My resolution for the new year (inasmuch as I believe in such things) is to update more. Toward that end, I will be allowing myself to relax and share shorter impressions of more things, rather than getting bogged down in longer articles so much (I still have three unfinished from the past year). If this seems to skew to the negative, it's because I'm also working on a separate list of the Best of 2013, and many of these are those that did not make the cut.
Escape From Tomorrow - 2013
Written & Directed by Randy Moore
The story behind the Escape From Tomorrow is really more interesting than the movie itself. Much of it was filmed surreptitiously within Disney World, unbeknownst to corporate and park management. That's pretty cool. Sadly, the long, long segments of park-wandering lose their fascination for the viewer much earlier than they did for the filmmaker. It was actually possible to watch much of it on fast forward without missing a thing. The acting is just bad and the story wasn't really a story so much as a pastiche of weirdness and creeping dread. There are some interesting and funny parts, but it doesn't add up to a satisfactory whole. Think of it as a (what was once called) a "head" film for the digital age of paranoia. It's a bad trip for characters and viewers alike.
Blue Jasmine - 2013
Written & Directed by Woody Allen
I have only myself to blame.
I was immediately put off by blurbs describing the story as "a troubled New York socialite imposes on her sister after her philandering Wall Street husband's indictment brings on a nervous breakdown." Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against nervous breakdowns, but vapid and solipsistic New York socialites really aren't my bag. Then it started getting all kinds of awards attention, so I decided to give it a chance and received a stark reminder about trusting my instincts. The characters are miserable and unpleasant. No one learns anything. All hopes are false. The character arc is not-so-much an arc as a body tumbling down an incline, left for dead.
The acting is good and the photography is pretty. It might even be a good movie, but that simply doesn't trump its unlikeability for me. I may be done with Woody Allen.
Captain Phillips - 2013
Written by Billy Ray
Directed by Paul Greengrass
I didn't expect much from Captain Phillips. I had a pretty good idea about the story, and while it's true that it held few surprises, Greengrass' way with cinematic pacing kept me engaged throughout. I had a pretty good idea what to expect from Tom Hanks, and while it's true that his New England accent held few surprises, he really delivered the emotional intensity to keep pace with the third act. I had a sense, watching the film, that the characters existed outside of the part of their lives that we're shown. It wasn't so much a matter of the story, to suggest this, but their emotions and behaviors that showed us they were connected to things outside of the frame. Obviously this is something we're meant to feel more often, from characters in films, but the fact that it stood out to me so starkly makes me think; maybe we haven't been getting what we should. Involving and entertaining -- this is what we watch movie for.
12 Years A Slave - 2013
Written by John Ridley - Directed by Steve McQueen
In 1841, Solomon Northrup, a free black man, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This wasn't so uncommon at the time, but what is exceptional about it is that he was eventually freed and wrote a book about it. That's not just a summary; that's pretty much the entire story. 12 Years A Slave offers no surprises and very little insight. I watched Roots again last year, so this really felt like a reprise. Where Captain Phillips held few surprises, it made up for it with its own kinetic momentum. 12 Years A Slave, however, has very little momentum other than the desire to see him free again, with a slow, languorous pace which I believe was designed to convey the sensation of 12 long years. The film is beautiful to behold and performances range from the excellent (mainly Chiwitel Ejiofor) to the eye-rollingly melodramatic, and points between. I'm not exactly complaining. As long as the idea holds appeal to you as a viewer, this is an excellently made film and you should enjoy it much as you expect to. If, however, you're looking for something that will enrich your understanding of the American Shame of Slavery, it's only going to tell you what you already know.
One thing I want to say about 12 Years A Slave is how I appreciate it telling its own story. Last year, we had a bunch of whiny-ass writers and directors bitching about Django Unchained using slavery themes. Steve McQueen DID something -- shared HIS voice and vision -- rather than gripe, and for that, I respect him even more. Your turn, Spike Lee. Deliver, or shut the hell up.
Also, can we talk about how fucking creepy Paul Dano is? Guh!
Saving Mr. Banks - 2013
Written by Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith - Directed by John Lee Hancock
Another short-on-plot, long-on-character piece of end-of-the-year obvious Oscar-bait. In fact, I think this is a slot within that frame that comes around every year; the Gentle Biopic (often set in Old Hollywood). It was Hitchcock last year and The King's Speech the year before. Anyway, what we get here is the fairly light story of the strained relationship between P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and Walt Disney, who deeply wanted to bring it to the screen. Emma Thompson really carries the film. The filmmakers give us her extremely prickly character, and then actually bother to develop that, causing us to question why and lending the film its main momentum. Tom Hanks does his affable Tom Hanks stock character here, which is endearing enough, but offers far less depth than Thompson (or indeed, Hanks in Capt. Phillips). He does a nice job with the speech at the end that magically makes everything all okay.
American Hustle - 2013
Written by Eric Singer & DOR - Directed by David O. Russell
Great performances, especially from Amy Adams. The plot isn't particularly engaging and it falls to the characters to propel the film forward, which they do, mostly without falter. However, I can't say that they ever give us much to care about.
I, personally, find it interesting that we're now calling David O. Russell a director with a "confrontational method" where back around the time of Three Kings we merely recognized him as an unbalanced asshole.
Enough Said - 2013
Written & Directed by Nicole Holofcener
wanted so badly to like this movie. It starts out as a sweet romantic
comedy about adults-of-a-certain-age finding each other and negotiating
the silliness of dating, all while enjoying funny conversations. Then it
turns on you like a good curry made with bad goat. People stop acting
like adults and the plot-like substance which emerges turns out to be a
DEEPLY STUPID sitcom kind of set-up. And then that just drags on, VERY,
VERY UNCOMFORTABLY for the remainder of the film. When Dreyfus'
immature behavior catches up with her, it's hard to care because she's
been such a cowardly a-hole. I just wanted Gandolfini's character to
get these HORRIBLE women out of his life. As disappointing as getting a
Fony GameStation 4 with Carl of Duty 9 for Christmas.
The Heat - 2013
Written by Katie Dipold - Directed by Paul Feig
I really wasn't sure we needed another comedic take on the buddy cop movie after Cop Out and The Other Guys, but The Heat delivers enough energy and silliness to make it a good, fun time. The viewer is responsible for checking their higher sensibilities at the door. It's obvious, when we see Melissa McCarthy chasing down a perp in her car (because she'd lose him in the length of a block on foot) that the idea of her as a badass break-the-rules kind of cop is laughable in an uncomedic way, but she sells it with the same goofball mania that she brought to Bridesmaids and her SNL appearance. It's funny, and that's its job.