The Beyond The Fourth Awards- The Best Films of 2013

It’s nearly over, folks. All the preening, self congratulatory praise and admiration for the multi-millionaire film stars ends this Sunday with the Somethingy-somethingth Annual Academy Awards, live from that one apparently iconic theatre and hosted by what’s-her-face.

Just in time then, for me to slip a little something in under the wire myself. Only a few words a piece on my own personal top ten. Despite the fact that all the votes have already been cast, and some of my nominations are not reflected in the Oscars shortlist, this little-read blog post is already being tipped to be a heavy indicator of how the winners will line up this weekend. You heard it here first. And last.

Though it’s a British blog, I will effectively be covering the UK release calendar from March 2013 – February 2014. And if there are any films missing from my list that outrage the reader, and if it is what helps you feel better, then I haven’t seen them and of course you’re 100% correct.

10. American Hustle

This is a very big hitter, in terms of overall nominations, and another huge scoop of acting recognition for a David O Russell film (10 nominations out of potential 12, over 3 films). However it ranks very low in this list, due to a real lack of substance behind it’s glamorous veneer. Costume and make-up is thrust in the viewers face, especially the hairstyles of its two main men. Big hitters Bale, Adams, and Lawrence are as consistently good as they’ve ever been, and frissons of humour are weaved throughout the script. But this is still a film with very little heart, certainly invoking much less sympathy for its protagonists than it really needs in order to have one leaving the cinema feeling truly satisfied.

9. The Wolf Of Wall Street

Another film that is garnishing high praise from everyone else except for yours truly. All I can really say is that this is a highly entertaining hour and forty-five minutes of cinema brilliance from Scorsese. With an extra hour and fifteen minutes of easily cuttable, plot-useless footage that had me shifting restlessly in my seat. I have never been able to abide a 3 hour film, no matter its level of brilliance. Be it Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather, the end of a film should always be a disappointment, not a relief. Nevertheless, it is a work of some triumph for Scorsese and especially DiCaprio, whose eagerness to go the extra mile results in that Qualuudes scene which will go down as a memorable film history moment.

8. Dallas Buyers Club

I think I might have finally bought into this ‘McConaissance’ idea. Having starred in one too many dreadful romantic comedies, a switch has flicked somewhere, to the point where he is an Oscar nominee a few short years later, working alongside Friedkin, Scorsese and Nolan. He and fellow opinion divider Jared Leto certainly pull all the weight that this film requires them to, undergoing plenty of necessary transformation in order to convincingly play AIDS sufferers. In the hands of many others, including what I now dub ‘former-conaughey’, this would merely be a simple formula for Oscar bait, but with clever handling becomes a very mature drama in its own right. Indeed, to go back and watch Tom Hanks in Philadelphia now, you realise how far both the topic and quality drama have come since the early nineties.

7. The Great Beauty

In a hotly contested ‘Best Foreign Feature’ Oscar category, in which my house-mate will heavily back Denmark’s ‘The Hunt’, this film stood out for me as an example of how a film with very little driving plot can still be engaging and entertaining. It focuses on an ageing yet moderately respected journalist Jep Gambardella, comfortable with his socialite life in Rome having had little success with an attempted opus earlier in life. He spends the film on a voyage of self discovery, but whereas in American film this requires a lengthy cross-country road trip, in Italian film this is represented with many sophisticated evening conversations on his apartment’s veranda. If this is a scary prospect for any out there -you’re already reading Italian subtitles, lets not forget- then there is actually more to this film, but only at a leisurely pace. Best enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon after a heavy meal.

6. Filth

The only film on my shortlist that has been completely snubbed by Oscar voters, which is not particularly surprising. However, it is a considerable relief to get another exceptional Irvine Welsh adaptation, especially in the run-up to a potential Danny Boyle adaptation of Porno. Filth is the story of a police detective slowly going mad in the battle for promotion. Present here is the dark humour synonymous with Welsh’s catalogue, and best of all is the casting of James McAvoy, for whom 2013 must have surely ranked as a career high. Previously a very family friendly face in film, Jimmy Mac banished any residual thoughts of Mr Tumnus with a straight/bonkers performance in ‘Trance’, followed by this portrayal of DI Robertson here which I can only describe as ‘unlimited’. Half-controlled, half-psychotic, half-funny, half-sad, half-obnoxious, half-sympathetic; McAvoy is the ultimate improper fraction.

5. Inside Llewyn Davis

Say what you like about the Coen Brothers, fan or not, you’re never sure what they will come out with next. For their 2013 project, announcing a film about a struggling folk singer in the 60’s Greenwich Village was expectedly unexpected. It definitely appears without much fanfare, a very genteel picture with faded cinematography and a culturally soft soundtrack. Perhaps that is why it has been passed over for many nominations in place of overblown productions (see entries #9 and #10). Instead, it should be heralded alongside Her as a study of subtlety over the superliminal. Titular Llewyn Davis is a folk singer struggling to maintain the roots of the genre amongst a rapidly popularising environment. As an audience, we are caught between sympathy for his struggles and sneers at his self valued worthiness. Oscar Isaac deserves special praise for his double shift, both in both bringing life to the character, and a tender warmth to the soundtrack. Any who are familiar with the folk genre will notice symmetry with this film, whose acts are laid out in repeating stanzas. Any who are not may end up consistently frustrated.

4. Gravity

This entry is a genuine struggle, as I can’t decide whether it might even need  to place higher or lower. I do not value its plot, its characters, or the acting of the central Bullock/Clooney partnership. As a traditional film, it may even miss out on the top 10 entirely (which may cause a re-titling of this article). However, as a moving picture experience, it has to be among the most engrossing experiences I have had. Barely a breath was taken during the 90-minute running time (take heed, Marty), in which it also serves as the single biggest proponent for 3D to be used properly in the blockbuster environment. The partnership of Cuaron and Lubezki put 5 years into ensuring their exactingly precise vision of space could be realised, if only other studios and filmmakers had so much patience, to make one breathtaking film as opposed to three mediocre releases.

3. The Act Of Killing

A documentary about Indonesian killing squads indiscriminately wiping out the communist population over the course of several decades is obviously an incredibly harrowing topic. It would be very simple to focus on the horrors of systematic genocide, perhaps track down the survivors and do a talking heads piece. Alternatively to show the perspective of the killers, almost unabashed in some cases, even going so far as to give them significant control over the filming of the documentary and the recreation of their actions, would seem a disgrace to the subject. The fact that The Act Of Killing takes a different tack leads to surprising conclusions, a fuller spectrum of humanity and overall a shockingly beautiful film. A refreshing example of how stale genres can be reinvigorated with new styles and ideas.

2. Her

Another refreshing example of how stale genres can be reinvigorated with new styles and ideas. This is the realm that Spike Jonze thrives in. From Being John Malkovich to Adaptation, along with having a heavy hand in all things Jackass, Jonze is no stranger to the unusual and absurd. With Her, however, while the ingredients for quirk and farce are easily at hand- man falls for his sentient computer system- Jonze orchestrates a masterpiece which is one part heartfelt drama, another part social commentary/satire. This is a science fiction film only in the sense that the technologies may be a decade away, maximum. Joaquin Phoenix puts in a career best as Theodore Twombly, the introvert who falls in love with his phone, which is beginning to seem like a realistic progression in today’s society. Scarlett Johansson, despite being nothing more than voice, manages to turn in her sultriest performance in a decade, and the connection between principle characters is almost disturbing in the way it wins our empathy so quickly.

1. 12 Years A Slave

After Hunger and Shame, this is director Steve McQueen’s third feature length film production. And I’m not entirely sure how he is ever going to top this in the future. 12 Years A Slave is already being talked about as the ultimate piece on the horrors of the slave trade, and an all time classic in its own right. The set pieces are visceral, the acting is real, the cinematography that gives the landscape its rich colours only serves to highlight the harrowing tale of Solomon Northup and his contemporaries. This is no doubt difficult viewing, as evidenced by the collective gasps and sobbing in my cinema throughout the running time, but absolutely necessary nonetheless. To be faced with such conflicting brutality and kindness on the same screen helps make 12 Years one of the most emotive and soul-refining experiences put to the screen.

The Beyond The Fourth Awards

Best Actor

Leonardo Di Caprio- The Wolf Of Wall Street

Chiwetel Ejiofor- 12 Years A Slave

James McAvoy- Filth

Matthew McConaughey- Dallas Buyers Club

 

Best Actress

Amy Adams- American Hustle

Cate Blanchett- Blue Jasmine

Scarlett Johansson- Her

Lupita Nyong’o- 12 Years A Slave

 

Best Director

Joel & Ethan Coen- Inside Llewyn Davis

Alfonso Cuaron- Gravity

Spike Jonze- Her

Steve McQueen- 12 Years A Slave

 

Best Cinematography

Sean Bobbitt- 12 Years A Slave

Bruno Delbonnel- Inside Llewyn Davis

Emmanuel Lubezki- Gravity

Hoyte Van Hoytema- Her

 

Best Screenplay

Joel & Ethan Coen- Inside Llewyn Davis

Spike Jonze- Her

John Ridley- 12 Years A Slave

Paolo Sorretino- The Great Beauty

 

Best Soundtrack

American Hustle

Filth

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Directed by: Ben Stiller

Starring:  Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Shirley Maclaine, Patton Oswalt

“Oscar buzz over Ben Stiller‘s new film”

Various fragmentations of the above sentence will almost certainly be cropping up in various places over the next month, as the great award circus/juggernaut rolls around, right on time. While any recognition for comedic actors has been famously quashed in the past, Jonah Hill (of all people) proved in 2011’s Moneyball that just saying sensible things with a straight face is enough to garner a Best Supporting Actor nomination. With that in mind, let’s see what Ben ‘Tower Heist/Little Fockers/Night at the Museum 2/The Watch‘ Stiller has to offer.

Ben Stiller Oscars 2010

Stiller’s last notable appearance at an Oscars ceremony.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘ was originally a short story written by James Thurber, published in The New Yorker in 1939. It follows a thoroughly ineffectual man through his woefully mundane day, with small events becoming the catalyst for his fantastical daydreams. A modern adaptation has been on the cards for a long time, with various directors (Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski) and actors (Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Sacha Baron Cohen). Eventually, Stiller landed both roles, directing his first feature since 2008’s Tropic Thunder.

Walter Mitty (Stiller) is quiet, unassuming and diffident. His expenditures are boring, and his online profiles remains blank. He hasn’t ‘been’ anywhere or ‘done’ anything even vaguely noteworthy. Most of this awkwardness stems from his tendency to drift off at work, even in mid conversation, to his own heroic fantasies. He works at Life magazine, in charge of the photographic archives, and pines after mild colleague Cheryl (Wiig).

Due to the rise in online media, Life is to print its last issue before going digital. For the occasion, adventurer/photographer Sean O’ Connell (Penn) has sent through a selection of negatives, including a fabled ‘Negative 25’, that supposedly contains the quintessence of all human nature. Negative 25 is conspicuously absent however, and under pressure of downsizing from his hideous new boss (Scott), Walter decides to track down O’Connell through Greenland and find the vital last cover photo. Hopefully it won’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that Walter has all sorts of real world adventures, learns a lot of life lessons and achieves a very bendy character arc by the end of the film.

Film is a very pure form of escapism, a vast array of universes we can all place ourselves into, even years after their viewing. Walter Mitty does a sublime job of reflecting these back at the audience in all their camp and chaotic glory, sometimes excessively so. The cinematography is sublime, showcasing the life and scenery in Greenland and Iceland beautifully (though I’m sure many native inhabitants will object to the oblique ‘folksy’ tag placed upon them).

The performances are restrained at least, with Stiller and Wiig managing to find a very natural chemistry. Heavyweights such as Penn, and MacLaine as Mitty’s mother, do not need to expend themselves too much in this piece. The only real hamming comes from Scott, who is forced to take the ‘obnoxious boss’ trope to uncomfortable lengths.

Adam Scott

The one major criticism is the contrast between the film’s implied messages and the unfortunate ways that ambitious projects like this have to get funding. The screenplay says, “Be different. Mindless drones are bad. Find yourself.”, whilst all we experience on screen is “Date with eHarmony. Eat at Papa Johns. Buy our soundtrack.” The usual indie tracks, along with a notable Bowie number, are undoubtedly uplifting songs, but are just as commonplace on any generic ‘life is for living’ commercial, selling the latest high-pixel camera or 4×4 off-roader.

For most of the 2 hour running time, the audience is swept along with the barrage of sight and sound. And it is a hugely cathartic experience, being shown our twenty-something fantasies lived out, that dreams can come true. When the rush ended however, a small part of me felt that the pre-feature advertisements were cut from very similar cloth.

There may be an outside chance of this film gaining major awards nominations, aptly odds of winning should be outside their wildest dreams. For those of you expecting an Affleck-esque transformation on this particular Ben: it’s worth noting that Night at the Museum 3 is currently in production.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is out on 26th December.

Life in a Day

Last year, Ridley Scott teamed up with Youtube for an extremely special event. A calling was put out to the global Youtube community to record a day in their life, on the 24th July. The uptake was huge. From 91 countries across the world, there were 80,000 submissions which totalled 4,500 hours of footage (or 187.5 continuous days). Other footage was sourced from cameramen sent out to the developing and third world countries. Scott, along with director Kevin McDonald and editor Joe Walker, then spent over 7 weeks sorting and editing the best footage into a 90 minute film (I think those are all the statistics done with). That film became Life in a Day.

The film itself has already had an impressive amount of screening. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it had limited cinema release, before being uploaded to Youtube at the end of October, free to watch. It has also been transmitted on BBC2 in early November, so it should already have a decent viewership for many people reading this. For those of you who haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it to be worth a watch, whether you end up enjoying it or not.

Let me just say, this is a film unlike anything else I have ever watched. Many critics claim the film has no focus, that it is rather scattered and has no real linear narrative. Most documentaries, you see, always have a particular focus. For example, you watch a documentary on the life of a penguin, and expect it to fairly penguin-centric. But how do you deal with a documentary covering all aspects of human culture, over 24 hours? Be prepared to wait a little longer, I will make my point.

I live near Oxford, a very academic city with lots of interesting museums. None of these more so, in my opinion, than the Pitt Rivers Collection. This is the largest and most fascinating anthropological collection of items of its kind, covering all of the cultures across the world. How it groups them however, is not into their own separate cultures, but into sections of life. Currency, for example, is all grouped together, so you can best cross examine how different cultures from different ages have used it. This is the way it should be done, and so it is for Life in a Day. Enough preamble, we now come to the film.

We start at in the very early hours of a day. Note that for the purposes of the film, all time zones become aligned as one. We flit from two night-vision green elephants frolicking in an African watering hole, to an early morning Muslim prayer session, to an American taking you on a tour of his favourite elevator. And so it endures, a continuous back and forth across the globe throughout the rest of the morning, these small Youtube clips giving an insight into each life. Do not think that there are not themes however, for the editing is beautifully subtle. We see how a fairly ordinary man collecting his milk bottle from outside cuts to Eastern European farmers herding and milking their goats by hand.

I’m afraid that I might be making this all seem incredibly plain.

But this bit is honestly very good.

The fascination comes from seeing an everyday activity that we all recognise, like reading the morning paper, then being shifted hundreds of miles in less than a second, to an incredibly moving monologue of an Australian man in hospital reading his. The varying shifts in cultures are echoed in a quality of camera work.  The handheld efforts of mundane life in America are a world away from the professional crews, let loose in lands of comparatively exotic chaos and wonder in the East.

This is definitely a piece that gathers momentum, in case you are 13 minutes in, wondering what makes me so excitable about a 15 year old American’s first shave. Frankly, the rather less exciting stuff makes this movie more than you initially realise, but it becomes a real emotional journey through cultures you had never thought to seek in your mind. A tour through Afghanistan by a teenage photographer contrasts excellently with the shenanigans of troops in the Army bases over there. Scenes based around relationships follow proposals, failed courtships, a young man coming out to his grandmother, and various wedding ceremonies. All of these contrast with a young woman’s weekly date with her Afghanistan based boyfriend, a truly heartbreaking piece.

There are criticisms, and I do have to say it is our culture that lets the side down. Give an American or Brit a camera, and a potential audience, and we do seem to enjoy it. Only a few were letting the side down, but hearing someone talk of their love for Walt Whitman and trying desperately to correctly quote it for their infant children, one wonders whether that is truly a daily activity, or a chance to play up for their own camera. That said, I was amazed by the sincerity of the rest of the… (cast? I suppose they are). It is perhaps the greatest strength of Life in a Day that you can see real stories, real lives and real emotions by real people, under their own direction, without any often straying into theatrics.

Some scenes are disturbing, shocking and difficult to watch for some. I suggest that they be watched nevertheless, because the film is better for their inclusion. It is possibly my favourite film of the year so far, and being available for free here, should be worth an attempt to watch by anyone who stumbles across this article, and has made it this far into an extensively thorough article. I heartily apologise, but it was well worth it.

Classic Films: The Godfather

So, we come to the ultimate in supposed ‘must see’ movies. Everyone who hasn’t got this particular monkey off their back is guaranteed to have endured someone who layers every word in the following sentence with incredulity: “You haven’t seen The Godfather?”

Now, its been well over a month since my last review, and I did say that I was going to reel these movies off rather quickly. However, The Godfather seems to have been an exception. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the film is 3 hours long, and it was hard to find the time for it in my busy schedule.

You know, what with all the... stuff.

Secondly, its The freaking Godfather. It ranks second in IMDB’s Top 250 of all time, just ahead of itself Part 2. Its not the film you put on during a lazy weekday between Jeremy Kyle and Pointless, surely? It’s supposed to be an experience to savour at the exact right time. You disable the front doorbell, draw your curtains, and ready yourself to see what all the fuss is about.

And thirdly, once I had gone through all that trouble, I proudly told my dad that I had ticked off another film from his extensive collection, which resembles a cinema purists branch of Blockbusters. He smiled back and said. “Excellent”, before pausing, and delivering a knock-out blow. “Now you’ve got Part I out of the way, you’re in for a real treat.” So, rather deflatedly, I decided to view the first two instalments of The Godfather series before submitting this review.

Sorry, I couldn't be arsed to set aside another 2 and a half hours for what is considered to be cinemas biggest disappointment.

So, I bet you guys want a sort of plot summation, as is the style in film reviews? Right. Marlon Brando plays Vito “Godfather” Corleone, don of an organised crime family. His sons include hot headed Sonny (James Caan), clever adoptee Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) and law abiding war hero Michael (Al Pacino). All good so far, you are thinking, so whats it about? What actually happens?

Well, you see, its all very slow burning. The first hour and a half is fairly diplomatic. The Corleones are roughly introduced via a family wedding, Vito shows his rationale dealing with a narcotics investment, and Sonny shows his volatile nature dealing with an abusive brother-in-law. There’s talking and business strategy, punctuated with the occasional whacking and mob war.

From what I have heard, people do complain that the film gets off to a slow start, and only picks up in terms of action towards the end. To those people, I say this: that is how it is supposed to be. What director Francis Ford Coppola does so well is to mirror the emotions in the pace of the movie. While Vito is in charge, the tempo is as calm and measured as he is. But whenever he is out of the picture, the mood and momentum become more impetuous, less considered and what the layperson describes as ‘exciting’.

"Guns! Blood! I hope Diane Keaton goes topless soon too!"

Dare we move onto the sequel? This would be the more critically acclaimed, having scooped more Oscars than its predecessor. It is a movie broken into two storylines. One is a flashback for the genesis of a young Vito Andolini (Robert De Niro) from Corleone, Sicily to 1920’s New York. The second plot follows the current day efforts of his son to expand the business and crush any opposition in his way.

And… that is all I am going to say about the sequel, because there is not much you need to know having not seen the first instalment yet. What I can say, in some attempt to wade in on this battle between the two movies, is that there should be no competition between them. From what I can see, Part II serves as both a sequel and an prequel (obvious statment), but is simply a continuation or a companion movie (contentious statement). It is better to view them as two halves of one great movie (see how I now discount Part III completely?). Therefore, to keep my word count both respectable and at a readable length, I shall review them as one.

The cast is about as good as you’ll get in a movie, as evidenced by the 2 wins and 7 nominations spread over both Academy Awards ceremonies. The pair of wins came for portrayals of the character Vito Corleone, by both Brando and De Niro. Pacino was nominated Best Supporting Actor for both films, while Duvall and Diane Keaton took notable praise for their roles.

The cinematography by Coppola is excellent (and as I said before, beautifully paced), the soundtrack by Nino Rota is thoroughly understated but menacing, and yet the most credit throughout the production goes to writer Mario Puzo. It is after all, ‘Mario Puzo’s The Godfather’, and allowing him to maintain control in adapting the screenplay was a big factor in the main selling point of these films. The dialogue from this film is widely regarded to be part of the teaching that allows man to train for one of the most mature roles of his life.

"You don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me "Godfather."

Alright, so lets come to a definitive outcome outcome on this. Because there may be some people out there who haven’t seen it yet, and wan’t to know if its worth their time. And to those people I say…

What? You haven’t seen The Godfather?

WHATSAMATTAWITYOU?