Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top Ten Films of 2013

Happy New Year! Farewell to The Year in Film 2013, and here's hoping that 2014 brings a cinematic gem or two. I went to the movies 84 times in 2013 to see 74 new releases.

I also saw the French-Canadian film Upside Down, released in 2012. If it had been a 2013 release, it would definitely make the list below.

So here are my top ten films of 2013. At the end of the year, each of these films still stands out in my mind - for an outstanding performance, a touching or gripping scene, the excellence of its cinematography, or the artistry of its visuals. Each film has a high watchability rating (I have seen most of them twice, one of them four times in the theater, and one of them at least five more times on DVD). In addition, each film touches heart or mind, or both, in a lasting way. Feel free to follow the link to my comments on each film posted shortly after its release.

10. Mama

9. 12 Years a Slave

8. World War Z

7. Spring Breakers

6. Oblivion

5. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

4. Fruitvale Station

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

2. Gravity

1. All Is Lost

Also worthy of mention:

Before Midnight
The Bling Ring
Blue is the Warmest Color
The Book Thief
Captain Phillips
Frances Ha
Out of the Furnace
Warm Bodies
The Wolf of Wall Street

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Do I dare?" The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starts out as a quiet, somewhat melancholy portrait of an inert, solitary J. Alfred Prufrock for our time who is unable to connect very well with other human beings even by means of social media. As the "Negative Assets" manager for Life Magazine - which has been doomed by the Internet to its last issue - Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has been entrusted with "Negative 25" for the magazine's final cover photograph taken by the magazine's elusive star photographer Sean O'Connell, but Walter can't seem to find the negative.

Ben Stiller is excellent as the nearly autistic Walter who tries connecting with a female co-worker, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), on a dating website before he dares to speak to her in person at the office. Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty is an emotionally paralyzed daydreamer who only finds freedom in elaborate self-aggrandizing fantasies that disconnect him even further from the real world. Sometimes the film's digressions into a daydream are jarring. At other times, they are humorous and say a lot about Walter. In a pivotal moment, Cheryl sings along with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" to spur him to risk leaping into a helicopter with a drunk pilot - the only way to get him from a nowhere town in Greenland to his next step toward locating Sean O'Connell.

I like how the film turns into an epic outdoor adventure when Walter resolves to embark on a quest to find Negative 25, even if it means traveling halfway around the world. Walter's triumph is that he finally dares to dare. Encouraged by Cheryl and beckoned by the enigmatic Sean O'Connell, Walter embarks on a whimsical journey of self-discovery that takes him from Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan. Little by little, Walter grows. He gains confidence and a rugged appearance. We follow him through quirky moments in a Greenland karaoke bar, aboard a rusty old fishing vessel crewed by Chileans, in a Papa John's in Iceland, and in LAX discussing life over a Cinnabon with the manager of a social media site. Realistically, Walter doesn't suddenly become a the rugged hero of one of his daydreams. He still retains some of physical and social awkwardness even after he scales a mountain alone to find O'Connell. In the film's best moment, Sean Penn as O'Connell draws Walter Mitty's attention to a snow leopard and O'Connell exhorts Walter to savor the moment. "It's right there. It's right here."

The film has its flaws - especially when one of Walter's fantasies becomes a CGI superhero sequence, which afforded delight only because I had seen part of it filmed in New York City - but, for the most part, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty kept me engaged and thinking with its notable cinematography of rugged locations and its touching exploration of the importance of seeing the world, seizing the day, and cherishing each moment of one's life.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

"No prisoners!" Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013)

When my students ask me what my favorite movie is, I have trouble picking just one. I usually name my top three - and Lawrence of Arabia is one of the three.

Recently, a student asked me to list the best actors in film history - and I started by saying that easily, in my opinion, the single best performance by a male lead in any film is Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Easily!

Beyond Lawrence, O'Toole's career was a spotty thing - some glowing moments here and there, but not another role like Lawrence.

Lord Jim (1965) as well as O'Toole's performance in that film are much criticized, but I love the thing. I love Conrad, Lord Jim is my favorite novel of all time, the film captures the look and atmosphere of Conrad's world, and O'Toole's performance captures Jim's torment and obsession with redemption - with wonderful echoes of his performance as the tormented, obsessive Lawrence.

Farewell, old chap.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace into Hell

Masterfully and vividly, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace renders two sordid worlds: a depressed Pennsylvania steel mill town and the seedy hillbilly locales of the New Jersey Appalachians. Shots of Braddock, the mill town, will remind you of the memorable depiction of the steel mill town in The Deer Hunter; the plot will remind you of Cimino's film as well. A roadside hangout and a rotting crack house are memorably portrayed in the New Jersey scenes. Thus, the film is visually gripping from beginning to end – scene after scene.

In addition, the film provides a feast of talented, naturalistic acting by Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shephard. The acting is tremendous. Bale portrays Russell's development throughout the story very well, and I am always riveted by Casey Affleck's acting. Love the scene in which Russell meets the New Jersey boss (Harrelson) and they stand, faces inches apart, Harrelson sucking on a lollipop. "I'm supposed to think he's a badass because he sucks on a lollipop?" I love Casey's understated delivery and his uneasy smirks or half-laughs.

Within a running length of 116 minutes, the film is epic – following Russell Baze in his attempts to save his brother, Rodney, (Affleck), traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, from compulsive gambling that leads him into the dangerous world of bare-knuckles boxing – a competition ruled here by a mean son of a bitch from New Jersey (Harrelson), whose conscienceless brutality is established in the film’s outrageously shocking opening scene. The story takes Russell to prison and back to Braddock where he devotes himself to saving his brother, which leads him into the hellish den of New Jersey degenerates that spell Rodney’s downfall.

I was gripped by visuals and performances throughout two thirds of this film. Then, when things get inextricably hopeless for Russell, the plot doesn’t really know where to go – or it knows where to go and doesn’t go there expeditiously enough. Too bad. For the majority of its length, this is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. But it takes you on an epic journey into a present-day hell only to leave you hanging in an unsatisfying limbo.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ice Queen: Frozen

At first, watching Disney’s new animated feature Frozen, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen, you’ll feel like you’re back watching Disney’s Tangled. Anna (Kristen Bell) is secluded in the castle (just like Rapunzel in her tower) because no one is allowed near her older sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), who has a bad case of the icy touch that turns everything frozen. Then she sings “For the First Time in Forever,” a rousing, touching piece – but it sounds too much like the hit song, “I See the Light” from Tangled. Like Rapunzel, Anna dreams of escape so she easily falls in love with the handsome and charming but ultimately treacherous Prince Hans (Santino Fontana).

So far it's a case of déjà vu, but then Elsa submits to fear and anger and all frozen wasteland ensues! When Elsa runs away to the mountain, and Demi Lovato sings “Let it Go” as the Snow Queen transforms the top of the mountain into a dazzling palace of ice, the film achieves a spectacular moment of song and stunning images. There are lots of funny moments with Anna and her faithful hunky Norwegian mountain man, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), but Elsa steals the show when she wields that icy touch that threatens to bury her kingdom in a polar icecap.

As for the ubiquitous Disney movie sidekick, I just don't get Olaf, the sharp-angled snowman with the big mouth who keeps losing his head or his butt. The Lion King has a warthog and a meerkat who fit right into the trappings of the African setting. The Little Mermaid has a Jamaican crab. Mulan has a sassy ornamental dragon, albeit voiced by Eddie Murphy. But this goofy snowman just doesn't look like he fits into a film whose art direction captures the color, textures, and images of its Norwegian setting and its fairytale world. Amidst the film's classic fairytale aesthetics, Olaf just looks like he belongs in a cheesy Christmas special with songs by Burl Ives.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Beauty of Death: The Book Thief

The Book Thief, directed by Brian Percival, is a beautiful movie about death. But this is not a failing. As narrated by Death (Roger Allam), the film adaptation of the classic young adult novel is a piercingly poignant treatment of growing up during wartime as seen through the eyes of a young Liesel, an illiterate girl who learns to read and learns the power of words over the injustices of Hitler’s Germany and the tragedies that ensue. At the same time, in contrast with the scenes of death, fear, and intolerance, this is a very visually pleasant film, thus providing dramatic visual irony.

As Liesel, Sophie Nélisse is charmingly beautiful in her touching performance of the little orphaned girl who lives in a small German town full of ordinary people who suffer because of a war brought on by the evils of Nazism. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are also memorably touching as the parents who adopt her.

With its images of snow and the shops and houses of a quaint German town – with its central image of a blonde-haired girl with dazzlingly big eyes learning the wonders of reading – even with the juxtaposition of sinister yet colorful Nazi flags – the film takes on the look and feel of a fairy tale, much like the story told by Liesel in an underground shelter to take people’s minds off the bombs. And in this fairy story atmosphere, Liesel is an enchanting fairytale princess, brave and noble, in a story in which not everyone lives happily ever after.

Narrator Death takes pride in that the soldiers charging into battle or not running toward glory; they are running toward Death. And Death exacts his toll with ease, but he admits that he is “haunted by humans.” Indeed, he should rightly be haunted by the strength of young Liesel that shines through her fairy princess beauty. Sophie Nélisse's performance is beautiful. She portrays Liesel’s strength of soul in every scene. She makes the film a very touching experience, while the film's attention of detail, lighting, and color make this a film worth watching.