2013 MOVIE ROUNDUP – Part Two

The Middle Ground

As I explained in the first part of this three-part series, I am currently cataloging all the films I've seen so far in 2013 that I never got around to properly reviewing. Part One covered my least favorite movies of the year so far, the films I can't possible recommend to anyone. The forthcoming Part Three—by far the shortest list—will cover my favorite films, the ones I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.

And here, in Part Two, we find ourselves in the middle ground. It's no surprise that this is the most crowded of my arbitrary categories, for the most common reasons for me to not write about a movie are that: 1) I haven't made up my mind about it yet; or 2) I don't have strong feelings about it one way or the other. ("Eh, it was alright" is not the kind of opinion likely to inspire me as a writer, and "I don't know what to make of this movie" is not the sort of argument likely to satisfy you as a reader.)

So, without further ado or disclaimer, here are 12 films released in 2013 that I found to be worthy failures, near-misses, mixed bags, or utterly mystifying. 

MAMA
(currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand) Megan-Charpentier-in-Mama-2013-Movie-Image

Written and directed by promising newcomer Andrés Muschietti, Mama was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, and I can't help but wonder if del Toro's cachet ultimately did the film an injustice: this feels like a great small movie that's been blown up a little too large and made a little too slick. Five years after investment banker Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) killed his wife and disappeared with their two small daughters, the girls are discovered living like animals out in the woods. Jeffrey's brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) take the near feral girls in, but soon it becomes clear that someone else has come with them: an overly-protective spectral force the girls call "Mama." Coster-Waldau's character is a bit dull, and Chastain is not completely convincing as a bar-band rocker chick and reluctant mother, but the real stars of the film are the children: Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse are both fantastic as two little girls learning to be human again while torn between their earthly and ghostly parental figures. Mama is least effective as a horror movie, mostly because Muschietti makes the common mistake of showing us too much too early: "Mama" is disturbing as an unseen, perhaps imagined presence, but all too soon she shows up in full CGI-glory and drives most of the film's creepy atmosphere right off the screen. Still, Mama is surprisingly effective—and oddly beautiful—as a dark fable: it feels like a new fairy tale in the old style, hearkening back to the days when fairy tales were disturbing, and spoke to primal fears, and didn't guarantee that anyone would live happily ever after.

STOKER
(currently available on DVD, streaming, and 0n-demand) Mia Wasikowska in STOKER

The first English language feature from Oldboy director Chan-wook Park, Stoker is a strange, haunting, not entirely successful bit of American Gothic weirdness. Eighteen-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just lost her father in an accident, when her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode)—of whom she's never heard—suddenly shows up to move in with her and her mother (Nicole Kidman). Stoker is best served by not describing the plot any further, but Park is clearly drawing on a lot of influences here—most obviously Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt—and the film turns out to be a lot of things at once: a coming-of-age story, a murder mystery, a psychosexual thriller, a twisted love-story. On just one viewing, I'm not sure all of these elements completely work—separately or together—but Stoker casts an oddly fascinating spell by constantly interweaving tension and beauty. Park presents this lurid plot in controlled, even repressed emotional tones, and perfectly composes each and every shot with stunning atmosphere and precision: the result is a unique, unsettling filmgoing experience.

DRINKING BUDDIES
(currently streaming and on-demand; on DVD December 3) Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in DRINKING BUDDIES

Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies is an admirably unclassifiable thing. If I describe the set-up to you—two friends (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) who clearly have more chemistry with each other than they do with their actual romantic partners (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick)—it sounds like a standard romantic comedy. But the film is something both more and less than that: it is not really a comedy (though people occasionally say funny things), and it is not really a romance (though it is about relationships). What it is is a smart, closely-observed study of how complicated friendship can be, and a story that deliberately avoids formula traps and genre expectations. In the end, Drinking Buddies can feel small and a little unsatisfying, but that may be only because it refuses to fall into comfortable Hollywood rhythms, insisting instead on the messiness and ambiguity of actual human relationships.

GINGER & ROSA
(currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand) hero_EB20130320REVIEWS130329993AR

Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa is the story of two British teenagers (Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) coming of age at the height of the cold war and the dawn of the sexual revolution. Though weakened by a too-familiar screenplay that swerves too far into melodrama,  Ginger & Rosa is worth watching for Potter's perceptive, restrained direction, Robbie Ryan's rich cinematography, and a strong, stunningly sensitive performance from Elle Fanning. (Fanning is playing three years older than she actually is here, and the maturity and depth of the performance would be remarkable for an actress twice her age.)

THIS IS THE END
(currently available via streaming, on-demand, and DVD) This-Is-The-End-2013

The smug, self-amused indulgence of the Judd Apatow movie-making machine reaches its apocalyptic zenith in This is the End, written and directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. Rogan, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, and a horde of their acting contemporaries play fictionalized versions of themselves, all gathered for a party at James Franco's house when the apocalypse occurs. At its best in the first half—when famous Hollywood stars start being killed in horrible ways—This is the End overstays its welcome by rather a lot, indulging in bromance politics, absurd pseudo-morality tales, and comedy setpieces that seem constructed just to give each surviving character something to do in turn. There are a few laughs along the way—and any movie in which Michael Cera gets fatally impaled is okay in my book—but it ultimately feels like exactly what it is: the kind of movie a group of friends with mutual admiration, too much money, and no one to answer to would get together to make about themselves.

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO
(on DVD December 10) Toby Jones in BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

With some movies, I don't review them because I have nothing to say about them; with others, I don't review them because I haven't the foggiest notion what to say about them. Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio—strange, fascinating, and frustrating—is the second kind of film. Set in the mid 1970s, it stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a British foley artist brought in to do sound effects for an Italian horror film called The Equestrian Vortex. A fish out of water who doesn't speak the language, and bullied by everyone from the self-important director to the patronizing receptionist, Gilderoy starts to undergo something of an angry psychic meltdown as he develops sound effects for a movie that apparently includes witches, Satanists, goblins, and horrendous scenes of rape and torture. Both the film he's working on and Berberian Sound Studio seem heavily inspired by Italian directors like Dario Argento, but Strickland very cleverly doesn't show us the film-within-a-film at all: we construct The Equestrian Vortex in our minds from hearing the scenes described, from the complaints of the pouty actresses brought in to scream for it, and from the carefully timed sound effects Gilderoy creates by stabbing vegetables and tearing lettuce. A stylish, often nightmarish psychological thriller that does not quite—on first viewing at least—completely make sense or pay off its portentous build-up, I still enjoyed Berberian Sound Studio for its exquisite visual and aural design, for the glimpse it provides of a now-lost form of movie-making, and for Jones' tight, surprisingly complicated performance.

THE BLING RING
(currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand) 1280_bling

Sophia Coppola's The Bling Ring—the true story of a group of spoiled Hollywood high school students who spent their free time breaking into the homes of the rich and famous—is a deliberately shallow movie. Coppola films the story with a cool lack of judgement: she spends little to no time speculating or philosophizing about the materialism, sense of entitlement, and obscene celebrity-worship that inspired the thoughtless teens to go on their crime spree, and instead just shows us their vapidity and fashion-obsessed moral vacuum. It's a valid approach to the material—and worlds ahead of the similarly themed, falsely outrageous Spring Breakersbut in practice it means we spend the bulk of the movie watching attractive but brainless twits go through a series of celebrity closets. I couldn't help but wish for a little more depth to the story, even if the whole point is that there is no depth in this story to be found. (My big take-away from The Bling Ring was a note to myself to teach any criminally minded children I may have not to post pictures of their crimes on Facebook.)

I'M SO EXCITED
(currently in theaters) I'M SO EXCITED

There are few filmmakers I'm willing to follow pretty much anywhere they want to go, but Pedro Almodóvar is one of them. Even when his films don't work—and Almodóvar's last film, the problematically dark fantasy The Skin I Live In, did not work for me at all—they are guaranteed to provide a unique experience. Nobody makes movies quite like Almodóvar, and—though they all bear his unmistakable signature—no two Almodóvar movies are quite alike. I'm So Excited (originally Los Amantes Pasajeros, or The Passenger Lovers) is the director's lightest movie in years, a campy, burlesque spoof of airline disaster movies. It's impossible not to smile during certain sequences—like the three male flight attendants performing the title song to distract their distraught passengers—but the mini soap-opera storylines rationed out among the various passengers are never quite as funny or as poignant as we've come to expect from Almodóvar. It's a sometimes amusing trifle—and as gorgeously shot as all of his films—but it's a trifle nonetheless.

HOW TO MAKE MONEY SELLING DRUGS
(currently available via streaming or on-demand; on DVD January 14) HOW TO MAKE MONEY SELLING DRUGS

Matthew Cooke's tongue-in-cheek documentary How to Make Money Selling Drugs is presented as a sort of self-help infomercial, explaining how we can all make our fortunes in the drug business. Cooke guides us through the entire career path—from street-corner dealing all the way up to running our own international cartel—while pointing out how we are aided every step of the way by the corruption and hypocrisy of a supposed drug war that is actually creating, supporting, and profiting on this multi-billion dollar industry. It's an entertaining and convincing look at the absurdity of the "war on drugs," but the infomercial gimmick grows a little tiresome and repetitive, and eventually starts working against the complexity of the information it is trying to convey. I actually would have preferred a less-entertaining, more thoughtful treatment of the subject, one that might have opened my eyes to things I couldn't learn by watching a couple of seasons of The Wire.

BLACKFISH
(on DVD November 12) BLACKFISH

Great documentaries are a perfect blend of form and information—and therefore artistic achievements in their own right—but a documentary can be good if it simply makes its case convincingly. Blackfish is not a great piece of filmmaking, but if we're judging a film by how angry it makes you about its subject matter, then Gabriela Cowperthwaite's exposé of Sea World is a success. Blending talking-head interviews with archival footage of trained orcas performing—and, more often than we've been led to believe, attacking their trainers—Blackfish is a heartbreaking, infuriating condemnation of the way aquatic theme parks capture, abuse, and slowly drive these intelligent, fiercely social, emotionally complex animals insane. (In one of the most poignant segments, the filmmakers interview an ex-mercenary who once took part in an expedition to capture baby whales for a theme park: the man claims to have fought in wars and toppled presidents, but he is still haunted by the knowledge that taking that baby whale away from its family was the worst thing he ever did.) It's hard to imagine anyone watching Blackfish and ever enjoying a Sea World show again, and it leaves you imagining a future when we will look back at our enslavement of these magnificent creatures for our own entertainment as one of the low points of humanity.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES
(currently available by streaming and on-demand; on DVD October 22) Only-God-Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn's follow up to 2011's Driveone of my favorite films of that year—is a lurid immorality play set in the underworld of Bangkok. Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a boxing club with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), as a front for a drug-operation masterminded by their sinister mother Crystal (a campily unconvincing Kristen Scott-Thomas). When Billy rapes and murders a Thai prostitute, however, it sets off a chain of horrific revenge scenarios that put Julian in the middle between his mother and Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a horrifying policeman whose idea of justice includes murder, torture, and dismemberment. Like Drive, Only God Forgives takes place in what feels like a heightened reality, a fever-dream of saturated colors and ultra-violence that is simultaneously entrancing and repellent. I think Refn-the-Writer was going for the sort of starkly brutal, oddly philosophical moral landscape of a Cormac McCarthy novel, but the sometimes laughably unpleasant screenplay seems almost deliberately at odds with Refn-the-Director's stunningly beautiful shot composition and visual aesthetic. I've seen Only God Forgives hailed as a masterpiece by some critics, and slammed as a travesty by others. I know I'm supposed to have a critical view in this debate, but, to be honest, I haven't made up my mind yet: is there a way it could, somehow, be both?

THE SPECTACULAR NOW
(currently in theaters) Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller in THE SPECTACULAR NOW

Director James Pondsoldt's adaptation of Tim Tharp's young adult novel by the same name, The Spectacular Now is not a "teen movie," but a surprisingly mature and sensitive film about very real-seeming people who happen to be teen-agers. Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, an aggressively likable high-school student and party animal who is very aware that he is living the best years of his life. Everyone likes Sutter, and Sutter needs to be liked—so much so that he stumbles into a relationship with quiet, kind-hearted Aimee (Shailene Woodley) almost entirely because he's too nice a guy not to. It's a classic formula for a teen rom-com, but The Spectacular Now unfolds organically with remarkable authenticity and respect for its young protagonists, and only rarely (and briefly) finds itself falling into clichéd storytelling ruts. Teller is excellent here, but Woodley is a revelation: she was good in The Descendants—a movie I hated—but her performance here (in a much better film) is just stunning to watch. It's mostly some problems with the character of Aimee that are keeping The Spectacular Now off my forthcoming list of Must See Movies of 2013—her relationship with Sutter is, ultimately, kind of problematic—but those are only problems that occurred to me long after the movie was over. While I was watching her, Woodley seemed to wholly inhabit Aimee and make her a fully realized, heartbreakingly believable character. It's a good movie, but a great performance.

 Next:
Scheduling snafus interfered, and by the time I was able to compile
Part Three of this series, it was nearly time to do my year-end list
of my favorite films. So, to read about the movies I
can unreservedly recommend to everyone, see my post
The Best Films of 2013.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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