Every year, there are films we look forward to with great fervor that fall short of our lofty expectations. Sometimes it's an auteur director who missteps, sometimes it's a dynamite cast that doesn't gel with the material provided. Luckily, to counteract those disappointments, there are always those films you never knew about, or just assumed based on a bad trailer or an unreliable actor not to be worth your time, that end up being thoroughly enjoyable experiences. Here are five of each from 2013 in film.
Guillermo Del Toro should have been better than this. Chock full of terribly one-dimensional characters, awful acting and cliched storytelling, Pacific Rim is, for all intents, Transformers 4 as made by a slightly more engaged filmmaker. Even the excellent design of the kaiju monsters and Idris Elba’s Bill Pullman in Independence Day channeling scenery chewing cannot cover up how aggressively, mind-numbingly stupid this film is to actually sit down and watch. There really isn’t much of anything that differentiates this from Man of Steel or Star Trek into Darkness or the litany of other awful blockbusters that assaulted our senses and wallets over the summer months, even down to the same empty, blustery climactic action scenes that make you feel nothing. Del Toro is, to me at least, a real filmmaker with real bona fides, and it’s disappointing to see him fail so spectacularly on a genre picture.
To start, Cate Blanchett is fantastic in Blue Jasmine. She is a lock to receive a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars, and I would not consider it an injustice were she to win. And much of the supporting cast, Bobby Cannavale in particular, is quite good as well. Unfortunately, Woody Allen’s script is a thoroughly confused, at times shockingly off-base and bland piece of work, forcing these strong performances into corners and directions that make little sense and drain all the life out of the film. Allen gives up the ghost of the Jasmine character too early, and all suspension of disbelief is shattered when you see what kind of apartment he believes a struggling single mother working at a supermarket would have in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world. You would think, for a time, perhaps that Allen is making some kind of commentary on Jasmine’s standards, and in a way he is, but he doesn’t push it far enough, and tries to have it both ways by setting up her sister as this beset upon woman without pushing it far enough. The result is that Allen, and by extension the entire film, feels fake and out of touch. This could and should have been a good film, but Allen’s screenplay ensures the foundation is cracked.
I listed Only God Forgives as one of my most anticipated films of 2013. I quite enjoyed Bronson and Drive, and always liked Gosling’s work, so another collaboration between Gosling and Winding Refn set in the neon-soaked seedy underbelly of Thailand showed true promise. But the actual product in practice was one of the best and emptiest examples of style over substance in recent memory. Winding Refn takes a pretty basic revenge tale and shoots it in long, expressive takes and deep red hues. It is almost a living painting, low on dialogue and just generally low on movement of any kind. But any attempts at expanding the narrative or thematic depth of both the film and the characters within it leave you wanting. It’s less-is-more as more-is-more, as Refn cranks everything up to about fifteen, but doesn’t bother ensuring that the film adds up to anything worthwhile other than a sort of extant commentary on form that doesn’t go anywhere.
I don’t consider American Hustle to be a bad film, but it is a thoroughly disappointing one. I think we’ve reached the point that the quirky, fun David O. Russell of Three Kings and Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees is dead and buried, and has been replaced by his somewhat Billy Wilder-esque rebirth as the Hollywood prestige genre artist he has become since releasing The Fighter. It’s pretty clear Russell focused entirely on character and dialogue, and considered plot to be a bit of an afterthrought here. That’s not a bad thing for a film like Silver Linings Playbook, where the plot is all genre convention, but a heist/con film cannot skimp on the plotting and expect to skirt by solely on the strength of its scenes. The performances are all great, the cinematography is workmanlike but generally decent (though the Scorsese-y flourishes often don’t work because, well, it feels like worse Scorsese), but the film has no presence or lasting impact. It’s hurt even more by the release of The Wolf of Wall Street, another film I have misgivings about but is just worlds better than what we got from Russell. The further I get away from actually having seen this film, the less I like it and the less I ever want to see it again.
Much like American Hustle, Gravity is a pretty good movie (it is, in fact, much better than American Hustle). Its technical merits cannot be denied. But my word that script is terrible. I was to thoroughly engrossed in the film’s first hour, and then so thoroughly taken out of it by its overly stated and stilted thematic dialogue that picks up after Bullock finds herself alone in the vacuum of space to comprehend her life. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the film went in this direction, but I do think that it was pretty terribly executed when it tries. There are beautiful visual motifs that reinforce the central themes of rebirth and survival, making the hackneyed script work that is put right next to it all the more egregious and superfluous. This film would have worked extraordinarily well as a borderline silent film, forcing all of the character onto the visuals, which are uniformly excellent. What we got is still good, but not the sort of transformative experience I was expecting (and others seemed to experience) from the acclaimed director of Children of Men’s first feature in seven years.
Big comedies had taken a bit of a beating for a few years, with films like the Hangover sequels and This is 40 showing us the logical (and abyssal) depths of successful comedies and comedic forms pushed far beyond their breaking point. Because of this, I didn’t have the highest of hopes for This is the End, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s apocalypse/cabin fever comedy. What we get, though, was a wonderful mix of fearless self-parody and commitment to the bit. The Biblical apocalypse really happens, and the filmmakers don’t hold anything back in their depiction of how a handful of vainglorious actors with Hollywood power and insulation from the real world would handle the situation. Everyone plays perfectly heightened and satirical versions of themselves without rolling over into the overly arch (other than James Franco and Danny McBride, for whom arch is essentially called for), and the laughs come fast and furious. There are some quibbles here and there, and it’s not the best comedy of the year, but it was a strong contender, which is not something I expected.
No one gets The Counselor. It might be Ridley Scott’s involvement (you might be expecting something more straightforward from a crowd-pleaser like Scott), it might be the cast, full of pretty Hollywood stars (and whatever it is Javier Bardem is wearing), or some combination of the two, but the general audiences clearly weren’t expecting what we got from this film. And that’s okay, because it’s one of the most audacious experiments and subversive thrillers of the year. This is Spring Breakers level genre screwiness, with a veneer that serves to throw you off the scent and obscure what everything is really about. This is a Cormac McCarthy story through and through, offering the same sort of high-mindedness of a No Country for Old Men wrapped in this genre fiction that honestly couldn’t care less about its own genre. This is a Greek tragedy of the highest order, all about how one man’s even slight hubris and mistake has consequences no matter how slight his transgression is or how much he does to try to get out of it. Once that cord is around your neck and the button is pressed, there is no escape. This is like a cinematic suitcase bomb.
This big slice of dark genre fiction from Denis Villeneuve owes a great debt to David Fincher’s epic dark genre fiction Zodiac. It’s a little less All the Presidents’ Men and a little more Seven, which holds it back from being great, but the style and pacing results in some pretty strong surface-level love. Hugh Jackman goes a little too overboard in his performance as a father whose daughter was kidnapped, but he’s balanced out by Jake Gyllenhaal (whose best performance was in...wait for it...Zodiac). The strongest contributor to the film, and the main reason it is worth watching, is Roger Deakins, the cinematographer of Skyfall and a major collaborator with the Coen Brothers. Deakins’ camera work elevates the proceedings from a relatively minor cliche thriller into a monolithic and claustrophobic terror that sticks with you. It sneaked up on me this year, and was quite the satisfying experience in the cinema.
Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy
Chilean director Sebastian Silva was putting together Magic Magic, a psychological suspense thriller starring Juno Temple and Michael Cera when production stalled. Thus, the director decided to take advantage of the presence of his crew and most of his cast and shot a full second feature, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus on a shoestring budget while waiting to complete principal photography on the film he was supposed to make in the first place. Both features are pretty wildly different from each other; one is psychological horror and the other a druggy road trip comedy. Both also contribute to the career deconstruction of Michael Cera, who other than the fourth season of Arrested Development spent the year playing characters wildly off his type (see also: This is the End). These are two small indies that are pretty great, and show evidence for a strong continued future from Silva.
I found The Artist to be a pretty smug film riddled with plot contrivances that just left me cold. It’s a shame, then, that this year’s Blancanieves, a Spanish production and a true silent film, was so thoroughly overlooked. Yes, it was a foreign production, and didn’t have the Weinstein muscle behind it, but it’s such a better film that it’s sad it’s not going to get any notice. Instead of a reflexive look at Hollywood, a more boring Singin’ in the Rain, we instead get an adaptation of Snow White moved to Spain with everyone recast as bullfighters. Despite some misgivings about the pacing early on in the film (it takes a touch too long to get moving), Blancanieves is a gorgeously shot and evocative retelling of the classic tale. The matador setting is perfect for silent film, and the production design is off the charts. With a surprisingly poignant and sad ending, this one is a keeper.