Monday, December 23, 2013

Pete looks back on 2013 at the movies

by Pete Roche

I didn’t see enough films this year to warrant any pretense at a “Best Of” list for 2013.  But I caught enough to keep a few favorites on the front burners of my short-term movie memory.  These are the pics whose stories and characters served up the escapism I crave when I visit the theatre, or whose writers and directors did some creative and / or provocative things with scripts and scenes, or whose cinematographers and animators really had a field day with their cameras and computers. 

Yeah, I sometimes like it when movies encourage me to think, boxing me into intellectual corners or teasing me with emotional or philosophical conundrums.  But more often than not (particularly when I’m forking up $9.50-12.50 a ticket) I want colorful characters, snappy narratives, and stunt sequences that look great on the big screen (thereby justifying the price). 

A writer at another local outlet recently pondered on his Facebook why more folks were paying to see THE HOBBIT and FROZEN this holiday season than 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Isn’t it obvious?  It’s about expectation and audience.  Who wants to ante up to watch people being abused and exploited for three hours?  Certainly, no one’s gonna take their kids to see it.  We’re all depressed enough, thanks.  So when it comes to floggings on film in 2013, HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is your moneymaker. 

Katniss and Bilbo, here we come; we’ll rendezvous with Chiwitel Ejiofor on DVD this Spring. 

That said, here’s our favorite (and a few least favorite) flicks for 2013.  Naw, it wasn’t 1982—but we had some fun, didn’t we? 

If FAST AND FURIOUS 6 is to be the last installment of the long-running car porn saga, well, director Justin Lin and the gang acquitted themselves marvelously, bringing street racer Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and ex-FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) full circle after yet another hair-raising heist.

It’s reasonably safe to say none of this year’s superhero flicks will go down in movie history as grand, epic real-world crime-and-punishment cinema statements on par with THE DARK KNIGHT—but darned if I didn’t have a lot of fun with them.  While Robert Downey Jr. spent less time in armored suits than his IRON MAN 3 costars, his smarmy Tony Star bolstered a mediocre storyline with generic villains (although we liked the Mandarin twist and regularly quote Ben Kingsley’s character at my house).  And Downey’s AVENGERS pal Chris Hemsworth provided another fun—if forgettable—romp in THOR: THE DARK WORLD.  His turn as an impetuous race car driver James Hunt in Ron Howard’s RUSH (opposite an excellent Daniel Bruhl) was better, more demonstrative of Hemsworth’s range (who knew he had any), and more deserving of your rental dollars. 

Wolverine was one of my favorite Marvel characters back when I collected comics (circa 1980-85), and I never would’ve thought back then that the clawed antihero with reinforced bones and accelerated healing powers would ever get his own picture—much less five of them (with a sixth, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, coming soon).  Logan’s Japanese adventure, THE WOLVERINE, probably comes closest to capturing the emotional toll of being a nearly-immortal super-mutant by (temporarily) stripping Wolverine of his powers of pitting him against some bad-asses who don’t want to control (or destroy) the world so much as they simply want to be Hugh Jackman’s accursed, cigar-chomping curmudgeon.

On the DC side of the fence, MAN OF STEEL successfully re-imagined Superman (Henry Cavill) by giving him two great sets of parents (with Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Jor-El and Pa Kent, respectively) and respecting the laws of physics when it came to depicting his brawls downtown with vengeful General Zod (Michael Shannon).  Thousands of people must’ve been killed during the Metropolis showdown, what with the number of buildings collapsing amidst the midair fisticuffs—a reality I appreciated as a semi-fanboy only because that’s what would probably happen. 

Oh, and despite lukewarm reviews, we also enjoyed the DC-based RED 2, with Bruce Willis and John Malkovich reprising their roles as retired assassins on the run (and Anthony Hopkins as an eccentric professor with access to a doomsday device).

Being the go-to guy for kiddy flicks, we saw our share of computer-animated goodness (and gobbledygook) this year.  MONSTERS UNIVERSITY offered a few laughs but lacked the usual Pixar magic.  Other sequels—like DESPICABLE ME 2 and CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2—were better than they had any right to be.  Personally (and contrary to most critics), we liked the snail-racing comedy TURBO and Thanksgiving turkey escape flick FREE BIRDS.  But CROODS and FROZEN were our favorite cartoons this year. 

Inventive car chase notwithstanding, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD was easily the weakest link in Bruce Willis’ beloved super-cop franchise.  Deflating John McClane’s rat-in-a-corner wit and ignoring the claustrophobia of earlier entries, A GOOD DAY paired the trash-talking (and rapidly aging) detective with a son we never really cared about—implausibly dropping them from buildings through plate glass windows with nothing to show for it—and offers the series’ least charismatic thugs (save Radivoje Bukvic’s tap-dancing henchman). Conversely, Antoine Fuqua’s OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN felt like DIE HARD AT THE WHITE HOUSE, squaring Gerard Butler’s ex-Secret Service man against a shit-ton of terrorists in a homeland invasion that looked and felt surprisingly authentic in our post-9/11 age.      

OBLIVION, ELYSIUM, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and PACIFIC RIM sated our sci-fi fix.  But Tom Cruise’s dystopian adventure was marred (literally, in fact) by a sense of been-here-done-that, borrowing tropes we’ve seen before (in MOON, for example), and ELYSIUM’s us-versus-them quest was little more than a postcard for 99%-ers when you strip away Matt Damon’s steely exoskeleton.  The latest STAR TREK episode was better than it should have been, given J.J. Abrams’ willingness to one-up his recreation of iconic heroes Kirk and Spock with a retread of an equally-memorable bad guy.  Fortunately, Benedict Cumberbatch played a more complex, sympathetic Khan than Ricardo Montalban did thirty years back.  Which begs the question:  Why have the SHERLOCK star be Khan at all, as opposed to some new foe? 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG was everything we expected.  Namely, the second chapter in Peter Jackson’s second Tolkien trilogy follows a band of pint-size heroes over various Middle Earth landscapes in search of treasures and lost kingdoms guarded by demons and dragons.  There were enough arrows flying and swords clashing and wizards waving wands to offset the slower parts, but wow.  I credit Jackson for affording Tolkien’s material the same TLC Coppola gave Puzo’s gangster novels, but all that bloat between action sets is why we haven’t watched any of his equally epic LORD OF THE RINGS flicks front-to-back more than once.

We loved GRAVITY not just for its spectacular visual effects, but also because the existential actioner did for Earth orbit what Liam Neeson’s THE GREY did for timber wolves and cold temps, making a compelling case for survival at all costs.  In one of the best roles of her career, Sandra Bullock gets us to buy into her emotionally drained astronaut-physicist who’s nearly lost in space after an accident sends a shower of debris hurtling in way every ninety minutes.  I can’t vouch for the scientific accuracy of Alfonso Cuaron’s movie, but I certainly got the jitters watching Bullock hopscotch from shuttle to satellite.  And George Clooney’s veteran astronaut / cheerleader was good; wouldn’t we all like to have a similar voice of reason and calm (real or imaginary) to lend support in times of crises?

The irrepressible Tom Hanks was brilliant in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, the semi-fictionalized account of a merchant mariner taken hostage by Somali pirates.  Unlike your average Steven Seagal joint, PHILLIPS arms our protagonist with little more than nautical knowledge and chutzpah and leaving our impoverished, disorganized villains with genuine desperation to compel their misdeeds.  There’s remarkably little bloodshed and precious few shots fired; the heart of the story comes to life vis-à-vis Hanks’ face, lumpy physique, and practiced drawl.  

But we’re giving this year’s top nod to Denis Villenueve’s PRISONERS.  Refreshingly complicated and relentlessly dark, this gritty two-and-a-half hour finds Hugh Jackman’s struggling carpenter going rogue when his daughter (and a neighbor’s) are kidnapped during the Thanksgiving holidays.  We’re elated—then repulsed—when Jackman catches and tortures the mentally handicapped suspect, and aren’t sure whether to root for or against Jake Gyllenhaal’s quiet Detective Loki, who presses Jackman while turning over other stones.  Villenueve’s unflinching script pushes the old “how far would you go” into ugly places where priests become killers, abused children grow up to perpetuate the cycle, and morality loses meaning.
Sadly, we missed 12 YEARS A SLAVE and haven’t gotten ‘round to catching Christian Bale in either OUT OF THE FURNACE or AMERICAN HUSTLE. 

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