Year In Review 2013: Best and worst at the box office
Friday, December 27, 2013
Aired 12/30/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.
Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts Reporter and Author of the Blog Cinema Junkie
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 Jan. 16 but you won't find those titles amongst the Cinema Junkie Awards.
In film, 2013 brought the end of the world… repeatedly; it also gave us 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” (don’t even get me started on that).
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.
Don Coscarelli’s “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.
But for over the top absurdity there was only one choice, Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to “Machete,” “Machete Kills.” The film flopped at the box office and most critics panned it but I loved it. 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 Kills” and as mind-altering as “John Dies at the End” was “Berberian Sound Studio.” 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 hear them.
I also want to highlight a pair of impressive feature 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 scored with the clever romantic comedy “Don Jon.”
I also derived great joy from seeing the Bard reanimated in the unexpectedly charming “Warm Bodies,” which combined two of my favorite things for the first time – zombies and Shakespeare. To make the year even better, the Bard also got a makeover from Joss Whedon 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. 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. Annika Wedderkopp was phenomenal as little Klara whose love for her teacher leads to his ruin.
Humanity is also at the core of my ninth pick, 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 (his vision has been growing increasingly bad making it impossible for him to animate) 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, his idol 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 Miyazaki’s tone is never bitter, just achingly aware of the contradictions in life. And Miyazaki’s hand drawn animation style is like a breath of fresh air amidst all the hollow CGI from America. Whereas Miyazaki always pushed the boundaries of art and storytelling, his American counterparts seem more interested in merely pushing the technology.
A distinct lack of flashy technology invigorates my number 8 pick, 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.
In the number seven 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 not 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.
“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,” Mickle said.
And the twist was to take this tale of modern day cannibalism and give it a religious, Puritan twist.
“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,” Mickle added.
Horror is at the core of the number six film, “The Act of Killing.” This 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. The film offers a chilling insight into the mind of mass murderer who also happens to be a national hero. At one point death squad executioner Anwar Congo 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.
You will find yourself riveted in a completely different way to Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty.” Sorrentino reteams with actor Tony Servillo (they made the brilliant “Il Divo”) 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. The film serves up exquisite storytelling, taking us through layers of lies and deceit -- some from Polley herself in her filmmaking approach -- 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. Allen once again proves to be a master of character and dialogue, delivering a film that’s both bleak and hilarious. It’s laughter that hurts.
There’s also a dissonance at the heart of my number two pick, “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. As the mother, 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-loving, 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 prophetic title, is hypnotic to watch, and tells it’s story almost exclusively through images.
For my number one film of the year, though, I will leave you with something more optimistic and uplifting, “Short Term 12.” This indie film comes from SDSU grad Destin Cretton and it’s a pitch perfect film about people learning to trust each other enough to connect with some degree of intimacy. I’ve 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.
“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,” Cretton said.
Anchoring the film is Brie Larson as a dedicated and compassionate social worker who takes up the cause of one young girl in particular. “Short Term 12” does everything right for an indie film, which means understanding its budgetary limitations and focusing instead on essentials like character and story.
And here are some addition Cinema Junkie awards.
The Nice to See Women Behind the Camera Not Making Typical Chick Flicks: Sarah Polley’s “The Stories We Tell, ”Sophia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said,” Lake Bell’s “In A World,” and “Brit Marling’s “The East”
Most impressive weight loss for a role: Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Best cross dresser: Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyer’s Club”
Worst hair: The cast of “American Hustle”
Best foreign director making his English language debut: Park Chan-Wook, “Stoker”
Best end scene: “Sightseers”
Best teen films: “The Way, Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now”
Best 3D: “Pacific Rim”
Runners Up: “Gravity,” Smaug in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”
Best Poster for the Most Disappointing Film: “The Wolverine”
Some Face Offs:
“All is Lost” trumped “Gravity” by proving a solo star can overcome adversity without running off at the mouth endlessly
“Europa Report” beat “Gravity” in conveying terror in space
“ A Hijacking” and “Stolen Seas” provided better portraits of Somali pirates than the Tom Hanks actioner “Captain Phillips”
Best remake: “We Are What We Are”
Runner up: “The Evil Dead”
Worst remake: “Oldboy”
Winner: Mads Mikkelsen, “The Hunt”
Runners up: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
Winner: Brie Larson, “Short Term 12”
Runners up: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
Judi Dench, “Phillomena”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Winner: Keith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”
Runners up: Vithaya Pansringarm, “Only God Forgives”
Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Winner: Annika Wedderkopp, The Hunt
Runners up: Kristen Scott Thomas, Only God Forgives
June Squibb, Nebraska
BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
Winner: “Short Term 12”
Runners up: “Blue Jasmine”
Winner: Destin Cretton, “Short Term 12”
Runners up: Sarah Polley, “The Stories We Tell”
Nicolas Winding Refn, “Only God Forgives”
Winner: “Only God Forgives”
Runners up: “The Grand Master”
BEST ART DIRECTION
Winner: “Only God Forgives”
Runners up: ‘Antiviral”
Winner: “Short Term 12”
Runners up: “Only God Forgives”
“The Stories We Tell”
Winner: “Warm Bodies”
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Winner: “Pacific Rim”
Runners up: “Gravity”
Smaug (but nothing else) in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Winner: “The Wind Also Rises”
Runners up: “Monsters University”
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Winner: “The Hunt”
Runners up: “The Wind Rises”
“Blue is the Warmest Color”
“The Broken Circle Breakdown”
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Winner: “The Act of Killing”
Runners up: “The Stories We Tell”
“20 Feet From Stardom”
“Cutie and the Boxer”
Thanks for reading about 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.