperate men will go that you might have expected going in. Hugh Jackman, a man who spends his life preparing for emergencies, suddenly finds himself in one, and it’s a scorching performance as he unravels, grasping a fistful of straws so violently they’re spluttering the safe word. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal, a high-strung IED of twitches and blinks, is fantastic. Though there’s nobody who wouldn’t find their head in their hands at the sight of Terrance Howard reaching for a trombone, audiences should feel safe in the knowledge they’re witnessing a solid, tense drama.
But on the winds, is that…? It is. The distant dong of a broadly-painted warning bell, tolling in the cliché of a child-minded, probable-nonce, Paul Dano, which is dangerous performance territory (see: Daniel Mays in Red Riding). Thankfully, Dano keeps things just the right side of the Deacon-line, and Prisoners becomes an interesting mystery, continually expanding outwards like all good mysteries should, before, as we were forewarned by our brain-damaged harbinger, it all starts to go a bit wacky.
Firstly, we meet a vigilante paedo-priest, and then kiddy-fiddler #3, who’s identified when he’s clocked by Gyllenhaal lecherously caressing a stuffed rabbit at a candlelight vigil. It’s such a pantomimey, Lifetime Movies reveal, that you’re one close-up away from a drool-slavered chin and leaky boner-tent. It’s around this point that Prisoners becomes a condensed (yet still over-long) mini-series, tipping a giant sack of improbable distractions into your lap to buy more time, with a sea of red herrings and jarring supervillains. Once we meet a bad guy who’s exactly how Nolan’s Batman films would portray the Riddler, we glance down to find our cinema seats have morphed into coconut mats, whizzing on a rapid, spiralling descent into spectacular dumbness. It’s all so gloriously and unexpectedly stupid, like Zodiac penned by someone who fended off middle-act writer’s block by hoovering a load of PCP into their lungs. The only way to watch is to revel in the bizarre combination of massive craziness and powerhouse acting, from two leads who were quite clearly cast by accident, instead of the material’s rightful players, Nic Cage and a sweaty John Cusack.
The first V/H/S was a big disappointment. A modern take on the Amicus or Tales from the Crypt horror portmanteau, using found footage, is such a killer idea. The problem with anthology films, particularly those with multiple directors, is uneven quality, with weaker segments dragging everything down, such was V/H/S. Ditto, this year’s ABCs of Death, a 26-chapter anthology, featured a tiny handful of excellent shorts bobbing atop a giant stew of shite like poo-tainted Halloween apples. Thankfully, barring the framing device and rather dismal first skit, V/H/S/2 is absolutely brilliant.
Adam Wingard’s opener plays like Black Mirror dry-humping J-Horror The Eye, and is passable, but once that’s out of the way, it’s genuinely hard to pick a stand-out. ‘Safe Haven‘, co-directed by The Raid‘s Gareth Evans, brings to mind everything from the People’s Temple to Heaven’s Gate, and the scary bits of survival horror videogames. It also features the most extraordinary — and real — trail of dangling snot, which caused me to thank all the gods I don’t believe in that it wasn’t in 3D. ‘A Ride in the Park,’ by the people behind The Blair Witch Project, takes a GoPro strapped to the head of an infected cyclist as a means to discover a new, gruesome, and wildly fun way of tackling zzzzzzzombies in 2013. The short running time keeps it exceptionally tight and fast-paced, as something that probably would have outstayed its welcome as a gimmicky feature-length. Finally, Jason ‘Hobo with a Shotgun‘ Eisener (who incidentally, was behind one of ABCs of Death‘s truly cracking shorts) directs ‘Slumber Party Alien Abduction,’ the title of which is plot inference enough; another taut little piece, although the final shot, a found footage cliché, is probably a step too far. Even though they release these things in the middle of the year, I do love a modern horror series taking up the annual franchise mantle, in the way that — the rubbish — Saw films did on Halloween, and the anthology is a great way to introduce new genre directors, or give existing names a chance to play around with an idea that wouldn’t have legs, or a greenlight, as a full movie of its own. When it works, like it did this time, it’s a huge amount of fun.
Amid endless debate about the skewed balance between rich and poor, with braying, egg-faced automaton, David Cameron preaching a ‘permanent austerity’ while literally sat on a golden throne (“We’re all in this together!”), Elysium doesn’t so much predict the future, as daub a sci-fi veneer on the present. Blomkamp paints a living, retching, future-slum world, unlike the empty lens flares and Poundland Blade Runner locales of your Len Wisemans; a world beset by the pertinent issues of now. As space border-hoppers — desperately seeking a better life, or the simple right of healthcare for their kids — try to sneak rocket-ships past immigration, the Haves, cloistered on a floating utopia, preach a sneering Not in My Back Yard.
Elysium marries these BBC Question Time topics with the kind of whomp-ass action sequences you’d hope for when the director of District 9 meets a buffed up, radioactive Matt Damon. Blomkamp’s design work has always been gorgeous, and it stands out all the more in cinematic areas that have long become homogenized into lazy standards. Futuristic guns have all been the same since Aliens, and robots could stagger unnoticed between any number of 21st century sci-fi flicks, but Elysium‘s weaponry ‘n droids evoke the kind of seat-leaning wonder you felt as a kid. There’s a real ‘weight’ to the effects, a lack of which is a huge problem in CG-heavy action films where you’re asked to connect to characters who’ve been pasted onto a PS3 cutscene. Action sequences here feel bruising; a handheld docu-feel, with dashes of ostentatious flash and beautifully used slow-mo. Another important piece of any genre puzzle is a repulsive villain, and Sharlto Copley’s shark-eyed merc is so magnificently dickish, you struggle to connect him as the same guy behind the bumbling, tragic Wikus. As confirmed by Elysium, future generations may view District 9 like those stories of miners finding living toads encased inside ancient rock. In hindsight, that film unearthed a pair of fully-formed talents, who could run and somersault as soon as they tumbled out of the womb, while others spend entire careers dragging themselves from film to film on hands and knees.
Eli Roth’s brand is the suffering of naïve first-worlders on carefree jaunts in foreign lands. From the Hostels to his upcoming cannibal flick Green Inferno, Roth bloody loves it when happy-go-lucky tourists pay the flesh-price for their cultural crimes. I hope his next film involves gap-year Christian missionaries building a school in Africa, laying down a single brick and taking Instagram snaps of themselves holding cute little black children like props, before they’re wrongly accused of being witches and hunted down by rioting, hyena-owning, machete-welding gangs. Wait. That’s actually great. Ah fuck, and now I need to write it.
Anyway, he’s back again, co-writing, and also acting, and as with all his stuff, the pitch is like something an excited teenage boy would babble into your face between wanks; “So there’s an earthquake, right? In a crazy foreign country where everyone’s either a hot woman or a prick. But get this — the earthquake brings down the walls to the local prison, and all the insane criminals get out!” Talk about a can’t miss. And it doesn’t. Just like Machete Kills, which was also fun, it’s rammed hemorrhoid-tight with inventive gore and bits that make “Ohh shit!” fly out of your mouth as you look around for someone to high five. The chaotic madness of a violent earthquake, with rioters, looters and horny prisoners running loose, is the exploitation-flick perfect storm, and this is the rare example of a killer premise that translates from napkin to screen.
Aftershock is part of this year’s perplexing destruction of of my previously infallible IMDB-based movie-choosing system, which is crumbling like a twat-filled Chilean club in a natural disaster. Unless there’s a specific reason I want to check it out, as a rule, I avoid anything rated below a 5, which is a guarantee of stinkage. As much as people always seem to be wrong, en-mass, their numerical judgements average out pretty well, and for poor movies, there’s no hiding in the IMDB rating. Or there wasn’t. Aftershock, currently a 4.8, sits here on the Top 20, and The Last Exorcism Part II sports a 3.9. Sub-four, but I still loved it. Has my judgement become impaired? Are you reading, open-mouthed, a list of terrible choices, with the same bewilderment I feel watching shrieking audiences fall for Robbie Williams’ wanker-at-a-wedding, “All this? For me?!” faux-humble bullshit act, time and again? No matter. Aftershock is a ton of fun, and had I waited, I may have been put off by the low score and bad reviews, but now you’ve read this, you too will avoid that fate, unless you’re a dunce. Oh, and stay away from the trailer, which is stupidly spoily.
Big, blockbuster action movies fill me with dread. The digital age has replaced thoughtfully choreographed set-pieces of action past with a bunch of random scenes where people narrowly miss stuff. Seriously, look for it. Since computers made it possible for characters to safely run through corridors or war-torn cities, while crumbling walls juuust miss falling on their heads, or buses thrown by giant monsters are duck-and-rolled under at the last possible inch, action movies have been shit. You’re never not aware it’s all just some dude in a green-screen warehouse side-stepping left like a Knightmare contestant, “Yeah, we’ll draw God’s CG turd narrowly missing you.” Roland Emmerich’s 2012 was an endless parade of “Oh no, gonna get hit by that falling building… Phew, narrowly missed! But now the road’s collapsing behind us… blimey! Narrowly missed!” and last year’s utterly excretable The Hobbit was even worse. Peter Jackson’s trousers get real tight when stuff gets narrowly missed. Thankfully, none of the awful blights of modern actioners are present in Pacific Rim.
As required by the monstrous budget, this is a way broader movie than the oddball-arthouse feel of Del Toro’s usual fare — so broad that a spluttering English character literally says “By jove!”– but one of his greatest strengths is rooting the fantastical in real, relatable human emotion. For such a huge, blustering movie, and following endless summers of noisy tedium, where they’re determined to not have you give a shit about any of the characters, it’s a near-revelation. Sure, they’re giant CG robot-suits, but the stellar character work has you invested in the fights. Fights, incidentally which are both fun, and where you can see what’s going on, rather than it just being shapes hitting other shapes.
Military fetishism has become another tired old trope, but Rim‘s designs inspire awe and excitement in a way Avatar never did, imbuing it with a sense of scale that draws you further into the world, instead of thinking “That must have took ages to render,” while briefly glancing across from Redtube. The mechs, and their alien adversaries, feel like a futuristic take on Universal’s classic movie monsters; American Gladiators a hundred feet tall, each with respective pro wrestling-style names and trademark finishing moves. Like with Gilliam or Herzog, Guillermo del Toro’s one of those filmmakers whose unique voice shines through whatever he does, and despite the summer blockbuster budget, Pacific Rim is every bit as him, and every bit as brilliant, as the films that preceded it.
Every year, there seems to be one film that I don’t want to talk about for fear of giving away its secrets. I knew nothing about Stoker, so watching was like hopping aboard a magical mystery tour, fearful of ditching over a cliff amid a cloud of my fellow passengers’ death-farts, but thankfully spending most of the journey mumbling to myself “I don’t know where this is going, but I like it.”
Written by the guy with the tats from Prison Break, who sent it out under a pseudonym to let it live on its own merits, it’s an incredibly confident first screenplay. An intricately constructed puzzle of overlapping pieces, visually, it’s phenomenally inventive, and Matthew Goode is perfectly cast as the worldly, exotic uncle of a small, broken family whose genetic trait seems to be ethereal detachment. Even Nicole Kidman, whose immovable, porcelain urinal of a face couldn’t find a way to emote through all the botox if she was being bitten in half by a shark is well placed, as the emotionally distant mother to Mia Wasikowska’s India. Interplay between Goode and the phenomenal Wasikowska is underlaid by a dozen different layers of coiled tension, like the oppression in the air before the sudden strike of a violent storm, and with a predatory undercurrent suggesting that should the masks slip, either could pounce — in love or war — at any moment. While Stoker is a fantastic, mesmerising puzzlebox of a film, I don’t think there’s ever been a less-needed final few minutes. The ending feels like it was tacked on by another director, and is the antithesis of the seething subtlety that makes the film as a whole so strong.
Although he’s one of those prolific auteur types, Steven Soderbergh usually leaves me cold. His back catalogue makes for a terrible gap in my film-nerd armoury, barring that one where Gina Carano kicks Fassbender right in his lovely big william, so what better time to start getting into his work than after he’s announced his retirement? Behind the Candelabra could almost be a vampire story. Liberace/Lee is something of an ageless figure, rendered immortal by a maxed-out level of fame, and veiled beneath wigs and plastic surgery. Matt Damon’s Scott, meanwhile, is hand-plucked from normality into Lee’s world, and enormous mansion, until he’s eventually replaced by a younger model, the way his predecessor was, and released back into the wild, irrevocably changed into what Lee made him. So far, so Vlad.
It’s a leisurely feel, sauntering through the years with no real plot beyond the building marital ennui, and giving spacious, gaudily-decorated room for the characters and their relationship — “Brother. Father. Lover. Best friend.” — to breathe. It’s funny, warm, and utterly riveting, and more than pretty much any film this year, you buy into the two characters and their relationship in a way that almost makes you forget about Michael Douglas proclaiming himself King of Cunnilingus. Matt Damon, a 43-year-old portraying a teenager, wears Hollywood’s most impressive aging-down yet, and as Liberace himself has become shorthand for personal excess, all Ric Flair robes and hot tubs, Candelabra provides a perfect level of of sumptuous glitz.
He’s a complicated figure; more than just a daylight Nosferatu operating on a cyclical system of “you’re only as old as the man you feel”; and Douglas imbues him with a believable level of charm. His Liberace stage performances require the word fabulous to be broken up with two hyphens, while the more tragic aspects of the character beneath the toupee are as crushing to the audience in their inevitably as they must have been to Scott. Another tragedy is that a pair of Oscar-worthy performances will go unrecognised as such, with Behind the Candelabra unable to secure a theatrical release in the US because two fellas having a bit of a kiss and cuddle is too much for the tender stomachs of America’s Christ-loving homophobes.
As the existence of comic characters no longer depends on whether the network that airs the sitcom in which they live decides to renew for another season, Partridge is one that can, and will, live on in various mediums and formats for years, or decades to come. Like Kenny Powers or Ron Burgundy, Alan’s part of our cultural folklore, with his quotes and verbal tics ingrained into our British braincells like primitive man’s fear of fire and loud noises. Over the years, he’s gotten so fleshed out, that different to, say, cries for Ghostbusters 3 so we can catch up with Peter Venkman, when we do get to meet Alan once in a while and see where he’s at, it’s more like bumping into an old colleague. Albeit a colleague who left under circumstances best described as ‘unclear’, and who’s startled by your over-enthusiastic ‘hi!’ as they’re browsing the Blu-ray rack in Morrisons.
As such, Alpha Papa feels like another natural extension of Partridge, rather than the days when sitcoms took to the big screen for a 90 minute Spanish holiday. As a film version should, it further extends its world, taking us out into Norwich, and the wilds of Cromer pier, and adding yet more meat to the bones of its lead and supporting players. Alan becomes more interesting as he gets older, with Coogan now the perfect age to portray a character who’s become more and more defined by the breakdown he was always inevitably headed towards. Post-Dundee Alan is a mess of neurotic impulse and second-guessing, forever choking down panic as his arms mentally windmill back from the wobbling edge of the psychological precipice, fearing he’ll tumble down into a relapse.
Alpha Papa is densely packed, without a single syllable or piece of physical movement going to waste, filled with lines, background jokes and vocal intonations that creep up with the stealth of a sweet smelling blow-off if they didn’t catch you right away, like a spade to the chin. Every piece of dialogue is quotable, slotting right into the library of very funny, very Alan lines of previous works, and the soundtrack — Roachford’s Cuddly Toy; the theme to Ski Sunday — is so on-point, it’ll become as iconic to comedy fans as one of Tarantino’s cinematic playlists. Thankfully for a big screen outing, the stakes are kept perfectly Partridge, with a siege at a local radio station still fittingly movie-sized, without venturing into White House Down world-saving. One scene even gifts us the credit of ‘Armed Mangina Officer’, which may trump Threads‘ famous ‘Woman Who Urinates Herself (uncredited)’. It’s often a terrifying prospect when beloved TV characters make the jump to film, but you leave Alpha Papa relieved and happy, with bad guts from laughing, and excited at the prospect of what Alan Partridge will be like at 60, 70, and 80.
Generally, low-budget horror clasps your wrist in its skeletal fingers to drearily walk you down one of two forking paths; ninety minutes of noisy slash-by-numbers, or panties-clad women being bothered by ghosts. Praise the Pit then, for Jug Face, a film that’s rooted in atmosphere, and the hard-set rules of its wildly original mythology. Establishing its tone right from the chalk-drawn, lore-setting opening titles, the story centres on a community of backwoods folk, isolated from the rest of the world, with their own rules and sacred traditions, and a religion focussed around the worship of a big hole in the ground — The Pit. The Pit, the all-knowing, silent deity looms over every scene and decision, kept happy with human sacrifices; offerings determined when a Pit-possessed potter sculpts a face jug in likeness of the chosen one.
Lauren Ashley Carter’s Ada is an outsider in a whole community of them, doe-eyed and incredibly striking (I needn’t worry about The Pit — I’ve already fallen into your beautiful eyes! <3), and trapped in the unenviable role of a woman in a horror film, desperately rallying against her inescapable fate. Rules are rules, be they of religion or genre, though that doesn’t stop the brave few from trying, and this seemingly futile battle, a constant struggle against dominoing repercussions, is underpinned by a super strong performance. Jug Face works as an inbred sister-piece to The Woman, with overlapping cast and crew, and Carter and Sean Bridgers, father and daughter in the latter, have a sweet relationship of feelings left unspoken, him the vulnerable village oddball at the end of pointing fingers once suspicion starts to fly, and her, the cause behind it all. Larry Fessenden, the man whom vaguely familiar character actors labelled as That Guy bow to as their king, shows why he should be afforded more screentime, while Sean Young gives a terrifying Hicksploitation take on the ardent religious mother, particularly during an aggressive vaginal inspection.
The production design is evocative of all the good ol’ brotherfucking locales of cinema past; a timeless rust and decay, with jam-jar moonshine and grimy hoe-downs, and the face jugs themselves are really unsettling, though not enough to stop me from wanting one of my own. Most interestingly, this isn’t an “is it or isn’t it?” mystery, as The Pit is established as real from the very beginning, rather, it’s an inventive mirror for unthinking, blind faith, as they defer their lives to a deity moving in mysterious, violent ways; like praising a God who cures cancer from a baby he also saw fit to fill with tumours. Those arbitrary interpretations of random events, in Jug Face‘s world, spawn from the literal breaking of commandments. The Pit heals because It’s kept happy with the sacrifices, and It’s mad because It’s been disobeyed. As an allegory for religion, it’s an audaciously blunt choice to have God be an actual empty hole.
Harold Camping has a lot to answer for. If not for 2011’s non-Rapture, then this year’s cinescape would be a very different, less doomy place. The day itself made for pretty great entertainment, if you happened to be watching the Camping church webcam as the hours ticked on, like I was. During their last hours on Earth, waiting to be sucked into the sky, Camping’s followers fielded phone calls that evolved from prankish mocking to cutely sympathetic in tone as it became clear Jesus was busy washing his beard or something. The church office was manned by an increasingly dejected elderly man, who began by confidently insisting that Gabriel’s trumpet would parp any time now, before gradually slumping into a figure not unlike a child in a raincoat looking up at the kitchen clock and realising that weekend dad had broken yet another promise. Finally, the webcast cut to pre-recorded hymns, and two years later, roughly the time it takes to bring a movie from conception to theatres, cinema screens of undestroyed planet Earth played It’s a Disaster, Hell Baby, Best Friends Forever, Rapturepalooza, The World’s End, and the second best of them all (always the Danny McBridesmaid), This is the End.
Post-Curb Your Enthusiasm, that thing of celebrities playing heightened versions of themselves where they’re rude or drugged-out has become a go-to, either as a way out of typecasting, or a final embracing of it (or, in many cases, a lazy pitch line. “I play myself, but I’m a dick!”) The ensemble cast play up to preconceived notions, casting James Franco as the pretentious weirdo, Seth Rogan the amiable stoner, and Danny McBride the psychopath you might think him to be, had you never seen Kenny Powers out of character. Jay Baruchel’s struggle as the outsider friend, now stuck with an LA crowd of Hollywood douches as huge-cocked hell-demons rampage outside, functions as a backbone of the story most people can identify with, albeit on a scale that usually doesn’t involve Satan’s jizzing throbber.
This is the End is everything an R-rated comedy should be, using the freedom to take things as far as they should naturally go, rather than tedious Movie 43-style testicles, turds, and people getting blowies off their mum. It’s also gloriously silly in, well, most places, with Danny McBride and James Franco’s lengthy, improvised argument about cumming over each other a particular highlight. Like with everything he’s ever been in, McBride prances away with the movie, like a cat burglar who’s flipping you off as tosses your wedding albums into a sack, and there’s a ton of celebrity cameos that’d be better off not spoiled by you looking them up on the wiki page before you see it. Rogan and Goldberg’s appreciation for risqué, biblical-themed comedy and heartfelt yet fucked up friendships, combined with their flagrant disrespect for religion makes me think that Preacher, much as I always wanted it for myself, is in safe hands.
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