Five Failures of 2013

Instead of the list of the years worst films, (another year, another Adam Sandler film) I think it’s better to explain the five films that carried such prestige or importance and explain why they didn’t work for me.

12 Years a Slave


Steve McQueen

Well acted and well intentioned, it’s admirable to see prestige shine on America’s most shameful moment, but no one wants to help poor Soloman Northup become an interesting character.  The little characterization he’s given stops 12 Years a Slave from becoming anything more than an history class lesson.  Besides kind-of picking a fight with Paul Dano, and kind-of writing a letter in blackberry juice, Soloman’s intentions remain a mystery to its audience and at times the script forgets he should be engaging in its plot.  There’s many errands to run and punishments to suffer but McQueen often far more interested in the film’s many non-sequiturs and supporting cast to give us a Soloman fighting to be free.  But none of that matters when Brad Pitt, as a executive producer Deus-ex-Machina angel shows up and saves the day.  Hurray!



Derek Cianfrance

Oh the manly ballads of manly manliness. Because being a man is soooo important. Cianfrance’s big over reaching three part epic about manly fathers and sons, only ever succeeds in its first, competent but predictable act. Things get rocky in part two, but by the final segment Cianfrance believes that during a fade to black, good cops become crooked politicians/terrible fathers, and that kids raised in decent homes turn badass for no reason.  It stumbles in plausibility as it roles along and its inevitable full-circle ending comes out, not profound, but contrived and with an embarrassing amount of laziness.



Shane Carruth

Carruth’s film begins with the most traumatic and horrific sequence on screen this year.  A woman is assaulted, hypnotized, brainwashed and helpless as she unknowingly signs her entire life away to her attacker.  Such a visceral and uncompromising set up is never given a moment of reflection, or seriousness.  It’s as if Carruth doesn’t understand its impact on his characters, or his audience.  Instead he thrusts us into his puzzle box film that cuts like a headache and repeats the same three images ad nauseam: Pig, orchids, twee romance. It’s a strange mash up that steals wildly from directors like Lynch, Malick and Zack Braff (maybe) without any understanding of them.  There isn’t a moment of character  or atmospheric scene for us to hang our hat on.  Instead it’s an annoyingly cut  and, at times, insulting mess.

Room 237

ROOM 237

Rodney Ascher

Much was made about this documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and while some of the film’s findings and testimonies are fascinating in their obsessive details, Ascher’s execution is confused and muddled. Arbitrarily using examples from not only other Kubrick films, but seemingly the whole history of cinema, Ascher’s random choices take other films out of context and invite interpretations that shift attention away from The Shining itself.  Room 237 is a great idea, badly in need of a better edit.



Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder may be worse than Michael Bay. While Bay revels in his arrogant ridiculous, Snyder is incapable of recognizing how fascist, violent, derogatory and downright awful his own films are.  Everything about Man of Steel is made with the belief that this is the Most. Important. Film. Ever!  The film’s fidelity to its own seriousness strangles it at every moment.  Nothing here works: The wobbly performance of Cavill.  The cheesy death of Costner.  The over-complicated exposition by Crowe.  Shannon has no idea to act in a movie like this, and he’s given the worst dialogue.  Not a thought is given to the carnage of killing an entire city of people?  I though Superman devoted himself to finding a way to save everyone?!  Only Amy Adams gets through this unscathed, mostly because Snyder doesn’t know what to do with her: (strong sexy women confuse the brotastic Snyder: See Sucker Punch)  Avoid this failure most of all.

The 15 Best Films of 2013

Finally, here are the Top 15 films from 2013 you must definitely see!



Joshua Oppenheimer

There is no film like The Act of Killing and I doubt there will be another. It’s possibly the most evil film ever made, but also one of the most important.

Indonesia 1965. A Western-backed anti-communist purge leads to the slaughter of half a million people by the hands of local gangsters. Living comfortably today in their elder years, they have never been tried for a single murder and the  community celebrates what they’ve done.  Director Joshua Oppenheimer finds a handful of them, including Anwar Congo, who personally claimed to strangle 1,000 people with wire.

Oppenheimer proposes they re-enact their killings on camera in the style of Hollywood genre films.  No one dies of course, but sets, lighting, make up and special effects are used to dramatize the slaughter.  As a group of friends, together they play all the roles.

So we watch as mobster scenes, exotic musicals and monstrous horror films are surreally intercut with his own interviews with each gangster.

Astonishingly, while we watch them distort definitions of “human rights” and “war crimes” to justify their actions, the formative power of filmmaking appears to change them.  Or at least it seems to with Anwar, after his nightmares are realized and he plays a murder victim in a few scenes.

The final scene in The Act of Killing is the most perplexing and profound sequence you will see all year.  Is it real, or is it pretend?  We were comfortable in labelling them as monsters, and kept a healthy distance from them.  But now what?  Are we more bothered by the idea that they might not be?

Because it redefines again what cinema can do; because it’s a wake up call to the West; because these people are real, The Art of Killing is the best film of 2013 -by an unprecedented margin.



Abbas Kiarostami

Iranian ex-pat Kiarostami’s second feature outside his homeland takes us to Tokyo and bends cinema as only he can.  To pay for school, young Akiko’s works as a call girl and tonight, despite dodging phone calls from her possessive boyfriend, she will be sent to entertain the retired grandfathery university professor, Mr. Watanabe. Through the film’s run Kiarostami constantly makes decisions that subvert our genre expectations. Cruel actions are ambiguous, or given a lightness of touch; relationships shift wildly between harmful and innocent, and the growing threat of violence is all but ignored until the film’s literal last second. That final moment counts though, and in a film that comments on our expectations of relationships in life, and in fiction, that last shatter of glass speaks volumes.



Jem Cohen

Anne travels from Montreal to Vienna to visit a distant cousin who’s near death. Alone in the city with not much money, she spends her days in the city’s Museum of Art History where she befriends a guard, Johan.  With their only connection being the museum, the two enjoy relaxed conversations about art and its relationship to the world around them.  It may seem dry, but Jan Cohen asks us to consider the values we place on the events, people and objects in our everyday lives.  Anna’s story about comforting her cousin is one of many that will grace the halls of the museum, and her story will fade unlike the works around her that are deemed “priceless” and “masterpieces,” but Cohen dares to question why it is this way.  After we learn the humble origins of timeless artists, we’re left wondering if they felt their lives to be much like Anna’s.  Best of all Cohen edits and frames his shots with this philosophy in mind, randomly cutting between works of art and beautiful (if sometimes jarring) compositions of the good and the bad in modern Vienna.



Joel and Ethan Cohen

Poor Llewyn can’t catch a break. The titular struggling folk artist, couch surfing between friends in 1960 Greenwich Village, is trying to get a name for himself following the death of his musical partner. Nothing’s going as it should, partly because of the cruelness of the world and partly because of his own doing. Warts and all, the Cohen brothers are constantly in Llewyn’s corner, but what’s remarkable is how they maintain our deepest sympathies even as the film’s timeline turns abstract and scenes dip in their trademark surrealism. The idiosyncratic filmmaking brothers who have found success and fortune by never compromising know too well that for most artists, it will never go that way. They’ve made a film that celebrates artistic failure.  Even though it seems like damnation in purgatory, the state of Llewyn’s father suggests that for him, the choice could be far, far worse.

World's End


Edger Wright

Edger Wright’s latest genre mash-up is his best yet.  That it manages to be his most heavy, and most silly is a testament to his strengths as a genre director. Simon Pegg’s loser Gary hasn’t amounted to anything after his glorious high school days and he’s determined now to bring his friends back to their home town, to complete the pub crawl they failed to as teens. What follows is an epic satire of alien invasion, unfinished affairs and middle-age failure.  The World’s End works because Wright cares as much about bullying, alcoholism and suicide attempts as he does about giant robots and blue alien goo.



Richard Linklater

Over a decade since we last left Jesse and Celine in Before Sunset we find them together, with two new daughters and deep into the dredges of a long term relationship.  Luckily there’s still time for walking and talking about the history and philosophy that colours their surroundings, and their relationship, this time on vacation with friends in Greece.  But now the happy possibilities of romance that intoxicated the first entries in the Before trilogy have been replaced by something more real, darker, but also more meaningful.  Linklater takes our favorite couple to the edge, examining how over time, small disagreements, compromises, and character flaws nip away at a romantic ideal.  That ideal, so well demonstrated in the previous films are only enhanced by contrast here in Midnight.  Fighting through their years together in one explosive hotel room fight, the trio expose the complete core of “true love.”



Noah Baumbauch

Part Woody Allen, part French New Wave, Noah Baumbauch and Greta Gerwig’s delightful Frances Ha chronicles those difficult first steps when you’re young and out of school and unsure where to no next.  Poor Frances is a dancer struggling to land a company when her best friend and roommate decides to move in with her boyfriend, a decision that rocks Frances’ steady world.  A character study of a bright yet slightly insecure girl discovering for the first time the world is messy and always changing, Gerwig is always up to the task, carefully giving us a character who’s both sweet and annoying.  It’s one of the best performances of the year.



Martin Scorsese

It’s Leonardo DiCaprio fifth ride out for Scorsese, but in many ways, this is his best performance.  In this three hour rush of indulgence and insanity, the two give us the rise and fall of corrupt 90’s stockbroker Jordan Belfort and Scorsese puts his lead through the absolute ringer.  However, the director doesn’t let himself off the hook, directing a film that would have exhausted many, each scene reveals such dazzling filmmaking range.  A pitch black comedy and satire on the American financial structure, with more than a little affection for its bad boy, the film swerves through elaborately orchestrated parties and orgies, intimate character scenes, busy police procedurals, slap stick physical comedy -even a yacht-in-a-storm SFX action sequence.  Once again Scorsese has mined cinema and delivered a meal of a film that moves breathlessly and puts imitators to shame. A great time at the movies.



Abdellatif Kechiche

Rare has coming of age and first love been so intimately and vividly accounted as in Kechiche’s depiction of the relationship between Emma and Adele.  Over a sprawling three hours Kechiche interprets this romance as a sweeping epic, its landscape: the face of actress Adele Exarchopolous.  The camera almost never leaves her close-up, and for the film’s majority we are tight in on her every emotion.  She never balks in a single scene and it’s through her talent that Kechiche sells his thesis: love is epic, its effects are massive and ever lasting, and though you may not have had to venture far, when it’s done, you’ve felt like you’ve walked miles.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)


Francis Lawrence

Who would have thought director Francis Lawrence could have given The Hunger Games the urgency and relevance so missing in its the first film. While it doesn’t resolve the moral problems of the first film, as much as side steps around them and keeps moving forward, the sequel creates no new ones, and exponentially improves itself on every level. From performances, production and direction, Catching Fire lifts the series out of its YA trappings and gives it a much needed immediacy. Ahead of everything of course, is Jennifer Lawrence, who delivers once again.



Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki’s self-proclaimed final film follows real life Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes between the two World Wars.  Stricken with bad eye sight, Jiro’s desire to fly grounds him to become an aeoronutical engineer, but in his dreams he soars to the skies along with his mentor Caproni, the Italian designer who joins him in the film’s many stunning fantasy sequences.  Caproni desired to build planes for the people, but in WWI the Italian government used them to drop bombs instead.  The threat of Jiro’s art being twisted into weapons of destruction permeates every moment in The Wind Rises, but Miyazaki doesn’t let it overwhelm.  Despite the fascist climate of Jiro’s trip to Nazi Germany, and its growing presence in his own Japan, (combined with tuberculoses outbreaks, and the Kanto earthquake of 1923), the film is entirely dedicated to the pure innocence of Jiro’s desire to create something beautiful in this world.  The film’s final post-WWII dream sequence is a bittersweet lament, one that seems to double as a comment on Miyazaki’s art existing in our turmultuous world.

computer chess


Andrew Bujalski

It’s early in the 1980’s and these, the first generation of geek, gather in a run down hotel with their enormous computers to pit each other’s chess software in the lamest tournament in history.  What starts out as a mockumentary filmed with a period appropriate Sony AVC tube video camera soon descends into a surreal Altmanesque ensemble piece full of government spies, hotel-hallway labyrinths, sexual frustrations and quite possibly a robotic take over.  Even the Sony camera itself seems to turn against the film.  Computer Chess celebrates vivid imaginations on tight budgets, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen and in its own hilarious way shows our relationship with technology in the past, present and future.



Stephen Fears

Young Philomena had her child taken from her after an unwanted pregnancy and disgraced, her family sends her to live in a Catholic convent.  She watches her son adopted out to Americans and now, in her elder years she wonders what became of him.  Her only help is Martin, a disgraced former journalist eager for any human interest story, and through their journey together, Fears is always careful to balance the film’s tones.  What could have been easily neutered sentimental piece, turns into a pointed attack on the Catholic Church, wrapped in a tea-cosey.  Helping the film is Dench, in an amazing performance of a woman who teeters between wisdom and naïveté, and Fears own inspired and subtle direction. His mise-en-scene reveals Philomena’s deep crisis of faith without it overwhelming the humor.  Philomena will fire your anger and make you chuckle and its brilliance lies is how it measures and succeeds at both.



J.C. Chandor

Robert Redford gives it his all in Chandor’s All is Lost.  Alone at sail in the Indian Ocean, a collision with a shipping container will set off a fight for survival and confront him with his own mortality.  As the film contains almost no dialogue, Chandor cleanly and precisely directs the action, using smart edits and visuals to orient the viewer.  Working for the film is its stripped down minimalism, with out even a name, let alone a back story, Redford’s hero refrains from being bogged down in manipulative melodrama.  In this way he becomes, “Our Man.” -any one of us, alone to face death, the elements and ourselves.



Ridley Scott

What the heck is The Counselor?  It’s a mad, flawed and frustrating, but at times an uncompromising and brilliant crime saga.  Though it’s competently shot by Ridley Scott, the overwhelming prescience in the film is the voice of its screenwriter, Cormac McCarthy.  With seemingly little use for the rules of filmmaking, McCarthy abandons what bores him and replaces it with a slow, sinister meditation on the existence of evil, and what that means to the film’s players, and to us its audience.  In doing so the film is filled with mad non-sequiturs, characters that all talk the same, and an empty nothing of a protagonist that threatens to grind everything to a halt.   Still, despite its faults the film’s overwhelming sense of dread cannot easily be shaken, and if you can remember that McCarthy is more interested in the diamonds, cheetahs, parallel realities and the bolero, you will find access to The Counselor.

Jodorowsky’s Dune – TIFF Review



Chilean born director Alejandro Jodorowsky has made some of the most extreme films in the history of the medium. From his onset he has never felt the need to cap his imagination and because of this his work has earned a legendary status among those who love to venture to the far fringes of film.

It stands to reason he would run into problems when he stepped into Hollywood to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic: Dune.

Frank Pavich’s extraordinary documentary about the rise and ultimate failure of one of the greatest films that never was is, finally, a complete cinematic record of this legendary event and a celebration of the artist who triumphs over failure.

What Jodorowsky has to teach us most is the lesson of how irrelevant failure is. The constant pursuit of the art is most important. Art will exist and in whatever form it will be, mostly due to forces beyond anyone’s control, but if you do not create, nothing will last.


His passion is so untainted, so unrealistic that it reaches awe inspiring moments. At one point he grabs all the money from his pocket in a tirade against its restrictions on the artist. He’s a moment away from ripping it up in shreds. That the world runs on money infuriates him. It’s unnatural for the artist to be limited by these material constraints.

The failure of Jodorowsky’s Dune has caused the flowering of other legendary films. Most of who he worked with went on to Alien, and we’re shown comparisons between his storyboards and those of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Flash Gordon. It is an idea I want to believe, but without interviews from those directors, it’s difficult to know if this is the case. The film takes a few assumptions.


Still, Jodorowsky’s Dune is an important and vital documentary for many reasons. It’s a record of the time in film history, a thorough account of a cinematic mystery and a love song to art and the artist.

After Dune collapsed Jodorowsky made his masterpiece Santa Sangre. He’s 83 years old and just debuted a film at Cannes this year.

What kind of failure was Dune?



The Stag – TIFF Review



What do you say about comedies that are so gentle, they don’t register at all? Jon Butler’s The Stag has opportunities to be send up of modern masculine culture.

He’s got the right set up for it. The arty and effeminate groom Fionnen, his gay brother Little Kevin with partner, Big Kevin, and the emasculated trio of best man Davin, computer geek Simon, and brother-in-law known as The Machine. Despite Fionnen’s protests his fiancé convinces Davin to take the boys out for a camping stag party, and despite Davin’s protests he can’t keep her obnoxious brother The Machine away either.

Knowing little about camping, they head out into the Irish wilderness on an adventure that will predictably, leave them lost, alone, and naked. Nothing happens in The Stag that will surprise you from its onset, and that’s most of its problem.

Butler is too afraid to delve into any complicated issues that he treats his characters and situations with kiddie gloves. No one’s ever truly dislikeable, none of the conflicts are very severe and all of it is catered to keep its target audience from having a moment of unpleasantness.


All the initial conflicts in the film, dissipate. The Machine’s initial homophobia and annoyance dissolves away and nothing about Fionnen’s “groomzilla” behaviour is ever addressed. It’s only remaining conflict is a love-loss between groom and best man over a girl. It’s not enough, and it’s been done to death.

All the elements that could make the film stand out have left it, leaving only the one its demographic is far too comfortable with.

Even the added subplot involving Fionnen and Little Kevin’s homophobic father hurts the picture. It’s admirable for sure, but since we don’t meet the father until his transformation into tolerance, how effective of a subplot is it?

The Stag is so delicate, predictable and weak, you’ll forget it the moment it’s done.




Under the Skin – TIFF Review



Uninterested in conventional plot structure, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a fractured collection of beautiful sounds and images from this world, and beyond. It’s less a story as much as a cinematic experience; depicting the travels of an alien on her initial visit to earth.

Scarlett Johansson plays the unnamed alien and as she drives around Scotland in her large white van, she uses her beauty to seduce random men before she ensnares them. That is as much of the plot as can be described, as Under the Skin is intentionally opaque, but remarkably never at the expense of its capacity as a character study.

Her motives and intentions are never explained, nor is the fate of the men. We get only the sensation of their plight as they transform in an abstract and fantastical sequence. With this same cinematic style Glazer shoots our own world, for it is as foreign to the alien as hers is to ours.

Initially it seems she’s given only the abilities to drive a car and flirt, but that changes when she picks up a disfigured man on his way to buy groceries. It’s suggested he changes her in some way, but it’s never explained how. From then on she abandons the van, the kidnapping of men, and takes a vow of silence before giving herself over to pursuit of the human sensations, that had only been a mild curiosity before.

Did she change? Is she sympathetic? Did the disfigured man teach her something about the cruelty of the seduction that hit her with profound impact? Her human skin has been just a costume for the film’s first half, is that no longer so?

It could be, but we could also be attaching that narrative onto to her. Compassion is human and we praise humanity above all because it is the only existence we know.

Aliens in films look different, but we give them very human traits; after all, we don’t know any other. By deconstructing the science fiction film Glazer gives us a true depiction of alien life as close as any of us are going to understand.

Here, Glazer opens the door for interpretation. He doesn’t know her motivations either, but instead he understands that he shouldn’t -that we shouldn’t.

It is far more plausible to believe that alien life will have nothing resembling humanity in it; why should it? Glazer knows that the only way to get a glimpse of that alien existence and to comprehend it, is to witness someone becoming human for the very first time.

Under the Skin is a testament to film’s unique cinematic language.



Oculus – TIFF Review



It’s so important in horror films for us to care about the characters in peril, more so, I think, than any other genre. With so much unpleasantness around them, if they themselves are just as unpleasant it’s too easy to become indifferent to the whole operation. In horror today, this happens frequently.

Yes there are obnoxious teenagers in the world, but who cares if they get eaten by zombies, or monsters, or whatever. If we start rooting for the villain, the film is no longer scary.

There’s a lesson that first-time director Mike Flanagan and his terrific Oculus could teach Hollywood. They won’t listen.

Tim’s newly released from a psychiatric hospital and he’s in the care of his sister Kaylie. They return to the house of their childhood, where one horrific night, both their parents turned, violent, insane and then were killed. Grown up and recovered, Kaylie thrusts Tim back into the middle of it as she remains convinced that the night of horrors that scarred their lives came not from the breakdown of their parent’s marriage, and later their minds, but by the centuries old antique mirror that hung in their father’s office.


She’s brought them all back: brother, sister and mirror, to the still empty house where everything happened.

Almost right out of the gate Oculus does a number of things well. In a genre that is so accustomed to its characters denying the supernatural for so long, it’s refreshing to find Kaylie completely convinced from the start.

Moments later in an extended, over ten minute long dialogue sequence, Kaylie explains all the machinations she’s created to prove her theory and describes the historical evidence uncovered from the mirror’s previous owners. Quickly and efficiently Flanagan gives us everything we need to know to get started, but then he turns the scene on a twist.


Ten minutes of exposition is given a purpose, when Tim challenges Kaylie’s own mental health. He uses the knowledge of doctors and therapists to disarm her, and force her to question if this is but her own way of dealing with what happened that night. Maybe there’s nothing to the mirror at all.

Oculus doubles as an examination of how violence affects its victims; how it distorts their emotions, perspectives and memories. It’s precisely because it does this that we’re so invested in Kaylie and Tim. Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites ground their characters and play it straight; there’s no cynicism here or wink to the camera. They have simply grown into wounded adults.

That is the philosophy for most of the movie, and it works. Flanagan’s no bull approach only makes the fear that much stronger, and the mirror that much terrifying.

So many smart decisions fill Oculus, from its “mirroring” flashback and present day plot structure; its just-the-right-amount of disorienting editing; and the presence it creates out of an inanimate object.

Oculus is horror done right, done efficiently, done with great care and love for its audience and genre. It’s proud to bare something which most modern scares are too quick to rip out: a beating heart.



Beneath the Harvest Sky – TIFF Review




Melodrama for the sake of melodrama.  It’s an easy and deceiving pit to fall into, and no melodramas are easier to mine than the plight of the poor.  Already you’ve got the audience’s sympathies, and it becomes easy to convince yourself that your film is good for them, and serving a good purpose.

It’s a tricky balance.  There is an unspoken test between the character and the audience, we must feel the character has earned our sympathies, not demand it from us.  Directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly attempt to do just that in their Beneath the Harvest Sky, but somewhere along the way the drama sours, and their attempts to manipulate become far too obvious.

Casper is a n’er-do-well living in a small farming town in Maine.  He has a drug smuggler father, Clayton, who sends pills across the Canadian border.  He’s failing at school, getting into fights, and the only thing he has going for him is his tight friendship with Dominic, a straight-laced dreamer, who yearns to buy a car and get out of this town.


Over the course of this harvest summer, events occur that will force them into adulthood and test the strengths of their friendship.

The cast is great, with Emory Cohen and Callan McAuliffe doing amazing work in the leads; there’s no fault in anyone’s performance.  Unfortunately the boys have very little depth for us to connect with.  There’s not much going on behind their yearns to get out of the city and Cohen and McAuliffe waste time by spinning two thirds of the film with tired summer-fling and pregnancy plots.

In fact the only time the film seems to be moving forward is in the growing subplot of a police investigation into Clayton’s business.  It only connects to the leads very late into the picture; making you wish it had arrived earlier.


As a result the film struggles to catch up in its final moments.  There’s a heated conversation about friendship and loyalty that comes out of no where, a dumb villain who smuggles drugs when we know he should be suspicious, and a crazy act of god rain storm forces Casper into a “coming-of-age,” because it seems nothing else in the plot is going to.

Depictions of the struggles of the lower classes are admirable, but they are not examinations of poverty in and of themselves.  They must be connected to deeper and complex issues, otherwise you’ve just created struggling characters whose sole purpose is to make us cry.