So I started off planning to write my short, thousand or so word, piece about the three best movies I saw this year. The plan was to throw in a couple of honourable mentions and, well…there are a lot of them.
Broken City began the Year(s) of Wahlberg with a peppery, noirish story that never quite reached the heights of Mark Wahlberg’s central performance. It was a good year for bad men, in terms of quality if not box office. Bullet to the Head , for example, was the best movie Sylvester Stallone, and Walter Hill, have made in a few years and no one noticed. Stallone’s had an interesting year, his constant search for an urbane bad ass franchise character bouncing him off the flawed but fun Bullet in the Head and the more flawed, but arguably slightly more fun, Escape Plan. At time of writing, I’ve yet to see Grudge Match but it seems likely Stallone will secure a hat trick of interesting, lumpy, largely overlooked movies in 2013.
Then again, he wasn’t alone.
The knives were out for A Good Day To Die Hard, it seemed, long before some critics had even seen the movie. The movie’s principle crime seemed to be existing and whilst it wasn’t high art or even the best Die Hard this century, it was still fun and deserved to better received, if nothing else for how prepared it was to use physical sets. Willis had more, deserved, success with RED 2 at the end of the year though and it seems pleasingly symmetrical that, as we end 2013, there are two action franchises, Fast and RED, that sit happily at either end of the age spectrum. I wonder how long until the crossover…
Interestingly, the only two Western action stars to gain real traction this year were Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson. Statham’s relentless work ethic, and fanatical dedication to his trope (Shaven headed australio-cockney troubled bringer of DOOM) showed up three times in 2013. Parker, an attempt to reboot the Donald E. Westlake books was very, very awful in almost every way. A plodding, sexist waste of 90 minutes enlivened only by Statham’s brutalist consistency and a nice turn by Michael Chiklis. Redemption saw him actually flex some dramatic muscles, as well as physical ones, to surprisingly good effect and his cameo in Fast 6 was one of the highlights of a ridiculously fun movie. Most interesting though was Homefront. There seemed to be a genuine attempt to grow and expand his default character in there and, whilst most of it landed on the cutting room floor, it speaks well to Statham’s future. He’s the definition of a one trick pony but he is very, very good at that trick and looks to be slowly learning some more.
Johnson is, if anything, a little further along the same track. I saw four of his movies this year, that break down neatly into pairs.. GI Joe: Retaliation and Fast 6 were both immensely entertaining action movies in which Johnson had the same role; anchor. In the former he was a still point in an immensely busy script that still, despite the nine month delay and bizarre retooling, did a solid job of rebooting its franchise. In the latter he secured his position as everyone’s supremely grumpy older brother. Johnson and Diesel have effortless (and hot, let’s face it) chemistry when they’re on screen and Johnson’s character is exactly the sort of larger than life role he excels at. Fast 6 remains the strongest entry in the series to date and a big part of that is down to Johnson, Diesel and the late Paul Walker at the center of it.
Johnson’s other two movies this year were far more challenging. Snitch saw him play a father trying to lower his son’s prison sentence by infiltrating a drug cartel, and was a surprisingly grounded, mature performance. Crucially, Johnson spent much of the movie sharing screen time with John Benthal, an effortlessly good character actor. The two men worked supremely well together and, whilst Snitch’s direction ultimately feels flat, Johnson seems very comfortable in this kind of role.
Then there was Pain and Gain, legitimately the oddest movie Michael Bay has ever done. Bay has, deservedly to be fair, become the ultimate target for lazy film writers. His films are overblown, incoherent, profoundly in love with military iconography and crammed full of bombast and empty spectacle. But when Bay’s on form, there is no mainstream director more prepared to kick stuff over just to see what happens.
Pain and Gain is Bay on form in a way he’s never, ever been before. Based on the true, and horrifying, story of three bodybuilders’ elaborate kidnapping plan it continued the Year of Wahlberg and featured great performances from Antony Mackie, Rebel Wilson and Ed Harris. Johnson, as tormented born-again Christian cokehead Paul Doyle is what stays with you though. He walks a thin line between monstrous and comic and quickly establishes himself as the uncertain, occasionally very violent, heart of the movie. Pain and Gain as a whole was impressive, but Johnson’s work in it was remarkable.
There were some fun thrillers this year, and a surprising amount of them starred James McAvoy. Welcome to the Punch was a far better action movie than many reviews suggested, and continued the ongoing conversation that particular genre is having with the issues surrounding private security firms and the privatization of law and order. Of course it did this by having McAvoy, Mark Strong and an amazingly good supporting cast, including a criminally under used Andrea Riseborough, punch and shoot a lot of people but you work with what you have. Plus it features the best, and probably first, John Woo-style shootout in a nice old lady’s lounge ever committed to film.
Filth, at the other end of the year, couldn’t have been more different. Adapted from the Irvine Welsh novel, it saw McAvoy play a meteorically self-destructive CID officer during the worst days of his life. Crammed with gloriously growling Scottish monologues, filth, depravity and violence it was also the bravest, most human performance I saw this year. McAvoy runs headlong at every single scene and you can’t stop watching him, even as he sinks ever lower. Not one of those films you ever need to see more than once but sterling work nonetheless.
Now You See Me didn’t feature McAvoy but you suspect the main characters could have stolen him if they thought they needed him. Ocean’s 11 with added magic, it was smart, sly fun that embraced the principle of misdirection that lies at the heart of all great magic. The ending managed to not only be complete and satisfying but hint at a larger world involving a secret society of crime fighting magicians, a little like Assassins’ Creed with added card tricks. I am, as a result, hugely excited about the sequel.
Over on the darker side of the street, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters had beautiful design work and a pair of great central performances but never once cohered. That being said, Renner and Arterton are both supremely good at what they do and Arterton in particular seemed to relish getting her hands dirty. As a B movie it was great fun. As anything else, it was two good performances looking for something to build on and not finding it.
Dark Skies was likewise crammed full of good performances and good ideas but was a little let down by the script. Keri Russell continues her heroic struggle to get people to notice her and, hopefully, her front and center position in the new Planet of the Apes movie will finally secure that. Here she was on top form in a deeply unsettling alien abduction movie that landed pretty much everything it put in the air. There’s an especially great sequence involving lost time and the hallucinogenic final moments are clearly grounded in some pretty extensive research into abduction experiences. The actual ending (Or is it?!) was a disappointment but Dark Skies was the best B-movie I saw this year. Light on its feet, clear idea of where it was going and a scene stealing performance from JK Simmons that you’ll see riffed on in UFOlogy fiction for years to come.
The Evil Dead remake was directed with similar confidence but had serious problems under the hood. The central performances were solid and, again, the willingness to go physical with as many of the effects as possible, really paid off and the central performance from Jane Levy is utterly relentless. But in a post Cabin in the Woods world it’s all but impossible to accept a script that only works if a character reads from a book that may as well have THIS WILL KILL YOU stenciled on the front. All in all, a rare case of a reboot managing to succeed but also show how far things have come since the original.
Blockbusters are normally difficult to talk about for the same reason as Doctor Who is. There are so many opinions, so many entrenched viewpoints that trying to approach one openly is often very difficult. With that in mind there’s not really that much to say a lot of the big releases this year, at least not in this context. Marvel continued to produce ridiculously polished, fun superhero movies. DC produced their one movie until 2015 that I really liked and a good deal of other people did not. Fast 6 was easily the most competent, polished, fun action movie in a good few years and The World’s End provided a gloriously skewed capstone to Wright, Pegg and Frost’s Cornetto Trilogy. They’re all good movies, even great ones, and there’s a lot of excellent writing about them on them out there as well as legions of lazy, badly written pieces. Go seek the good stuff out. It’s worth it.
That being said, The Heat and Catching Fire both stood head and shoulders above the crowd, thanks largely to the resolutely unusual nature of their success. The Heat, which cast Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as mismatched cops, was an absolute hoot. McCarthy’s glorious, stream of consciousness profanity combined with some really smartly handled comic beats delivered a movie that did nothing but make you laugh for its entire running time. The buddy cop movie is back, based on this and last year’s excellent <i>21 Jump Street do over. Even better, it’s far more prepared to go both dark and absurd.
Catching Fire holds the attention for very different reasons. The second most brutal dystopia I saw this year, it’s a relentlessly dark story with intelligent direction, scripting and five outstanding performances driving it. Donald Sutherland’s President Coin is a feline monster of a man, every line of his frame a threat but it’s the four central performances that stay with you. Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason is a seething ball of axe wielding, articulate rage who is absolutely Katniss’ equal and never once backs down, even in scenes when she has no dialogue. Liam Hemsworth’s quiet, stoic Gale is a moral weight at the center of the movie whilst Josh Hutcherson’s quick-witted, articulate, increasingly aware Peeta is Gale with better PR skills. Both men have much more to do this time and both pick up the ball and run with it.
As ever though, this is Jennifer Lawrence’s movie. The wounded, silent dignity she perfected in the first movie has become something close to a psychotic break here as we see Katniss move through rage at being selected again, to terror at being back in the Arena and a growing acceptance of the role that’s been thrust upon her. The entire last scene is nothing but her eyes and Lawrence tells us everything she’s feeling without saying a word. The last time a cliffhanger had stakes this high, it was The Empire Strikes Back.
Finally, whilst mainstream is almost as meaningless a title as blockbuster, that seems to be the best way to describe The Fifth Estate and Rush. Both were studies of male friendships in extremis and both featured Daniel Brühl as one of the two. Brühl’s performance in Fifth Estate is excellent, wrestling with his principles and identity against Cumberbatch’s glacial, driven and charming Julian Assange. It’s his performance in Rush that really stands out though. As Niki Lauder, playing against a perfectly cast Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, Brühl constantly dialed down as everything around him is dialed up. He’s brutally pragmatic, completely unforgiving of himself and as the movie closes has the serenity of a man who realizes the race can be won by not competing at all. That, combined with the destructive tendencies explored in both Hunt and Assange, makes them fascinating movies and a compelling double feature. One explores intellectual competition, one explores physical. It’s interesting that the physical competition is the one with a positive outcome.
That was 2013, and it taught me a couple of things. Firstly that there were a lot of good mainstream films released this year and secondly that I have very defined tastes. Throw me a genre movie and I’m basically there, throw me a comedy movie and odds are I’m there but the more mainstream fare is difficult ground for me. That’s not good, firstly because it skews my view and secondly because there were a lot of good mainstream movies, and documentaries, released this year.
So I have a plan. In 2014, I’ll be bringing the Friday Film Club back. It’ll be a piece about a movie I saw that year, with the remainder of the 2012 pieces mixed in for good measure. I’ve got a raft of documentaries lined up, some mainstream movies too and I’ll push the envelope a little bit. There’ll still be plenty of Statham and Johnson, don’t worry, but it’s time to try a couple of new things. Check back next Friday to find out what’s first, and back here shortly for my top three movies of the year.