2013 Entertainers of the Year

3. James Franco

There was no actor more ubiquitous this year than James Franco, but was this a case of quantity over quality?  Absolutely not.  Franco delivered solid performances in films like This is the End and Oz the Great and Powerful.  However, he may have delivered the performance of the year as the sad and timid individual masquerading as rapper-gangster Alien in Spring Breakers.

2. The Cast and Crew of Breaking Bad

It would be easy to credit Bryan Cranston here for his towering performance as Walter White, but that would be unfair to performances that were equally as good from Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt and RJ Mitte.  It would also exclude Michael Slovis’ magnificent cinematography, Michelle MacLaren’s impeccable direction, Rian Johnson’s work on the all-time great episode “Ozymandias”, the incredible job done by the writing staff and, of course, the show’s mastermind Vince Gilligan.  The final season of Breaking Bad is the greatest final season in television history, and the cast and crew of the show have deserved all of the acclaim that they have received.

1. Emmanuel Lubezki

In previous years I have rewarded spots on the Entertainers of the Year list for actors.  I thought that needed to end this year.  That’s especially so when you consider that one of the all-time great cinematographers had his best year yet.  Emmanuel Lubezki once again proved why his partnership with Terrence Malick is one of the best director-cinematography collaborations in the industry with To the Wonder.  The film may have been a slight disappointment, but Lubezki’s beautiful imagery and natural lighting was anything but.  Yet that was not the end of the year for Lubezki.  He next helped Alfonso Cuaron create one of the great visual films of our time with Gravity.  His work on Gravity is career best work from the cinematographer, and here’s hoping that he is finally rewarded with a long overdue Oscar this March.

The Hunt Review

            One of the better-received films to come out of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival was Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.  Response was so positive for the film at the festival that its star Mad Mikkelsen came out of it with the festival’s Best Actor Award in tow.  Unfortunately, The Hunt faced a long road to release in the United States.  Its American release was almost immediately postponed until 2013, and I was unable to see it while it was in limited release during the summer.  Finally, it was released on DVD this past week where it revealed itself to be a very difficult film to sit through.  That being said The Hunt is a fantastic study of community and how one small lie can have drastic repercussions for an entire town.

            The Hunt follows Lucas (Mads Mikkelson), a divorced father who is working at the kindergarten school in a small Danish town.  After being exposed to pornographic material and vocabulary by her older brother, kindergarten student Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) accuses Lucas (who also happens to be her father’s best friend) of sexually assaulting her.  The accusation quickly causes the entire community to unravel.  The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg (director of the acclaimed Danish film, The Celebration) and is written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (who also wrote another acclaimed 2013 foreign film in A Hijacking).

            This is a really tough film to sit through as it deals with a difficult subject matter and does it with a lot of frankness.  That being said a lot of the actions the characters take seem a bit ridiculous (especially the ones taken by the head of the kindergarten school).  In the end, the character actions only become a minor quibble, as Vinterberg drives the message of his film home very efficiently.  A person’s reputation means a lot to this film, and Vinterberg makes sure that you don’t forget it.  While the ending of the film seems a little ridiculous at first, Vinterberg includes one final moment that you won’t be able to get out of your head for weeks.

            The cast is all around fantastic.  Mads Mikkelsen gives an incredible performance that adds a new layer to an actor that Americans only know as the guy who plays villainous characters.  It’s not at all a surprising performance, but it is nice to see Mikkelsen give a more complete performance for once.  Almost as good as Mikkelsen is Thomas Bo Larsen as the father of Klara and Lucas’ best friend.  It’s a much more subdued performance than the craziness going around him, but Larsen nails it.  Annika Wedderkopp also succeeds much more than the vast majority of child actors could in a similar role.  The supporting cast is pretty great too as Alexandra Rapaport (as Lucas’ love interest) and Lars Ranthe (as the lone friend who supports Lucas) are the main standouts.

            The Hunt is a powerful film that can be quite hard to watch, but if you stick with it, you will be rewarded.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review

            Last year Peter Jackson finally released his Lord of the Rings Trilogy prequel in the form of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to okay responses.  Personally, I thought it was a great addition to Jackson’s Middle-earth series (I guess that is what we will be calling it now because I don’t see the Red Book of Westmarch series catching on as a name for these films).  Sure it didn’t have the emotion of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, but it had two interesting characters in Bilbo Baggins and Thorin Oakenshield and gave them interesting character arcs.  Well all of the complaints about the pacing of the first film have resulted in a much faster paced film (at least in the early goings of the film) in the sequel.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has some of the greatest set pieces in all of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films.  Yet (while certainly still a good film) it lacks the interesting character arcs of the first film of the trilogy, and, with a cliffhanger ending, feels much more like an episode of television (a visually pleasing and expensive one at that) than an actual film.

            The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up with Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin (Richard Armitage), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and company still being hunted down by Azog (Manu Bennett) and his band of orcs.  Even if they are to outrun them to Mirkwood Forest, the company still has a long way to go before reaching Erebor and the greedy dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Gandalf may just have a dangerous journey of his own with the return of a powerful villain becoming more and more apparent.  The film is directed by Peter Jackson and is writing by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (still getting credited for his work when this project was originally to be directed by him).

            When all is said and done this will clearly be the film that sticks out from the other five in the series, and not all of that is for good reasons.  The plot format of this film is so distinctly different from any of the other Middle-earth films.  This film is more interested in setting up the political relations between the races in the film, and setting up characters for events they will encounter in the third and final film.  That’s not even mentioning that this film just stops in the middle of multiple plotlines with no real endings.  Even The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers had the great speech by Sam that tied all of the plotlines together even if it did have a couple mild cliffhangers.

            Another notable difference with this film is how much it sets itself apart from the book.  Most of Jackson’s Middle-earth films have stayed pretty close to Tolkien’s books, but this film has very little in common plot-wise with Tolkien’s writings (the lone sequence that stays true to Tolkien’s book is the excellent Mirkwood Forest sequence).  That being said most of the new additions work.  The extra development of the characters in the Elven kingdom of Mirkwood and the human stronghold of Esgaroth does wonders for the film.  Meanwhile, the much maligned-addition of the she-elf Tauriel by Tolkien purists ends up being one of the best things about the film.  Evangeline Lilly was the clear weak link in Lost so it was a surprise to see her not only give an improved performance but a legitimately great performance as she brings so much youthful energy to Tauriel.

            While The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaugis quite the fun film it still doesn’t feel like a complete film.


Nebraska Review

            Every year there seems to be that one film late in the year that is dismissed early on as an awards contender due to its lightweight subject matter only to become a four-quadrant hit and one of the strongest awards contenders of the year.  Last year it was Silver Linings Playbook, which ended up becoming a major hit for The Weinstein Company, and surprised most with a big nomination haul at the Oscars.  This year that film is definitely Nebraska.  It won’t be the box office hit that Silver Linings Playbook was but Nebraska is quite the charming film and should be able to satisfy audiences (and voters) of all shapes and sizes.  More importantly, with sturdier direction and a cast just as interesting, Nebraska comes across as a more natural story than the one presented in Silver Linings Playbook.

            Nebraska follows David (Will Forte) as he tries to deal with his aging father’s inability to listen to those telling him that his “Subscribe to a magazine and get a chance to win $1 million” letter isn’t a ticket to a million dollars.  With life not being what he wanted it to be, David sees this as one of the last opportunities to spend time with his father (Bruce Dern) so he takes him on a trip to Nebraska on a quest to get that money.  The film is directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways & The Descendants) and is written by Bob Nelson (making his feature film screenwriting debut).

            It’s really nice when a director and writer have great chemistry together, and Alexander Payne and Bob Nelson clearly have some.  Bob Nelson wrote a solid script.  The only problem with it is that it plays a little too safe.  Payne somehow finds a way to keep Nelson’s story at the forefront while adding in some of his own vision.  Yet Payne’s vision never overplays the script, it ends up as a nice compliment to it instead.  Yes, the storyline and the black-and-white visual style sound like a bore, but in the hands of these two they are anything but.

            Bruce Dern seems to be the performance everyone is buzzing about out of this film.  It’s a solid performance.  It’s a little one note, but Dern finds some time to add subtleties to the performance in the later half of the film.  Yet I don’t understand why he is being singled out in comparison to Will Forte and (especially) June Squibb.  Forte not only works but shines in a much more dramatic role than he is used to doing.  Meanwhile, June Squibb is quite the scene-stealer as the wife of Dern’s character and mother of Forte’s character.  She has perfect comedic timing and, despite playing the nagging wife, comes across as the most likeable character.  Bob Odenkirk and Angela McEwan also do some good supporting work as the other son of Dern and Squibb’s characters and a former girlfriend of Dern’s character respectively.

            Nebraska is a charming film that will have something for everyone to like.


How I Live Now Review

            Kevin MacDonald has shown a lot of talent from the director’s chair.  He directed one of the all-time great documentaries in Touching the Void, and he has shown himself to be a competent director of narrative films (his State of Play remake is quite good).  While his last narrative film, The Eagle, is nothing special, it had its moments, and MacDonald has always seemed like he is one great film away from being the breakout director he deserves to be.  Unfortunately, the film he just released, How I Live Now, is not that film.  In fact, it’s probably better off if you skip this film entirely if you want to believe MacDonald is a great director.  How I Live Now has promise, but it is all wasted away in some poor directorial decisions.

            How I Live Now follows Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) as she is left to stay with her English cousins for a summer.  When a nuclear bomb goes off in London, Daisy finds herself trying to help lead her cousins to a life of safety in a world growing more dangerous by the day.  The Kevin MacDonald directed film is written by Jeremy Brock (a frequent MacDonald collaborator), Tony Grisoni (Red Riding Trilogy) and Penelope Skinner (making her screenwriting debut).

            How I Live Now has a lot of potential to be a dark and twisted dystopian drama.  The problem is that Kevin MacDonald directs it as if it is anything but.  It felt like the only palette that MacDonald knew how to direct in was a light one, which feels weird when so many atrocities are occurring onscreen.  Even worse is that there is a disturbing character development between Daisy and her eldest cousin, which is directed as if it’s just a natural occurrence.  This could have been a great film if it explored this development more.  Instead MacDonald acts as if audiences should just go along with it and not ask any questions.

            The actors try their best in this film, but there is little they could do in the face of such weird directorial decisions.  Saoirse Ronan comes across as the only one who isn’t a blank slate as Daisy.  She pays the disgruntled teen so naturally early on while making her full transition throughout the film just as believable.  George MacKay plays the eldest cousin, and it really seems like he was casted just on his looks.  He just does nothing for the character, and this was a character that desperately needed an actor who could add some complexities in the face of a weak script.  Tom Holland and Harley Bird play the only other two big roles in the other cousins.  The former is largely forgettable while the latter has some nice chemistry with Saoirse Ronan, which helps the latter portions of the film work well enough to retain your interest.

            How I Live Now has an interesting concept and a few good scenes.  However, when considering this could have been Kevin MacDonald’s breakout film it has to be considered a massive disappointment.


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