Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A Year in Shadows: 2013

Friday, 27 December 2013

Critical Week: 33rd Shadows Awards

Here's my top 10 films of 2013, and my top 5 picks in the other major categories. Full lists and a lot more are on the website...

T O P   1 0   F I L M S  

  1. American Hustle (David O Russell)
  2. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
  3. Filth (Jon S Baird)
  4. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
  5. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)
  6. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
  7. In a World... (Lake Bell)
  8. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)
  9. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
  10. Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh)

D I R E C T O R  

  1. Jon S Baird (Filth)
  2. David O Russell (American Hustle)
  3. Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
  4. Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell)
  5. Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty)


  1. Lake Bell (In a World...)
  2. Asghar Farhadi (The Past)
  3. Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
  4. Eric Warren Singer, David O Russell (American Hustle)
  5. Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda)

A C T R E S S 

  1. Emilie Dequenne (Our Children)
  2. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Colour)
  3. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
  4. Paulina Garcia (Gloria)
  5. Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)


  1. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
  2. James McAvoy (Filth, Welcome to the Punch, Trance)
  3. Matt Damon (Behind the Candelabra, Elysium, The Zero Theorem)
  4. Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown)
  5. Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Saving Mr Banks)

S U P P O R T I N G   A C T R E S S  

  1. Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, Beautiful Creatures)
  2. Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives, The Invisible Woman, Looking for Hortense)
  3. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
  4. Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy, Stoker, The Railway Man)
  5. Pernilla August (Call Girl)

S U P P O R T I N G   A C T O R 

  1. James Franco (Spring Breakers, As I Lay Dying, The Iceman, Homefront)
  2. Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings, The Place Beyond the Pines, Jack & Diane)
  3. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
  4. David Oyelowo (The Paperboy, The Butler)
  5. Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

W O R S T   F I L M 

  1. Grown Ups 2 (Dennis Dugan)
  2. R.I.P.D. (Robert Schwentke)
  3. G.I Joe: Retaliation (Jon M Chu)
  4. Bula Quo! (Stuart St Paul)
  5. Run for Your Wife (Ray Cooney, John Luton)

I've only seen a couple of documentaries in the past week to fill in some viewing gaps - namely The Square, about the ongoing Egyptian revolution, and The Missing Picture, about the killing fields in Cambodia. I'll have a few more things to catch up with next week, but in the mean time I'm enjoying a bit of a holiday from the movies. or at least the ones that put me in work mode. Happy New Year!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Critical Week: King of the world

The final week of press screenings for 2013 brought us Martin Scorsese's barnstorming new comedy-drama The Wolf of Wall Street, which we saw just in time to vote (it got 4 nominations from the London Critics: film, actor, director and screenplay). It's a fiendishly entertaining, full-on romp. And it carries a strong punch. It seems cruel to compare it with the other big press show: Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie, which uses state-of-the-art technical and scientific skills and then adds one of the most inane, trite dialog tracks imaginable. For very young kids only. 

Although it seems aimed at young kids, adults are likely to enjoy the French-German animated adventure Moon Man even more than the children. The sophisticated writing contrasts with simple but clever animation work. And there were also two docs: Penn and Teller explore the art world with Tim's Vermeer, the fascinating tale of an inventor who sets out to prove Vermeer's genius in an unexpected way. And How to Make Money Selling Drugs has garnered controversy for its sarcastic approach to America's disastrous war on drugs - but it's witty, telling and frighteningly important.

SHORTS ON TAP: This week I also participated as a juror for the second Shorts on Tap event, which this month was themed "Through Challenge and Change". We watched 11 short films, all introduced by their directors, who stuck around to answer questions. And we awarded our top 3 films to:

Beached by Graham Austin and Dave Walker: a witty romp set on a snowy beach, where a man and his dog find themselves in an unexpectedly twisty situation. It's especially well shot and played, with a terrific final shot. And it's even more impressive since it was filmed in one day.

Driftwood by James Webber: a gorgeously shot and edited story about a young swimmer who has a series of encounters that add to his stress levels in a variety of ways. The film expertly crosscuts between three scenes, building a sense of drama and suspense before turning in unexpected directions. Especially strong acting too.

I'm Christian Okoli by Cyrus Trafford: frankly this shouldn't work at all, as it's just one guy (Okoli) sitting on a stool on a stage telling a story. But he's a seriously great storyteller, and filmmaker Trafford keeps the camera prowling suggestively, adding impact to every element of Okoli's tale, which builds to an astonishingly strong final punch, literally and figuratively. It's very dark, but utterly unforgettable.

Honourable mention goes to Darren Bransford's Dust & Waltz, a beautifully made and skilfully brief short about a couple coping with a difficult situation, and Chris Lee and Paul Storrie's The Hedgehog, a surreal little exploration of a young boy and an older man, whose connection drifts from darkly whimsical to wrenchingly emotional. Shorts on Tap takes place monthly at Juno in Shoreditch.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Requisite Blog Photo: Menaced by dinosaurs

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Critical Week: Mountain-top experience

Year-end screenings continue as distributors try to show us their films before voting deadlines (London Critics' Circle votes for nominees on Friday; Online Film Critics Society votes in the final round on Saturday). This week's big hitters included Ben Stiller's remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an earnest movie about life choices; Out of the Furnace, a gritty Rust Belt drama starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck; and Spike Jonze's lovely romantic drama Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and we believe it.

The other big one was Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the silly 10-years-later sequel to WIll Ferrell's cult classic. We also had the late-scheduled press screening for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the livelier and more involving sequel to last year's An Unexpected Journey, which ends in a cliffhanger until next year's There and Back Again. I also caught up with Paolo Sorrentino's gorgeous Fellini anthem The Great Beauty, as well as the German drama Two Mothers, an engaging, personal story of two women grappling with inequality in fertility treatment.

Next week things start to slow down for the holidays, although I still need to catch Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, and there's also Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie, the acclaimed doc Tim's Vermeer, and Mark Cousins' Albanian road movie Here Be Dragons. I'm also on the jury panel for a Shorts on Tap event on Tuesday evening in Shoreditch!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Critical week: More than movies

I've only seen one film since Sunday's report from L.A., but it was a doozy: David O Russell's American Hustle not only features an enticing ensemble cast in full-on 1970s regalia, but it's also based on the real events surrounding Abscam, when the FBI used low-life con-men to entrap big-time mobsters and politicians. Everything is unmissable - cast, script, direction, music, costumes and especially hair. It's hardly surprising that it won the New York film critics' best of the year award.

Now back in London, I have a few screenings beginning to pop up, filling in the final candidates before I vote in both the online and London film critics' awards. These include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, Spike Jonze's Her and Will Ferrell's triumphant return for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.

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And here are some comments on film tie-ins that have crossed my desk this month, just in time for Christmas...

Now That's What I Call Movies is a three-disc set of 58 film songs with an emphasis on 1980s power ballads like I Will Always Love You, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, Take My Breath Away, Up Where We Belong, Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now and, of course, My Heart Will Go On. Newer songs come from Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Lana Del Rey (The Great Gatsby) and Maroon 5 (Love Actually). And there are also classics like Nat King Cole's Stardust and Tony Bennett's The Way You Look Tonight, plus Brown-eyed Girl, Unchained Melody, Stuck in the Middle With You, You Sexy Thing and even White Wedding. Alas, there are no Bond themes, but all the big title songs of the 1980s are present: Fame, Flashdance, Ghostbusters, Footloose, 9 to 5, Against All Odds, even The Never Ending Story. It's a strong hit-to-dud ratio, and most of these songs are pretty essential.

Series aficionados may also want to take a look at the all new 2013 Now That's What I Call Christmas compilation, another three-disc set containing 62 holiday classics. All the expected songs are present, from Dean Martin to Coldplay, White Christmas to Blue Christmas, and both the original and 20-years-later versions of Do They Know It's Christmas. And there are lots of surprises too.

To tie in with the release of Saving Mr Banks, those savvy Disney folk have released a 50th Anniversary edition of the Mary Poppins soundtrack. This includes the 26 tracks from the film, as well as a second disc with four never-heard demos and early recordings performed by composers Richard and Robert Sherman, plus 21 snippets from the story meetings depicted in Saving Mr Banks - yes, conversations between the real PL Travers, the Sherman brothers and screenwriter Don DaGradi. Finally, there's a 16-minute track in which the Shermans reminisce about their work on the movie. All pretty indispensable for any Mary Poppins fan.

We also occasionally receive books! Cher: Strong Enough is a biography by Josiah Howard, tracing the Oscar/Grammy/Emmy-winner's career through five decades with a special emphasis on her 1975 TV variety series. It's packed with telling anecdotes and accounts of her various career reinventions over the years. There are even a few photos, but not nearly enough. By contrast, Joanna Benecke's 100 Reasons to Love Ryan Gosling is completely centred around photos of the outrageously photogenic actor. Most of these reasons relate to his way with the ladies - and the men. Many of them are dreamy hero-worship: he's a dog whisperer (58), he likes knitting (72), he makes deaf kids happy (79). Others are hilariously breathless: public displays of torso (10), he has tiny cute little ears (39), even super-cool actresses get star-struck when kissing Ryan (83). And you don't have to agree with reason number 9 (The Notebook) to find this book entertaining.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

On the Road: Frozen, alone and fearsome

After only watching two films in the past two weeks, I had a bit of a flurry this weekend in Los Angeles, starting with Disney's new animated movie Frozen, about two sisters (voiced by Kristen Bella and Idina Menzel) struggling with what seems to be a family curse. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, the plot has some real weight and the characters are unusually strong, offering a strong twist on the usual Disney formula . Although the filmmakers couldn't resist filling the screen with silly jokes and comic relief characters, the animation is gorgeous and the themes are handled with a refreshing lightness,

I also had a couple of awards-consideration screenings on Saturday, my first two in Los Angeles. Both were pretty harrowing films, for different reasons. First was the true thriller Lone Survivor, in which Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch get into serious trouble on a mission in Afghanistan. It's riveting and exhausting, and a bit too rah-rah heroic for its own good. But it's also electrically charged and sharply well made. Second was the dysfunctional drama August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep as a fearsome matriarch who locks horns (and then some) with her equally tetchy daughter Julia Roberts. The ace ensemble includes Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson. And the insights from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts are startlingly honest. It sometimes feels hugely over-dramatic, but every scene strikes a nerve.