Dir. Damien Chazelle
The tutorship of a young jazz drummer at a prestigious music school may not immediately seem the prime outline for a tense thriller. However, with Whiplash, young writer/director Damien Chazelle managed to produce a gripping feature that builds and builds to a nerve-shredding finale to at least match the best crime dramas.
This is as much a tale of an abusive relationship as it is a Rocky-esque rising star picture. While the plot is quite flimsy and the story many times told, the acting, directing and editing are all fresh and dynamic and produce a film that feels new and exciting and it zips along at a terrific pace.
J.K. Simmons’s vicious, uncompromising teacher Fletcher is one of the great characters of the year and performed supremely. His portrayal remains terrifying and supremely watchable throughout and Simmons takes this absolute gift of a script and gets the very best from it. Miles Teller may not have been showered with the awards that his co-star was (J.K. Simmons took home the Supporting Actor Oscar) but his leading performance is excellent and, without the juicy lines that the script holds for Fletcher, Teller should be commended for ensuring that Whiplash remains very much the story of his drumming prodigy.
Dir. Sarah Gavron
Suffragette is an angry film dressed as a prestigious, respectable British history picture. It follows Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young laundry worker introduced to the suffragette movement by a colleague. By following the experience of a working class woman and her growing involvement with the group, the film takes a point of view that stops it from ever feeling bland or aloof. In fact, the brief fleeting appearance from Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst almost feels like a glimpse at a more conventional, inferior take on the story.
Carey Mulligan is at her best in the lead here and is supported by an accomplished cast. Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan’s partnership as director and writer respectively works really well to give an urgent, energetic feeling to the whole thing, in spite of its overall conservative nature. The script takes on some challenging and interesting issues within the story and is particularly excellent when focusing on the sexism and abuse at Maud’s workplace.
8. Inside Out
Dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
Since the conclusion of their peerless Toy Story trilogy, Pixar have been perceived by many to have had something of a bad run. The less said about Cars 2 the better, but Brave, while not up there with the best in the genre, was a perfectly entertaining film and Monsters University made an un-clamoured for prequel into a retrospectively essential one. Nevertheless, with Inside Out the studio’s raw imagination and intelligence made a stunning return.
The film’s cast of characters are five emotions inside the mind of 11 year-old Riley. Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness work to keep Riley’s mind at ease as she grows up but after moving house to a new area, Sadness (Phyllis Smith) begins to try to control more of Riley’s memories. This leads to Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness being inadvertently removed from the safety of the control room into the landscape of Riley’s mind.
Joy and Sadness’s journey is brimful of stunning, imaginative settings and colourful, clever characters. Pete Docter and the Pixar team have achieved something very special with this film, in its striking intelligence combining with incandescent fun. And, as with the studio’s best, they strike the notes of sadness with heartbreaking accuracy.
Dir. Todd Haynes
Carol is exquisitely beautiful. Todd Haynes’ 1950s love story lingers on every perfect period detail while showcasing two actors performing wonders. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are inseparably awesome as Carol and Therese, the former a soon-to-be divorcee draped in melancholia and the latter a withdrawn, thoughtful doe-eyed young woman. After the two meet in the department store where Therese works, Carol begins to seduce her and by turns the audience and as their relationship plays out it surely cannot fail to intoxicate the viewer.
Every detail is sublimely sexy and perfectly judged. Props and costumes from Production Designer Judy Becker and Costume Designer Sandy Powell are as notably excellent as in any film I can recall and crucial to the picture as a whole. Carol will go down as something of a classic and deservedly so for its subtle ingenuity and sheer beauty.
6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Dir. J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams may be the envy of a generation of filmmakers for getting this gig but saddled with the unenviable task of satisfying swathes of fans, casual and…not so as well as critics he deserves some heap of credit for the excellent job he has done with The Force Awakens.
Striking many of the same plot notes as the franchise’s first film, Episode VII’s trump card is in its combination of old favourites like Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca with a cast of immediately engaging new characters. They are as close to perfect as anyone could have wished for and perhaps just elevate this to the very top of the pile in terms of the Star Wars films. In Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) you have two leads that are easy to invest in and the characters bring interesting aspects to the familiar Star Wars tale. In Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a villain worthy of this colossus of a blockbuster has been found.
This is the fun, thrilling, shocking and engaging film that it needed to be and is carried by a new, young cast that look set to bring the iconic franchise to a new audience with perhaps its best realisation yet.
Dir. Ava DuVernay
This portrayal of Martin Luther King and the civil rights march that he led from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery is a moving, compelling and confident film that does justice to a key figure of the 20th century whose story had previously evaded the big screen.
Somehow, David Oyelowo’s performance as King failed to win him even a nomination at the 2015 Oscars but more fool the Academy because it’s hard to imagine a better portrayal. The support cast are well written and acted too and the film benefits greatly from telling an emotional, focused story of one crucial part of the civil rights movement rather than attempting to cover Martin Luther King’s whole life. Ultimately, Selma is much more than a Hollywood biopic and was one of the year’s most impressive and important films.
4. Ex Machina
Dir. Alex Garland
Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this thematically rich, thoughtful and confident piece of science fiction filmmaking. The story follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an IT worker who wins a workplace lottery prize to visit the awe-inspiring estate of the company’s CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). The sterile, remote luxury home that Caleb visits houses his boss’s most impressive creation to date. A robot named Ava (Alicia Vickander) upon whom Nathan wants to perform a ‘Turing test’ i.e. a test of artificial intelligence to determine its level of humanity. Essentially, Nathan hopes that Caleb will develop a human relationship with Ava despite knowing that she is an android.
Garland composes a Shakespearean tale of power, creation, loneliness, gender, sexuality and much else and does so without ever leaving the viewer feeling shortchanged in any of those areas. The three central performances are superb and this film will certainly be a landmark one for all three actors whose careers surely must soar from here. In its genre, Ex Machina was as good as almost anything for a number of years and should win over any sci-fi sceptics with its rich drama.
3. The Look of Silence
Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
In 2013 Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was released to universal acclaim and astonishment. In one of the great pieces of filmmaking of all time, he captured the thoughts and bizarre re-enactments of men responsible for a genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s. The Look of Silence is a follow-up to that film, which takes a more personal look at the genocide as Oppenheimer works with Adi, the brother of one of the victims.
We first see Adi as he watches part of Joshua Oppenheimer’s footage from The Act of Killing in which his brother’s murderers gleefully describe their horrific, brutal crime. The rest of the film sees Adi confront, with incredible bravery and dignity, men responsible for countless murders during that time. The world of denial and incredible detachment that these men have created is evoked potently by this film and once again Oppenheimer has made an essential piece. If you haven’t already seen The Act of Killing then do so, it is the masterpiece of the two, but The Look of Silence is a different, worthy companion.
2. Inherent Vice
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
A 70s-set stoner comedy with a farcical noir detective plot, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Gold.
All at once this film is hilarious, sad, nonsensical, dreamlike and compelling. The haze of cannabis smoke is all encapsulating but never obscures the director’s vision of a cast of bizarre characters playing out a bizarre story. That story never quite makes sense. Probably. But it absolutely does not matter a jot. Inherent Vice was an experience unlike many others at the cinema in 2015 and is another gem to add to Paul Thomas Anderson impeccable oeuvre.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
Dir. George Miller
2015 saw no finer example of the transition of a single, wildly imaginative vision to the big screen. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road finds glorious success in its endeavour to entertain and serves up the best couple of hours one could hope to have in a cinema.
The titular Max (Tom Hardy) is an almost silent hero, and barely the hero, of this cracking story. It is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa that is the action hero here and the two make a brilliant pairing as they are chased, essentially for the entire movie, by a band of post-apocalyptic grotesques.
Fury Road‘s winning trick is to make no concessions to the accepted format of the blockbuster. It instead just does whatever the shit it wants and smashes convention over the head with a flaming guitar. If you like fun and imagination and spontaneously punching the air in the cinema/in front of your TV, just go see this film already.
Big Hero 6
Dir. Don Hall & Chris Williams
Starring: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter
Release Date: 30th January 2015
Run time: 108 mins
After about a decade of mediocre-at-best output from Walt Disney Animation Studios the upturn in quality of their pictures from (arguably) 2010’s The Princess and the Frog has been a welcome one for mainstream cinema. Since then a run of critical and commercial titans have brought them back into relevance and then some. In following Frozen, the studio’s highest grossing film ever and pop culture behemoth, Big Hero 6 takes a bit of a piggy-back on the success of the (Disney-owned) Marvel films to help it along, adapting an obscure mini-series aimed at a younger audience and less likely to be recognised by your casual comic book fan.
The most initially striking and subsequently memorable thing about Big Hero 6 is its setting and the visual style that comes from it. It draws heavily on Japanese pop culture and events take place in the city of ‘San Fransokyo’, ostensibly San Francisco cosplaying as a cartoonish view of Japan. The result is a bit of a problem, particularly as the source material was set in Tokyo. This is some pretty naughty cultural appropriation from Disney because almost every character in their film is white and they are all Americans. There is less a feeling of an interesting, impressive blend of styles (in either animation or within the fiction itself) that may have resulted from harmonious international collaboration and more one of what would it look like if America could have all the bits of modish Japanese culture it likes but without having to look at any actual Japanese people or history. Ultimately, it’s easy on the eye but homogenised into the house style so much that it not only seems insensitive and unappreciative of its influences but also a big missed opportunity to make an animation that breaks new ground visually.
Big Hero 6 is at its best when it’s being a kids film. That is what Disney have mastered and here, within the framework of a superhero team-up movie, they tell an intelligent story about dealing with grief. The film’s lead character, 14 year-old tech genius Hiro Hamada, forms a friendship with an inflatable robot Baymax designed to help people with medical issues. They join four other scientist friends, teaming up against a mysterious masked villain. Though that part of the story isn’t particularly notable and suffers from a rubbish antagonist, the other element of a group of friends helping each other to cope with a tragedy is carried off really well. And in terms of the superhero genre, the sense of a group coming together as a team is handled at least as well as Marvel’s own Avengers, if not better. Baymax itself is a fine bit of design, voiced very well by Scott Adsit, and is nailed on to be a merchandising favourite and probably spearhead a Big Hero 6 franchise. The other five team members are all well realised visually and solidly voiced.
One key thing that could’ve raised the film to more memorable status would’ve been a funny, quotable script. It doesn’t really have that. It’s not nearly as funny as Sony Pictures’ Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs films or the more recent triumphant The Lego Movie and suffers for it, needing more levity and inventive comedy to stand out. But, that’s probably only going to be an issue in terms of a critical legacy. For Disney it does enough right and ticks the right boxes in character design to launch a big franchise for them and one that has a nice message wrapped up in it. Hopefully next time they’ll not undercut that and instead embrace and acknowledge their Japanese influences rather than just stealing.
Because 10 didn’t seem enough to do justice to the excellent year of film that has passed and I liked writing about them so much, here are my favourite 12 films of the year.
12. Two Days, One Night
Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
The contrived set-up of the Dardenne brothers’ latest film ought not to work with their characteristic realism. A factory worker and young mother Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns from a period of absence from work due to a nervous breakdown. Upon her return she is informed that the management of the factory has decided that her colleagues are able to work as productively without her and a ballot has been proposed whereby the 15 other employees will vote to either receive a €1000 bonus or forego that money and have Sandra keep her job. While poetic license might have to be granted to believe the hook that suspends this film, it is an incredible performance from Marion Cotillard that not only makes it work but elevates it to one of the finest films of the year. Hers is a perfectly pitched depiction of depression and a struggle with the daily grind, holding through scenes of great melodrama and others of quiet introspection. Two Days, One Night is a simple tale, tightly told and presented by the Dardennes, giving one of the best actors in the business plenty of room to work magic.
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Since 2008 when The Dark Knight was release to considerable acclaim from fans and critics alike, Christopher Nolan’s films have secured event status on the film release calendar. This year he directed Interstellar, a sweeping space-faring epic and box office behemoth. Let’s get this out of the way: Interstellar has problems. Mostly they are with dialogue, a not inconsiderable amount of it being pants but when the film is good, my word is it incredible. Science fiction hasn’t yielded too many great films of late but Nolan delivers a film that is full of great imagination, impressive scope and (aside from a horrid short-changing of Anne Hathaway’s fine performance with a lazy bit of plotting) a well drawn cast of characters to follow. His films have always had a coldness about them but Interstellar feels 100% the film Christopher Nolan wanted to end up with and as a result it has a heart that his previous work has lacked and it’s all the better for it.
10. Edge of Tomorrow
Dir. Doug Liman
The blockbuster of the year came out of nowhere when a generic-looking (thanks to shoddy marketing) Tom Cruise vehicle turned out not only to be better than expected but a complete and utter delight that put to shame most other big budget films of 2014. If you haven’t seen this film yet then find out nothing more about it and see it now. Though the aforementioned horrid marketing hurt the film’s box office reception, it did serve to make the quality of the film all the more surprising for those who caught wind of the positive buzz. Edge of Tomorrow shows off excellent action scenes, a captivating sci-fi story, the peerless action hero skills of Tom Cruise and a notable support cast led by Emily Blunt. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to punch the air multiple times throughout and for any fans wishing there were more Starship Troopers inspired films being made (that’s me) then it’s a real triumph.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
The eighth feature in the clearly defined oeuvre of Wes Anderson is up there with his best work. It looks gorgeous in the painstakingly perfected way that his films do, the structure is a multi-layered delight, the cast are perfect, it’s very funny and possessing of a captivating and even genuinely moving story. But The Grand Budapest Hotel has a sharpness, an edge to the sugary concoction that elevates it to Michelin starred levels. Fascism lingers through the film, characters die and you care, characters love and you care about that too. A lot of this comes from the collection of great performances, capped by Ralph Fiennes in a revelatory comic lead. In Bruges proved that he could do funny but that was Basil Fawlty angry funny, this is charming, silly, timed to perfection joyous comedy and one that he and Anderson deserve plenty of accolades for,
8. The Raid 2
Dir. Gareth Evans
More is more – so proved this sequel to the martial arts movie of the century. In Iko Uwais, Gareth Evans has discovered a future legend of martial arts cinema and The Raid 2 again showcases his stunning prowess in the not-before-featured-in-cinema Indonesian martial art of silat betawi. From the claustrophobic, focused assault of the tower block in the first film, Evans moves the action outside into the city of Jakarta and a swathe of settings for the film’s cast to kick several shades of shit out of each other. And they do it magnificently. This is an opera of violence, choreographed to perfection and capped with a final fight scene that is unquestionably among the greatest ever committed to film. A tale of crime, corruption and deception plays out as the backdrop to the action and is handled well. It’s not a remarkable story by any means but it serves its purpose and gives us some suitably villainous villains to boo and hiss at and whose deaths decorate our faces with maniacal grins. See this film.
7. We Are the Best!
Dir Lukas Moodysson
A diamond that must become a cult classic, this Swedish film follows three young teenage girls and their hastily formed punk band. It captures the turbulence of growing up with harsh lows and dizzy highs and is beautifully empathetic. It’s sweet not sugary and the joy is infectious: this is ultimately the happiest film of the year. The three leads are absurdly good for such young actors, so convincing that at times the film has an almost documentary realism. They and the rest of the cast are all very funny. The script isn’t stuffed with jokes or witticisms particularly but the whole thing is carried off with a profound sense of enjoyment and humour. A lovely lovely lovely film. Lovely.
Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
A Polish novice nun, the titular Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), is about to take her vows but before doing so is asked by her prioress to visit her only known family member, an Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Wanda is a world-weary drinker, initially cold to her niece’s presence but after she is compelled to open up to Ida about her Jewish ancestry the two set out on a defining journey. The 1960s Poland of Ida is a drab, communist, banal place haunted by the Nazi occupation. Shot in black and white the film not only captures the era but it accomplishes something very few contemporary monochrome films do in that it feels like it was made in the era it was set. This serves to hold together a mesmerising personal story, the characters of Ida and Wanda both being fascinating. At just 80 minutes Ida tells the story it wants to tell, nothing more, nothing less. This works very well and means that every single short is purposeful.
5. 12 Years a Slave
Dir. Steve McQueen
Everything that needs to be said about this film was said at the beginning of the year. Released in the UK in January and going on to bag the Best Picture prize at the Oscars it was rightly the subject of much critical adoration. Steve McQueen addresses the USA’s history of slavery in a stark manner unprecedented in Hollywood history, adapting the memoir of Solomon Northup into a film of great power. Brutal, heartbreaking and astounding 12 Years a Slave was an important film that delivered in quality. It also gifted audiences a new acting star in Lupita N’Yong’o whose portrayal of Patsey was devastatingly moving, winning her the Best Actress Academy Award and universal acclaim. A gem unearthed via an vital piece of filmmaking.
Dir. Yann Demange
For a debut film ’71 is pretty remarkable. Set during the troubles in the titular year, we follow young English soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) as he is deployed on the streets of Belfast. It soon becomes apparent that the leadership is a shambles and, after a riot breaks out, Hook is separated from his squad and left on the hostile streets of the city. Ostensibly a war film, ’71 is a hell of a ride. A thriller befitting of the term, this film may be (very) grim but it deftly avoids the British film gritty and bleak cliche with some incredibly dynamic direction and editing. It also steers clear of Hollywood war film tropes making it a clear standout in the genre for many years. Director Yann Demange cut his teeth in TV, notably great in command of Charlie Brooker’s zombie drama Dead Set and the excellent Top Boy. He has now become one to watch on the big screen and would do well to strike up a regular partnership with Jack O’Connell, a man destined for acting greatness, something his lead performance here is testament to.
3. Under the Skin
Dir. Jonathan Glazer
From the very first moments of Under the Skin you can tell it’s a special film. Woozy and weird, its imagery is stark and strange and has you in its grip. In as good a piece of casting as you can get Scarlett Johansson plays an alien masquerading as a human and on the hunt for human men. That makes it sound all a bit devilwoman-y. It’s not. What plays out is an atmospheric, arresting and haunting story of loneliness, womanhood and (yeah I’m gonna say it) humanity itself. It is unlike any other film this year or most other years. Director Jonathan Glazer nails every aspect of the composition of the film from the soundtrack to the use of Glasgow as the setting (Scarlett Johansson driving through a crowd of home fans emptying from Celtic Park is priceless), it all comes together to create a hostile, alien atmosphere for the film. This film has more than its fair share of breathtaking scenes and one shot in particular is the most devastating in any of the year’s films. Under the Skin will live long in the memory of its audience and, while sometimes reminiscent of David Lynch’s early work as well as director Jonathan Glazer’s own Birth, it’s incomparable to anything else. A must watch.
Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev
That this masterpiece of Russian cinema has not only made it to screens around the world but has done so with considerable investment from the Russian state is completely baffling. It is as intelligent and angry an anti-Putin piece as one can imagine, to the extent that you’d expect it to have been roundly denounced by the government. Whatever the circumstances of its production, this will go down as a classic, a staple of film school classes and studies of Russian art for years to come. In the 2 hours and 20 minutes it runs for Leviathan tells a story worthy of the great Russian doorstop novels of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. We are introduced to a family facing the prospect of losing their house as the local mayor has won a court case for the right to buy their land for a price they feel is less than fair. The family hire a Moscow lawyer to help them fight mount an appeal and from there grows a mighty story of the corruption and collusion among the ranks of Russian state officials and the orthodox church, encompassing numerous, multi-faceted characters all of whom are granted there own share of the story.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
‘Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’ heading the credits is as close to a Kitemark as you can get with a Hollywood film. In 30 years the brothers have co-directed 16 features and at worst three of those are forgettable. The rest can be split between ‘good Coens’ and ‘great Coens’ and not only is Inside Llewyn Davis ‘great Coens’, it makes a solid case for being their very best. The melancholy tale is a window into the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaacs), a folk singer in New York struggling to launch his career and generally coming up short in a struggle not to be a loser. Despite the current of tragedy running through the film, as one would expect of a Coen brothers picture, it’s very funny. Their oddball sense of humour is always a treat and works as well as ever in this film, most notably in a scene where Llewyn, his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and guitar-for-hire Al Cody (Adam Driver) record the gloriously awful track ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’. It is perfect purposely crap song and is the comedic jewel in the crown that is T-Bone Burnett’s soundtrack for the film. The music is a vital component of Inside Llewyn Davis and it’s a complete success. The Quixotic odyssey of the title character is decorated with turns from a marvelous support cast. Justin Timberlake is hilarious, John Goodman commands all of his scenes, Carey Mulligan a great foil to Llewyn and Robin Bartlett excruciating as well-meaning neighbour. So packed with poetic detail and nuance is this film that it stands up to and, in fact, improves on multiple viewings. It’s a classic and one of the best pieces of work from two men at the height of their creative powers.
Nominees: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Shoulda been a contender: Inside Llewyn Davis; The Act of Killing; The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellaza); Blue Jasmine
This year’s is a relatively strong Best Picture list from the Academy (though I must admit to not having been able to catch all nine: I missed Philomena) and of the nominated nine it’s the two favourites for the award, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, that stand out as exceptional. My choice, by a whisker, would be 12 Years a Slave, although Gravity would make a more than worthy winner. For vastly different reasons both films are exceptional examples of the craft and important too. Gravity is technically a real milestone for modern film and 12 Years a Slave addresses the United States’ history of slavery in a way unprecedented in cinema. The awards season has seen Gravity showered with numerous awards but the momentum in the Best Picture category is all with 12 Years a Slave and I think it’ll end up taking the Oscar home.
In terms of the films I’d like to have seen in the list of nominees there are at least four that I’d make a case for. Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens at their very best and though its melancholic nature and complexity may have scuppered its chances, this funny, moving, fascinating film is comfortably among the best of the past 12 months. The documentary The Act of Killing will most likely walk home with the Best Documentary Feature award but it really ought to have taken a place on the Best Picture list too. I personally think it’s the best work of the last year, breathtaking in numerous ways and a piece of filmmaking that will live long in the memory. The Great Beauty is another film that will probably end up with an Oscar on Sunday being as it’s the favourite to bag the Best Foreign Film award for Italy but Paolo Sorrentino’s masterpiece is a glorious film that stands head and shoulders above most of the Academy’s nominees. Finally, Blue Jasmine is probably the most genuinely surprising omission seeing as it has nods for two acting awards as well as the script. Forget the unremarkable Midnight in Paris, this is Woody Allen’s true return to form and it’s both a surprise and a bit of a shame that it didn’t make the Academy’s list, particularly when they only nominated nine films of a possible ten.
Nominees: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity); Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); Alexander Payne (Nebraska); David O. Russell (American Hustle); Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Should Win: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) / Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Should’ve been a contender: The Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis); Joseph Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing); Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty)
Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron are by a distance the best of the 5 nominees for the directing award. Personally, I’d not have included any of the other three: Scorsese and David O. Russell have done better work and, while it’s a fine debut, Alexander Payne’s direction of Nebraska isn’t particularly exceptional. In a not-very-interesting move my picks as shoulda-beens are three of the directors of films I felt ought to have got a nod for Best Picture. Of the three I think Joseph Oppenheimer is particularly unfortunate to have missed out as his documentary is an incredible feat of directing in extraordinary circumstances.
I think Alfonso Cuaron will win so as to share the love between the two front-running films but for my personal pick I can’t separate Cuaron and McQueen. Both deserve recognition for two very different, excellent films.
Best Lead Actor
Nominees: Christian Bale (American Hustle); Bruce Dern (Nebraska) Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street); Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave); Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Will Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Shoulda been a contender: Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis); Tony Servillo (The Great Beauty); James Gandolfini (Enough Said); Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
This is arguably the strongest category of the year and so the limit of 5 nominees means almost inevitable disappointments somewhere. Though Matthew McConaughey is the big favourite for his impressive turn in Dallas Buyers Club, I think and hope that we’ll see a surprise here and Chiwetel Ejiofor will take home the prize. He plays the role of freeman turned slave Solomon Northup with an amazing depth and passion that never strays into overacting, holding together a powerful film.
Despite the strong competition it’s a surprise not to see Tom Hanks on the list for the title role in Captain Phillips. It’s quite possibly, with the exception of his voice work as Woody in the Toy Story films, his best performance to date and it seemed inevitable that an Academy favourite such as Hanks would have bagged a nomination but alas not. It would also have been great to see the late James Gandolfini get some recognition for the delightful Enough Said and it would have been fully deserved but perhaps the Academy feared that a posthumous nomination would’ve been regarded as a tokenism.
Best Lead Actress
Amy Adams (American Hustle); Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine); Sandra Bullock (Gravity); Judi Dench (Philomena); Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Should win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Will Win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Shoulda Been a Contender: Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said); Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing)
Cate Blanchett should and will win this. She’s been gifted with a magnificent part to play, full of juicy lines and opportunity to let loose, but she really does get everything out of the script and owns Blue Jasmine completely. Amy Adams is always great but she’s been better in better films than American Hustle. I’ve not seen Philomena or August: Osage County so can’t comment on Judi Dench’s or Meryl Streep’s nominations, though certainly the latter’s presence smacks of laziness on the Academy’s part.
I’d like to have seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus recognised for being completely brilliant with James Gandolfini in Enough Said but it obviously wasn’t Oscar-bait-y enough. Another of my favourite performances of the year was Amy Acker as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Along with Alexis Denisof she leads a refreshing performance of Shakespeare’s best comedy and helped make it the funniest film of 2013.
Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips); Bradley Cooper (American Hustle); Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave); Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street); Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Should Win: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) / Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Will Win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Shoulda Been a Contender: John Arcilla (Metro Manila)
Newcomer Barkhad Abdi manages to turn a film titled Captain Phillips, in which that title character is played by Tom Hanks, into one that is at least as much about his character as it is the captain. That takes one hell of a supporting performance. In 12 Years a Slave Michael Fassbender’s slave owner Edwin Epps is a horrendous but always human, always distubingly real villain. Fassbender’s believability in this role is crucial to the success of 12 Years a Slave and could so easily gone wrong in the hands of a less gifted actor. The favourite to take the Oscar is Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club in which he plays transgender HIV patient Rayon. His performance is commendable but it does seem that Hollywood are, to some extent at least, rewarding the role more than the acting.
One particular supporting performance that stood out to me over the past year was John Arcilla in the crime drama Metro Manila. This excellent, claustrophobic thriller follows a young family moving from a farming village in the Phillipines into the intimidating metropolis of Manila where they struggle for work and survival. Arcilla plays a co-worker of the lead character and puts in a boisterous, energetic and menacing turn that leaves you wishing for his character to return whenever he’s off screen.
Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine); Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle); Lupita N’Yongo (12 Years a Slave); Julia Roberts (August: Osage County); June Squibb (Nebraska)
Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) / Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Should’ve Been a Contender: Amy Adams (Her)
This is a strong category this year and any other time I’d love to see June Squibb win for her very funny performance in Nebraska. But the top two, that I can’t separate, are Sally Hawkins and Lupita N’Yongo. The latter is breathtaking as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, controlling a role that could easily have been lost among a host of powerful performances. The scenes she shares with fellow supporting role nominee Michael Fassbender are mesmeric and haunting and I think the Academy will rightly choose her over the bookies favourite Jennifer Lawrence. But while Patsey is a serious, powerful role, I think Sally Hawkins is just as good in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett has taken all the plaudits for the title role but Hawkins as Jasmine’s sister Ginger is crucial to the film succeeding as much as it does and the scenes that the two share are electric.
Though I’m not sure Amy Adams’ performance in American Hustle warranted a nomination, she certainly ought to have got one for Her. I didn’t get on with the film as a whole but she is excellent in it, stealing every scene.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight); Billy Ray (Captain Phillips); Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (Philomena); John Ridley (12 Years a Slave); Terrence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Should Win: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Will Win: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Shoulda Been a Contender: Jon S. Baird (Filth)
John Ridley is the big favourite here and rightly so. The 12 Years a Slave script is masterful, adapting the memoir of Solomon Northup and forming a deeply personal story that also has room for three or four other fascinating characters. In tackling the subject of slavery the dialogue is crucially unflinching, giving the cast a perfect platform on which to build nuanced, intense performances. Another key strength of the 12 Years a Slave script is in its balancing of emotions in that it’s powerful and moving but never feels artificial or manipulative in that way. A great achievement in film writing that will hopefully see John Ridley duly rewarded.
An adaptation that I thought was absolutely up there with the best of the past year was Filth. Bringing to the big screen the Irvine Welsh novel of the same title it managed to keep his inimitable, unique style without straying too close to Trainspotting, the iconic adaptation of Welsh’s work. The script is very funny, very weird and very crude, helping to make an underrated and entertaining film and also giving James McAvoy the character that produces the best performance of his career so far.
Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: David O. Russell & Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle); Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine); Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club); Spike Jonze (Her); Bob Nelson (Nebraska)
Should Win: Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine)
Will Win: David O. Russell & Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle)
Shoulda Been a Contender: Umberto Contarello & Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty); Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
The frontrunners for this Oscar are two scripts that I didn’t feel worked particularly well. Spike Jonze’s Her isn’t badly written but it doesn’t really explore its excellent concept in any interesting way and American Hustle is sometimes fun but completely forgettable and overwritten. Of the other nominees Woody Allen’s script is the best and his best for a long time. It’s funny, full of well realised characters and backs the excellent cast all the way with consistently good dialogue exchanges. On top of that, it’s a moving character study that incorporates the current economic situation in America to good effect.
My own choice for best original screenplay would have gone to either The Great Beauty or Inside Llewyn Davis. The former may be a visual masterpiece but its script is very strong, full of rich monologues, sharp satire and philosophical musings that do well not to take themselves too seriously. The latter is a typically excellent piece of work from the Coen brothers, full of their trademark oddball dark humour but also a bleakness that suits the film. It’s rich in detail and hidden meanings that warrant multiple viewings, putting it alongside the best of the brothers’ oeuvre.
In adapting Irvine Welsh’s book of the same name, Filth had an immediate struggle on its hands to avoid inevitable comparisons with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (also an Irvine Welsh adaptation), a film that has only grown in esteem in the 13 years since its release. But this is a different, more fantastical though not much less grim and grimy film that has at its centre a fantastic performance from James McAvoy as junkie policeman Bruce Robertson, struggling to hold it together at Christmas. McAvoy is at once unnerving and engaging, pulling off the very difficult act of performing a completely despicable lead character without losing the audience. Jon S. Baird has plenty of fun with the direction and delivers numerous startling scenes full of dark imagination. A film fully befitting its title, Filth is nasty but a whole lot of fun.
9. Enough Said
An air of tragedy surrounded the release of Enough Said after the death earlier in the year of James Gandolfini. In his penultimate feature film role (his final one being an appearance in the upcoming Animal Rescue) he shares the lead with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a romantic comedy that refuses to acquiesce to the tired tropes that often sap the genre of its appeal. This is a funny, convincing and moving film that thrives on its outstanding two lead performances as it follows the early relationship between divorcees Albert and Eva who, after meeting at a party, begin dating. We see their relationship grow and the various important figures in each others lives come to play their parts as the pressures, irritations and minutiae of life are explored by two brilliantly real characters.
8. Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass is at his best here, directing this thriller that sees Tom Hanks play the titular hero facing a crew of Somali pirates taking over his ship. Aside from an opening few minutes of needless setup that ought to have been cut, Captain Phillips is a gripping thriller that offers everything you could want from a slice of Hollywood escapist storytelling. Tom Hanks’s inherent Tom Hanks-ness only aids his role as Captain Phillips, thus justifying a wholly unimaginative piece of casting. But where risks were taken in that department they fully pay off. Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi makes his debut as Muse, ostensibly the leader of the Somali pirates, and gives an incredibly accomplished and nuanced performance, defying his inexperience. He is ably supported by fellow new actors Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali who make up a crew of characters that could well have become criminally one-dimensional with less adept acting and directing. Providing that one can stomach the truth that the real life event the film is based on seems to be a fair way away from the tale of Hanks heroism depicted here, Captain Phillips is a great, tense thriller very well made indeed.
7. Metro Manila
The Philippine capital city serves as a rich, manic backdrop to this engaging crime drama from English writer/director Sean Ellis. It follows a poor farming couple, Oscar and Mai Ramirez (Jake Macapagal and Althea Vega) who leave their village with their two kids in search of prosperity in their country’s capital Manila. The intense, crowded city is overwhelming and the parents struggle, making do with what work they can find to support their children. When Oscar strikes lucky with a job in security, things are looking up financially until the reality of the dangers of his job and the ambiguous intentions of his partner Ong (the outstanding John Arcilla) become more and more evident. Metro Manila is a crime thriller whose well developed characters make it something really memorable. It also boasts a tight, unpredictable story and impressive action directing from Ellis and, when combined with the characters whose fates you’re truly invested in, you get something of a gem.
6. Much Ado About Nothing
Following the incredible success of his Avengers film, Joss Whedon’s stock couldn’t be much higher. His follow-up was this black and white adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, shot at his own house in between principle photography and post-production of The Avengers. A pure passion project, this film makes a delightful mix of Whedon’s directing style, a handful of young, not-particularly-seasoned-in-performing-Shakespeare actors and the genius of the best of the bard’s comedies. This adaptation leaves Shakespeare’s dialogue intact and manages to create a freshness and modern comic style that makes it genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Brilliantly performed and made with a palpable love for the play, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t need to be compared with other Shakespeare adaptations, all you need to know is that this was 2013’s funniest and most interesting comedy film.
5. Blue Jasmine
While the past few years have seen various Woody Allen efforts hailed as returns to form, Blue Jasmine is the first that genuinely stands up to his best work. Cate Blanchett stars as Jasmine, a socialite whose life has been hit by the economic crash. She travels from New York to San Francisco looking to hold her life together, staying at the home of her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Woody Allen creates a brilliant study of a tragic character and her impact on her sister’s life as her own comes apart. Blanchett is outstanding as Jasmine, an actor’s dream character. She will rightfully take many plaudits and the film is hers but Sally Hawkins’ Ginger is as good a supporting performance as any in 2013 and really adds a crucial connection to the audience that could have gone missing if we were only focussing on Jasmine. Some may have doubted Allen’s ability to hit the heights again but after some wayward Europe-based pictures that felt off, the San Francisco setting dovetails with a cracking script to make Blue Jasmine a superlative drama.
4. Behind the Candelabra
In this hugely entertaining biopic, Michael Douglas brings Liberace to life with all the lavishness, vulgarity of taste and spectacular grotesque one would expect, ably leading a wonderfully cast film. Depicting the relationship of Liberace and lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) from beginning to end, Behind the Candelabra adapts Thorson’s own memoir into a two-hour feast of entertainment from director Steven Soderbergh. Made for and broadcast on HBO in America, its theatrical release here meant it will act as Soderbergh’s apparent cinematic swansong following his retirement from filmmaking. If it does indeed prove to be his final film for cinema then it certainly ends his career on a high. The pure devotion to making a fun couple of hours of entertainment is what stands out as Behind the Candelabra‘s greatest strength, eschewing any view to scrabbling for a mawkish emotional note or a deeper meaning and instead reveling in its own lavish madness. The two performances of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas compliment each other extremely well, Douglas owning every scene, creating a captivating character that is completely over the top and vile and wondrous but never overacted. His Liberace is a gay Gatsby figure of bad taste and extravagance with a nastiness that Michael Douglas revels in. As Scott Thorson, Matt Damon puts in what is unquestionably his best performance since The Talented Mr Ripley and quite possibly his best ever, clearly enjoying taking this character from his humble life as an animal handler on TV sets to immersion in Liberace’s world of drugs, plastic surgery and wild excess. His is the quasi Dorothy role, crashing into a depraved Oz and losing himself there, and the audience can fully enjoy everything that transpires thanks to the film’s pleasing detachedness. With HBO’s added polish, Behind the Candelabra is ultimately impossible to really fault and if you’re after a fun, funny, imaginative film then this is just the ticket.
3. Django Unchained
In January Quentin Tarantino returned to cinemas with his trademark bombast, crackling dialogue and detached mayhem. Django Unchained is his take on the western, seeing a slave by the name of Django (Jamie Foxx) freed by a bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christophe Waltz) and embarking on an odyssey across the South, seeking revenge. The result is an astonishing film that manages to make for the very best in revenge fantasy escapism while being brutal and serious in tackling the slavery of America’s past. In that respect it is as effective as any po-faced drama on the subject. Samuel L Jackson makes his customary appearance in a Tarantino flick but his character Stephen, loyal house slave of the film’s antagonist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), is a jaw-dropping creation: provocative, powerful and unquestionably entertaining. The film in fact boasts a number of great performances with Tarantino finding a cast that are the best collectively at delivering his lines as any since Reservoir Dogs. DiCaprio goes into all-out bonkers villain mode as Calvin Candie and Kerry Washington is great, and not in nearly enough scenes, as Django’s wife Broomhilda. But Christophe Waltz, who took home his second Tarantino-aided Oscar in February, is such a perfect match for the script it is a joy to watch his every scene. For a full review of the film go here but suffice it to say that this hugely indulgent effort from Quentin Tarantino was one of the great joys to be had at the cinema in 2013.
Though it hasn’t quite topped this list, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity stands out way above anything else from 2013 in terms of pure cinema. Built around the simplest of stories of astronauts lost in orbit, trying to get home, Gravity is a stunning spectacle that feels like a truly revolutionary step in filmmaking. The 3D technology that is justifiably much-maligned in modern cinema becomes essential as Cuaron creates the true wonder of space. The camerawork is astonishing and the decision to make this a thriller set in space rather than a science fiction film adds to the purity of the picture. The result is a beautiful but also very tense film that is jaw-dropping from start to finish. Criticism has been levelled at the script but what dialogue there is is fine; there are a couple of lines that’ll make you wince but it serves the film well enough. As the lead character Dr Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock is excellent, always convincing in what must have been a difficult role to perform. But Alfonso Cuaron deserves all the acclaim for this film, his vision is realised in awesome fashion and he has produced something here that all the pioneers of cinema would have recognised as the future of the medium they helped to birth. In years and decades to come Gravity will be admired and studied as an incredible example of the unique qualities of cinema in comparison with other art forms.
1. The Act of Killing
The experience of watching this film is unlike any other. A documentary looking at the relatively little talked about genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s, the film seeks out some of the gangster perpetrators of the killings. But where a conventional documentary maker may have simply interviewed these people and challenged them (quite probably producing a compelling film) what director Joshua Oppenheimer does here is to collaborate with these men in reenacting their torture and murders in their own way. What follows is a powerful, bizarre and very nearly unbearable stream of scenes. The film’s central subject is Anwar Congo. Now a grandfather figure, revered for being one of the leaders of the militia groups and having killed numerous people, he nonchalantly shows us various spots around his town at which he carried out his atrocities. Having headed up a group of gangsters that ran local cinemas, in one scene he explains that he and his friends would come out having seen the latest Elvis movie, cross the street and in a ‘happy mood’ would then garotte a group of victims in an adjacent building. An unsettling, uncanny character, Congo claims to have modeled himself on mobsters and thugs of Hollywood cinema and is thus keen on the element of the documentary that sets it apart from others and makes it one of the most memorable ever filmed. The gangsters are invited to reenact their atrocities in amateur films of their own design, complete with gaudy costumes, cross-dressing, gallons of fake blood and prop body parts. These scenes are as jaw-dropping a spectacle in their own way as anything in Gravity or indeed any other film. The exaggerated reality in these reenactments add to the ability of this documentary to explore the question of humanity and the depravity to which it can and has plunged to over the course of history. We see the perpetrators playing the parts of their victims, something that in a few instances proves enough to elicit an emotional response not forthcoming in simple interviews. It’s almost difficult to even recommend The Act of Killing such is its horror but it must also be said how genuinely thrilling a film this is too. There are moments when you’ll wonder whether it’s quite OK that you’re being entertained by a documentary on such a serious subject but those are thoughts that soon disappear as another extraordinary moment passes, carrying you through the two hours that seem to pass in no time at all. In short, the finest film of 2013 is one of the finest documentaries that has or will indeed ever be made. Essential viewing.
Honorable mentions: Iron Man 3, Monsters University, The Class of 92, The Conjuring, Blackfish, Wreck-It Ralph, The Place Beyond the Pines
The World’s End
Dir. Edgar Wright
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Release Date: 19th July 2013
Run time: 109 mins
From the glorious two series of Spaced to Shaun of the Dead and then Hot Fuzz, the collaborations between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have long been a real treat for comedy fans. Their latest film, The World’s End, marks the end of a very loosely-tied thematic trilogy (dubbed The Cornetto Trilogy or The Blood and Ice Cream trilogy) and is to the robot invasion genre what Shaun of the Dead was to the zombie flick and Hot Fuzz was to the buddy cop film. The plot revolves around man child Gary King (Pegg) as he rounds up a group of five of his mates from childhood to reattempt ‘The Golden Mile’, a pub crawl in their hometown of Newton Haven. As the group embark on their mission it becomes clear that all is not as it seems in the town and they become aware of a sinister robotic presence among its inhabitants. Unfortunately, it’s not just the plot of The World’s End that isn’t quite what it appears to be, resulting in something interesting but not resoundingly successful.
It would be remiss to suggest that this film is a drastic departure from the previous films in the trilogy; it’s a British, comic take on a Hollywood genre film with Simon Pegg starring, Nick Frost supporting, complete with enjoyable turns from the British acting world and nods to Shaun and Hot Fuzz themselves. It does, in places, however take a more serious tone than those films, looking at the tragedy of Gary King as a man regressing to childish behaviours because of a disenfranchisement with his current life. We are also shown the tragedy in the character of his companion Andrew Knightley (Frost) and this casts a melancholic shadow over the film.
In changing up the respective roles of Pegg and Frost, The World’s End freshens the Cornetto trilogy formula admirably but the problem comes in Pegg leading the film as a character that is entirely unpleasant. His performance is great but ultimately feels like it’d have better suited a supporting character as there’s nothing there to get behind as an audience. Conversely, Nick Frost’s role is the most sympathetic in the film along with perhaps Eddie Marsan’s Peter, but they don’t bear enough of the story to balance the unlikeable nature of Gary King. On the whole, the supporting cast are impressive. Alongside Pegg and Frost are three of the most reliable British actors at the moment in Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine. Rosamund Pike also joins in the fun with a few great scenes but her performance is as brief as it is enjoyable. Any other cast details would really be spoilers but suffice to say that Edgar Wright has plenty of fun with the casting of the minor roles.
With Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg writing it’d be fair to expect The World’s End‘s strong suit to be in delivering laughs. Strangely though, this is not quite the case. That’s not to say that the screenplay is a poor one; it packs some great jokes and the aforementioned tragic character elements are an interesting feature. There are a few misses though and in a film that’s actively marketed in relation to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz it’s difficult not to find it inferior. Ultimately, The World’s End is funny but not uproariously so and the comedy highlights are often more slapstick based and perhaps less creative than Pegg and Wright’s previous work. The basic story is great fun nailing the genre and an ending that’s unexpected in tone may be divisive but it’s well executed and avoids predictability.
Surprisingly, The World’s End‘s solid script is outdone by Edgar Wright’s supreme direction and a great editing job by Paul Machliss, a previous collaborator with Wright on Spaced and Scott Pilgrim vs The World. The two work brilliantly together. Action sequences are as fun as anything Hollywood has produced recently and while it could be argued that the highly polished style doesn’t quite fit with the previous Cornetto films, it’s nevertheless an aesthetically pleasing film. Wright has emerged as one of the top action directors in the business and his great sequences are cut very well, fast but not too fast and, in the remarkable style that we first saw in Spaced, the editing somehow manages to be funny. This bathetic action style cutting of mundane acts is something of an Edgar Wright trademark and its use here is as enjoyable as ever. His directorial style manages to avoid stagnation while being immediately recognisable and it won’t be a surprise to see his star continue to rise to the very top in Hollywood.
As the final part of Wright Pegg and Frost’s trilogy, The World’s End is unfortunately a clear weak link. But if taken on its own merits (something that the film and its marketing, and indeed this review, did not try to encourage at all) then you find a funny, interesting comedy film whose directing stands out as a prime reason for recommendation.
Iron Man 3
Dir. Shane Black
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce
Release Date: 25th April 2013
Run time: 130 mins
After the stunning success, both critically and financially, of Joss Whedon’s Avengers film, the monster that is Marvel’s superhero movie franchise powers on with Iron Man 3. Following a disappointingly forgettable second outing, previous Iron Man director Jon Favreau relinquishes that role with Shane Black taking the helm. This is Black’s first film since his criminally underseen and underrated directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2004 and one imagines that re-teaming with Robert Downey Jr was the deal breaker in getting him back into the Hollywood fold. Ultimately the fresh approach from Shane Black is exactly what the Iron Man films needed. At some point there will be a inevitable drop in demand for and quality of these Marvel superhero films but it certainly isn’t going to start yet. Iron Man 3 delivers a sharp, clever and riotously fun action romp that reminds us why Tony Stark is now Robert Downey Jr’s career defining role.
Kicking off with a flashback to 1999, Iron Man 3 establishes its basic premise quickly and efficiently. An enigmatic, grandiose terrorist that calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is carrying out attacks on US soil and successfully interrupting nationwide TV broadcasts with his own menacing videos. Aside this central plot line we are also introduced to Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). First meeting Tony Stark in 1999, Killian is a scientist looking for an audience with Tony. After being utterly ignored during this first encounter he returns to Stark Industries in the present day to present his scientific discovery to Pepper Potts (now head of Stark Industries) hoping to get a more positive reception. He and fellow scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) have developed a biological healing and controlling process they’re calling Extremis. Their company AIM is hoping to link up with Stark Industries to market Extremis with no regard to its possible use as a weapon. After being rejected by Pepper, Killian’s technology inevitably ends up in the hands of the Mandarin and from that set-up Iron Man 3 runs.
While that story structure may not immediately seem to set Iron Man 3 apart from its counterparts in the genre, the real delights in this film are in the twists and turns of Shane Black’s script. The plot is remarkably clever and with the Mandarin the film has one of the best used and crafted villains of any of the recent flood of superhero films. The casting of Ben Kingsley is spot on and Guy Pearce also handles a tricky character very well. Franchise regulars Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau return in their respective roles as Pepper Potts, Col James Rhodes and head of security Happy Hogan, giving solid performances, Favreau in particular is given some great early scenes in which to demonstrate his knack for comic acting. Their is also a small but crackingly well written role for 11 year-old actor Ty Simpkins. He gives a great performance as a kid fulfilling the dream of being stand-in sidekick for Iron Man, exchanging some snappy dialogue with the man himself. Character-wise the only flaw is with Rebecca Hall’s character. As the chief scientist behind Extremis her role is disappointingly underwritten and perhaps left on the cutting room floor. In the end a talented actress is left to inhabit a forgettable role, something that should really have been avoided in post-production.
As strong as the supporting cast are, they are all (rightly) subordinate to Robert Downey Jr in the title role. It’s the role of a lifetime for him and across all three Iron Man films as well as The Avengers he owns the character in the way that no other actor has quite managed in other superhero roles. The charm of the performance is often in his gift for comedy and Shane Black’s script offers plenty to have fun with, but when the script calls for a snap back to a serious tone Downey Jr does so convincingly to keep the heart in the film.
Bringing in Shane Black to write and direct is the inventive executive decision that was key to getting the spark back into the the series that the second film lost. His script brings a joyful irreverence to the whole thing as well as being solidly funny throughout and never not hugely entertaining. And in a year that will bring numerous other superhero flicks it’s important that there are a couple of action sequences here that are supremely well directed, ensuring that Iron Man 3 will be rewatched and remembered beyond the near future. Of particular note is the clever use of the multiple Iron Man suits in numerous sequences. It’s accomplished blockbuster directing coming from a man that hasn’t directed a feature in 9 years. Admirable to say the least.
Being the first part in Marvel’s so dubbed ‘Phase 2’ set of films leading up to The Avengers 2, Iron Man 3 does surprisingly well in making sure it tells its own story rather than feeling like a warm-up to a bigger attraction. There are a few too many references to events from The Avengers though and they are slightly irritating when you’re distracted from the engaging central plot by a note about something from a previous film. Thankfully we are spared any longer scenes that try to set up future films, something that is difficult to pull-off, and though the 2 hour plus running time is indulgent, the film doesn’t outstay its welcome.
If you’re looking for an action film that delivers fun, well-directed blockbuster scenes alongside some snappy dialogue and an intelligent plot, look no further than Iron Man 3. Robert Downey Jr carries the film with ease and the return of Shane Black to directing is thoroughly welcome. Some small problems stop the film reaching the heights of the genre’s very best efforts in The Avengers or The Dark Knight, but Iron Man 3 certainly puts a claim in to be the best of the rest. Getting in while the superhero film is making hay, Iron Man 3 is such fun that Marvel’s comic book juggernauts are looking unstoppable.