Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2013 Review/Ranking Index

Go Now!

Laurence Anyways (A-): Enormous, buoyant, effortlessly expressive depiction of lives lived in many different margins. Meticulous attention to visual detail pays out both humor and heartbreak. Dolan's gift for turning "ordinary" queer narratives into extraordinary visual artifacts grows. Interview frame maybe unnecessary?
Upstream Color (B+): Ravishing technique. Sound design fits delicately balanced compositions like a glove. Evokes immense feelings of loss, depersonalization. Plot less favored by elliptical delivery than Primer. Seimetz excellent, but Carruth lacking as performer.
12 Years a Slave (B+): An embarrassment of riches, divided (perhaps too thinly?) amongst an extremely talented cast. Ejiofor's restraint, physiognomy remarkable. Contrast between beautiful compositions and scenes of stomach-turning brutality is riveting. Pitt's scenes feel like the product of a compromise. 
Antiviral (B+) (review, best of 2013): A huge surprise. Chilling sound, visual design. Landry Jones a delight as reptilian non-hero. One of the sharpest takes on digital-era celebrity/culture that I've ever seen, though a little overexplanatory. Continually expands on its premise in thoughtful ways.
Frances Ha (B+): Greta Gerwig holding it down for Sacramento! Balances optimism and reality without heaviness, right up to its inspiring ending. Loose structure and brief cutaways are appealing. A maturation of the admittedly tired little-artist-big-city story.

Go See It

Like Someone in Love (B+): More Kiarostami car adventures! Set design and mise en scene are aces, expertly laid images that open themselves to clever manipulation. Rich characterizations and performances. Not sure if its rigid intellectual quality is a perfect fit for its notion of love as an unbound force.
Before Midnight (B+): Concept, like marriage, shows signs of age. Edited too gently; Hawke and Delpy's energy is sometimes mismanaged. Still, feels like a vital and insightful contribution to adult cinema, just as its predecessors were.
The Bling Ring (B+): Sofia Coppola's best editing, shooting...probably just her best. Chilling use of light: dollhouse, nightclub, and in jarring passes, harsh reality. Excellent employment of montage. Formal virtues mostly, but don't completely, forgive the thinness of the source material.
The Place Beyond the Pines (B+) (review, best of 2013)
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (B+) (review, best of 2013): Effectively layers horror plot points over teenage insecurities over the implacable challenges that come with newfound sexuality. Fondness for its subjects, or at least the last moments of their innocent youth, enriches an age-old morality tale. A few lazy cuts and camera tricks. Great soundtrack.
You're Next (B+/B): Vinson a final girl for the ages. Excellent set and sound design, though shaky-cam is distracting early on. Otherwise solid script occasionally sacrifices plausibility for narrative flow. Fun, energetic, a little bit irreverent.
Ginger and Rosa (B): A smart little story about being young and impressionable when your world is full of conflicting ideologies. Fanning Minor is dazzling. Unexpected turns into High Drama leave a peculiar aftertaste.
Crystal Fairy (B): Funny, poignant half of director Silva's diptych about alienation and the dissolution of identity in an oppressive foreign setting. Hoffman, Cera and the Silva brothers all excellent. Visual language is confident yet occasionally cryptic. Climactic trip leaves something to be desired.
Computer Chess (B): Delicious period detail. Headiness and respect for audience knowledge is a plus; jargon demystifies when viewed allegorically. Still rhythmically flat, difficult to approach. Its most evocative moments veer wildly out of tone. The Man Who Wasn't There's bookish little brother.
World War Z (B): Surprisingly powerful imagery, especially in close-up and long shot. Impressive sense of geopolitical scope. Good action, despite tame gore. Ruptures in editing and sequel-ready ending, likely results of troubled production history, occasionally frustrate. 
The East (B): Plenty of challenging questions, admirably critical view of self-righteous anarchism. Bracing plotting. Glossy, overthought moments clunk into the question of how entertaining such an anti-corporate movie should be. Too diffuse to have much localized value as a "message movie," but it beats Cloud Atlas at its game.
Berberian Sound Studio (B): As expected, lovely sound design, perhaps the most reverent aspect of this giallo homage. Toby Jones navigates neurosis and emotional malaise masterfully. Ending falls flat, calling on very little of the psychological tension that precedes it.
Elysium (B): Blomkamp reins in the excesses that ultimately scuttled District 9's ambition; never loses sight of its end goal. Richly realized world and military-political systems with contemporary resonance. Damon great as unassuming hero, battered time and again by The Machine. Exciting action, though shaky-cam tires a bit. Plagued by a few storytelling bubbles.
Only God Forgives (B): Hyperviolent, suggestively sexualized power fantasy, staged in a red alien Thailand. Film's treatment of its genre arch and incisive and more than a little bit silly. Does not approach anything resembling humanity or human behavior, leaving the experience feeling like a bad dream.
Blue Jasmine (B): Not a ringing triumph for Allen, but certainly for his cast. Actors dull the sting of heavy parallel characterizations and clumsy cutting to flashbacks. Blanchett essentially creates the film's tone of nauseated melancholy, but Hawkins and Cannavale give it brio. A decent look at classism, but what kind of San Francisco is Ginger surviving in?
From Up on Poppy Hill (B): A sensitive, good-natured tale that keeps its eye on historical context. Conflating the role of fatherhood with the realities of sending men to war, even peripherally, leaves a considerable impact. The music is a bit overbearing.
The Conjuring (B): Rough dialogue patches mostly eclipsed by some committed performers. Communicates far better through light and sound. Suspense builds naturally; balances a surprising number of narrative elements admirably. Fun in the moment, but may not hold up.
Iron Man 3 (B/B-): Eye-popping action, as is Marvel's wont. Maturity of theme and self-exploratory questions regarding decadence and image are necessarily upset by mandated cheesiness for the kids.  Ending feels incomplete. The best iteration of the Iron Man character yet.
The World's End (B-): Messy. Aliens serve Wright's plot less effectively than zombies and maniacs did for him. Good start, as strong a middle as possible with misjudged sci-fi trappings, weak ending. Fun action, game actors, some great jokes.
Byzantium (B-): Involving macabre tone, excellent acting, smart ideas about immortality and creating "time" for yourself. Well-planned use of gender as narrative catalyst. Lumping nearly all the exposition into the second act seriously sways the momentum. Flashbacks within flashbacks, full of names and faces that take a long time to matter. (Byzantium/byzantine?)
Magic Magic (B-): Last five minutes feel unnecessary, poorly judged. Blunt, unusual but engaging performances from Temple and Cera, the latter guiding obnoxiousness into sociopathy with notable skill. Anxiety captured well by claustrophobic spaces. Baghead with production values.
Pacific Rim (B-)
Dark Skies (B-): Insightful hash of contemporary anxieties, given a decent if repetitive genre spin. I always welcome unintentional humor, but the film is competent enough that occasional lame lines and cheesy shots clash with the experience. A fine example of PG-13 horror for teens who can look past the goofy stuff. 
Stoker (B-): Dizzy, unpredictable imagery generates an intriguing dialectic with protagonist and subject matter. Superb craft in service of redundant script. Wasikowska a question mark, though plays a sharp Teresa Wright to Matthew Goode's Joseph Cotten. Love those opening credits.
Spring Breakers (B-)
The Grandmaster (B-): Many virtues, many problems - hard to tell whether the 20 minutes lost in re-editing might remedy the latter. Constant slow motion, instead of romanticizing, eventually exhausts. Bounty of interesting narrative ideas brings attention to their unfulfilled potential. Zhang never fully convinces as a kung-fu legend. Gorgeous cinematography, choreography; earth-shaking fights.
The Hunt (B-): Harrowing, well-acted but sometimes implausibly plotted trial in the court of public outrage. Actions and motivations occasionally don't make sense; Mikkelsen, though quite good, can't always sell creaky characterization. Feels more powerful than it should.
The Call (B-): Slowdowns and freeze-frames a bit gaudy, sort of like a recent Danny Boyle film without the psychedelics. Has its ups and downs as a thriller, but never loses momentum even in the face of silliness. Berry good (!), Breslin unavoidably shrill.
American Hustle (B-): Energy and tone are brisk and delicately balanced at the cost of structured storytelling. Generic con plot doesn't feel worth keeping up with when placed alongside fun morality shifts and character flourishes. Excellent performances, especially Adams.
Trance (B-)
This is the End (B-): Funny, if inevitably masturbatory, dissection of five prominent comic personalities. Some more successful than others - what the fuck was with Hill's character? First half hour best highlights the movie's strengths: analysis of social interplay, culture clash, Hollywood narcissism. Graceless exposition leads to bloated second act.
Gravity (B-): Script succeeds only at hurrying Bullock, viewers from one visually remarkable crisis to the next. Despite being thematically foregrounded, the human elements are slapdash and never seem to matter much. Bullock is dubious and Clooney brings nothing. Tense start, but ultimately unsurprising. Cumulative power does some good in alleviating frustrations.

Go Ahead

Resolution (B-): Complex if heavy-handed metanarrative may deserve a second watch, may also be supported by shaky deductive reasoning from its characters. Plot-pushing "clues" don't always make sense. Good characterization, decent acting. A few striking shots on a microbudget.
Side Effects (B-): Mara compelling despite unimpressive support from the rest of the cast. Good ideas behind the camera, but Soderbergh's balmy golden digital is starting to tire. Themes never land, plot ultimately feels less than the sum of its parts.
Black Rock (C+): Well-acted thriller with a rarely seen emphasis on female camaraderie, despite shortage of actual thrills. Not much to think about or look back on after the story is told. Worth watching, if only because it's so short; lack of substance would be unsustainable over 100+ minutes.
The Lords of Salem (C+): Zombie's technical maturation is clear: film looks good, sounds great, but his writing remains entropic. An okay stab at portraying horror as a local phenomenon, abetted by mass casting of genre icons, that results in zero payoff. Repetitive first hour, senseless final act. Sheri Moon Zombie intriguing but limited.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (C+): Lawrence excellent in this role, as before, but whole film lacks dramatic spark. Scenarios seem contrived to avoid the looming question of "revolution" and its costs; Katniss is rarely asked to make tough choices, seriously contemplate, etc. Already overlong, it ends just when it starts to pick up traction. Costuming has improved.
V/H/S/2 (C+): Overall quality of filmmaking has improved, and is less hostile toward women. Lacks the grungy aesthetic of obsolescence that made the first one so powerful. Frame story ends in flaming disappointment, again.
August: Osage County (C+): I related, possibly too much, to theatrical self-pity as a trait passed through generations. Occasionally funny, but its attempts at emotion are diluted by its incessant need for dramatic overdrive. Hard to appreciate any specific actor when they are all asked to perform at the same wavelength. Flatly filmed.
Closed Circuit (C+): Lusty middlebrow legal thriller; feels uncomfortably like a romantic espionage fantasy for adults who wish their white collar jobs were less boring. Interesting, topical ideas but not much character. Use of high-angle shots gives courtroom scenes an imposing edge. Eric Bana in a barrister's wig is darling.
What Maisie Knew (C+): A mixed bag. Cheesy music, sloppy storytelling leave strong acting and premise hobbled. Skarsgard and young Aprile are MVPs, full of palpable chemistry. Parents, especially Coogan, too caricatured to really bring the ending home.
Dead Man Down (C+): Lots of character, charming if overdetermined symbology. Story is disappointingly unconsidered when placed alongside mood, rhythm. Rapace's best; Farrell sleepwalking, as is sometimes his wont.
Admission (C+): Intriguing thesis about who deserves a top-tier education too often gives way to bad jokes, shaky characterizations. Rudd and Fey warm but lack comic chemistry.
Mama (C+): First hour is both playful and sinister, acted sensibly. Several very strong setups unfortunately bring attention to poorly-realized space and production design. Bad CGI monster in the final act essentially ruins the movie.
Prince Avalanche (C+): David Gordon Green's callback to George Washington lacks most of its strengths: unification of setting and milieu, consistent characterization, impact, consequence. Explosions in the Sky is way too overproduced for natural quietude. Vividly pretty, at least. 
Beautiful Creatures (C+): Likeable leads given realistic dialogue with personality. An 100% superior alternative to Twilight for a teen. Questionable use of Viola Davis; plot offers interesting issues of morality, too bogged down in mythic window dressing.
Carrie (C+/C): Moretz not horrible, but usually kind of obvious, paling in comparison to Sissy Spacek. Side characters hardly contribute anything. Prom's bombast too overworked, not sinister enough, a desperate bid at creating a memorable ending setpiece rather than an expression of Carrie's anguish. Well-made but empty.
The To-Do List (C): Flabby editing sabotages a talented cast's comic timing. Conflicts are half-baked and joke setups heavily telegraphed, but both are just effective enough to warrant watching. Smart, inclusive sex-positive message. Much flaunted period setting doesn't really add a lot.
Prisoners (C): You get what you pay for with Deakins. But the symbol-heavy, repetitive, cryptic screenplay betrays his handsome setups. Calls upon many kidnapping film antecedents without bringing much of its own character. Acting starts and remains top-notch.
Furious 6 (C): Overextended between way too many characters. Plot is rooted in all of the uninteresting parts of the Fast/Furious canon. Car stunts slackening a bit but martial arts cover for them. Becomes suddenly and violently weird at times, often to amusing effect.
Lovelace (C): Not much complexity. Vibrant colors/music, high energy are fun for a while. Film's supposed disinterest in titillation/exploitation stands in contrast with the small period of Lovelace's life examined; doesn't cut deep enough either way. Smoothed-out portrayal of subject, in middling biopic tradition. Seyfried's decent, despite dodgy accent.
Maniac (C): Looks good; POV gimmick is sloppy but works sometimes. Wood, badly cast, tries his hardest. Cheap pop psychology is a disappointing substitute for the grimy randomness of the original. Unrealistic setpieces and victim behavior.

Go Away

Nebraska (C): Dern excellent, naturally. The rest just feels so maudlin. Obtrusive music, glossy landscapes wear down quickly by force of constant repetition. Forte is not expressive enough for this role. Warm moments that never cohere into a worthwhile whole.
Man of Steel (C): Wondrous pyrotechnics stimulate as planned, but quickly grow tiresome. Exhausting pace, coupled with lousy dialogue in the movie's few quieter moments, guarantees an early checkout. Hand to hand combat looks sluggish when augmented with CGI stunts. Toothless. 
Dracula 3D (C): Decent by the standards of Dario Argento's twilight hours, but by no others. Simultaneously fun and depressing to watch him debase himself so thoroughly. Cheapness highlighted by abysmal direction. Some of the images might have been striking in more competent hands.
Room 237 (C): Film nerd porn, and pretty shameless too if that's your thing. Individual interpretations all fall flat, supported by flimsy evidence and confounded by lack of context. Lack of compelling or complicating imagery fails to produce a point of view. Overall effect of the doc capably teases out The Shining's alien nature, though.
Much Ado About Nothing (C): Whedon's actors have their charms, but Shakespeareans they are not. Acker is inconsistent, Denisof straight bad; together they are void of chemistry. Awkward staging and blocking leaves most players standing around uncomfortably, unsure what to do with their hands. A few lively scenes, but mostly indistinct.
To the Wonder (C) (review, 2013 disappointments)
Kiss of the Damned (C): Well-shot and lit but lacking atmosphere. Milo Ventimiglia cannot carry a movie. Soundtrack works double-time to vitalize drama, which cheapens the handful of musical sequences that are actually quite good. A 70s vampire throwback was a great idea but this just doesn't get there.
Passion (C): de Palma's situation eerily similar to Argento's: relegated to cheaply-filmed Europudding trash that few people see and fewer people like. Ludicrous musical nods to Hitchcock, inconsistent lighting, smutty lesbian depravity betray any pretensions of artistic merit. Still hits its mark occasionally, mostly thanks to McAdams and Rapace.
Disconnect (C): Constant visual emphasis on computer interfaces and chatting is uncinematic. Lifeless, perfunctory dialogue. Use of "hyperlink" structure to connect each story feels heavy-handed. There's a good movie to be made from the idea of technology as a depersonalizing agent, but this isn't it.
Hours (C-): The role as written should not have gone to Walker, though few actors could make their way through such mountains of schmaltz. Screenplay beats creak under the weight of supporting the conceit. Lifeless invocation of Hurricane Katrina. Scenes well-blocked, with an undeniably effective final shot.
Evil Dead (C-) (review, 2013 disappointments): Shockingly stupid characters, bad acting, abysmal plotting. Gore is impressive and over-the-top enough to suggest aspirations of parody, dismissed fully by lack of wit or charm. The prosthetics artists rescued this one from a direct-to-video fate.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (C-): Grating, shopworn quirk mashed indiscriminately into dour misanthropy. Unappealing lead. Characters caught hitting the exact same emotional notes over and over. Occasionally clever wordplay and a few funny shots.
Rush (C-): Terminally dull races with nary an interesting shot to be found. Sound mixed way too loudly, perhaps to overcompensate. Tacked-on ending leaves most of the movie feeling like filler. Fine work by Bruhl. 

Go Fuck Yourself

After Earth (C-): The likely death of Jaden Smith's misinformed acting dream; he resembles a young Hayden Christensen. Some well-staged action scenes, despite regularly cheap special effects. Decent themes, awful plot and dialogue. M. Night Shyamalan has no tonal range except for melodramatic quiet, which works about 10% of the time.
The Great Gatsby (D+): Savaged by bad casting: DiCaprio as a charismatic man of calculated mystery, Maguire as anything resembling an interesting person. What Luhrmann considers "cinematic" stands in direct contrast to the material's worthy qualities. Overactive camera high on gaudy, big-budget spectacle creates a nauseating look.
Warm Bodies (D+): Inconsistent, mostly thoughtless attempt at putting a cute face on a slackening zeitgeist. No meaningful engagement with the genre it mines so shamelessly. Malkovich is terrible in a terrible part. Talented young actors, a few smile-worthy jokes.
The ABCs of Death (D+): Sparse good images and ideas (courtesy of D, L, O, T, X), adrift in a hundred awful ones. Unavoidably hamstrung by a bad conceit. Wide variety of races and cultures is refreshing, though.
The Fifth Estate (D): Just as Assange's letter reckoned: a thinly veiled assassination attempt on subversive action that nonetheless tries to profit from it. "Revolution" is swathed in conditional positivity, good until it compromises the people it's meant to disenfranchise. Narrative aims to discredit noble intent through self-righteousness. Assange, WikiLeaks, et al. painted as singularly damaging by film's end. Short-sighted, profiteering trash.
The Last Days on Mars (D): A horribly written Alien ripoff, mired in science fiction flavors of the month. Senseless lighting and editing choices. Plot bends over backwards trying to accommodate the most banal of storytelling contrivances. Acting proficient but perfunctory.
The Purge (D): An inkling of a good idea, given no deeper thought whatsoever. "Monologue, then unexpected death" trick gets old after the second time. Every member of the family deserves to die for different, equally moronic reasons. Hideous production values.
The Canyons (D): Intentional meaninglessness that, through failures of technique and drama, remains meaningless. Will be remembered en masse as (impressively) lurid pop culture detritus. Deen sometimes in sync with character's darkness; Lohan an uncomfortable, distracting stunt cast.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (F): Ugly, unappealing product, through and through. No joy to be found in lifeless action scenes, bad action-parody joke lifts. Should have been shelved forever.


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