Friday, January 3, 2014

Charles Cassady Jr.'s dozen or so best movies of 2013

Here once again is the annual ritual where I admit that I have not seen a lot of the mainstream movie releases of the last 12 months. Putting a bit of an asterisk to the notion that I have a ten-best movie list with any decent research behind it.

But I can explain! That damn CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel movie shooting all over town has shut down all the NE Ohio streets and public transportation indefinitely. As far as I know, they're STILL shooting it, commandeering most every empty storefront or closed-down warehouse in Cleveland (and Cleveland has a lot of empty storefronts and closed-down warehouses). Do you know how many times I found Charlotte Johansson (or whatever her name is) changing into her skin-tight Black Widow costume in my garage? With that entourage she's got, I knew I was never going to get out of the driveway whenever that happened. I was just prevented from attending virtually all movie previews and screenings. For years I've been declaring how sick I am of all the blockbuster comic-book adaptations, and now look what's happened. No wonder I still haven't watched THE AVENGERS, even if it did blow up downtown. 



Don't you believe that excuse? Okay, how about this: Roger Ebert died this year, and without him around, cinema as an art form just doesn't hold any interest anymore. Only the wisdom, wit and brilliance of Roger Ebert could illuminate the aesthete of these awesome moving shadows on a screen. Without his writing, the experience of narrative photoplay has become so terribly, terribly meaningless...

Don't believe that one either, huh? Okay, would you excuse me that for once in my life I got hired for a good, fulfilling full-time job, at a living wage and benefits. I'm gratefully giving my new employer all my energy and creativity, and I just don't have the time now to --

Right, you knew that was a big lie. Good, full-time jobs around here? Maybe in 1948, perhaps.

Okay, how about this? Like my idol and good friend Will Ferrell, I spent the entire year "in character" as bombastic local-TV anchorman Ron Burgundy, as a charming PR stunt for the upcoming sequel. Ron Burgundy go to movies? Hell no! Ron Burgundy doesn't HAVE to go to movies. Ron Burgundy's OWN LIFE is more amazing than any movie! Etc. etc. 

...No, even I don't believe that excuse. Did anyone besides me get sick of hearing about ANCHORMAN 2 months before its release? Scary thing was, nobody else in the media found this saturation routine at all tiresome. Did it somehow escape our newsmen (such as the flimsy rationale for the Iraq invasion escaped them) that the premise is that they're all pompous A-holes? I can imagine the PR wizards making suitable payoffs for Ferrell-in-character-as-Ron-Burgundy to deliver eulogies at the funerals for Ray Harryhausen, Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole. "As his closest friend, I can tell you that Peter O'Toole based Lawrence of Arabia...on Burgundy of San Diego!" Film at eleven. 

Of course, easy for me to be cynical. I never saw ANCHORMAN 2. I never even experienced the pleasure of the first ANCHORMAN. The fact is that, with a low-level, minimum-wage existence, practically the only movies I even CAN see are the narrow spectrum of ones I get paid to watch, often in the documentary-foreign-indie genre. Not paid very much either, which means I must pile them on in mass quantities just to help cover interest on the credit-card debts. And, with most of my past publishers downsized/out of business, even keeping up with new releases as a matter of principle is more effort than it is worth. 

I didn't even know there another damn RIDDICK space flick, or another DIE HARD installment, and I was not cognizant when SCARY MOVIE 5 was even in theaters. Rather proud of those achievements, I must say.

I did have a slight interest in seeing JOBS... Or was I desperate to get a JOB? It was the latter, but in a place like Cleveland the former was a more achievable goal. And not even that achievable, because JOBS didn't last long enough in theaters here for me to catch it. Maybe all copies of JOBS got shipped to China - a natural mistake our corporations made, purely force of habit.

Yes, unless I see a monetary return, I pay a movie little mind these days. Even 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Which from the title I might have assumed was all about me.

It truly doesn't sound as though I missed much. No less than Disney-Pixar movies, once an unbroken string of cinematic pearls ushering in a bright new age of animation, are turning into just another franchise-bagful of banal sequels and disappointing retreads. Or did my minimum-wage job in a discount store contribute to my being crankypants, having seen CARS and TOY STORY followup tie-ins emblazoned on some of the shabbiest, cheapest merchandise ever to get imported from the slave factories of the Far East?  

Another thing. You know that famous Christmas-season display of multiple gingerbread houses that are at the Cleveland Botanical Garden? This year there was a scandal, as police descended on one. And discovered that, sure enough, there was a gingerbread man secretly holding three long-missing gingerbread women hostage as sex slaves. What does that have to do with movies? Nothing. I just thought myself clever for thinking that up, so I'm repeating it all over the place. Hoping it turns into a "meme.

Oh yes, Seymour Avenue, Cleveland's new claim to fame, now that casino revenues are disappointing. The book deals are already done, sleaze-movie deals are in progress, I'm sure, but don't say I didn't warn you when the cinematic location of Ariel Castro's crimes is changed - from the ghettos of the west side of Cleveland to somewhere in affluent, suburban Los Angeles. And Mr. Castro becomes a wealthy young Anglo. And the women he kidnaps and abuses are all professional swimsuit/lingerie models. Instead of Charles Armstrong - whose being a black guy (and having the unlucky first name `Charles') tests poorly with teens in the audience surveys - the girls' rescuer is a cool flying-saucer alien. And their escape is rewritten to include a high-speed chase between a nuclear-equipped hydrofoil and a renegade fleet of Blackhawk helicopters packed with Middle Eastern terrorists. Other than that, though, Hollywood's Seymour Avenue dramatization will be entirely factual, "based on actual events," you know. Like THE IMPOSSIBLE or all those true-ghost-story movies that come out around October.  

In another dovetailing of showbiz and history, the long-ailing Nelson Mandela died coincident with the Royal Command Premiere of his biopic, MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. It was a storybook denouement, which will be cashed in at Oscar time, I'm sure. But wait, THIS JUST IN: Police cleaning the room in which Nelson Mandela died found the DVD player to be holding a pirate copy of TYLER PERRY'S A MADEA CHRISTMAS. Evidently the last thing Mandela saw. Verdict: assassination! Interpol has put an alert out for power-hungry ex-wife Winnie Mandela, last seen fleeing to war-torn Sudan with a weapons-locker crammed with enough copies of HANGOVER 3 and THE HEAT to cause mass-suicide among the leadership and plunge the entire continent into further chaos. 

From her villain lair in an extinct volcano, Winnie did issue a communique confirming that blonde American PR bimbos who have to visit Africa need not worry about catching AIDS, since they actually cannot because they are white. Sorry, I'm just freestyling now. It's late. 

Also in 2013, there arrived another set of comic-book superhero franchise-entries, filmed and promoted on budgets that might have been able to rebuild the infrastructure of Detroit (or Cleveland). Being no longer in the 12-to-24 age bracket, I am rather past superhero movies. Nonetheless, to the Comic-Con element that now consists of key audiences, there came long-awaited news that Marvel's Ant-Man had been cast. I frankly forget the thespian, but it cost me a private bet with myself that Daniel Day-Lewis would own the part. I mean, how can you top LINCOLN? Hank Pym, of course, the only Marvel superhero so morally and psychologically nuanced that his first and last name start with different letters of the alphabet! No wonder they called Marvel the "House of Ideas."

Aye, it strikes me as hilarious that one of Hollywood's great obsessions, more so than completing any of those unfinished features Orson Welles left behind, is to finally render Wonder Woman on the big screen. Do they realize that, even in the geek universe, the number of folks who want to see a Wonder Woman solo feature is about equal to those who wanted to see a new Lone Ranger?

On that note, I am given to understand that, along with aforementioned LONE RANGER, there arrived a freight of movie megabombs that cost somewhere in the $200 million-budget range, runaway epics so expensive that they were virtual writeoffs from the moment they opened, such as the abovementioned LONE RANGER, not to mention AFTER EARTH, 47 RONIN, R.I.P.D., and a whole slew of others that didn't even register with me. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, perhaps seriously - or perhaps just jumping on the bandwagon of the "prepper" doomsday brigade - warned that this escalating trend could bring on a wholesale collapse in the movie industry. 

Guys, guys, don't get my hopes up like that. I wouldn't be surprised if the budgets of WORLD WAR Z or ENDER'S GAME alone would have paid for nearly all the movies on my top-ten list of 2013. So much for a business populated by liberals who pride themselves on "sustainability"

So was it overall a good year or a bad year for movies? That's like asking which of the two competing hostage-president epics was a more breathtakingly, shockingly unspeakable waste of time, talent and resources - WHITE HOUSE DOWN or OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. Just the existence of that pair answers that, right there.

I am glad I saw these following titles, however. And, I rather hope Mr. Ebert had a chance to watch them as well:

1 - TATSUMI. Here is an antidote to comics-superhero overload. Filmmaker Eric Khoo's feature (made in 2011 but only released here on video this year) does for Japanese author/artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi what the movie version of AMERICAN SPLENDOR did for Harvey Pekar. Beginning in the late 1950s, Tatsumi put aside "manga" fantasy and childish material to create his own raw, realistic graphic-novel genre, comparable to underground "comix" in the West. Here Tatsumi's personal history, as a struggling artist is interlaced with largely monochrome cartoons (very different from the cookie-cutter looks common to popular Nippon "anime") based on five of his wasabi-caustic panel stories. The semi-anthology reflects desperate and doubting postwar Japanese folk embroiled in dire dilemmas ranging from murder to porn to prostitution - and if it were rated by the MPAA, this would get an NC-17, yesiree. Worth watching just for Tatsumi's noir-twist on Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

2 - DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY. What a better world it would be if as many people saw this as they did the mediocre magician movies NOW YOU SEE ME or THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE. Magician-cardsharp/actor/author/David Mamet-Steve Martin collaborator Ricky Jay opens up about his life and multi-media career - or does he? Jay is described as an intensely private person and no stranger to pulling off insidious illusions. At least half the time the feature focuses on the great close-up magicians and legerdemain masters of yesteryear, very many of whom Jay knew personally, and few of whom rose to Houdini-name status. A privileged peak into a real other world, the strange, cloistered culture of ultimate tricksters, whose underhanded art is rather akin to storytelling. 

3 (tie) - THE GREAT GATSBY and DANGEROUS LIASONS. Okay, THE GREAT GATSBY, v.2013, was an easy choice, being quite simply the only feature my wife managed to drag me to a theater to see. It wins by default. Luckily it was a sumptuous vision, director Baz Luhrmann's full-on visuals matched splendidly to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz-Age storyline. I could even forgive that Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway looked like Pee Wee Herman at times. But from China came the latest and Jazz-Ageist version of oft-filmed 18th-century French novel of seduction by Pierre Choderios de Laclos, adapting astoundingly well to 1931 Shanghai. Korean heartthrob Jang Dong-Gun (a guy even heterosexual males could crush on - is that what "gun lover" means?) plays a notorious ladykiller who makes a bet with his dragon-lady lover that he can woo and bed a chaste widow (Zhang Ziyi), while the other conspirator takes an assignment to destroy the star-crossed love. The exquisite stylings of director Jin-ho Hur were every bit up to Luhrmann. 
 
4 - BLACK AFRICA, WHITE MARBLE. An amazing feat of nonfiction storytelling by Italian filmmaker Clemente Bicocchi. Marionettes, line-drawn animation, a village griot and shadow-puppetry tell related narratives of Third-World imperialism, a century apart, on one side the heroism and possible martyrdom of European explorer Pietro Savorgnan de Brazza in the Congo. While in modern times relocating Brazza's bones to a giant, white-marble shrine in the capital city of Brazzaville reveals a snakes' nest of foreign influence, secret agendas and power plays. One is reminded of THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY more than once, and that is a compliment indeed. 

5 - AT THE GATE OF THE GHOST. After HOODWINKED and its sequel beat the premise to death, I didn't think I could get into another remake of RASHOMON. But this vibrant Thai version did the trick for me. In the year 1567, a warrior-prince and his beautiful but peasant-born wife are ambushed by a notorious forest bandit. The woman is raped and the warlord found stabbed to death. At a tribunal held before the local governor, however, three versions of what happened come out, each witness implicating himself or herself as the guilty party. A debatable but very intriguing spin makes the source material into a Buddhist parable, where no certainty or truth at all points to Ultimate Truth. Truth for me being that Siamese cinema produces more than just kickboxer epics and dull art-house enigmas. 
 
6 - AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY. Terence Nance's multi-media meta-narrative, using live-action, docu-footage and a dazzling array of guest animators in different styles, described how the filmmaker exploited a student-film project to his own ends, namely to simultaneously court and publicly shame his intended dream-girl, to win her heart. And what happened (or didn't happen) to their relationship after that big gambit. The movie is either one of screendom's most brilliant explorations of wounded male heartache and soul-deep romantic longing, or the whiny self-pity of an obsessed and solitary movie nerd who got spurned. Can't it be both? 

7 - BRANCA'S PITCH. Director Andrew Muscato throws the jockumentary genre a curve by partially addressing the literary art of ghostwriting and the dicey definition of objective truth. Ralph Branca, of the Brooklyn Dodgers legendary early-1950s lineup with Jackie Robinson, earned notoriety by throwing the pitch in the 1951 World Series that New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson turned into a winning home run. Branca was scapegoated for the "shot heard around the world" slam. Now approaching his 85th birthday and retired from insurance sales, he decides to tell all, teaming with pro-ghostwriter David Ritz (a colorful character in his own right) to air bombshell charges that the Giants more or less cheated. An entertaining game-changer, whether one is heavily invested in baseball or in reading.

8 - SAVING GENERAL YANG. Wow, my list sure is lopsided in favor of Asian material. Well, they do own our economy now, and with the 21st century looking pretty firmly in the hands of China (can't say they didn't wait long and work hard for it, and the west is due punishment for those Opium Wars), no wonder movies coming from the Peoples' Republic are looking ever more like what the world's top superpower would turn out to impress us future peasants. Director Ronny Yu's rousing and emotive battle epic relates a cherished morality tale from the Song Dynasty, of the seven loyal sons of a revered general. When Gen. Yang is lost behind enemy lines, all seven go to retrieve him, despite a prophecy that one will not return. Which turns out to be tragically ironic, in the real-way- that-Alanis-Morrissette-didn't-know-about definition of the word. The approach is aptly grand-scale, as big as folklore, yet realistic - no outlandish wire stunts that would have pushed it into fantasy. 

9 - STORIES WE TELL. Most former child actresses, as we've seen lately, become either drug-addled train-wrecks or "twerking" psycho-sexpots. Not so Sarah Polley (probably because she didn't work for Disney overmuch), but she still managed to mess with you head in this quasi-documentary, not as dazzling as Orson Welle's F FOR FAKE, but just as subversive. Using re-enactors,  impersonators and hoax home-movie footage (that probably break the ethics of nonfiction film a wee bit), Polley explores her `blended' family and the amorous legacy left by her late actress-mother, such that even the filmmaker's real parentage turned out to be in doubt. Daring personal drama, or the art-film equivalent of the Kardashian's reality show? Can it be both? 

10 - THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC. From my essaying here, you might guess that I am a hater of all mass-audience crowd-pleasers, especially where comic books are involved. But (perhaps just because it didn't have an obnoxious marketing blitz in this country) I was captivated by the latest from Luc Besson, the mogul who, for good or ill, brought a Hollywood-blockbuster aesthete to French cinema. Here, adapting European comics by Jacques Tardi, Besson's f/x-filled Edwardian whimsy concerns a fearless French Nellie Bly-style globetrotting reporter of 1911 (whose surname translates as "Dry White Wine") adventuring to Egypt seeking a 4,000-year-old miracle cure. Her Indiana Jones-esque caper involves a newly-hatched pterodactyl terrorizing Paris and a bunch of resurrected mummies. It had a breezy, effortless charm I don't get enough from latter-day Besson, and one feels Georges Melies would approve, mais oui!. And, PG rated but with nothing really objectionable, it counts as an uncommonly bright family picture. Or would you rather have another CGI Smurfs flick? 

HONORABLE MENTION: Mamoru Hosoda's 2012 Japanese-animated hit enchantment WOLF CHILDREN finally reached here in 2013, on the festival circuit and home-video, and I would only be parroting my betters if I mentioned that the Toho cartoon is every bit the equal of Hayo Miyazaki's legendary productions done by Studio Ghibli. I could just as easily named WOLF CHILDREN as my Number 10, but I remember Pearl harbor (and TATSUMI).

1 comment:

  1. For my money, this is far more useful than yet another list with '12 Years a Slave', 'Nebraska', 'American Hustle', and 'Gravity' on it. I saw and enjoyed 'Gatsby', the Ricky Jay doc, and 'Stories We Tell'.

    'Deceptive Practice', 'At the Gate of the Ghost', 'Dangerous Liasons', and 'Tatsumi' are all currently streaming on Netflix for those who might be looking for something to add to their queues.

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