Sad **** that I am, I kept a record of all the films I watched last year. In 2013 I watched a total of 131 movies, from ‘Half Light’ (2006) in the early days of January to ‘Carry On Again, Doctor’ (1969) just before the year came to a close. The films covered a fairly wide range of genres and topics, though whilst the films came from a large span of time [earliest: ‘Rescued by Rover‘ (1905); latest: ‘Frozen’ (2013)], there was not enough variety in terms of their country of origin. Nevertheless, as we are now in 2014 I thought I’d look back and the great, the good, and the ghastly among them.
I made a conscious effort last year to try to watch films I had never seen before, or had not seen for a number of years over familiar choices that I have returned to again and again. To that end ‘The Freds’ will be awarded to films that I watched for the first time in 2013, or occasionally to films that I re-watched after a long period of time had passed (more than five years). Also, whilst I have picked out some specific genres for special focus, I haven’t covered everything. They aren’t real awards, you know?
Without further ado, let’s have look at the highlights, lowlights, and down-right-shites that graced my retinas in 2013.
Best Film of 2013
The first award is for films released in the UK in 2013 and, overall, it’s an underwhelming selection. Summer’s big blockbuster ‘Man of Steel‘ (2013) was terrible and Disney’s Christmas offering ‘Frozen‘ was jolly, but generally disappointing. Both films suffered from the lack of screen time afforded to their most interesting or likable characters (Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent in ‘MoS’ and Olaf the snowman in ‘Frozen’). ‘The Conjuring‘ (2013) was built up as the horror film that avoided all the clichés but seemed to my mind to follow pretty much every one in the book.
Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, both fine actors, were miscast as ‘Burton and Taylor‘ (2013), and whilst the subject matter of ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer‘ (2013) was undoubtedly fascinating, it is a straight choice between Pixar sequel ‘Monsters University‘ (2013) and warbling epic ‘Les Miserables‘ (2012).
And the Winner Is…:
‘Monsters University’ was good fun, but despite a few distinctly average vocal performances, ‘Les Miserables‘ was genuinely impressive, both in how it looked and how much genuine emotion was wrung from the story. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks were good, but Hugh Jackman was particularly affecting as Jean Valjean. I cried buckets in the cinema, and for once it wasn’t due to the price of the snacks.
Best Film I’d Not Seen Before
A little different to the above, as this award includes films from every decade as long as the first time I watched it was in 2013. There was five that stood out in particular.
After years of my sister badgering me, I finally got around to watching the superb ‘The Lives of Other‘ (2006), a gripping look at life in East Germany in era of the Stasi. Such a glowing recommendation often leads to disappointment, but ‘The Lives of Others’ actually exceeded expectations, mainly thanks to Ulrich Muhe’s perfect central performance.
‘The Name of the Rose‘ (1986) was another film with a lot to live up to, given that the book it is based on instantly became on of my favourites when I read it. The film truncated much of what makes the book such a thought-provoking pleasure, but it is a tremendous thriller with excellent performances from its cast.
More recent fare is represented by Tim Burton’s wonderful homage to (amongst others) the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, ‘Frankenweenie‘ (2012). Any horror movie fans are urged to check out this beautifully animated tale of one boy and his dog. ‘Kick-Ass‘ (2010) had a sequel released this summer which spurred me to seek out the highly rated original. Five minutes in I was wondering if it was going to be another ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (2004), but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It drew you in by masquerading as a comedy about a loser-vigilante, a foul-mouthed child, and her wacko father, but then things took a much darker turn. It’s an exhilarating, breathless and, at times, heart-wrenching action movie that I can’t wait to watch again.
At the other end of the age scale was the Astaire-Rogers musical ‘Shall We Dance‘ (1937). Normally rated as one of the teams lesser vehicles, I thought it was charming, funny, and contained excellent musical numbers.
And the Winner Is…:
It’s a tough call but ‘The Lives of Others‘ just holds off ‘Kick-Ass’ to take the prize.
Best Revisited Film
Now for the best film I’d seen before, but re-watched after years. There were only three genuinely brilliant films that qualified and they couldn’t be more different.
The classic British documentary short ‘Night Mail‘ (1936) remains a fascinating snapshot of the past, whilst Alfred’s Hitchcock’s Nazis-in-hiding thriller ‘Notorious‘ (1946) was even better than I had remembered it to be. The 1954 western ‘Vera Cruz‘ boasts two leading men on the top of their game in Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Lancaster in particular raises this above the mass of westerns produced by Hollywood’s studio system with a performance that is part snake, part hyena, and a whole lot of startlingly white teeth.
And the Winner Is…:
Robert Aldrich is not considered one of the masters of the genre, but none of the John Ford westerns I have seen are as good as ‘Vera Cruz‘. It’s my favourite example of the genre in its classic form.
Most Surprisingly Good
‘Kick-Ass‘ nearly qualified for this due to its dark elements which I did not expect, but if we are talking about films I expected to be rubbish that turned out to be pretty decent it is between two romantic comedies.
‘The Accidental Husband‘ (2008) sees Uma Thurman in comedy mode, which is rarely a good thing. Opposite her are Jeffrey Dean Morgan (no, me neither) and Colin Firth in full ‘British actor trying to break Hollywood’ mode. The plot is preposterous and it tails off badly about half way through. And yet, for sheer laughs, it was one of the funniest films I watched last year. It’s not ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ (1989), but it’s not ‘Gigli’ (2003) either.
On paper, ‘The Break Up‘ (2006) looks terrible. Jennifer Aniston, who has never appeared in a good movie, is the female lead, whilst the male lead is Vince Vaughan. What’s more, he spends a lot of time doing that dead-pan, fast talk that crops up in every V.V. movie (except when he played Norman Bates… yes, he really did play him). It really shouldn’t work, but it’s one of those rare occasions where all the wrong elements somehow come together to make a half-decent film. It’s rejection of the rom-com’s ultimate cliché (which I won’t give away here) also went a long way to making me quite like the film.
And the Winner Is…:
‘The Accidental Husband’ is probably a better film, but I really thought I would hate ‘The Break Up‘ and ended up liking it so it wins on points.
I took in a fair few documentaries in 2013 and the best was unquestionably ‘The Celluloid Closet‘ (1995). However, as I’ve seen that a number of times we have to ignore it [ditto ‘Bowling for Columbine‘ (2002)]. That left ‘Night Mail‘ as the winner.
However, if we look at those documentaries I’d never seen at all before last year it was a pretty mixed bag. ‘Brother’s Keeper‘ (1992) was extremely dull and we will hear more about the disappointment of watching ‘F for Fake‘ (1973) in part two of this post. The ‘Pussy Riot‘ documentary deserves a mention as one of the better ones, as does ‘The Imposter‘ (2012).
It was ‘The Bridge‘ (2006) that was the best of them. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted as it contains footage of people throwing themselves to their deaths from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This also makes it a morally questionable project especially when you consider their friends and families who were interviewed so movingly for the film were not aware the film makers had footage of their loved ones committing suicide. If you can take those interviews in isolation, though, it’s a very interesting attempt to try to understand what drives people to such a drastic measure.
Yet more chills as the unremittingly bleak yet beautiful ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘ (1988) takes this one hands down over ‘Monsters University‘, ‘Brave‘ (2012) and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ (1994) [once you discount ‘Up‘ (2009) and ‘Wall-E‘ (2008) which I’ve seen twice each in a little over three years]. This unforgiving tale of two children trying to survive after their parents are killed in an American bomb attack on Kobe in WWII doesn’t pull any of its considerable punches and shows that animated movies are definitely not just for children.
Historical interest drew me to ‘Rescued by Rover‘ (1905) as it was the first British movie with a plot line (no prizes for guessing it’s about a heroic canine) but if you ignore the cultural significance of the movie, it’s not very good. Likewise, two of the three W.C. Fields shorts I watched this year were close to worthless [‘The Golf Specialist‘ (1930) and ‘The Fatal Glass of Beer‘ (1933)]. ‘The Pharmacist‘ (1933), however, was very funny and gained Fields’ something of a reprieve in my eyes (I didn’t care for either of the two feature films starring him I’d seen either).
‘The Blue Umbrella‘ (2013) was a charming Pixar short that preceded ‘Monsters University’ in the cinema, but none of these could hold a candle to a French short that inspired ‘The Blue Umbrella’, the wonderful ‘The Red Balloon‘ (1956). This tale of a young boy and his mystically obedient, playful, pet-like balloon is surely one of the all-time great fantasy movies – as surreal and it is tragic, and as tragic as it is heart-warming. I urge you to seek it out if you have never seen it.
For all ‘Les Miserables’ quality and epic visual style, the 1936 version of ‘Show Boat‘ was the best musical I saw last year. Films like ‘Show Boat’, featuring black characters that can seem incredibly stereotyped, can be an awkward watch, but the film probably stays just the right side of eye-ball-rolling, Mammy-lamenting racism. The songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein are terrific, especially Paul Robeson’s seminal version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ and Helen Morgan’s incredible rendition of ‘Bill’, and despite couple of wooden performances it knocks spots off the 1951 MGM version.
Paul Robeson also featured in ‘The Proud Valley‘ (1940), a lovely British movie set in a Welsh mining village and another American musical legend, Glenn Miller, popped up in ‘Sun Valley Serenade‘ (1941). It was one of only two feature films to star the great trombonist and band leader and his band, and whilst the plot was pretty flimsy it is still worth checking out, if only for the ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo‘ sequence.
So there is a round-up of the best of 2013’s viewing. Please check back later in the week as I ‘reward’ the very worst films I watch last year.
Film fanatics and friends Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. There has been only one ’10’ so far and the lads have just had their first proper disagreement over Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries‘. Are they all friends again this week?
With perfect timing ahead of Fred’s trip to Orlando, Florida, Yasser’s choice this week is on of the Disney studios best-loved films.
You can read the entires from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.
To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.
Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
Fred: Week ten is here, Yasser, and I had Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast‘ to watch. It’s the best animated movie ever, in your opinion. Why?
Yasser: Disney was the best at animated movies. At times they were the only studio to churn out beautifully animated movies. After Walt died they lost that magical quality and during the 1980s, Don Bluth’s features were much better than Disney’s
FS: The 1970s and 80s were a barren period for Disney, that is right.
YA: After that shoddy period, they released ‘The Little Mermaid‘, their first fairy tale picture in 30 years, and though I don’t find it particularly spectacular, it was the start of their golden age.
FS: It was like a second golden era with a string of commercial and critical successes. Why is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ your favourite, though?
YA: Originally, I liked ‘The Lion King‘ and ‘Aladdin‘ above it, but they re-released it into the cinemas a few years ago and it was only then that I fell in love with it. It’s an enchanting tale, shrouded in mystery, humour, music, magic, class and charm.
YA: One thing I love is the castle. It’s beautiful.
FS: It was a fairly standard Disney castle, though I’d kill for that library
YA: No. Much more. If you look closely, it was classic 18th Century French architecture.
FS: I get all that – Disney films ALL have those touches – but you didn’t pick this for the castle
YA: No, but along with the Beast (Robby Benson) and the supporting cast, it makes the movie for me. Belle (Paige O’Hara) doesn’t do much for me as a Disney princess. I prefer Gaston (Richard White) as a character, for instance.
FS: Oooo! Controversial.
YA: Not really. He’s a fantastic character. He’s the opposite of the Beast. He’s handsome, popular, and has all the attributes of a hero. The film, though, is about not judging a book by its cover. Gaston versus the Beast is a great example of that contrast.
FS: And Belle?
YA: She’s not a stand-out compared to the rest of the main cast or the majority of the supporting cast. She is a strong character and isn’t conventional for her time and setting, which is very good. But she is flat at the same time. Paige O’Hara doesn’t convey the passion she ought to.
FS: Is she the biggest drawback?
FS: The film was specifically tailored with a view to making a stage show, so the songs are very ‘Broadway’, or Belle’s at least.
YA: Yeah, but there are other songs that are fun and integral to the story.
FS: Absolutely. There are two absolute stand-outs…
YA: ‘Be Our Guest’ and the title song?
FS: Yes. The music is brilliant in the main. It’s almost operatic in that the songs are woven so delicately into the story that I barely noticed they had gone from talking to singing. Disney songs can be a bit cloying but I didn’t find that with these. I liked the songs a lot.
YA: I thought you might.
YA: Other than the music what stood out for you?
FS: I’ve seen the films you mentioned earlier – ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘Aladdin’, and ‘The Lion King’ but this was definitely a case of saving the best for last. It’s brilliant. I’ve told you in the past that my three favourite animated movies are ‘Spirited Away‘, ‘Up‘, and ‘Yellow Submarine‘, but I think this pushes ‘Yellow Submarine’ off that list. It might even go ahead of ‘Up’. I still prefer ‘Spirited Away’ though, so don’t piss your pants with excitement.
YA: (laughs) I won’t. What did you think of the Beast?
FS: A case of Disney at it’s best. He was hideous and mean, but there was those twin streaks of humour and humanity bubbling just under the surface. The scene where he’s asking Belle to join him for dinner was one of the non-musical highlights.
YA: Picking up on that, as his humanity started to open up, the tones in the scenes were much brighter. When we first meet him it’s dark, gloomy and creepy. When we see him embracing his loving side, everything gets brighter and the servants clean the castle.
FS: It goes to show you can do all the subtle things in an animated movie that live-action directors get worshipped for doing.
FS: Another great thing, and one you have mentioned, was the supporting cast. There are four main servants – Mrs Potts (Angela Lansbury) and Chip (Bradley Pierce), Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), and Lumiere (Jerry Orbach). Without them the film would have been really missing something.
FS: Chip was a bit of a standard ‘cute’ character but I liked him. Cogsworth was suitably fastidious and pernickety. He was a funny little guy.
YA: Droll at times, in a dry-witted manner.
FS: Yes – very well voiced by David Ogden Stiers. It would have been easy to make Cogsworth quite unlikable but he pitched it just right.
YA: How about Lumiere?
FS: Are you familiar with Maurice Chevalier?
YA: You’ve mentioned him before but not really
FS: He was a French actor who had a relatively successful Hollywood career playing rougish European types in 1930s comedies and musicals. Then, when he was older, he made a niche for himself in the European-set musicals and family movies of the 50s and 60s playing the older man with a twinkle in his eye.
FS: He was wonderful. I am a huge fan. Jerry Orbach, who voiced Lumiere, obviously was too as he channels Chevalier superbly. He steals the film really.
YA: Agreed. He’s a suave mofo. He has a boyish, selfish charm but his intentions are always to help others in an undersanding fashion.
FS: Yes, he has a good heart, but a weak brain and he thinks with his… well… you know.
FS: Which leaves us with Mrs. Potts. I reckon…
FS: … I’d pretty much crawl through a shit-filled tunnel to watch Angela Lansbury read out the telephone directory, so high is my opinion of her. It’s another inspired choice of ‘vocal artist’ – warm, comforting, welcoming.
YA: Crawl through a shit filled tunnel… (laughs) … telephone directory… (laughs)
FS: I love her. She’s one of my favourite actresses. She’s done great things.
YA: Yeah, Mrs. Potts is very warm and mumsy. I think she’s brilliant, just not as good as Lumiere. I love how he and Cogsworth teach the Beast to behave socially.
FS: I also liked Belle, by the way. She picked up the mantle from the classic Disney heroines like Snow White and Cinderella but mixed that ‘princessly’ air with a more modern characterisation.
YA: I loved the script. I thought it was fantastic.
FS: I think so too. The temptation with animated movies is to have a very simplistic screenplay with the odd rude joke or cultural reference thrown in for the adults happy. This was all on a level.
YA: It’s clever, witty and appealing to adults. Did you have any gripes with the film?
FS: I’d struggle to pick anything really. I found LeFou (Jessie Corti) a bit too annoying, but the only other problem, that of the animation not being perfect, is actually part of the film’s charm. It’s probably nostalgia, but hand-drawn cartoons have an appeal that computer generated ones don’t have.
YA: Okay – rate it.
FS: Despite the fact that ‘The Jungle Book‘ has a claim on being the first film I ever saw in the cinema, I don’t remember watching a lot of Disney films as a child. I’ve seen the majority of the classics from 1937-73, but until a few years ago I’d never seen those from the 1990s. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ had the best reputation and it’s easy to see why. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was engaging, charming, funny and touching. Everything about it was top-notch so you have your second 10/10.
Later this week: Yasser goes back to ‘Back to the Future’