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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Checking Back In On: 25 Films to look forward to in 2013

As we have entered July, we have come upon the halfway point of the film-going season. Back in January, I pulled together my list of 25 Films to look forward to in 2013, a mix of indie and big budget fare that I was excited about at the time. At this point, I have seen ten of the films on the list, and finally gotten better looks at a number of them that didn't have trailers at the publication date of the previous article. In short, it's been a bit of a lackluster year in film so far, with two to three major standouts that surprised me and everything else kind of fading into the pack. This isn't necessarily a big surprise, as the first quarter of the film-year is usually quite bad with studios dumping their worst material in the January-April timeframe. The prestige stuff also not coming until September-December also skews things a bit, so alot of the big disappointment comes with the summer releases so far. But let's dig in a little deeper into these particular films that I cited earlier this year...

The Early Slate:

56 Up - Grade: A,  Read our Review

Stoker - Grade: C+, Read our Review

Trance - Grade: D+, Read our Review

This year started off with a bang for me with the wonderful 56 Up. As heard on this past week's podcast, it's currently my number 1 film of the year so far. As a documentary, it stands apart from the pack a little bit, but as a social exercise, it may be one of the most important documents ever put to film. It's a thesis on social class, mortality, relationships and our day to day living. It's also surprisingly very accessible for someone coming in cold, though there's incredible power in growing with these characters over time.

Stoker and Trance were quick to follow, and while Stoker did indeed have some technical prowess that I found worth a viewpoint, particularly its gorgeous cinematography, the script fell apart for me in a weird mish-mash of Hitchcock influences and, hilariously enough, a really bad episode of Dexter. Trance, was frankly, an embarrassment for all involved and a shocking step-back for new Academy favorite Danny Boyle, despite a solid cast and a promising premise.

The VOD offerings:

Upstream Color - Original Grade: C-, Read Our Review

To The Wonder - Original Grade: D

The Malick film, and the movie that wishes it was one. To The Wonder is lovely to look at, but isn't enjoyable to actually watch. Unlike Malick's masterful Tree of Life, To The Wonder is a dull slog that takes the worst habits of Malick's style and tranposes them into an entire film. But if you loved the more arty end point of Tree of Life, that felt more like a perfume commercial (but at least had defensible reasons for being so) then you'll love To The Wonder, which is almost 2 hours of just that!

Upstream Color is only moderately better, as it actually has a semblance of a plot to follow for the first third of its running time. From there its gets just as incoherent as Malick's latest and becomes another endurance test, but with far less compelling acting. What I find interesting is that the same people that are praising Upstream Color are thumbing their nose at To The Wonder. For me, they elicit the exact same response, initial passion for the craft on-hand and then downright resignation by the time the credits roll. I guess it pays to be the more "en vogue" filmmaker, as Shane Carruth certainly is amongst the critic set.

The Summer Blow-Outs:

Iron Man 3 - Grade: B, Read Our Review

Star Trek Into Darkness - Grade: B (leaning B-/C+), Read Our Review

Man of Steel - Grade: B (leaning B+), Read Our Review

Oh, the summer blockbusters! They've been fun in their own ways, but none have hit that perfect mark with me. Iron Man 3 was a funny romp that had good crisp Shane Black dialogue, but a pretty forgettable plot. Everything outside of the Iron Man suit was far more interesting than anything that occurred within it, and one could tell Shane Black felt the same way. Not perfect, but enjoyable enough to start off Marvel's Phase 2.

Star Trek into Darkness had nicely constructed character development, but by its woeful second half and the over-reliance on a "mystery box" reveal that fell incredibly flat, it definitely came across as the biggest disappointment of the summer. It's a film that's fallen further and further in my estimation since seeing it twice the week it came out (not necessarily by choice the second time). A big let-down after the wonderful 2009 rejuvenation of the franchise.

Man of Steel has very stale dialogue, and an exhaustive, almost never-ending battle sequence, with only a short repose, in its final hour. On the other hand, it has the strongest plot of all three tentpoles and its sense of scope is tremendous. I also appreciate the visual craft that went into creating Man of Steel, as you can sense every dollar that went into the picture right there on screen with nothing held back. It's a film with ambitions, it doesn't quite reach them, but I find it a slight hair better than Superman Returns (which I think is unfairly maligned by many).

By my estimation, Man of Steel is the best of the summer so far, with Star Trek Into Darkness at the bottom of the heap. But, even the best of these films are only just good. I still await a great film to come out this summer that nails all the quadrants I'm looking for in a thoughtful piece of populist entertainment.

The Prestige Pictures begin to arrive:

Mud - Grade: A, Read Our Review

Before Midnight - Grade: A, Read Our Review

Often there are films that stand way above the pack in a given year, and while they normally release in Q3 and Q4, this go-round audiences have been lucky enough to get a couple of charming pieces of cinema right around the cusp of the summer. Mud, Jeff Nichols' follow-up to his tremendous Take Shelter, is best described as a modern day take on Huckleberry Finn. It goes far deeper than that, with some incredible character nuance, but its emotional content, utterly compelling storyline and tremendous performances by Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan made it the first big winner for me in 2013.

Before Midnight may have been even better, if shorter and packing a tighter punch. The follow-up to Richard Linklater's previous movies in the "Before..." series takes a look at how relationships change long after the "honeymoon phase" is over, and just how we keep that spark alive even as we begin to get older. Before Midnight is the perfect pairing with the aforementioned Up Series, as a fictionalized realization of the same overall theme. It's like cinematic time traveling, and it's wonderful to see that the third film in this series is just as strong, if not stronger than its prequels.

Will either film be up for Best Picture contention? Perhaps. Before Midnight stands a slightly stronger chance due to Linklater's pedigree and the general critical consent around the film post-Sundance. Mud will be more likely to get recognition in Acting, dependent upon how the other contenders hit come fall and winter. If it's a rough Oscar season though, expect Mud to get a big push as well.

What's still to come?

While there are other films coming that I have significant interest in (Fruitvale Station, The Spectacular Now, Pacific Rim, etc.), within my list of 25, we still have a few summer films coming. I have very little hope that The Wolverine coming later this month will be anything of note. Every preview I've seen so far has been duller than dull and while I have some interest to see just how Fox organizes its own version of the "Marvel Universe" with the properties they have the rights to, I just can't muster any energy over it at this point. There's also Thor: The Dark World coming in November, it looks like a reverse of the previous film with Jane coming to Asgard to live with Thor instead of the opposite. Considering all the earth-bound segments were the parts I hated about the first Thor film, this should be good news.

Elysium, on the other hand, looks like a winner. When I mentioned earlier the points that the Summer Blockbusters this year have been less satisfying due to excelling in one area to the detriment of others; I find myself hanging my hopes on Elysium as the one last chance to nail everything I'm looking for in terms of a tightly-constructed plot, themes, character development, and dialogue. Neil Blomkamp won us all over with District 9 and the trailers for Elysium look incredible.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill for has been moved to 2014, so that's one off the list. I'm not sure quite yet what to make of Gravity or The Counselor, both of which have only released nominally interesting teaser trailers. I'm generally more interested in the former at this rate. Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street take the prize for my favorite trailers of the year so far and are likely my most anticipated award plays. It's also hard to not get excited about a Coens or Scorsese film. Twelve Years a Slave, The Monuments Men, and The Fifth Estate are still unknowns at this point, though its been said that the middle film, the latest Clooney helmed effort, is leaning more "fun" and less awards baity.

After the release of the most recent trailer, I have about zero interest in the next entry in The Hobbit franchise. While I enjoyed the previous film well enough, I'm finding myself getting a little fatigued by the sheer fakeness of the style that Peter Jackson is now employing. Hopefully I'll be wrong and will find much to enjoy there.

Only God Forgives is an interesting case, it might be the movie I'm most excited for and will likely come out regretting said statement. I loved Drive, its score, its look, everything and I keep hoping Only God Forgives is a proper followup to that same ethos. Unfortunately, it's gotten a pretty divisive reception on the festival circuit.

And Anchorman 2...yeah, we'll see....

See you on the other side of 2013! Oh and make sure you check out Before Midnight or Mud if you have a chance.

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