It’s Never Too Early: Pondering 2013’s Best Films … So Far

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I think 2013 has been a surprisingly strong year for movies. Okay, maybe not BIG movies, but there have been many smaller films that, to me, will rank high when the year comes to a close. I decided to make June 30 the cut-off here, so any film that has not officially opened before then (that I’ve already seen) is not here—hence, no “Blue Jasmine.” And of course, there are plenty of movies I still need to see that could make a dent: “Leviathan,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Simon Killer,” “The Act of Killing.” You’ll note that there is plenty of 2012 product here, but I am considering any film actually released in 2013 in North America is fair game. This list may change dramatically tomorrow, but today, in random order, here it is:

  • “Stories We Tell”
  • “Frances Ha”
  • “The Place Beyond the Pines”
  • “Upstream Color”
  • “Before Midnight”
  • “The Bling Ring”
  • “Lore”
  • “Mud”
  • “No”
  • “This is the End”

Some others that at the very least are in the conversation, for me: “The Gatekeepers,” “Side Effects,” “Room 237,” “Like Someone in Love,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Fill the Void,” “Spring Breakers,” “To the Wonder,” “Something in the Air” (yes, I think I’ve completely changed my mind on this one), “Ginger and Rosa.”

What do others think? Here are several lists of 2013’s halfway-point bests:

“Upstream Color” still from the film’s official site.

 

A Mid-Summer Report Card: Pondering Superman, Monsters, and “The End”

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We’re at about the midpoint of summer, movie-wise, and it’s been a wild one, with a few hits, several high-profile bombs (“After Earth,” “White House Down,” “The Lone Ranger”), and some indie successes. I have not seen everything – still need to get to “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “World War Z” – but here are some very brief thoughts on what I HAVE seen. (Note that even though I said “report card,” I’m sticking with the 4-star system.)

“Iron Man 3:”: Not a BAD film , exactly, but one that to my mind did nothing to move along the franchise. Robert Downey Jr.’s shtick has grown increasingly old, and I found the second installment far superior. That being said, Ben Kingsley gives his funniest performance on years. 2 1/2 stars

“Man of Steel”: There are some great moments here, and it will turn out to be, I think, a fine first chapter in a new Superman series. But it’s an odd film, and in some ways, a brutish, unrelentingly grim one. Still, I love Michael Shannon having a role in a blockbuster, and Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe each turn in solid performances. What’s up with the insane product placement? By the way, I’m fine with Supe the killer. I come down on the side of the semi-satisfied … barely. Because 2 3/4 is not allowed, I’m going 2 1/2 stars

“Monsters University”: I haven’t seen “Brave,” so I’ve yet to see EVERY Pixar film, but this felt like the weakest by far. It’s entertaining, as they all are, but wayyy too long. 2 1/2 stars seems low, but I gave the superior “Despicable Me 2” 3 stars, so …

“This is the End”: Funniest comedy I’ve seen in some time, and can’t wait to see it again. Backstreet’s back. Yes, I would have liked Michael Cera and Emma Watson to have stuck around a bit longer, but still. 3 1/2 stars

“Before Midnight”: Another insightful, smart, passionate burst from Linklater-Hawke-Delpy. The opening, with the son boarding the plane alone, still gets me. 4 stars

“Frances Ha”: I’ve made my feelings on this clear – still the best thing I’ve seen this summer. 4 stars

“Copperhead”: I’ll be writing a longer review of this one soon; it is compelling, well-acted, and a tad dry, but overall it works – if you care about the Civil War going in. 3 stars

“The East”: Impassioned, brisk, and utterly fake. 2 stars

“The Great Gatsby”: This came out during the summer? Feels like I saw it two years ago. 2 1/2 (being generous)

“Mud”: A twisty coming- of-age epic brimming with great moments and performances. 3 1/2 stars

“Despicable Me 2”: What can I say? It entertained me more than Superman and Iron Man. 3 stars

 

Rentals …

“Hyde Park on Hudson”: This one literally evaporates upon viewing. Even Bill Murray can’t save this dull, strange concoction. It’s a misfire on every level. 1 1/2 stars

“Warm Bodies”: Not particularly funny or clever, despite a game cast. 2 stars

“Mama”: Scary and silly on equal measure, “Mama” has just enough to qualify as slightly above-average horror. 2 1/2 stars

“Quartet”: I love Dustin Hoffman, and it is difficult to find a weak link in the cast, but his directorial debut makes “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” look like a Gregg Araki flick. 2 stars

 

More to come soon, including “Fill the Void,” “The Conjuring,” and, hopefully, “Stories to Tell.”

 

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Wednesday Round-Up: Mary Harron Has Brought Us the Lives of Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page, and … Anna Nicole Smith?

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Mary Harron has one of modern cinema’s more unique, and uniquely cool, backgrounds. Though born in Canada she grew up in England, was an early contributor for the iconic Punk magazine and wrote for publications like The Guardian, and then moved into directing with the 1996 masterpiece (in my eyes) “I Shot Andy Warhol.” That film, the story of would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanas, is one of the finest films ever made about the Pop Art icon and the Factory scene.

She followed “Warhol” with an almost shocking departure: Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Filmmakers like Oliver Stone and David Cronenberg had attempted and failed to bring Patrick Bateman to the screen, but Harron succeeded by giving the film the satirical spin it needed. She also helped make Christian Bale a star.

“The Notorious Bettie Page” came next, and it was handsome but rather dull version of the pin-up icon’s life. Her last feature, the 2011 vampire film “The Moth Diaries,” cmae and went without a trace.

So there has been a bit of a downward trajectory from her first film on. Still, I’m not sure anyone saw her next project coming: Lifetime’s recently-aired biopic “The Anna Nicole Story.”

I have not watched it — although I did set the DVR to record a re-airing — but it is hard to feel much other than unease at the prospect of so talented a filmmaker taking on so garish a subject. But Film.com’s Matt Patches has made the film sound much more sensible, and even unmissable:

“At first glance, Harron’s Anne Nicole Smith biopic looks like the usual Lifetime schlocky melodrama full of drug abuse, soft core sex, and ridiculous twists (‘SHE WAS AMISH?!’). The iconography of Smith’s life lends itself to the Lifetime aesthetic — as evidenced in the trailer, quick cutting, camera sound effects, and a moody pop song easily turn Anne Nicole Smith’s life story into drama worthy of ‘Liz & Dick.’

“‘The Anna Nicole Story’ could have been another movie off the network’s conveyor belt. No one who tuned in would have batted an eye (and, perhaps, the movie would have more buzz) if it was a campy, exploitive interpretation of Nicole’s life. Yet with Harron, Lifetime finds a credible and sensitive filmmaker, able to elevate the material and mine its dramatic potential. They may not be HBO or AMC or Sundance or FX, but with ‘Anna Nicole,’ Lifetime realizes the potential of their brand. Deal in celebrity-driven tearjerkers, but make them good. With movie studios dropping the ball, there’s a window of opportunity for television and even unlikely brands like Lifetime are seizing it.”

Patches even sees the film as a cousin of Harron’s “Notorious Bettie Page,” as Harron again “examines the seductive qualities of fame on a woman at her lowest point.” I still find it odd to see Mary Harron at the helm of a Lifetime movie — especially THIS Lifetime movie. But Patches has succeeded in making me approach it with an open mind.

Meanwhile, here is Harron on why she made the film:

“Lifetime brought it to me and at first I was like, “Lifetime… hmm.” But I read the script and I’m always interested in doing women’s stories. What drew me to the Anna Nicole story was that the script was very sympathetic to her, because so much of the tabloid coverage of her was so sneering. I’m interested in beauty queens, and Anna Nicole is a kind of a Marilyn Monroe/Bettie Page for the 90s, and for the modern age of tabloids and reality TV. It is a tragic story and a lot of the outlines for those beauty queen stories are the same. They’re flying too close to the sun. I’m interested in these outsider people that society looks down on. I find them sympathetic and I find them interesting and I think that for all of Anna’s many faults as a mother and all the rest, she was a sweet person who was looking for happiness.”

The rest of this week’s round-up is Anna Nicole-free:

  • Sigh. The Stanley Kubrick exhibit recently ended its seven-month run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and this video makes me depressed about how great it looked. Tour, please?
  • Here is a super-comprehensive site devoted to Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”
  • Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” will not open for some time, but the director gave a few, ahem, tastes of what to expect this week: Here is the film’s “first chapter,” as well as the first released footage.
  • The AV Club asks an interesting question: “Does ‘Before Midnight’ dodge the hardest part of relationships?”
  • Channing Tatum takes a hit with the opening weekend failure of “White House Down.”
  • And finally, two more bits from The Guardian: First, a gleeful takedown of the Google-adoring flop “The Internship,” and a wonderfully moving piece about autism written by “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell.

Photo credit: Patrick Eccelsine

The Summer’s Most Valuable Player is … Ethan Hawke?

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Yep. Ethan Hawke. Don’t believe me? Consider that the actor can currently be seen in one of the summer’s surprise hits, “The Purge,” and its best-reviewed film, “Before Midnight.” Okay, so “The Purge” took a rather insane plunge in week two, but in its first weekend, the horror-thriller took in $34 million on a $3 million budget. (Entertainment Weekly talked with the actor about the film and its success here.)

That’s big. Now, it is hard to calculate how much of the credit goes to Hawke, but I would not dismiss his presence. He has become a reliable, trusting actor, an audience conduit who is attractive and cool, but not as attractive and cool as he used to be. This slightly world-weary look is used to an even greater degree in “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater’s bitter, oh-so-realistic at what happened to Jesse and Celine after they actually dove into a relationship.

Julie Delpy has the “showier” role, and is marvelous. But it is Hawke who steals the movie. He goes through a wide range of emotions, from his sad expression while watching his son go through airport security to his face when Celine angrily leaves their hotel room, and sells it all.

The three “Before” films with Delpy and Linklater likely represent Hawke’s peak, and it is worth noting that the trio are credited as cowriters of the last two. But while these are the standouts, there many, many other treats to be found in the actor’s filmography.

Most of us first notice him in 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society,” but by the time of 1994’s “Reality Bites,” I already found him obnoxious. That feeling did not last, however, as “Before Sunrise” came in 1995 and the underrated “Gattaca” and “Great Expectations” came in 1997 and 1998, respectively.

The next few years saw highs (“Hamlet,” “Tape”) and lows (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), but his greatest triumph came in 2001: “Training Day.” Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, “Training Day” did offer up two meaty parts for Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar, and Hawke, who was nominated for one.

The rest of the 2000s were also dotted with success and failure. Hawke received another Academy Award nomination, this time as a screenwriter, for “Before Sunset,” and provided a stellar turn in Sidney Lumet’s final film, 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He also directed two films, albeit weakly received ones: “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” the latter based on his novel.

But the misses outnumbered the hits in this decade: “Taking Lives,” “Assault on Precinct 13,” “Lord of War,” “What Doesn’t Kill You,” “Daybreakers,” “Brooklyn’s Finest.” (I liked “Brooklyn’s Finest,” incidentally, although many did not.)

But last year’s “Sinister” was a truly scary smash, and this summer has finally seen him win both audiences (“The Purge”) and critics (“Before Midnight”) within days. “Midnight” will surely bring him another writing Oscar nomination, and with any luck, he will be in the Best Actor mix, too. (The film is likely to score a Best Picture nomination.)

Last week, a trailer for Hawke’s next film ran before “This is the End.” It is a “Taken”-lite thriller costarring Selena Gomez, horribly titled “Getaway.” This is Hawke back in audience-conduit mode, and something tells me it was a) cheap to make and b) will double or triple that budget in its opening weekend.

Good for Ethan Hawke, always an interesting actor, but now one who — surprisingly — has become a great one.

Ethan Hawke as Jesse in “Before Midnight”; photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Weekend Preview: This is the (Week)end for Superman, Seth Rogen, and Jesse and Celine

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As Jeff Simon put it in his Buffalo News review of “This is the End,” with that film, “Man of Steel,” and “Before Midnight” opening locally, “this is, far and away, the movie opening weekend of the year on my scorecard.” Indeed it is, one of the most wildly diverse release weekends in a long, long time.

The number one spot at the box office will most certainly be claimed by Zack Snyder’s Chris Nolan-assisted Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” but the question is, how big will it open? Some estimates have it pegged at a $100-million weekend, but I’m not so sure. Reviews have been wildly mixed, and I’m still not quite sure I’ve seen a “wow” trailer, so I think $90 mill is a more likely figure. Nothing to laugh at, and in a relatively week summer, it could play well for several weeks. It’s easy now to forget that Nolan’s “Batman Begins” took in “only” $205 mill in North America, but that was in 2005, and for a budget at least $100 million less than “Steel”’s. Warner Bros. is likely hoping for $300-plus, enough to justify a costly “Justice League” follow-up. We shall see. I’ll have my own thoughts on the film here soon.

“The is the End” is something very different, a well-reviewed apocalypse comedy in which some of the Apatow generation’s biggest names — Seth Rogen (who co-directed with writing partner Evan Goldberg), James Franco, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill — play themselves. I’m especially intrigued to see the lovely Emma Watson as “Emma Watson.” The buzz on this is that it is extraordinarily wild; it could represent one of the few imaginative big studio releases of the summer.

While I’m intrigued by “Man of Steel” and “This is the End,” the movie I am anticipating more than any other is Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” which opens tomorrow at Dipson’s Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters. This is the third film in the “Jesse and Celine” series; the first, 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and 2004’s “Before Sunset,” are pretty close to modern classics. The idea of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprising their roles, and seeing where things are for this couple, which finally seemed to come together at the very end of “Sunset,” is intoxicating. It is one of the best reviewed films so far this year, and a possible Best Picture nominee, so this is certainly a must-see. More to come on this one, soon. (“Frances Ha” is still showing at Amherst and Eastern Hills, too.)

Note that the documentary “Hey Bartender” is screening Saturday night at the Amherst Dipson; I wrote about the film here.

Francis Ford Coppola’s most recent film, “Twixt,” finally arrived on VOD a few days ago, and ironically, his debut feature, the enjoyably daft “Dementia 13,” is showing on Friday and Saturday night at 9:15 p.m. at the Screening Room. (“Sorry, Wrong Number” screens at 7:30 p.m.)

Here’s something I’ll outline more in the weeks to come: Buffalo.com recently posted the schedule for the University at Buffalo’s outdoor summer film series, and it has some real gems, including “The Place Beyond the Pines.” The proceedings open with a movie that makes me very nervous, since I’ve felt from the get-go that it could be a disaster, Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful.” (I actually have it from Netflix right now. It’s staring at me, angrily.) It shows at 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18, and Friday, June 21, at the North Campus, and at 9:15 on Wednesday, June 19, at the South Campus.

Meanwhile, I’m a week late in mentioning Bacchus’s Summer Film Series, which is held in its quaint courtyard. The Buffalo-appropriate “Natural” kicked things off yesterday, June 12, but the series continues with “The Truman Show” next week, the 19th, and, even better, “The Big Lebowski” on June 26.

Superman, Seth Rogen, Julie and Celine, cocktails, Coppola, Oz, and a God-like Ed Harris? An eclectic week for movies, to be sure.

 

Photo credit: Left to Right: Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine. Photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.