22 January 2014

Films of 2013: Female Performances

I saw The Sessions relatively late in the year, but I’m glad I squeezed it in as Helen Hunt (10) gave a great, subtle performance in it as a sex surrogate. Out of all last year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees she was easily the standout and deserved to win. She evinced the sensitivity within a deceptively complex yet affable and just plain decent character. Cosmina Stratan (9) was quietly devastating in Beyond the Hills. Watching her observe the troubling events in the film, take part in them, and be at the centre of them, was a huge part of the fascination of the film. The exact same goes for Amy Seimetz (8) in Upstream Color. She showed her grip on a lead role is just as secure as it is on support roles. She played Kris with delicacy, focus and fire. Greta Gerwig (7) was on this list last year for Damsels in Distress and she’s made it again for Frances Ha. Well, she does keep on being naturally captivating, full of goofy charm and wonderfully precise with her comic timing. Sandra Bullock (6) gets a place for giving her all to Gravity. She’s in almost every scene and carries the film effortlessly and near totally weightlessly. She shows every terrifying or euphoric experience as a complex range of emotions. It’s further proof that she can do drama just as well as she does comedy.

War Witch was a compelling film and, in the lead, Rachel Mwanza (5) gave a bold, heartbreaking performance. It’s truly her film and this young actress rises to the role with immense skill. She is leagues better here than many of the more seasoned actresses were in their films last year. More people deserved to see Price Check, chiefly for Parker Posey (4). Her near-perfect performance, in which she nails the division between quirky and awkward that many a MPDG type misses, is a sheer delight. She’s unlikeable yet endearing and shows a great amount of cheeriness and vulnerability at opportune moments. It was one of my favourite comedy perfromances of the year. I'd like to see a spin-off TV series fronted by Posey. Barbara Sukowa (3) as Hannah Arendt was, at various times throughout the film, intense, impassioned and as staunch as can be. Her lecture toward the end of the film is a masterclass in performance control (for the character and for Sukowa). Every piece of drama leads up to this point and Sukowa commands the screen without undue fuss. Amazing work.

Brie Larson (2) in Short Term 12 was a sheer revelation. I’d only seen her in small parts in a handful of films before, but this lead role should confirm her status as a seriously vital new talent. The subtlety and vigour with which she performs is enthralling. She hits each beat, each moment with a rare kind of emotion. I believed, and believed in, her character. A great acting achievement. Ultimately, though, no one was quite as good as Cate Blanchett (1) this year. In Blue Jasmine she stood out as giving the very best female performance of 2013. The cracks in Jasmine's glacial composure, the thread of despair that unwinds more and more as the film goes on (as her life gradually spirals into a personal oblivion), and the balance between spikiness and fragility that she manages with utter ease — Blanchett was commanding, assured, perfect. For proof, just watch her closely when she delivers the line: “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown — there's only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.” It's acting that thrills.

11-20: Kristin Scott Thomas Only God Forgives / Jennifer Lawrence American Hustle / Nicole Kidman The Paperboy / Ann Dowd Compliance / Emma Thompson Saving Mr. Banks / Melissa McCarthy The Heat / Tashiana Washington Gimme the Loot / Sharni Vinson You’re Next / June Squibb Nebraska / Maeve Jinkings Neighbouring Sounds

16 January 2014

Films of 2013: 10 Disappointments

Here are 10 disappointments of 2013 — the same deal as with the 10 surprises posted the other day. These are films that I perhaps had some element of expectation for prior to watching them, or films that I'd heard about and was, to some degree, excited about, but which turned out to be not quite the films I'd hoped. However, as with the nature of this category every year, I could easily revisit any one of these films in future and see untapped pleasures within them that elevates it in my mind. This often happens. But as it stands, all 10 films below were worth watching despite the disappointing outcomes. The titles below are in no specific order and all — as per my yearly lists — released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2013. There may be what some may call discrepencies, as I include UK premiere releases on formats other than theatrical releases (DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, TV movies etc), mainly because I feel any and all films should get a shot at being represented in year-end lists, not just the main, wider releases. But the dates above are the general rule around here.

Side Effects

Side Effects (dir: Steven Soderbergh) Because: of the films that I thought of as disappointments this past year, perhaps this was the most disappointing. It started well, brilliantly even. Soderbergh set up some well-judged suspense. The cast was a coup. There was some kind of deviously fascinating game plan to all the pharmaceutical shenanigans. But then, at the last stretch, it suddenly became a mid-nineties erotic thriller. A bad one at that, one with a particularly regressive tone that left a nasty aftertaste. Two questions regarding the main issue that turned it sour for me. Could Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character have feasibly been written as male? And, if so, would it have altered the outcome at all? For me it’s yes and no. Psycho Lesbians Who Get Their Comeuppance For Betraying Poor Men as a thematic thriller filler should have been left in the nineties. The Soderbergh antipathy doesn’t end there unfortunately because…

... Behind the Candelabra lies age-old showbiz ugliness? This was a lot of gilded faff that said very little. It was as all a bit basic, thin, limited. Michael Douglas and Matt Damon were very good, but I never felt I understood or discovered what made Liberace and Scott do the things they did, beyond what was obvious. There was scant evocative connotation or intelligent stimulation and little vivid context beyond the glitz and the made-up faces frozen in a terrifying sheen of distrust. Some of the meaty content was there, but a lot was merely cloaked by the glimmer. The ‘drug haze' scenes in Killing Them Softly in 2012 received many moans of "cliché", but I wonder if folks will apply the same to those in Candelabra? Here, they bordered on embarrassing. I’m guessing many folks will take it on trust that the scenes here are sound and just because Soderbergh is a highly favoured, and now retired, filmmaker.

Black Rock (dir: Katie Aselton) Because: it was a bad day at Black Rock... (full review)

This Is the End

This Is the End (dir: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen) Because: although it's brim-full of confidence and is certainly sure of itself — and a handful of good jokes work — I’m not sure it's as funny as it thinks it is. And, Phew, *wafts the air* there’s a whole lotta gay panic up in here (though I guess the makers are all too aware, but it does tip into some baffling, in-jokey, areas). I did wish that the gags varied just a dash more though. Craig Robinson (dry), Jay Baruchel (daft), Michael Cera (drunk) and (one specific vocal gag from) James Franco were best in show. A shame it was less than the sum of its parts.

You’re Next (dir: Adam Wingard) Because: it was maybe a tad overpraised? It wasn’t a bad film by any means, but the hyperbole for it was in overdrive upon its release. I can’t see that it’s actually half as fresh or daring as reports said. It was an average home invasion horror and little more, although Sharni Vinson was great in a decent part — the real standout element of the film, she was operating on a slightly elevated level from the rest of it. Also: scary ‘animal –face masks’ are clearly the new scary 'old potato sack' masks.

Simon Killer (dir: Antonio Campos) Because: though I was underwhelmed by Campos’ Afterschool, the story here piqued my interest. I was intrigued enough to give it a go. However, it was all just too much hand relief for Haneke. Just like Afterschool. Its main issue was a consistently directionless tone and general structure that seemed to imply some kind of foreboding significance yet resulted in little thrill or satisfaction. It was paced and structured with a chilly kind of verve, but it only starts to get compelling halfway in. Then it, er… runs dry of ideas. Brady Corbet can be very good, but his character's a flaky, dull blank and his neurosis was often funny when it should've been powerfully consuming. Much more interesting is Mati Diop, who is superb. I would've preferred more of her (better-defined) character's story over Corbet's, to be honest. There was a lot of artful posing going on, though at least it was photographed and scored with inspiration.

Welcome to Pine Hill (dir: Keith Miller) Because: it failed on similar points as Simon Killer, above: keen promise was there, then it was hastily dashed. Its feel of sad dislocation, of life melancholically off balance, was aroused nicely. But Miller didn’t take it anywhere interesting. Its intentions were commendable, but the journey of the main character was ultimately a feeble stumble where it needed to attain moving heights. Proof that evasive, mysterious endings don’t always work.

Post Tenebras Lux

Post Tenebras Lux (dir: Carlos Reygadas) Because: can a bluffer create poetic imagery? Is wilfully showy abstraction enough? Does it have to mean that much? Why the rugby?

A Field in England (dir: Ben Wheatley) Because: there's genuinely, curiously strange and then there's wilful, for-the-sake-of-it strange. This marches right down the centre. Some films achieve an organic cultish edge, even early on in their lifespan, and some appear to 'build it in'. I got the feeling A Field in England fits the latter. It’s knowingly pre-constructed weird cinema. There’s some striking imagery to relish and Reece Shearsmith and Richard Glover are great, as are the sound design and editing. But I didn’t actually feel much throughout though. I wasn’t seduced, flummoxed or alert by the arcane devilry onscreen. I was mainly indifferent. Regardless, it was entirely cheering that there was real excitement for an experimental, B&W film set in 17th century Civil War England. That doesn’t happen every year — kudos to that.

The Purge (dir: James DeMonaco) Because: potential: yea big *spans arms out*. Execution: yea big *holds thumb and forefinger apart* A shaky polemic, all told. At times an erratic mess, but not easy to write off, The Purge has apt points to make but it’s dismaying that it feels the need to underline them in muddy fashion. File under: eh? Or: better luck with the sequel.

Next: Worst, Female and Male Performances, Best of 2013.

15 January 2014

Films of 2013: 10 Surprises

Here are 10 surprises of 2013, films that I had little or no knowledge of prior to watching them, or films that I'd heard about and held no particular expectations for, but actually turned out to be decent, worthwhile fare. Although I couldn't say that all of the films below are truly great films exactly (though Home Sweet Home is certainly the very best of the bunch and deserves to be more widely seen), they are all worthy of some consideration and attention; they were all better than their largely indifferent, negative or meagre reviews suggested. The titles below are in no specific order and all — as per my yearly lists — released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2013. There may be what some may call discrepencies, as I include UK premiere releases on formats other than theatrical releases (DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix, TV movies etc), mainly because I feel any and all films should get a shot at being represented in year-end lists, not just the main, wider releases. But the dates above are the general rule around here.

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home (dir: David Morley) Because: it was probably one of the most fascinating, slick and crisply directed horrors I saw last year. Home invasion films are ten-a-penny these days, and whilst last year's most notable entry, The Purge, tried yet failed to fully invigorate the sub-genre with a novel conceptual-social angle, Home Sweet Home went for a no-frills, intense and pared down approach and bettered it by a mile. It’s elegantly made, full of dread and uses slow-build tension to near unbearable levels. Sometimes pause and patience can create the best cinematic fear.

Bait (dir: Kimble Rendall) Because: as a retro mid-level b-movie it tapped into the precise stuff that makes retro mid-level b-movies insanely enjoyable. It was ridiculous, joyfully cheap and took itself just serious enough to achieve the desired result yet it was clearly stupid and it knew it — as much fun as its premise (sharks in a supermarket) promised. I'd gladly watch parts 2, 3 and 4. Probably drunk. Likely with a roomful of friends. And the fact that it wasn't an utterly tedious waste of time, a title without a film to back it up, meant it was instantly leagues better than Sharknado. Clean up, aisle 3!

Apartment 4E (dir: Russell leigh Sharman) Because: a small and seemingly innocuous two-hander, this had a touch more vigour and acidity than I first assumed. The film's two performances were pitched well for intimate drama, especially Nicole Beharie, who is a captivating presence and took hold of her role with gutsy abandon. (It shows that Behaire, so good in Shame in 2011, should be getting first dibs on many of the decent roles for women around at the moment.)

Being Flynn

Being Flynn (dir: paul Weitz) Because: it’s well paced with a deftly-judged use of voiceover and structure. The characters feel, overall, vital. Reviews were mostly negative, which meant it passed by largely unnoticed. Some plot elements are reminiscent of the recent A Bag of Hammers and it has a fair kinship to the 1993 film The Saint of Fort Washington — both great underrated gems. Paul Dano is excellent; Robert De Niro is better here than in his Oscar-nominated role in Silver Linings Playbook. It has a top cast all round: Julianne Moore, Lili Taylor, William Sadler, Dale Dickey, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi all support. The photography by Declan Quinn is one of its strengths: clear, vivid lighting and a great use of muted palette. He's one of the best DPs currently working.

I Give It a Year (dir: Dan Mazer) Because: although mostly panned I thought it worked effectively enough. I can’t entirely fathom why it received a thrashing, however, as it’s just other contemporary British rom com, and is better and funnier than its dreary reviews said… and was an infinitely better attempt than the mostly better-received, though awful, About Time. Rafe Spall was appealing and deserved more credit for his shrewd comedy and the supporting cast performed well. When the comedy works (which is often), it's very funny. Its loaded gags give it oomph. The main reason to see it though is the small, perfect cameo from Olivia Colman as a marriage counsellor. She never disappoints.

Sleepwalk with Me (dirs: Mike Birbiglia, Seth Barrish) Because: it was a breezy little comedy by and about an amiable loser-type, thinly masked as a character, who knew how to impart the best and most amusing aspects of his personality to glean laughs. Mike Birbiglia shows he can be as gleefully watchable as Paul Rudd and has the sad-sack elements of Ben Stiller’s more dramatic turns. I had a good time watching this. More of this, cheers, Mr Birbiglia.

The Giant Mechanical Man (dir: Lee Kirk) Because: although it had all the signs of being another in the long line of quirky-for-the-sake-of-it romantic comedy-dramas (a shy, silver-face-painted mime artist on stilts has a furtive/awkward love affair with a meek zookeeper— see what I mean? I'm surpprised I didn't hit walk away during the opening titles), it rather heroically managed to avoid most of the usual genre pitfalls. Chris Messina and Jenna Fischer were good romantic leads. What a nice change from either the Zack Braffs, the Zooey Deschanels and/or the Gerard Butlers and the Katherine Heigls of rom-com-dom.

We're the Millers

We’re the Millers (dir: Rawson Marshall Thurber) Because: instead of being just another laborious entry on the corny comedy concept carousel that come around all too often, it used its concept capably (whereas something like, say, Identity Thief didn’t) and avoided any undue fussiness. It had some genuine belly laughs and a sprinkling of sweet moments. OK, there were some iffy aspects too (the Aniston pole dance, the roadside cop), but they were mostly kept to a minimum. The cast work well and there were some actually great end-credit outtakes — which alone raises it above other similar comedies.

Any Day Now (dir: Travis Fine) Because: a sincere social angle gives it pleasant, admirable heft. It could’ve been a worthy TV-movie-like study of obviously contentious social-issue chestnuts (gay parenting, disability), but it plays well as solid, unabashed rather old-school drama. Fine performances from Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt give it commitment and zeal. Both are given a lot more to do here than in many of either actor's other recent work. This is a fine film with some thoughtful things to say.

White House Down (dir: Roland Emmerich) Because: really, it’s the height of action-movie daftness. All OTT patriotic panic and anguished aides. C-Tat sweats. J-Foxx smirks. This thing here and that thing over there explode. There’s plenty of brain-dodging fun to be had with it. I liked Jason Clarke most. He's often the best thing in his films and he's clearly having a ball here, snarling, shouting and shooting the place up, enjoying all the hokiness just like I did. There's a raft of risible lines and preposterous plot swerves, of course. And it’s hard to take any given scene remotely seriously, thankfully. I wouldn't have it any other way. Olympus has What?

Next: Disappointments, Worst,  Female and Male Performances and Best of 2013.

1 January 2014

Films Seen 2013: October, November, December

Films I saw in October, November and December 2013. The format is: film title (English lang. and/or original language where required — occasionally a film's alternative title, too); director(s) and year; whether it's a rewatch; numerical grade out of 10 (all grading is subject to change, of course, and intended as merely a personal indicator/reminder). Titles in bold indicate that the film is, by and large, a 2013 UK first release or is eligible for year-end inclusion. Films are listed as seen chronologically, viewed from bottom to top.

Blancanieves (Pablo Berger/2012) 8
Quite something! All the filmmaking aspects — visual, aural, thematic etc — converge with spellbinding effect. Lovely and moving.

Machete (Ethan Maniquis/2010) 4
It was watchable yet entirely forgettable. Don't know why it stopped the faux scratched-up film effect after 10 minutes, but glad it did. (Fake exploitation nostalgia got tired quick; give me the real deal any day.) It mainly proved that 90% of what De Niro's done since 1995 has been utter dross and that Lindsay Lohan really isn't any kind of actress.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Adam McKay/2013) 5
Scores well with many of its dafter gags, but misses with several others. It stretches itself thin at 2 hours. Cameos were fun enough.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola/2013) 4
Slim on ideas, short on interest. Coppola coasting. Unsure it delivers its argument well. The most vacuous film of the year.

47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch/2013) 6
Plot nowt to shout about, but I enjoyed the demons, beasts and witches. Good swordplay too. Enjoyable romp, but with perhaps a few iffy edges.

My Name Is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis/1945) 7
A breezy smalltime noir, compact and swiftly paced. Nina Foch suffers well. Each plot turn is effective and gripping.

Whistle and I'll Come to You

Whistle and I'll Come to You (Jonathan Miller/1968) 7 short/tv
Michael Hordern does the stuffy prof role with ease. Director Miller nicely ekes out the ominous mundanity. Frightful.

The Signalman (Lawrence Gordon Clark/1976) 7 short/tv
There's something in the way Denholm Elliott merely speaks that unnerves, but The Figure, his face and the tunnel ratchet it up.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller2013) 6
It's like a two-hour 'inspirational' camera advert, but has lovely moments of affecting pause and playful ad lib.

The Tractate Middoth (Mark Gatiss/2013) 7 short/tv
Stuff  Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Midwifemarch or whatever, I'd like to see more period TV (short/mini films) like BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas. They should be seasonal — weekly even. This was beautifully, tautly directed and expertly acted. It looked great. Simple shots of swirling dust particles and slow-creeping shadows were turned into terrifying images. And at 38 minutes it swiftly got the job done.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder/2012) 6 rewatch
Noticed just how handsome Henry Cavill is. I noticed it the first time around, but it's a fact worth repeating.

Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske/1951) 5
Great inventive animation. The colour was vivid, wonderful. Didn't fully win me over though.

Cremaster 2 (Matthew Barney/1999) 8
Sound, image, theme, pace are at their strongest (so far). Its near insoluble nature is fascinating. Could watch it on a loop.

Leviathan (Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor/2012) 8
The dark grit of an industry artfully conveyed (yet not overtly so) via a unique viewpoint. There's a grand, hard beauty here.

Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller/1966) 6
Well doused in strange sixties British cultishness. Part inspired, part flat. Great atypical score by Ravi Shankar.

Cremaster 5 (Matthew Barney/1997) 6
Must admit the testicular focus is lost on me, but I'm not sure it dents the enjoyment of these deranged films. Ursula Andress!

Cremaster 1

Cremaster 1 (Matthew Barney/1996) 6 short
Visually strong, use of colour exceptional. A vast, monumental ode to crazed invention. Not quite as thoroughly engaging as 4.

The Spider Woman (Roy William Neill/1944) 4
Amusing, but slight and a dash boring Sherlock Holmes quickie flick. More of a filler between other, better SH adventures?

Cremaster 4 (Matthew Barney/1995) 7 short
Immediately curious, captivating. Something indefinably and genuinely weird to it. Barney's mind is a tricky and beguiling place.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton/1951) 7
Slocombe's gorgeous B&W photography and Guinness' expert characterisation stand tall. Fitfully funny, plenty of daffy charm.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov/2012) 4
Looked gloomy/ropey as all hell. Iffy plastic FX. Cast looked bored. Bekmambetov's best so far — which is worrying.

Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney/2005) 7
Björk, a whaling ship and petroleum jelly. Barney's curious strange actions. Avoids longueurs w/ mesmerising diversions.

Piranhaconda (Jim Wynorski/2012) 3
I really don't think Michael Madsen cares any more. Someone needs to tell him he doesn't have to do every script he receives.

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock/2013) 5
An exercise in self love, Disney style. The plot's a wispy biscuit; flashbacks are saccharine intrusions. Though there are some moving scenes. Thompson's such a pro, she could do roles like this asleep. She's precisely good, hits every beat with ease, very controlled. Hanks is every bit as assured as Thompson. He's obviously having fun, but he nails an underlying solemnity in the part very well too. The best scenes are the small moments between Thompson and Paul Giamatti; I partly wished that it was the story of Poppins and Her Driver (but with the overt sentimentality on show elsewhere, that film could've become very Driving Miss Daisy-like.) The score was erratic and a real mess. It coated most scenes in forced jollity or a dreary weepy tone. And I usually like Thomas Newman.

A Foreign Affair

A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder/1948) 7
One of Wilder's sly comic delights. Dietrich sings and smirks like a surefire star. Splendid B&W photography gives it shine.

Virus (John Bruno/1999) 6
Despite bad reports, I enjoyed it. It's flawed with ropey aspects and dodgy decisions, but it has a great premise and some exciting moments. Donald Sutherland's Oirish-accented sea Cap'n is awful. Rare he gives a duff performance, but he's on the lowest rung here. Jamie Lee Curtis was good. The central sci-fi idea has oodles of potential. There's lots of fun to be had despite the iffy bits. I liked the 'alien presence' and how the (mostly practical) special effects were used. It's also a rare film that would absolutely benefit from a good overhaul. I'd love to see it remade and reckon the best person to remake it would be Chris Cunningham. I'd like to see him take it on, rewire and retool it and make it his own.

Stuck on You (Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly/2003) 5
Amiable and has its heart in the right place. Some giggles, but few big laughs. Cher and Streep are game. Perhaps one of the better Farrelly flicks?

Kiss the Girls (Gary Fleder/1997) 6
It's obvious who the killer is from go, but it's fun enough snooping along with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd (both very good). Generic but decent.

The Butler (Lee Daniels/2013) 6
Schmaltz sheen alert!... But it doesn't fog its inherent views. A rotary name cast add their tuppence-worth with starry pep. 'Twas ok. A lot of it was ripe and ready for awards from the first frame, but there was an agreeable sincerity to it. Sly editing made the strongest points. I'm not sure which Oprah Winfrey I liked best: drunk Oprah, 'old lady makeup' Oprah or Oprah in a shell suit.

Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton/2013) 8
Bold, warm, moving, full of wonderful human interactions. Deftly directed. The whole cast are outstanding, Brie Larson especially. An exemplary film.

Scrooge (Brian Desmond Hurst/1951) 6
Economic and well-paced; a great version and a great ghost story. Alastair Sim's performance is an absolute joy. Framing is great.

Nebraska (Alexander payne/2013) 7
Lonely, folksy America painted in becoming, poignant strokes. Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb are all stellar. The elegant photography stood out. Some kind of wonderful.

Carrie (Kimberley Pierce/2013) 5
It has moments that work, but it's a pretty pedestrian affair. Anonymous bullies, Carrie miscast, limited fresh angles. It's... ok, unremarkable. Julianne Moore's creepy religi-nut mum worked well, as did Judy Greer's sincere teacher. The score felt off and the editing a dash hasty. Why no risks taken? I reckon the filmmakers could've changed more, pushed it into new territory: B&W? Dogme95-style camerawork? OTT 3D may have even worked.

Only God Forgives (Nicholas Winding Refn/2012) 8 rewatch
Tough, harsh, it burns cold and is often barmy to the nth degree. It's all wall-to-wall blank despair. I'm a fan. As a slice of murky hell, a glimpse at reprehensible figures, it succeeds wonderfully/horribly. Some films are ok being just that. On second watch, the slick-dank visuals, aural assault and all its vulgar merits intensify. Still one of 2013's strongest films.

The American

The American (Anton Corbjin/2011) 7
Nicely paced with a tone that seeps through and sneaks up on you. The cinematography is top-drawer; direction and score equal it. A great Clooney performance. It felt like an 'off-hours' Bond film with a distinct Euro sensibility. Fascinating to see Clooney intricately think and reflect on screen. Had I seen it in 2010 it may well have been on that year's Best Films list.

X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner/2006) 5
It never truly lifts off — it needed more oomph — but some of the action entertains. More could've been done with the characters. All three of these first X-Men films had same effect on me: ok, diverting, didn't wow me, but perfectly watchable, nicely average. Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut very nearly sank the film. Awful. Painful. Luckily, he just sank his own (gladly brief) scenes. Considering it was subtitled The Last Stand, it was odd that no one really had any fight in them. They lacked conviction.

Robocroc (Arthur Sinclair/2013) 3
A metallic crocodile named Stella, a member of Boyzone straining to act and a £2.50 budget — it was glorious* (*soul-destroying).

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence/2013) 6
Fun, snappy sequel. Steps up what was good in the first one. Impressive cast. Liked the various game hazards.

Suspect Zero (E. Elias Merhige/2004) 4
Messy, try-hard direction makes a dithering time of it. The shadow of Seven is long and overpowering. Kingsley good; Eckhart wired.

D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté/1950) 6
Decent enough noir, but the novel concept overcomes the plot; it's all just a stagger to an endgame. Good performances, solid direction.

Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt/2013) 5
Far better as it goes along; drama aspect had more conviction than the comic. Nicely edited, full of confidence, but no real spark. I wasn't sure if the mostly broad characters were deliberately heightened for effect or just sketchily drawn (not enough time with some of them?). I may well be biased but Julianne Moore was excellent and had the best scenes/character. Scarlett Johansson was very good too. Gordon-Levitt's surety worked well enough.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón/2013) 8
Lots of gasping, plenty of tears (ain't denying) and all the wow. Bullock exceptional. A feat and a feast of great, detailed filmmaking.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan taylor/2013) 7
Thor upped his game. Honed quips, a vitality to the action, design details solid. Some plot fluffs but, pah! I had a ball. You know, I'm not so fussed about tube station inaccuracies when elsewhere there are inter-dimensional gods and monsters.

Philomena (Stephen Frears/2013) 5
Froth coats the painful themes, but all is well intended and nicely performed. Plot turns are too easy. Dench good, Coogan better. Script's twee and some of it felt slightly fudged, but moments of unforced emotion work. Direction is largely free of flair or surprise.

The Passenger

The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni/1975) 7
Curious study of escape, identity. Slyly obscure, tricky to pin down. Occasionally infuriating, often great. Those landscapes!

War Witch (Kim Nguyen/2012) 8
Perceptive and harsh. Beautifully directed with a clear sensitivity. A cracking performance from Rachel Mwanza. Such vivid imagery. Brilliant.

Animal Crackers (Victor Heerman/1930) 8
Groucho's face, bodily contortions and rapid one-liners. Harpo's harp playing. Chico's cheek. Dumont's foil. 97mins of happy.

Under Still Waters (Carolyn Miller/2008) 5
Paranoid love triangle done cheaply, but accrues intrigue. Lake Bell and Jason Clarke give fine performances. It's no Dead Calm.

Visiting Hours (Jean-Claude Lord/1982) 7
Rough, slightly loopy and overwrought slasher with a chilling edge. But that's what made it stand out, what I liked about it. The feminist angle, evident in a string of ways, gives it a fresh slant. Great performance from Michael Ironside. Choice direction, score.

Wrong (Quentin Dupieux/2012) 2
Looks and sounds slick, but it's so in love with its own blank weirdness. It gets tedious and exasperating fast. A desperate insta-cult item. It has hints of Monty Python, Jonze/Kaufman, After Hours, Tim & Eric, David Lynch, but nowt here is as good or as original as any of 'em. It's all loaned oddness.

Self Storage (Tom DeNucci/2013) 3
Torture yawn. A bit of a sloppily-edited mess. Dull characters yacking for an age makes for a low-thrill watch. It's diet horror.

Kill Theory (Chris Moore/2009) 5
Generic Slasher Alert! No one asked for Saw based on the premise of Touching the Void, but here it is. Ropey fun. Lacks theory.

Bait (Kimble Rendall/2012) 6
Clean up, aisle 3! Stupid and knows it. As much fun as its premise promises, but not much more. I'd gladly watch parts 2, 3, 4... The fact that this wasn't an utterly boring waste of time meant it was leagues better than Sharknado.

A Haunting in Salem (Shane Van Dyke/2011) 3
Re horror scares, the 'less is more' rule doesn't apply when there really isn't anything there to induce fear. Awful. This is so laughably bad (acting, script esp.) that it's actually oddly entertaining. That's when it's not just incredibly boring. All the main characters are so disparate and thrown-together that none of them appear credible or convincing as family members. It felt like the actors were assembled 5 minutes prior to filming. Ditto the script. Ditto the concept. Rushed and fudged filmmaking.

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh/2012) 5
Occasionally funny, often strains for cleverness, sometimes questionable. Has a severe case of Tarantino/Coen bros envy. Rockwell (dynamic, brash), Walken (dry, coy) are best in show. Women get the short straw, but OH-SO-META-COMMENT. *eye roll* It has a cake-and-eat-it approach: go for offence, then reference it. Not too convincing. The lively/moving moments were better.

Upside Down (Juan Solanas/2012) 5
The only film ever to feature both antimatter and anti-wrinkle cream? Nicely designed, if too ornate and CGI-heavy. Never really lifts off. Also: wot no Diana Ross theme tune? Looks and feels like a blend of Richard Curtis, Tim Burton and the Wachowskis. Love story's a bit drab, which is an issue in a love story.

Five best new films:

War Witch
Short Term 12

Five best older films:

Visiting Hours
Animal Crackers
Cremaster 4, 1, 5, 2
The American
A Foreign Affair