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The Freds 2013: My Year in Film-Watching (Part One)

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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.

Frozen

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.
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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.

Les Miserables


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.

The Lives of Others

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.

Vera Cruz

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.

The Break Up

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Other ‘Bests’
Documentary
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.

The Bridge

Animation
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.

Grave of the Fireflies

Short Film
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.

The Red Balloon

Musical
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.

Show Boat
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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.

Night Mail

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