Friday, May 30, 2014

Listology # 28: Top 10 Films of 2013

It's high time I do this. Enough procrastinating.

10. Her  (Spike Jonze)

 I had to admit that I had serious reservations about this film when I first saw it. But after a few weeks of thinking about it, I must say that it has grown on me a lot. Spike Jonze's highly imaginative and also highly personal Oscar-winning script is brought to life beautifully by both Joaquin Phoenix and the voice-over performance of Scarlett Johansson. 

09. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
This is yet another love story but a very intelligent one. The film is the third film in a trilogy (?) of the relationship between Celine and Jesse. This time they've been together for years with two little girls of their own. The film takes place, like the other two, in one day and this time, it's not quite rosy. I have to say that the only reason this is so low is the fact that 2013 has been an unusually strong year for film.

08. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
This is a little miracle of a film. It could have easily, I mean EASILY have been an irritating, twee indie with an irritating protagonist with pretensions of saying something profound. But it's not. Co-writer and star Greta Gerwig and co-writer/director Noah Baumbach crafts a humorous character study of a woman who's not quite ready to grow up. Frances could have easily been a infuriating character but Gerwig's performance keeps you interested in her all throughout. An excellent film. 

07. Transit (Hannah Espia)

As I mentioned in a past blog post months ago, 2013 has also been a very strong year for Filipino films. This is one of two in this list. This heartbreaking, beautiful story of a family of Filipinos living in Israel is a compelling drama from an exciting voice in Philippine independent cinema. 

06. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Who knew Martin Scorsese had this in him? Leonardo DiCaprio gives what I think his career-best performance as Jordan Belfort, the title character who scammed and debauched his way into infamy. Some people thought this film was "glamorizing" its amoral characters but I disagree. For me, it's a very honest, pointed way to depicting this type of lifestyle.

05. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
If there's a movie that MUST be seen on the big-screen and in 3-D it's this one. It is an absolutely stunning work. Director Alfonso Cuaron takes you on a thrill ride but the big special effects is anchored by Sandra Bullock's performance, which is her career-best.

04. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
It is kind of a minor miracle this managed to win Best Picture. Like with Hunger and Shame, it's still a Steve McQueen film through and through. It is unflinching and unrelenting in its horrific depiction of the horrors of slavery. It features a quartet of amazing performances especially Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o, who deserved won Best Supporting Actress. 

03. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
The Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film was described by my friend, who wasn't a fan of this film, as "counterfeit Fellini". And I say, what's wrong with that? This film is basically 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita for the 21st Century. It doesn't follow a conventional plot but just moves through little vignettes. It's a high wire act since it can easily fall apart but the result is simply spectacular.

02. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)

If you see as many film as I do, it's very easy to become jaded and perhaps bored by things. This documentary about Indonesian death squads is something that will definitely wake you up. My jaw dropped as I was seeing this disturbing, bizarre, occasionally darkly funny film about mass murderers turned folk heroes re-enacting their crimes. It must be seen. 

01. Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz)
An absolute masterpiece. At four hours long, this is actually a short film for director Lav Diaz whose films range from 8 to 11 hours. But even at four hours, I was glued to my seat. This loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment set in the Philippines is a superb achievement that must be seen by more people.

Runners-Up: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen); Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton); The World's End (Edgar Wright); To the Wonder (Terrence Malick); Mud (Jeff Nichols); American Hustle (David O. Russell); The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai); Blue Is The Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche); Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendoca Filho); Frozen (Chris Buck/Jennifer Lee).


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (5/18/14 - 5/24/14)

The Red and The White (Miklos Jansco) **** - This film depicts the Hungarian country-side battle between the Russian Revolutionists (the "Red") and those loyal to the Tsar (the "White"). One of the things that struck me in this film is that though you may sympathize and root for individual characters, it does not generally depict war between the "good guys" or the "bad guys". The film strips off all the glamour of war into just its most basic. It's just a group of people just trying not to get shot. The cause is almost irrelevant. This film is brilliantly directed by Miklos Jansco who uses long takes, making it almost documentary-like. This is my first Jansco film and it certainly won't be the last.

Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin) **** - I saw this film upon the recommendation of a friend and I have to say thank you to him because this is an excellent recommendation. This film marks two firsts for me. It's my first Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis movie and my first live-action film from director Frank Tashlin. Basically, it's about two roommates, one an artist and one an aspiring children's book writer who are unemployed and they meet two ladies and things get crazy from there. The musical numbers are just okay for me and it took me a while to get used to Jerry Lewis' antics but there's so much great things here that I quickly got over any reservations almost immediately. The film is almost consistently funny and also oddly racy in a sneaky manner. It's fluff for sure but very outstanding fluff. I echo my friend's recommendation.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) ***1/2 - When I first heard of this, the first thought in my mind was, "Another X-Men movie? Really? Okay. Whatever." Even after the trailers came out, I was still fairly indifferent. But after actually seeing it, I must say, THIS is probably my favorite X-Men movie so far. The actors here bring their A-game, clearly playing it straight and taking it seriously but not too seriously. I'm particularly impressed by the fact that despite casting Peter Dinklage, no one ever pointed out he's a little person. It never came up. Though his condition gave his role a somewhat unspoken irony. I'm having superhero comic book movie fatigue yet somehow Bryan Singer miraculously re-invigorated it. The Quicksilver scene alone makes this movie more than worth seeing.

Blast of Silence (Allen Baron) ***1/2 - A hitman goes to the city and is given a assignment. That's it. It's fairly straightforward plot. Classic noir. But what writer-director-star Allen Baron did was strip it down to the bone yet sprinkled it with interesting characters and some cool twists here and there. It's quite pulpy and the independent nature of it gives it a bit of grittiness. Also, beautifully shot and edited and can pretty much can stand head and shoulders among the greatest classic film noirs. I'm glad it somehow got a resurgence in recent years. It's quite a film.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (5/11/14 - 5/17/14)

Monsters (Gareth Edwards) *** - I saw this primarily to "prepare" for Godzilla opening this week since it's from the same director. For a very low-budget independent film, I'm actually quite impressed by what writer-director-production designer-visual effects supervisor Gareth Edwards has accomplished. More then the impressive creation of the seldom-seen "creatures", he also somehow created a believable world in chaos. The film is essentially an indie road movie but with sci-fi/horror bent as two people make their way across Mexico that's being plagued by alien monsters. There's actually very little monster action but it still holds your attention throughout most of it. It's far from perfect but you can definitely see the potential.

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov) **** - Set in a small village of indigenous Ukrainian Hutsuls, this film follows a tragic love story. Yes, we've seen tragic love stories before but this one is really something else. This is my first time dipping my toes into the cinema of Sergei Parajanov and it certainly will not be the last. As the story unfolds, the film takes on many, many forms and actually surprises you. The combination of the rather exotic milieu and Parajanov's unique visual style gives the film moments of surrealism, fantasy and occasionally even horror. It's something every serious cinephile should check out.

The Bank Dick (Edward F. Cline) ***1/2 - This is my first foray into the feature films of W.C. Fields. Much like the Marx Brothers movies, this film's plot takes a back seat to one-liners, bits and gags by the famous comedian. It's pretty much about a drunkard who wishes his loudmouth family to leave him in peace and gets into one trouble after another. It starts quite strong with a lot of real good laughs. It also ends strong with an insane car chase. The middle part, I must admit, was a bit hit-and-miss for me. It's a solid comedy and I'd see a W.C. Fields movie again but I think I prefer the Marx Brothers.

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards) ***1/2 - I saw this movie on 3D IMAX. Personally, I don't think the 3D was needed but the large screen of IMAX is more than worth it. You can actually see the scale of the large monsters (yes, MONSTERS) in this picture and it's a stunning sight. That's not to say this is a perfect film. I have a few issues with it. I mean like with lots of movies of this ilk, the human story could have been A LOT better especially since they've hired great actors to fill it (and Aaron Taylor-Johnson...ZING! Kidding, he wasn't that bad) but it's good enough to ground the monster action that is to come. Unlike the 1998 Roland Emmerich film, this film, I feel, as a fan of the original film, RESPECTED Godzilla and the monsters here, it's a strange thing to say, but they have SOULS. The ending was oddly moving. Gareth Edwards was a promising filmmaker in Monsters but he fulfilled that promise with this film. A truly enjoyable summer blockbuster.

Love and Death (Woody Allen) ***1/2 - My exploration into the so-called earlier, funnier Woody Allen movies continues with this really, really funny film that's essentially an Ingmar Bergman parody (though Russian cinema and literature gets parodied quite a bit too). Basically, it's the Woody Allen-type neurotic character transposed into 1700's Russia during Napoleon's invasion. The result is quite hilarious. It sometimes feels like a Marx Brothers movie with only one Marx brother. Personally, I prefer the late 70's to mid-80's Woody Allen but these earlier, funnier ones are really worth watching and funnier than most comedies today.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (5/4/14 - 5/10/14)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) **1/2 - I'm of the opinion that Andrew Garfield is a better Spider-Man/Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire. Though this film is unfortunately kind of subpar, I still maintain that opinion. Garfield's performance holds this film together. There are many elements that could have potentially made a really good film in there but way too much time in spent on exposition and building up on things that the film becomes a bit tiresome and lacking in focus. The two villain structure made the film feel a bit anti-climactic. Dane DeHaan was terrific as the Green Goblin/Harry Osborne. Had the film focused on him and got rid of Electro (Jamie Foxx is kind of miscast), it would have been a much better film. It's really too bad. There are some really great elements there.

Mother India (Mehboob Khan) *** - After her mother-in-law borrows money from an unscrupulous money-lender, an Indian family's life start a spiral into poverty and tragedy. This feels like an Indian Gone with the Wind. It's got everything we've seen from all the great melodramatic family sagas: We follow the family throughout the decades and all its romance and tragedies. Like Gone with the Wind, it's also kind of bloated. And since it's also a Bollywood film, it's got song-and-dance numbers on top of it (un-subtitled in my copy sadly). There are lots of great moments particularly in the first act and the last act. The middle portion tends to drag. It's not my favorite Indian film but I'm still glad I saw it.

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch) **** - A man and a woman who are both thieves and con artists decide to make a millionaire heiress their mark, hoping to come away with a big fortune but it results in a wacky love triangle. It's an Ernst Lubitsch film and this is often considered as one of his best. It may not be my personal favorite (that would still be Ninotchka) but it still does contain a lot of what makes him great. Sharp, funny dialogue, coupled with crisp direction and on point performances. This film is also surprisingly sweet in its own twisted way and since it's pre-code it's also surprisingly kind of racy.

Spaceballs (Mel Brooks) *** - I've seen pretty much all of Mel Brooks' parody/spoof movies with the exception of this so I might as well get it over with. This time around he parodies Star Wars although quite a few other science fiction films got dragged along for the ride. There's quite a good number really good laughs here but the film overall is not quite as sharp and funny as say, Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles which are comedic masterpieces. It's hit and miss this time around but when it hits, it hits really great.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (4/27/14 - 5/3/14)

The Big City (Satyajit Ray) **** - An Indian family in the city experiencing difficulties to make ends meet come up with a radical and outrageous plan - the wife goes out to find work. It may sound a bit mundane and in a way it is. But within these seemingly ordinary situations, writer-director Satyajit Ray finds moments of compelling drama that has the ability to surprise, move and even thrill you. It's exquisitely crafted, of course (visually dynamic considering the subject matter) and excellently acted. This is yet another crowning jewel in Satyajit Ray's already great filmography.

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Stanley Kramer) ***1/2 - Spencer Tracy is first-billed ahead of a HUGE ensemble cast of film and TV comedy stars in what can only be described as a truly epic comedy. A group of characters find out there's a stash of money hidden somewhere and they go through hilarious lengths to be able to get to it first. Is it a tad overlong? Yes. Does it go way too over-the-top at times? Sure. But is it so much fun to watch? Yes. It's also fun to spot all the numerous cameos too! Plus even at way over 2 and a half hours, the pacing is quite brisk and you'll feel the time flying. The huge ensemble of comedic actors: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, etc. all bring their A-game giving their all complemented by extremely well-edited slapstick and stunts. It's all a really good time.

Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby) ***1/2 - I can see why this cult comedy classic is such a highly influential film. It's pretty darn terrific. It's so much more than its daring and outrageous main selling point: That it's about an affair between a 20 year old man and an-almost 80 year old woman. It is. But it cuts so much deeper than that. It's practically about life and death and living one's life to the fullest and the two characters do in often hilarious ways. But for all the laughs, the film manages to fold in moments of sadness and quite a few things to chew on. Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort make an odd pair but their chemistry works really well. You actually buy it!

My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle) ***1/2 - This is yet another one of those films I'm surprised I haven't seen yet. The concept may sound either boring or gimmicky: The film is largely just a conversation between two old friends over dinner in an upscale restaurant. It is not at all boring or gimmicky. It is quite riveting, thought-provoking and quite entertaining. I found myself quite taken aback by how fascinating it was. Despite the fact that they do talk about big issues: Art, the meaning of life, philosophies, life experiences, the future, etc. it never felt pretentious nor did it feel like it was talking down to me. I wasn't exactly bowled over but I did like it a whole lot and I recommend people watch it and talk about it...over dinner.