Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Best and Worst Films of 2013

It has been a good year for film. Despite some major flops, there have also been some huge blockbuster hits like Iron Man 3, World War Z, The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World. Independent films have also done well this year and the quality of these small budget films has improved a lot in recent years. It's great to see more of them being supported by the general film-viewing community.
 
Here is my list of the 10 best films of 2013:
 
1) Prisoners
This was my only
five-star film of the year. The thought of a child
being kidnapped is every parent's worst nightmare and Prisoners explores that devastation thoroughly while blurring the line between good and evil. The cast, led by the fierce and fearless Hugh Jackman, is fantastic. Another masterpiece from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve.
 
2) The Great Gatsby
I loved almost everything about The Great Gatsby. It almost got five
stars and perhaps after I watch it a few more times I might improve my rating. The novel that the film is based on is one of my favourites and director Baz Luhrmann does it justice. He is the master of extravagance and the film is so wonderfully over the top and theatrical. The cast is also strong, especially Leonardo DiCaprio.
 
 
 
 
3) Zero Dark Thirty
I often have issues with films that are too long, because they are
usually self-indulgent. But Zero Dark Thirty is worth every second of its 157-minute running time. The pace is fast and will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is a fascinating true story, certainly dramatised for a film, but thrilling nonetheless.
 
4) Django Unchained
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has probably made his best film yet
with Django Unchained. The spaghetti western comedy rewrites the history of slavery in the United States with plenty of blood, romance, revenge, action and foul language. It is a lot of fun.
 
 
 
 
5) Mud
This is a beautiful and sad coming of age mystery with some gorgeous
cinematography. The central theme is love and how each character's notion of love drives them to act violently, deceptively, passionately and hopefully. It also juxtaposes the promise of youth with the harsh realities of life.
 
6) The Railway Man
This film is based on an inspiring true story of forgiveness. It tugs
at the heart strings and depicts harrowing scenes of war, but there is also a message of hope. Colin Firth is magnificent as the older Eric Lomax, while Jeremy Irvine is equally powerful as the younger version of the character. Consider yourself warned – you might cry.
 
 
 
 
7) Gravity
Wow, what a film and what a performance form Sandra Bullock who almost
carries the entire film on her own. Gravity is visually stunning with amazing cinematography and special effects, including flying debris. The film is only about 90 minutes long, but it is an intense experience. I have never felt so good about feeling claustrophobic.
 
8) The Reluctant Fundamentalist
I was still thinking about The Reluctant Fundamentalist for several
hours after I watched it. The film is interesting in the way it depicts how an innocent person can become hardened and disillusioned with society after being exposed to stereotypes and xenophobia. The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes the Western post-terrorism world reflect on how we treat people who are different.
 
 
 
 
9) The Imposter
This film is a confronting true story, but like any documentary, you
must also look at it objectively. Even if it is only half-way accurate, it is still an amazing story that will remain with you for a long time. Throughout the entire film I kept asking myself: "How could this have happened?" You will likely feel a gamut of emotions watching The Imposter.
 
10) Life of Pi
Released on New Year's Day in Australia, Life of Pi makes it on the
2013 list. Based on a novel, the film tells an inspiring story of a young man who befriends a tiger while they are stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Another visually spectacular film from director Ang Lee.
 
 
 
 
 
Honourable mentions:

The Paperboy – Such a brave and daring film to make. It is disturbing and confronting, but so very interesting. Amazing performances from a cast including Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack.

The Butler – An interesting way of looking at how African Americans
were treated under the rule of eight presidents in the US, including the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war.
 
Blackfish – Another solid documentary that is heartbreaking to watch, but it left a lot of unanswered questions about the treatment of Orcas at Sea World.
 
Kon-Tiki – Based on an amazing true story about explorer Thor Heyerdal's journey across the Pacific Ocean on a balsawood raft in 1947. This film was intriguing and has some great cinematography.
 
This Is The End – Certainly the most ridiculous comedy of the year, but
it is so much fun. Great cameos.
 
 
 
 
 

Here is my list of the 10 worst films of 2013:
 
1) A Haunted House
I barely laughed out loud during the entire film. That is not what you
want from a comedy. A disappointing endeavour from Marlon Wayans.
 
2) Goddess
A complete failure and an embarrassment to Australian cinema. I would
like to forget this film was ever made.
 
3) Broken City
What was Russell Crowe thinking when he signed on for this film? Broken
City is too long, boring, predictable, has awful dialogue and the characters are unlikeable.
 
4) Diana
A woeful soap opera that lacks any credibility as it chronicles
Princess Diana's love life. I felt like I was flicking through the pages of a sensationalised tabloid.
 
5) Runner Runner
This is supposed to be a thriller about the seedy world of online
gambling, but there were no thrills and the entire film was boring and predictable.
 
 
 
 
6) Adoration
The thought of a woman falling in love with a young man she practically
helped raise is so wrong, it is too hard to get passed to enjoy anything else about the film.
 
7) Jobs
It should not come as a surprise that Ashton Kutcher cannot act.
Unfortunately, his performance as the late Steve Jobs is not the worst aspect of the film. The story focuses mostly on Jobs' early years but it was so slow-paced and unsatisfying.
 
8) Oblivion
This film is so bad I forgot the convoluted plot the day after watching
it. The only good thing I can say about it is that its special effects were stunning. Oblivion tried to do too much.
 
9) The Counsellor
This film is dialogue heavy and the overall plot makes little sense at
all. The best aspect of The Counsellor was the creative and violent way in which characters die throughout the film.
 
10) Lincoln
I still do not understand why this boring, long film is so beloved. I
was not even impressed with Daniel Day Lewis' Oscar-winning performance.

 
 

Which films were on your best and worst list for 2013?
 
 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Book Thief

WRITTEN BY: Michael Petroni
DIRECTED BY: Brian Percival
STARRING: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer
RATING: 4.5 stars
 
When you love a novel, it can be hard to accept a film adaptation because it will inevitably not align with your imagination. The Book Thief is also written in a particular way that adapting it to film is an even more difficult task. But in the capable hands of director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni, the film is able to stay true to the substance of the novel and is all heart. The Book Thief is a moving tale that is likely to make you shed a tear - or several.
 
Adapted from Markus Zusak's bestseller, The Book Thief is narrated by Death. Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is sent to live with adoptive parents Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) in a small German town in the lead up to World War Two. She becomes friends with a boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch) and starts to learn to read with assistance from Hans who is very kind to her. But when a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives at their door seeking refuge, the family is put at risk. They hide him in the basement and hope the Nazis do not find him as the war starts to pick up.
 
Rush remains one of my favourite actors and deserves award attention for his portrayal of Hans, who is a compassionate man and encourages Liesel to follow her passion for books and creativity. Watson is surprisingly funny and endearing as the growling and scowling adoptive mother. Liersch is fantastic as Rudy, providing a lighter tone to such a serious film. Schnetzer is also solid as Max. His is a complex character who is both scared and brave, ill and strong. But it is certainly Nélisse's film. She is simply amazing and is a child actress worth keeping an eye on.
 
My only real issue with the film is the language. Most of the time, characters speak English with an accent, but then other times, they speak German or say a random word in German. It felt jarring at times. But, at least the accents were consistent.
 
If you love books and World War Two history, you will probably love The Book Thief. If nothing else, it will reignite your passion to read.
 
 
 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

American Hustle

WRITTEN BY: David O'Russell, Eric Singer
DIRECTED BY: David O'Russell
STARRING: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
RATING: 2.5 stars

Do you know why everyone has been talking so much about the hairstyles in American Hustle? Because there is not much else to talk about. The film is far too long and the plot unravels at a painfully slow pace. American Hustle has been promoted as a dark comedy but there were hardly any laughs, except from the extremely talented Jennifer Lawrence. The concept is good and the music is great, but the execution of the substantive plot was at times quite weak.

Loosely based on true events and set in New York in 1978, American Hustle tells the story of con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who are forced to work for FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso wants them to help him catch some badly-behaving politicians, a sheik and some mafia identities, as well as New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Seemingly, the only thing standing in their way is Irving's unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

Director David O'Russell has assembled stars from his previous films, The Fighter and The Silver Linings Playbook, and they work hard to hold the film together. Bale is almost unrecognisable, having gained a lot of weight. He is one of the most reliable actors working today. Cooper has never impressed me as an actor and he does little in this film to change my opinion of his abilities despite some dramatic moments. Adams is good, but her character takes on a fake English accent and she unintentionally slips several times. Renner is very good in quite a different role for him. Robert DeNiro also has a small role as a mob boss, but he is not used enough. Louis C.K. plays Richie's FBI boss and also provides some light entertainment with his running gag of trying to tell Richie a story about ice-fishing. But it is Lawrence who steals every scene she is in with her drama and comedic timing. I wanted to see more of her.

American Hustle had a lot of potential. It has received some award attention recently, but I found it lacking much interest.



Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

WRITTEN BY: Steve Conrad
DIRECTED BY: Ben Stiller
STARRING: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn
RATING: 3.5 stars


If you're not happy with your routine lifestyle, you may find some motivation to follow your dreams after watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In fact, even if you love your life, you may still draw some inspiration from the film. As a major daydreamer, I can definitely relate to Walter, and I think a lot of other people will too. This remake of a 1947 film, which has also been adapted from James Thurber's short story, is funny, sweet and uplifting.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a daydreamer, often zoning out from his dull reality to live in his own adventurous fantasy world where he is the witty and romantic hero. When his job at Life magazine is at risk, he is forced to take action in the real world by embarking on an extraordinary global journey in search of a missing photograph. He travels through countries including Greenland and Iceland, and confronts dangers including volcanoes, mountains and sharks.

Stiller also directs the film and pays close attention to details, especially cinematography and the soundtrack. His performance is also strong. Kristen Wiig is endearing as Walter's colleague, Cheryl Melhoff, with whom he is secretly in love with, but her role could have been played by any number of actresses in Hollywood. The running gag with Todd (Patton Oswalt) who is trying to help Walter improve his online dating profile is also humorous and a little silly at times. Shirley MacLaine plays Walter's mum, who has a more crucial role than expected, and Kathryn Hahn plays Walter's bubbly sister intent on landing an acting role as Rizzo in Grease. Sean Penn rounds out the cast as Sean O'Connell, the reclusive photographer Walter is trying to find but he only has a couple of scenes.

If you're looking for a feel good film this Boxing Day, you cannot go wrong with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.


Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

WRITTEN BY: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell
DIRECTED BY: Adam McKay
STARRING: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, James Marsden, Kristen Wiig, Josh Lawson
RATING: 3 stars
 
I've never really been a big fan of Will Ferrell's humour, but for those who enjoy his absurdity and loved the original Anchorman film, there is plenty of fun to be had with the sequel. The original cast returns for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, as well as some new faces to keep it fresh. The film is self-indulgent at times, and about 20 minutes too long, but you will laugh out loud a lot.
 
San Diego's famed newsman Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) is sharing the news desk with his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) when she is promoted and he is fired. But Ron is soon lured to a new job at the Global News Network (GNN) in New York, run by Australian millionaire Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson), who also owns Koala Airlines. The network wants to have news running 24/7, so Ron gathers his old team including weather man Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and sports anchor Champ Kind (David Koechner). His biggest rival at the station is arrogant Jack Lime (James Marsden). There are also some bizarre subplots involving Ron's son, a shark and a relationship with GNN producer Linda Jackson (Meagan Good) involving a lot of racist jokes that work without being too offensive.
 
The film is almost worth seeing just for the long list of cameos. I won't spoil any of them suffice to say there is a climactic battle scene with several big names in comedy and drama. Ferrell seems to relish playing Ron and he has a lot of fun with the character, including a memorable ice skating scene with a flute. Carell's laugh is contagious and his awkward relationship with Chani, played by the hilarious Kriten Wiig is brilliant. Marsden and Lawson are both welcome additions to the cast, while the remaining original cast are reliably funny.
 
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is silly fun for the festive season.
 
 

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Railway Man

WRITTEN BY: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson
DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Teplitzky
STARRING: Colin Firth, Jeremy Irvine, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tanroh Ishida
RATING: 4.5 stars

I loved The Railway Man. I remember being amazed and touched when I heard about two men who were adversaries at war and found some semblance of reconciliation decades later. Now, their inspiring true story has been made into a beautiful film that explores the devastating and emotional impact of war, and the power of forgiveness.

Based on Eric Lomax's memoir, The Railway Man tells the story of when Lomax (Colin Firth/Jeremy Irvine) was a British prisoner of war on the Thai/Burma "Death Railway" during World War Two. The film shifts between two timeframes - England in the 1980s and the war. Lomax's wife Pattie (Nicole Kidman) and his army friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) convince him that he needs to face his harrowing past or it will consume him. He embarks on a difficult journey to confront Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada/Tanroh Ishida) who tortured him during the war.

The performances in this film are nothing short of brilliant and are often heartbreakingly moving. Firth has some very emotional scenes, while Irvine is equally powerful as the younger and far more naive rail enthusiast. Both deserve award attention. Kidman is very good in a crucial role and Skarsgard is also reliably solid. Sanada also threatens to steal a few scenes as he expresses some much-needed humanity from his character.

Many Australians know about the Thai/Burma railway, because we had many POWs there too. But it is useful to our history to see one (English) man's story of survival in that landscape depicted on screen. Hours after I saw The Railway Man, I was still thinking about it. The Railway Man certainly tugs at the heart strings.
 
 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Spectacular Now

WRITTEN BY: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
DIRECTED BY: James Ponsoldt
STARRING: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Kyle Chandler, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh
RATING: 2.5 stars

There have been some good coming of age stories in recent years, most of which have just enough realism to them that they are relatable to audiences. The Spectacular Now, which has been adapted from Tim Tharp's novel, is another example of such a film. But, while the cast is strong and the subject matter is interesting, The Spectacular Now ultimately lacks the charm of similar films like The Perks of Being A Wallflower.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who likes to live in the now rather than think about the future. He proclaims himself the life of the party but starts to lose his way when his girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) breaks up with him. He strikes a surprising friendship with smart and innocent Aimee Fineky (Shailene Woodley) and the pair soon start a romantic relationship. Through Aimee, Sutter starts to re-examine his life and face his personal issues with his estranged father (Kyle Chandler) and his over-protective mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Meanwhile, he gives Aimee the courage to stand up to her over-dependent mother (Whitney Goin).

It seems like a lot of the film was improvised and the leads are very good at creating awkward dialogue. It made moments feel more realistic and endearing. Sutter is not really likeable and is full of self-loathing too, but he is also complex, and Teller does a good job of straddling different aspects of Sutter's personality. Woodley is also convincing as the sweet girl with big dreams.

While The Spectacular Now has some good moments, there are better coming of age films.

 



Wednesday, 4 December 2013

August: Osage County

WRITTEN BY: Tracy Letts
DIRECTED BY: John Wells
STARRING: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper
RATING: 3 stars

Although I've never seen the play version of August: Osage County, I can see how it would have worked well. Unfortunately, Tracy Letts who wrote both scripts failed to adapt his own work. Plays are very different to films. While long scenes full of dialogue and limited spaces are necessary in plays and work well, films are far more visual and require a different way of telling the story. The family issues raised in the film are complex and interesting, and there are some very funny moments, but it was too long and several scenes were drawn out too much. While American critics seem to be heaping praise on August: Osage County, I found it only mildly entertaining.

August: Osage County takes a look at the lives of the four dysfunctional women in the Weston family. The matriarch is Violet (Meryl Streep), who is a pill-addicted cancer patient and seems to spend more time yelling at everyone than showing any kind of motherly affection. Her three daughters are Barbara (Julia Roberts) who is facing a potential divorce from her husband (Ewan McGregor), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who has stayed in Osage County to care for her mother but is secretly dating her first cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Karen (Juliette Lewis) who is newly engaged to a rich man (Dermot Mulroney). Each woman lives a very different life but they must find a way to bond when they face a family crisis at home in Oklahoma.

While the performances are good, it is hard to feel any empathy and very little sympathy for most of the characters. By far, the most likeable character was the uncle played by Chris Cooper. He has some touching moments and a climactic confrontation with his wife. Streep seems to treat her performance as if she is on a Broadway stage and over-acts a little. It is great to see Roberts in a different role shouting expletives throughout the film, and she is solid. Nicholson was also strong and Lewis toned down her usual over-the-top facial expressions to give a good performance. This is definitely a female-driven story so McGregor, Cumberbatch and Mulroney were unfortunately underused.

There are a lot of issues explored in the film including alcoholism, substance abuse, cancer, suicide, fidelity, child abuse, physical abuse, marriages and various other relationships. It is no wonder the film was two hours long. But several scenes needed editing. If it were not for the humour in some of the arguments, you could completely zone out.



Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Kill Your Darlings

WRITTEN BY: Austin Bunn, John Krokidas
DIRECTED BY: John Krokidas
STARRING: Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Ben Foster
RATING: 2.5 stars

The true story of a 1944 murder that affected some of the most famous Beat Generation writers is an amazing tale. Somehow, director and co-writer of Kill Your Darlings, John Krokidas, managed to turn the twisted and thought-provoking story into a long and boring film until the final half hour. It is a shame, especially considering how enduring the famed writers' works remain. Kill Your Darlings follows the unrelated films Howl (2010) and On the Road (2012), which also depict some of the main contributors of the Beat Generation. Unfortunately, despite a committed cast, Kill Your Darlings is not as strong as those films.

Long before Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) became household names, they were budding writers and poets pushing the boundaries at university and challenging life with their creativity, intellect and experimentation. Their mysterious and seemingly fearless friend Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) has a complicated relationship and dark history with David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). When a murder is committed, the lives of all the characters changes forever.

Radcliffe carries the film and is very convincing as a young and mildly naive Ginsberg. DeHaan is equally impressive with his character's antics and provocative thrill-seeking. Foster is solid and Hall is as reliable as ever. Elizabeth Olsen has a small but pivotal role as Jack's girlfriend Edie, and Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent as Ginsberg's mentally ill mother.

Kill Your Darlings should have been a far better film. It had a good cast and a dark and intriguing concept, but its slow pace and uninspiring storytelling ultimately failed to hit the mark.



Monday, 2 December 2013

Best Paul Walker Films

Whatever the circumstances, Paul Walker's death at the age of 40 in a car crash is a tragedy. While his youthful good looks have made many women and teenage girls admire him, his philanthropy has been respected by his fans, and it seems no one has ever had a bad word to say about him in Hollywood. He was also a father to a teenage girl and an animal activist. All of that aside, he was best known as a movie star. While I have never considered him to be a great actor, I have enjoyed several of his films over many years.

Here is my list of the five best and most memorable Paul Walker performances:

Eight Below
Without a doubt, this is the best Walker film, probably because the animal lover was almost playing himself, which is not to take anything away from his strong performance because he was very good. Eight Below tells the story of an Antarctic explorer forced to leave his team of sled dogs behind as they fight for their survival during fierce weather. Of course, he cannot allow the beloved animals to perish, so he does all he can to find a way to rescue them. If this film does not bring tears to your eyes, you are far too cynical about life.




The Fast and The Furious
The Fast and Furious franchise is what Walker is best known for and the original film remains the best in the series. It was largely due to Walker's charisma and his chemistry with co-star Vin Diesel that the film managed to garner so much popularity. While the film was panned by some critics as being a remake of Point Break with cars instead of surf boards, the film resonated with young people in particular and has spawned several sequels.




The Skulls
Who does not love a secret society thriller? Luke McNamara (Joshua Jackson) joins a secret elitist college fraternity called The Skulls in the hopes of gaining acceptance into Harvard Law School. But when some horrifying things start to happen, he begins to investigate what is really going on with the secret society. Walker has a leading role in the film and is perfectly suited to the mysterious role. He made this film before The Fast and The Furious franchise kicked off.




She's All That
Walker played the bad-boy high school jock in this film. It was one of his earlier leading roles co-starring with Freddie Prinze Jr who was at his prime in the late 90's. The premise is simple. Prinze's character makes a bet with Walker's character that he can turn an unattractive, socially awkward girl into the school's prom queen. The 90's had a lot of fun teenage romantic comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless. She's All That is just as memorable as those films.




Joyride
I was a little terrified after watching this cautionary film. It tells the story of three young people on a road trip from Colorado to New Jersey who talk to a truck driver on their CB radio, but then must fight for their lives when they realise he is a psychotic killer. This film came before Wolf Creek and Walker was very good in it.




What are your favourite Paul Walker films?