Midday Movies: The Cinema Junkie Awards
December 30, 2013 11:03 a.m.
Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts Reporter and Author of the Blog Cinema Junkie
Related Story: Midday Movies: Cinema Junkie Awards
HOST INTRO: Awards season is in full swing with “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” leading the nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and Online Film Critics Society. Oscar nominations are due out on January 16 but KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando is ready to hand out her Cinema Junkie awards now.
TAG: You can find a complete list of Beth’s Cinema Junkie awards on her blog at KPBS-dot-ORG.
In film, 2013 brought the end of the world… repeatedly; Hobbits, the God of Thunder, the Man of Steel, the Wolf of Wall Street, and of course plenty of sequels, prequels, remakes, and assorted other familiar formulas. There was a lot to complain about from The Lone Ranger to Burt Wonderstone to the hack job Hollywood did on Max Brooks’ great novel World War Z. But I want to focus on the good, so let me start with a trio of films that gave me the most pleasure although I have to admit that each has its flaws.
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My name is David Wong… I once saw a man’s kidney grow tentacles but that’s another story.
John Dies at the End is a throwback to mind-altering and genre-bending films like "Videodrome," and the literary works of Philip K. Dick and William S. Borroughs. It was also the most delightfully unpredictable film of the year. And for over the top absurdity there was Robert Rodriguez’s sequel, Machete Kills.
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Machete don’t Tweet.
It flopped at the box office and most critics panned it but I loved it and I love that Rodriguez is making exactly the type of films he wants with exactly who he wants outside of Hollywood. Similarly defiant as Machete and as mind altering as John Dies at the End was Berberian Sound Studio.
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Toby Jones plays a mousy soundman that comes to Italy to do the sound effects for a horror film. The brilliant conceit here is that we never see the horrors, only see them.
I also want to highlight a pair of directing debuts. David Cronenberg’s boy Brandon delivered Antiviral and proved that while he obviously has his dad’s cinematic DNA he’s not an exact clone. And actor Joseph Gordon Levitt impressed with the clever romantic comedy Don Jon.
I also derived great pleasure from seeing two of my favorite things together for the first time – zombies and Shakespeare in the unexpectedly charming Warm Bodies. And to make the year even better, the Bard got a makeover from Joss Whedon as well in his contemporary take on Much Ado About Nothing.
Now let me count down my top ten of 2013 starting with the Danish film The Hunt in the number 10 slot.
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Mads Mikkelsen plays an elementary school teacher who becomes the victim of a young girl’s innocent lies. The film is brutal to watch as the community that once embraced him turns on him with savagery. Director Thomas Vinterberg meticulously turns the screws to deliver a blackly comic tale about how easily social bonds can be severed. While the townsfolk take on a level of absurdity, Mikkelsen remains aching human.
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Humanity is at the core of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated tale, The Wind Rises. The inspiration for the film is the true life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Zero fighter plane used in World War II. Miyazaki has announced that this will be his final film and he proves yet again what a master storyteller he is. His film is subtle and complex as it explores the distance between an inventor’s dream and the reality of his invention. Horikoshi creates a beautiful design for an airplane that is then turned into a tool to annihilate Japan’s enemy. At the end another designer notes that Airplanes are beautiful dreams, cursed dreams.” This conundrum can also extend to the artist who strives to create a thing of beauty in a world that may be an uglier reality. But the tone is never bitter, just achingly aware of the contradiction. And Miyazaki’s hand drawn animation style is like a breath of fresh air amidst all the hollow CGI from America. Miyazaki always pushed the boundaries of art and storytelling, his American counterparts seemed more interested in pushing the technology.
A distinct lack of flashy technology invigorates Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska. Shot simply in cold, crisp black and white, Nebraska is a showcase for Bruce Dern as a man on a mission to collect a million dollar prize. His son chauffeurs him on his mission and this leads to some unexpected revelations.
DAVID: How did you and mom end up getting married?
WOODY: She wanted to.
DAVID: You didn’t?
WOODY: I figured, "what the hell?"
DAVID: You ever sorry you married her?
WOODY: All the time. Could’ve been worse.
DAVID: Well you must have been in love. At least at first.
WOODY: It never came up.
In the number 7 slot is We Are What We Are, a film that proves there are right reasons for a remake. When I spoke with director Jim Mickle he confessed to now being a fan of remakes and that he struggled with the idea of taking on the project of remaking this Mexican horror film. But once he took it on he set about finding a way to make his film original.
JIM MICKLE: It literally was a remake it wasn’t just a translation, it was like we’re gonna reinvent this thing and reimagine the elements so they made sense for us not just try to force the original elements into a more commercial box, or commercially accessible box but something that works for our sort of style of storytelling.
And the twist was to take this tale of modern day cannibalism and give it a religious, Puritan twist.
JIM MICKLE: there’s a lot of beauty and stylistically to a lot of religion and a lot of ritual and religious ceremony so we wanted to keep that aspect as much as we could and really make that the scary part and you can look at it and see the familiarity to your own practices and holidays and that sort of thing
Horror is at the core of the documentary The Act of Killing, which may be the most originally conceived documentary I’ve ever seen. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheiner approached former Indonesian death squad leaders and asked them to reenact their real-life murders in whatever cinematic genre they preferred ranging from brutal action film to lavish musicals.
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The film offers a chilling insight into the mind of mass murderer and national hero. At one point one of the death squad executioners brings his grandsons in front of the TV to watch their grandpa play a torture victim. It is such a disturbing, chilling moment that you are riveted to the screen.
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Scream and then music
You will find yourself riveted in a completely different way to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Sorrentino reteams with actor Tony Servillo for this wildly absurd portrait of an aging one-time writer on a search for beauty. Part Fellini, part Terence Malick, the film reveals a man with a vision at the helm and that is always exciting.
The Stories We Tell reveals a surprisingly mature and masterful storyteller at its helm in 34-year –old actress turned director Sarah Polley. For this documentary, she turns to stories about her own family and coaches her father to provide the narration.
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This is exquisite storytelling in which we are taken through layers of lies and deceit, some from Polley herself, to find a surprisingly liberating truth.
And just to prove it’s not a young person’s industry, 78-year-old Woody Allen delivers his best film in years with Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett gives a flawless performance as the seriously flawed Jasmine who’s down on her luck and forced to stay with her younger sister,
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Allen once again proves to be a master of character and dialogue. In that one scene he gives us so more detail and information about Jasmine than most filmmakers provide in an entire movie. The film is both bleak and hilarious,
There’s also a dissonance at the heart of Only God Forgives from Denmark’s Nicholas Winding Refn. Set in Bangkok, the film is a meditation on violence and revenge. The revenge cycle is set in motion when a white man brutally murders a 16-year-old Thai prostitute and is in turn murdered by the girl’s father. This brings his mother to town.
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Kristen Scott Thomas chews up the scenery with a ferocious appetite while Ryan Gosling as her surviving son is all stillness and quiet. But the real scene-stealer is Vithaya Pansringarm as a karaoke, vigilante cop. Refn gives as a sumptuously gorgeous film about the ugly side of human behavior. Only God Forgives, which proves to be a cruelly ironic title, proves hypnotic to watch and does what cinema does too rarely, which it to tell a story almost exclusively through images.
But for my number one film of the year, I will leave you with something more optimistic and uplifting, Short Term 12. This indie film comes from SDSU grad Destin Cretton and it is a pitch perfect film about learning learning to trust each other enough to connect with some degree of intimacy. I have had the honor of showing his student films in the past and once again the theme of community is at the heart of his work.
DESTIN CRETTON: Community is something that’s important to me it’s something that the longer I live, the more I realize how important it is to my sanity to be connected to other human beings. I feel like there are pieces of that in everything that I’ve done whether it is a character who is completely in isolation and what that means to that person and what it means to see that person connect with somebody else.
Anchoring the film is Brie Larson as a dedicated and compassionate social worker who takes up the cause of one young girl in particular.
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Short Term 12 does everything right for an indie films, which means understanding its budgetary limitations and focusing on essentials like character and story.
I’m Beth Accomando and thanks for listening to my rants and raves about the movies of 2013. It wasn’t the most spectacular year of filmmaking but it did hold some gems that will be worth returning to time and time again. Here’s looking forward to 2014, which will see among other things, Godzilla’s return to the big screen.