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.

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