Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top 10 'Movie Stuff' of 2013

10. Europa Report
Not to be confused with (let alone dismissed as) a 'found footage' film. One could argue otherwise in the general sense, but the actual premise and presentation of what you're seeing is something else fundamentally. This is indeed a video "report" of the events that take place aboard the shuttle Europa on its mission to the ice moon of Jupiter, which is different from the forced happenstance of someone capturing the footage randomly. As a viewer, you never have to stop and rationalize or measure the credibility of what you’re seeing. This is classic expedition science fiction in the vein of Destination Moon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Where Gravity dumbed over the masses with showy FX spectacle and mawkish sentimentalism, this film keeps its human drama clinical while mission hazards are viewed objectively in relation to various onboard cameras. The story steers clear from both self-help 'feel good' conclusions and simple space monster trappings, instead depicting with realism (yet not without certain weirdness) the possibility of alien life and tackling the theme of Man’s willingness to sacrifice himself for profound discovery. The final images transmitted from the Europa are truly exhilarating on all these accounts.
09. The World’s End
Edgar Wright blows the doors off his Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy in all manner of action, humor, humanity and whip-sharp editorial moxie. The sheer density of the film, and in in proportion to its two predecessors, is simply too much to cover in one brief summary. So, rather than attempt to highlight everything, I will simply reference the 1987 single 'This Corrosion' from The Sisters of Mercy, which is featured quite dramatically in the film’s climax and epilogue, before being heard in full (or at least the 4:27 version) during the end credits. I reference this song in how it perfectly encapsulates the alternative rock, counterculture idealism of the film’s lead character, Gary King, and how its propulsive, rhythmic blast reflects the film’s wild exuberance as a whole. It also anthems the increasingly anarchic, borderline libertarian, attitude beamed by our heroes during their climactic act of defiance against cosmic overlords who mask tyranny with bullshit appeals to "peaceful unification" and dreams of eternal youth. I love this movie for the way it builds to an insane, 'all-bet’s-of' conclusion of party-hardy medievalry amidst a post-apocalyptic world, right down to its snap-closing shot of Simon Pegg grinning a berserker’s grin before lunging into battle.
08. The Wolverine
The best comic book movie of the year. Why? Because it’s neither an overblown, jokey gimmick nor is it bloated with dreary self-importance. This is a straightforward movie with good old fashioned storytelling. It doesn’t aim to outdo previous superhero blockbusters with bigger and more relentless CGI destruction and spectacle. You know the endings to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers and Man of Steel that feature flying monsters and/or giant alien death rays destroying entire cites for their climax? Yeah, that doesn’t happen here. There are no gods or apocalyptic invasions or toppling skyscrapers or city-wide terrorist anarchy or chemical clouds mutating the masses into giant lizards ...or any kind of cheap 9/11 placating. Nope. In this movie Logan fights Japanese dudes -- some Yakuza, some ninja and some corporate samurai -- but mostly just dudes all the same. At work here is a much simpler genre: a criminal underworld thriller that just happens to take place in an X-Men universe. It’s a skillfully directed action brawler, but one that is laid out evenly with measured narrative that takes its time establishing plot and characters. People sit and talk in this movie, chafe personalities, challenge each other with life-notions and clash convictions as much as they do katanas and claw.
07. Leviathan
Verbalizing anything about this documentary of a North Atlantic commercial fishing boat would almost defeat the purpose. For starters, it’s not much of a documentary, at least not by any conventional standard. There is no thesis or exposition. No interviews or narration. No declarations about the fishing industry or environmental issues. There is only raw footage and sound of the very environ that is a fishing boat out at sea. It is, quite simply, an anthropological artifact in media form, using small, waterproof digital cameras to capture the immediate 24-hour functions of the ship and her crew in contrast to the surrounding ocean expanse. Yet, the intent here is not simply for one to experience working on a fishing boat. Fixed POV shots that last for minutes (up to 20) at a time expose the viewer to a visceral world up close, from all angles of life and death -- animate and inanimate -- often to such a degree that any rational context of the situation begins to waver in lieu of a more primordial state of awareness. We’re privy to the mechanical cranking of trawl nets in the dark, crew hands sifting through huge buckets of fish, a seagull on deck pecking for scraps, portside at surface level etc. And water. Constant water, be it sea, rain or a hot shower. It’s a powerful glimpse of existence filtered through digital sensors.
06. Computer Chess
In simplest terms, this is a sci-fi comedy that is wholly "indie" in spirit. However, it manages to sidestep many contemporary "indie" clich├ęs, in part, due to its 1980 timeframe, wherein a two-star hotel in Austin, Texas plays weekend host to a chess tournament. Only here the players are homemade/business enterprising computers, as obsessively hovered over by their nerd programmers. Filmed in a black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio and using an appropriately dated Sony AVC 3260, this storied microverse exists in rough videographic analogue. In-camera, the authenticity far exceeds nostalgia gimmick as something almost frighteningly accurate in both look and naturalistic atmosphere. Yet, as the narrative unfolds, awkward social interactions amongst programmers and late night, corridor journey subplots reveal an ever-stranger unreality lurking just beneath. The movie itself gradually assumes the form of coded gaming gone awry, and the presence of a possible artificial intelligence leads our main, four-eyed protagonist down the proverbial rabbit-hole. What follows is an early definition of 80s pop-paranoia concerning the onset 'singularity' of all things and bizarro visions of future android incognita. It makes for quite a head-trip viewing experience where you’ll find yourself probing every other scene for the emergence of encrypted data.
05. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Yes, the narrative of what is a rather digestible children’s story has been overstuffed with Middle Earth mythos out-sourced from Tolkien’s later writings and appendixes, inflated to grandiose filler and, in some cases, concocted entirely from scratch. This isn’t the book; it’s the book retrofitted as a prequel story proportionate to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. What’s done is done. So many sci-fi/fantasy/comic book endeavors in recent years either fail at creating immersive worlds or worlds that are genuinely interesting to explore. To give Jackson and Co. credit where credit is due, this movie continues with one of the most fully realized and engaging fantasy realms in the history of the medium, right up alongside Star Wars. If that means the storytelling goes a bit aimless within, so be it. The payoff is wondrous FX escapism & spectacle of the highest order, and I for one proudly champion Jackson’s 3D, 48fps vision: Middle Earth re-imagined as a live, televised event writ epic or a theme-park attraction akin to the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride, where I feel as if I can almost step out of my little boat and tour the Wood Elf fortress, feelings its textures and smelling the cool misty air, or stand among Bilbo and his Dwarven company as they dutifully act-out their parts for my benefit. The whitewater barrel riding is cheery fun and the extended Smaug set piece is Jackson the virtuoso action director firing on all six cylinders.
04. Byzantium
Consider this the accumulation of Neil Jordan’s auteur genre filmmaking, from archetypical horror-fantasy to heavily plotted neo-noir; from classical, windswept period to seedy urban sprawl. The 200 year misadventure of two mother-daughter vampires through English seaside towns is rife with equal parts lurid sensuality and forever youthful innocence, while the vampire mythology itself averts Eastern European Gothicism in that the source of said immortality is revealed to be something more anciently Celtic and mystical. This undoubtedly pro-feminist tale is built not on mere hip notions of female entitlement, but a grander historical backdrop of female exploitation in which our heroines survive via deeper instincts for the maternal. On display is Jordan’s innate gift for infusing his films with literary sophistication that nonetheless remains in service to cinematic imagery rather than at the expense. One of the highlights sees Gemma Arterton’s character vampirically reborn when bathed in a cascading island waterfall of blood; the metaphors overflowing. And yet, despite such poetic enormity, the story concludes with a comparatively mundane (though gory) skirmish at a dilapidated boardwalk carnival, thereby keeping one-half of the film firmly planted in aforementioned noir-ish genre, which makes for a dynamic mix.
03. The Bling Ring
This is not a "message" film, because Sofia Coppola is not a "message" filmmaker aiming for biting satirical commentary. Satire isn’t even necessary here, for there is no need to satirize that which is already so obscene to any average viewer with the slightest shred of tact and common decency. Watching these blithely superficial teens as they illicitly shop Paris Hilton’s walk-in shoe vault with 'oohs' and 'aahs' and 'like, oh my god!' makes for an absurd circumstance on its own; Coppola’s minimalist approach simply presents this at face value. It is but one escapade of many in this alternate, remote world where after-hour house raids of the rich and famous, and the celebrity/fashion worship by those involved, remain impersonal. These titular Ringers are not characters to be mocked or dramatized, but subjects to be studied coolly, hence the lack of character development: vacancy. is. the point. But not the experience. Coppola chooses her scene-by-scene, Hollywood Hills environments carefully and her concentrated visual framing explores physical spaces and open distances with such depth as to convey the story through mood, tone and atmosphere; altogether, through immersion. The effect is one of dry, ironic farce and languid surrealism ...and fun-–moments of material emptiness that are vaguely liberating, as chimed in one scene of accessorizing and a car ride through Beverly Hills by Rye Rye’s 'Sunshine'.
02. Under the Skin
Warped. Utterly, completely warped, down to its very core. The term 'cinematic masterpiece' is typically said with sarcasm or as a point of reference for some near-impossible standard. I simply use it here to describe a movie that has since left me fascinated by its properties and deeply stirred by its wondering narrative, one centered on Laura (Scarlett Johansson, muted but alert), an alien in human-hooker form who roams Scotland to feed on the flesh of seduced hitchhikers. Names like Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Lynch will come to mind when watching this film, but director Jonathan Glazer only skims them for inspiration; this is ultimately his own vision. And what a vision it is, pushed far beyond Nicolas Winding Refn’s smug posturing of actors or Lars von Trier’s dopey digital screensavers and shock-schlock grabs for attention. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its art-house pretensions, but that it lives up to them with abstract imagery that actually beckons one’s imagination instead of merely assuming its own importance. Various on-location settings are either alive and moving or too bleak and naturalistic to be weighed down with overly deliberate staging. There is no artifice here, but a real world that is conversely, inescapably, oneiric. Logically, Laura remains a cypher, though her journey is all-too human in its sense of alienation.
01. Jurassic Park 3D
I first considered ranking this in at No. 10 purely as an honorary inclusion and thereby giving the rest of the lineup over to the new entries of 2013, but that would only confuse the fact that it remains my favorite film on the list, as it is one of my favorite films of all time. Not as artistically challenging, you say? Hold that thought. Showmanship is as much an art form as anything else; the art of presentation, delivery, reveal; the art of constructing thrills, generating excitement and leaving audiences glazed over with awe. To that extent, Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur adventure stands as one of the absolute best showpieces of his career. Seeing it again in theaters this past Spring I was amazed at how well it holds up after 20 years. And while the 3D upgrade wasn’t necessary, it was by no means a hindrance either. Spielberg’s deep focus framing already lends itself to stereoscopic dimensions anyhow, so the actual 3D conversion merely feels like a natural extension. The 3D release was also color graded with a softer image and muddier, amber glow as opposed to the video-grainy, brighter blue tint of the 2011 Blu-ray (DNR vs. excessive sharpening, take your pick), which is significant as it more faithfully adheres to the darker and more cinematic contrast of the original 1993 theatrical release. Re-experiencing this cinematographic look 20 years later was a treat all its own, 3D or not.
The Wolf of Wall Street 
47 Ronin
Pacific Rim
Inside Llewyn Davis
Side Effects
Machete Kills
The Book Thief

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