Look. Another list. Again, ranked in order.
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa ineffectively rips off Inception, Shutter Island, The Cell, and a bunch of forgettable recent horror movies for Real (2013). A man must go inside his wife’s subconscious to awaken her from a coma, but after about the third twist it’s hard to care (a good twist is supposed to clarify not wipe the slate clean rendering all previous scenes moot, or it’s supposed to surprise rather than be telegraphed 20 minutes in advance, OR it’s supposed to make sense instead of being ridiculous for the sake of surprise). The story is laughable, the acting is melodramatic and cheesy, and it’s way too long. There was some potential in the beginning and there’s a few decent jump scares but ultimately…just no. Points for having a dinosaur in the homestretch, but points taken back for it not making sense and being stupid.
I like blaxploitation movies and I was excited to see one that was inspired by The Exorcist. Carroll Speed is the title character in Abby (1974). I wish this was more fun (especially for having such a fun censorship history fraught with lawsuits). I really enjoyed the beginning and I actually liked the exorcism finale, maybe because those had the most interesting insights into who or what the demon really was and had more William Marshall (Blacula himself). Sadly the big, long middle stretch is very boring and predictable.
Why do I find bromance melodramas written by women so cloying and irritating? People say I’m crazy, but I hated reading The Outsiders in middle school. Green Street Hooligans (2005) is the story of Elijah Wood trying to be tough enough to hang with idiot British football hooligans. It’s predictable, overly sentimental, manipulative, and unintentionally funny when it’s not supposed to be. The film seems to be reaching to both glorify and criticize the zeal of these uneducated youths. It celebrates their passion and loyalty while at the same time condemning their irresponsibility and their misplaced priorities. The biggest thing that bothered me was just how dumb and unlikable all the characters were. Yes, many real people are that dumb and annoying, but watching real people would be more interesting. It’s an interesting sub-culture that I’d like to see as a documentary.
Meh and/or misguided:
Mansome (2012) is Morgan Spurlock’s examination on male vanity. It features interviews with funny celebrities and weird real life characters with strong opinions. Sadly the movie never formulates a question and never nears any form of conclusion. There are some isolated segments that are fun and telling, but it never comes together to say anything or even try to say anything new.
I’m a fan of James Thurber and a fan of Danny Kaye and a fan of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This made Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) a particularly banal and toothless slog that tries its damndest to be life-affirming. I loved the cinematography, earthy locations, music choices, and I like Kristen Wiig. Beyond that it’s an empty affair that dashes from country to country with no specific destination in mind. If the comedy was funnier or the flights of fancy more imaginative I could have easily overlooked the tired, simple story and boring archetypal characters.
Some people kept recommending this one to me and I’ll be honest, The Mist (2007) isn’t half bad…or actually it’s exactly half bad. Director Frank Darabont, no stranger to adapting Stephen King, tackles the intriguing premise and microcosmic study of mob mentality and the origins and dangers of religion fairly well. Marcia Gay Harden is good as the uber-deluded conservative Christian nutjob and I liked Toby Jones as the steadfast store clerk. Some of the monsters are cool and it’s well-paced, but it feels too heavy-handed at times and the ending, while shocking and bleak, feels like standard Twilight Zone conclusion. It’s worth a look. Just don’t hope for too much.
Abdullajon, or Dedicated to Steven Spielberg (1991) is an Uzbek re-imagining of E.T. A strange boy with no penis crash lands and is adopted by a clumsy middle-aged farmer. There’s never any suspense as they explain everything that will happen in the next scene before it happens. It’s never really warm or funny—perhaps through translation. The characters aren’t terribly developed and the situations rely heavily on magic-boy gimmicks (that they keep repeating). There’s a random twist that isn’t really explained and is sort of resolved inexplicably without much happenstance. Most of the second half of the film seems preoccupied with the fact that the alien boy can make hoes (the gardening tool, now) float. The town enjoys riding hoes to the market until the major confiscates them. The only real reason to watch this kind of slow and uneventful movie is for the silly special effects (which are few and far between) and just the odd mundanity that the film treats its subject.
The air grows thinner:
Gary Larson is the reason I wanted to learn how to read when I was little. He is also one of the reasons I started cartooning. The TV animated special Tales from the Far Side (1994) is a pleasant treat. If you like The Far Side then odds are you’ll enjoy this at some level. The problem is it’s not terribly great or groundbreaking. If the entire 30 minute run-time was as fast and funny as the first 30 seconds then I’d love this. Sadly it tries to stretch the single-panel gags out for way too long. Larson’s cartoons do not take long to set up. What made the beginning unique was the kooky, surreal farm music and the long panning shots across a cartoon canvas with animated hijinks continually appearing. What made the opening inventive was when it showed us clues and as the camera kept panning we got the payoff. It’s good, but not as great as the source material deserves or the intro promises. The sequel which came out in 1997 is thrice as good and plays more as “Cartoon Faces of Death” they kill so many people. Could Gary Larson be the brains behind the Final Destination series?
The American Astronaut (2001) is a very low budget and arty independent science-fiction musical comedy directed by Cory McAbee. There’s a lot to really respect in this humble little project: the clever way to portray space travel with no money, the noir lighting and Maddin-esque minimal yet surreal sets, and then the concept of the villain (“He’s a birthday boy.”). Why I don’t rate this higher is just because I wanted more out of it. Eraserhead spoiled a lot of us and we demand more from this sort of aesthetic. There’s one or two pretty good songs and a couple memorable scenes and stylish images, but I found it a little too slow.
I laughed really hard at the trailer and the concept for Seth Rogan’s This is the End (2013). And the movie itself actually has those scenes that I laughed at in the trailer. Unfortunately it doesn’t have much more…except for some confused theology. I loved Craig Robinson. But then I always love Craig Robinson.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) is long. Once again the title character is smothered by cartoon action violence, amazing sets, dour monologues about magic and quests, impressive special effects, meandering plot devices, and more. It’s a watchable mess, but don’t expect to feel anything during or afterwards. Like the previous Hobbit movie, there are one or two really good scenes, and those are the quiet scenes where we learn about the characters.
Peter Sellers dons brown-face to play a cocksure novice matador/troubadour before hoodwinking the sexy Britt Ekland and succumbing to blue-face at her vengeful hands in The Bobo (1967). It’s not really a funny movie, but you grow fond of the character. It’s not really a happy movie, but we accept that life doesn’t always work out. It’s not really a fast-paced movie, but what can you do? It’s a lesser Sellers and not essential, but you could do worse.
Gravity (2013) was an incredible and amazingly immersive visceral experience and survival story that utilized state-of-the-art technology and fantastic cinematography to convey a rather simplistic story that will be easy to ignore on a TV screen. Director Alfonso Cuarón knows what he’s doing and for people who want to know what it feels like to be crying Sandra Bullock in space without pants, it must be seen in 3D IMAX. How hard will you fight for your life? Watching two characters deal with that question is powerful enough to ignore some of the awkward dialogue.
I actually hadn’t seen this all the way through before. Lilo and Stitch (2002) is beautifully drawn, funny, and sensitive. The relationship between Lilo and her sister is excellently portrayed with sensitivity and nuance. The alien stuff is fun too. I was surprised by the quietness and cleverness of this movie and that it never felt the need to ingratiate me, it’s cute but it earns that cuteness by being so real…despite have alien stuff.
We may never know what blazes Andrzej Zulawski Possession (1981) really is or how it happened, but we have it so shut up and enjoy. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani are freakishly over the top in this story of a disintegrating relationship that turns into a psychological horror with perplexing and slimy aesthetics reminiscent of Lynch and Cronenberg. This movie is the definition of irrationality and madness. I can’t spoil it, but it’s nonstop crazy.
Girl, we couldn’t get much higher:
Sometimes some great music and a splash of color goes a long way. A classic Indian tale gets the animation treatment with The World of Goopi and Bagha (2013). When two abysmal musician misfits get blessed by some forest demons they will use their new powers to make peace and marry princesses and have adventures. It’s simple, but a lot of fun.
A selfish and immature Charles Grodin tries to woo a manipulative and immature Cybill Shepherd on his honeymoon in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972). This may be the darkest love story ever committed to celluloid. It’s bleak, ugly, frustrating, awkward, pessimistic, and extremely accurate. This movie should be analyzed in high school health classes. And it’s funny too!
The Blessed Bukhara (1991) is a lyrical, enigmatic, episodic, nonlinear snapshot of a city and its inhabitants. This long movie from Tajikistan will not be for everybody. It’s a hard movie, steeped in politics and culture and obscure but containing mesmerizing imagery. Several scenes still stay with me—like so many fascinating films from this region. Director Bako Sadykov makes bold choices that could have been pulled from Parajanov or Tarkovsky. I wish it was better preserved!
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost team up with director Edgar Wright again for the comedy science-fiction horror homage, The World’s End (2013). It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s violent, and it’s an authentic look at male relationships. Hot Fuzz, I think, still beats it in my book, followed by Shaun of the Dead, but this movie is still a lot of fun and reminds us why we love these guys. I actually kind of wish they’d make the movie they start in the final three minutes.
Suckers for genre-deconstructions look no further than Cabin in the Woods (2012). I may hate teen splatterfests, but I like movies like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I like clever ideas that are smarter than their genre’s limitations. This one takes your typical slasher setup and goes all out meta on us while adding in a bonus layer of fantasy and then a brand new type of horror. Well cast, brilliantly written and paced, and featuring some truly inventive horror turns and twists, Cabin in the Woods offers thrills with a wink and a brain geared for comedy.
People might hate me for rating Shock Treatment (1981) so highly and I will be the first to admit that Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s pseudo-sequel collaboration pales in comparison to the joyous cult flick, Rocky Horror Picture Show. That being said, as big a mess, this is a bumpy ride that really enjoyed. It’s got some good visuals, an interestingly prophetic plot, and some fantastic songs that match Rocky Horror. It’s zany, uneven, and actually a lot of fun. Barry Humphries and Charles Gray are highlights of the cast. “Duel Duet” is one of the best songs in the movie.
The horrific true story of Solomon Northrup is brought to life in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013). Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful performance—all the more potent because he has to convey so much with saying so little. He is pushed so far and you see what humans will do for their own survival and what some will and won’t sacrifice. It’s a stifling, frustrating, maddening story about a dark chapter in American history. If I have one criticism it is Brad Pitt’s distracting cameo in the third act. Also, is it just me or is Paul Giamatti playing the same role he had in Burton’s Planet of the Apes? I did like seeing Alfre Woodard and Benedict Cumberbatch. . . and Michael Fassbender gives a nasty performance. 12 Years a Slave is an important history lesson that must never be forgotten. If Django Unchained is the revenge-filled catharsis we wanted for American slavery, this movie is the bitter pill that reminds us that our pasts are far from pristine.
Powell & Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is a colorful, decades-spanning saga of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a career soldier in the British army. The title itself is somewhat misleading. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, with a very subtle satirical edge that affectionately criticizes old school British militarism and outdated WWI era sentiments. The first act easily has some of my favorite bits (travel, duels, and new friends), but the whole movie treats Candy as a sympathetic human being. I’m sure it was quite bold in 1943, but even as a far quainter story today it’s still worth a look.
Another Elaine May movie. A New Leaf (1971) is a weird and pessimistic romance between a spoiled, woman-hating egotist (Walter Matthau) who has to get married or lose everything and a gawky, oblivious bookworm (Elaine May). Matthau is a perfect murderous jerk, but he manages to endear himself to the audience nonetheless. May is clumsy and annoying, but she too manages to be quite lovable. It’s actually a very clever movie that, like The Heartbreak Kid, says more about the real dynamics between men and women than most serious movies. A New Leaf has a more cartoony sense of comedy, and it serves the story well. The setups and payoffs are all good and, despite its macabre premise (he wants to kill her a la Monsieur Verdoux), it’s actually really sweet.