April was a relatively quiet month for cinema, with only three films viewed.

First up, Noah is a heavily dramatised and expanded telling of the story of Noah and the ark, as imagined by Darren Aronofsky. I’m a fan of much of Aronofsky’s work (particularly The Wrestler and Black Swan) so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in tackling what appeared to be a dull subject. I was wrong to do so as there is almost nothing worthwhile in this movie. Visually, it’s horrendous: bad green screen, awful CG, and colour-graded in the least tactful way you can imagine. The story is overblown, the performances lack any subtlety, and the dialogue is, to a line, atrocious. I cannot begin to imagine why anyone thought this was worth filming having seen a script, but all we can do now is avoid it. One of the worst films in recent years. (See my Noah Twitter review).

A few years ago The Raid was a surprisingly brilliant action movie, full of intricate choreography and a relentless pace, confined to a small tower block. The Raid 2 sees the scope expand across many more characters and locations, but keeps the essence: a fair plot that is fast moving, but with stunning fights. The stunt set pieces throughout are brilliant. From the prison riot through the nightclub brawl, you won’t be disappointed. The story itself is a little more convoluted, and told out of order, but don’t let that throw you too much. Enjoy the action, enjoy the movie. (See my The Raid 2 Twitter review).

Finally, Calvary is a strangely dark story about a priest forced to represent the better side of humanity to a largely unseen antagonist (and a cast of other broken people), beyond what he should have to bear. While that sounds high concept, the film is very much grounded in humanity. Shot through with a dark humour, it’s an oddly affecting film that can be laugh out loud funny one minute and tense the next. From the look through to the performances, this film rarely slips. Exceptionally good. (See my Calvary Twitter review).

The winner, as should be obvious, is Calvary; an unexpected gem.

March, as with February, was a reasonably busy month for films, with five fairly good movies.

First up, The Grand Budapest Hotel is precisely and obviously a Wes Anderson movie. It has all the elements of his signature look and feel: the wide framing, the grand shots, the pastel colours, the awkward dialogue, the quirkiness. It’s all there. The story itself centres on the life of a young man who finds love and a mentor and has to fight for both, but is told with all of Anderson’s dry silliness. It’s fair to say that if you like his other films you will like this. I am an Anderson fan, so I’d say this is a lovely film. (See my The Grand Budapest Hotel Twitter review).

The Zero Theorem, meanwhile, is precisely and obviously a Terry Gilliam film. Weird, bordering on surreal, characters inhabiting a bizarre, but not entirely unfamiliar, world. Christoph Waltz is great as the lead, an obsessive recluse searching for an answer to a macguffin of a problem. The whole film is a strange look at hiding away rather than embracing society, and the effects that might have on a mind. It’s not the easiest film, but it is fun. Good. (See my The Zero Theorem Twitter review).

Under the Skin is an alien movie. I don’t merely mean that the lead is an antagonist (played by Scarlet Johansson) sent to lure men to their doom in the manner of many b-movies; no, it’s keen to impress upon the audience a very alien, detached view of the world. After the initial laughs provided by the candid shots around Glasgow subside, we’re left with a stark and difficult to grasp film about the main character’s first glimpses of emotion. At times, utterly devoid of something comprehensible for the audience to get behind and at others so painfully at odds with their views (the beach scene with the young child is devastating), this is an interesting movie but hard to say that it is enjoyable. Worth seeing, if you have tough skin. (See my Under the Skin Twitter review).

British prison movie, Starred Up, is an unflinching look at the criminal justice system in the UK. Told from the point of view of a young man raised under harsh conditions, his arrival in the same prison as his father is as sad as it is inevitable. As he starts to be able to cope with the anger he has, the system keeps dragging him further in. Dark, brutal, and maybe a little heavy-handed at times, this is definitely worth a watch. (See my Starred Up Twitter review).

Finally, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves itself to be one of the best blockbuster action films in years. It manages to effortlessly handle the world-building, character progression and plot (albeit a light one), while integrating some fantastic set pieces. It’s big, without being sprawling, and fun without being silly. While the Apple advert jammed in the middle jars quite badly, the rest is a great mix of action and adventure. It’s not as epic as The Avengers movie, but is probably a better movie for it. Very good. (See my Captain America: The Winter Solider Twitter review).

It’s another difficult month to pick a winner, especially given they all do very different things. I think I’ll go for The Grand Budapest Hotel, as the film most likely to stand the test of time.

I’ve been letting Film Fight slide a little, but it’s time to get back to it. February was almost five months ago, but was exceptionally strong, with six films that were all (spoiler!) really good. Not a bad one in the bunch, but what will win?

First up, Inside Llewyn Davis is relatively restrained for a Coen Brothers movie, showing life for a talented but struggling musician in the 1960′s folk scene. The titular character’s problems are mostly of his own making, finding himself unable to progress personally or artistically. The soundtrack is excellent throughout, the performances and characters are spot on, and the whole thing looks just right. The divisive meta ending aside, this is a strong movie. (See my Inside Llewyn Davis Twitter review).

Dallas Buyers Club is the sad story of a man who finds out he has AIDS and is given 30 days to live. Struggling to come to terms with his death sentence, he has to start putting aside his prejudices and old life in order to survive. Touching, sad, and wonderfully acted, this is another excellent performance by Matthew McConaughey; an actor on a great run of late. Very good. (See my Dallas Buyers Club Twitter review).

The Lego Movie is exactly what you might hope for: a funny, daft and often self-deprecating adventure aimed at kids, but with more than a few nods to the older audience members. The original characters are all good enough, but it’s the weird takes on existing characters (like Batman) that really shine. It’s got a good message, and manages to be both fun and well-considered. (See my Lego Movie Twitter review).

Her is about a lonely, quiet man who finally finds love again. To give it the twist you’d expect from a Spike Jonze film, his new partner is the artificial intelligence that he installs on his computer to put his life in order. The film follows their romance, as a commentary on the ever-changing nature of relationships from new love to drifting apart, but set against the question of what it means to be human. Jonze doesn’t let the big ideas get in the way of the story, as you’ll find yourself rapt from start to finish. A very good movie. (See my Her Twitter review).

Richard Ayoade’s second feature film, The Double, is about a man whose small life starts to fall apart when he meets his more successful doppelgänger. Set against a surreal Kafkan bureaucracy that makes the whole thing feel weird, we see the lead unravel scene-by-scene. Jesse Eisenberg does a great job as both the mild and meek character, and his charismatically aggressive double. There are no big laughs, but that’s fine: the humour is all in the tension. Funny. (See my The Double Twitter review).

Finally, Only Lovers Left Alive is about a vampire who is growing weary with immortality, especially with the humans he sees as ruining the planet. When his distant wife comes to comfort him, the film really starts. Between the cinematography, editing, and music, the film has a weirdly hypnotic feel that gives the comfortable romance a surprising warmth. This does, however, mean that the few dodgy lines of dialogue are oddly jarring, pulling you out of the trance-like mood. Still, both Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are excellent, with a great supporting cast around them. A little odd, but definitely worth seeing. (See my Only Lovers Left Alive Twitter review).

The winner? Well, this is the toughest month in a very long time, but I think the contrast of scope and intimacy in Her being handled so well puts it ahead.

A new year, a new start for Film Fight. It’s been a busy start to the year so this is coming quite late. Three films for January:

First up, American Hustle has the kind of cast that you know you’re not going to have to worry about. They’ll turn in great performances and nail whatever you throw at them. That’s precisely what happens here, save for a few comically over-the-top moments. Leaving the cast aside, then, we’re left with a wildly unevenly paced film. At times, we get a barrage of clips, being narrated by the leads, at other times nothing much happens for 15 minutes. Given the lengthy runtime, this starts to become problematic. An entertaining film, with fun performances, but not a classic.  (See my American Hustle Twitter review).

Similarly, 12 Years A Slave has some of the most stunning performances of the Oscar season. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the titular slave, is as fantastic when he’s trying to keep his head down as when he’s being brutalised by one of his masters. Likewise, Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the cotton plantation owner is shocking and unnerving; bringing a genuinely frightening presence. We see the same level of performance from the rest of the cast, except for one minor but pivotal role that seemed quite out of place. It’s tough to watch the lingering, violent shots but it’s certainly worthwhile. An excellent film. (See my 12 Years A Slave Twitter review).

Finally, The Wolf of Wall Street is a fantastic, comic take on some of the worst excesses that came out of the world of stockbrokers. Based on a true story, it follows a mans rise from nobody to head of his own stockbroking firm; a position he gets to through lying, stealing and cheating, while indulging in every excess imaginable. The 18 rating on the film is well-deserved, given the copious sex and drug-taking scenes that make up the bulk of the film. The film is entertaining with a wonderful cast, but at three hours is vastly longer than it needs to be, knocking at least half an hour off would lose nothing of substance. Fun. (See my Wolf of Wall Street Twitter review).

It’ll be no surprise to say that 12 Years A Slave is the first winner of the year.

Twelve film fights later and we’ve got another finale. As always, my caveat from earlier years still applies: Film Fight is done in a knock-out style and, as such, only picks my favourite film of the year; there are no guarantees about second place.

First up, the films that were good but that did not win their month i.e. the honourable mentions:

  • Lincoln
  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • Robot and Frank
  • Compliance
  • Trance
  • Mud
  • The Iceman
  • World War Z
  • This Is The End
  • The East
  • The World’s End
  • Monster’s University
  • Kick-Ass 2
  • Filth
  • How I Live Now
  • Machete Kills
  • Captain Phillips
  • Anchorman 2

Then the monthly winners:

  • January: Django Unchained
  • February: Wreck-It Ralph
  • March: Cloud Atlas
  • April: The Place Beyond the Pines
  • May: Upstream Color
  • June: Much Ado About Nothing
  • July: Pacific Rim
  • August: Lovelace
  • September: The Way, Way Back
  • October: Prisoners
  • November: Gravity
  • December: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The winners, as a whole, don’t seem quite as high-quality as some other years, but there are some absolutely fantastic films in there. The Place Beyond the Pines is a powerful look at privilege and family ties. Upstream Color is a wonderfully hypnotic piece of story telling that pulls off its dreamy feel far better than similar films. In Pacific Rim we have the monster movie done well: the story is nonsense but the fights are fun and have weight, despite being CG. Lovelace has two of the best lead performances of the year. While Gravity is spectacular visual storytelling, gripping throughout.

The winner, though, as predicted back in June, is Joss Whedon’s take on Much Ado About Nothing. It’s suitably breezy, funny, delightful, wonderfully shot, and rammed full of excellent performances. This is an absolute masterclass on making Shakespeare feel relevant today, without dumbing down the source material. A well-deserved win.

A very quiet December, with only two films viewed.

First up, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare sequel that manages to be confidently better than the original in almost every regard. The pacing of the film is excellent, moving through months of propaganda in minutes without feeling rushed before settling into a slower, but still lively, pace for the main events. It’s a little darker, the situation unravels a little more and, most importantly, I actually cared about what happened to most of the characters by the end; something I can’t really say about the original. The ending marks it very much as the middle chapter of the series, but it had done enough by that point that a cliff-hanger ending didn’t seem unfair. Well worth seeing. (See my The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Twitter review).

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, on the other hand, was never going to live up to the original, which was likely my most watched comedy of the preceeding ten years. Let’s be clear: it’s a good comedy, better than most of the competition, and with some incredibly funny moments (Doby!). In fact, for the first hour it seems like it might just pull off getting into the same league as the original. Sadly, it begins retreading the same plot arc as the original, and the same jokes. While the supporting cast are still great (Brick is a particular highlight), it’s Ron Burgundy that seems a little off. Rather than being the out-of-time, dumb, but loveable anchorman, he is played as an amped-up-to-eleven version of the original; a louder, pantomine parody. Again, it’s a good film, it’s funny, but it’s not a classic. (See my Anchorman 2 Twitter review).

The final monthly winner for 2013, then, is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. An unexpectedly fun sequel.

For the November Film Fight, we have 4 films.

First up, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is an attempt to take the over-the-top pranks of Jackass and try to cram them into a story, with mixed success. It plays out in a similar fashion to much of Sascha Baron Cohen’s work, like Borat or Bruno: unsuspecting members of the public play against the characters in ridiculous situations to see how they react. It’s dumb and mean-spirited humour of the lowest form, albeit done very well. This film won’t change your mind about Johnny Knoxville and his brand of humour, but if you already find it funny then this is a pretty good example of the genre. (See my Bad Grandpa Twitter review).

Captain Phillips seems bizarrely tone-deaf. At times, the story of a tanker captain taken hostage by Somali pirates is remarkably tense and, despite knowing the ending, you can’t help but be drawn in by every twist. Hanks puts in his usual, down-to-Earth and absolutely spot-on performance, with no surprises, with the Somali pirates coming across with jagged believability. However, at other times, it goes way too far in one direction or another. The opening with Catherine Keener is so underplayed that no-one appears to be making any effort. Contrast that with the many Oscar-baiting moments later, and you have a film that, while very good on the whole, can’t seem to decide what to do with itself. (See my Captain Phillips Twitter review).

The next entry in Marvel’s cinematic universe is Thor: The Dark World. The lead character isn’t the most cerebral in Marvel’s canon, and that is fully on display here. Expect the usual “smash, drink and nobility” sentiments wrapped around a plot where Thor saves everyone from world-ending doom. So, nothing new. That’s not to say it’s bad. Thor is fun and dumb, and I’m not sure anything else would work. Loki is as great as ever, playing the meddlesome brother, but the main bad guy, Malekith, is so generic that you wonder why they brought in as great an actor as Christopher Ecclestone to do the part. The film, then, is ultimately fun and fine, but you’ve seen it many times before. (See my Thor: The Dark World Twitter review).

Finally, Gravity is Alfonso Cuaron’s way of following up the his 2006 Film Fight finalist, Children of Men. It is an astounding piece of film that, I believe, cannot be done full justice in a home-viewing setting. The 3D IMAX screenings draw you in better than anything else I’ve seen in the format, with the eye-filling frames giving you nowhere to look for respite. The story itself is a little saccharine at times, but that’s largely beside the point. The film is a journey that mixes moments of eerie calm with uncontrolled frantic action. I don’t want to say too much about the content, other than it’s a thrilling movie, with a great lead performance and great support. Definitely see this in as big a format as you can. (See my Gravity Twitter review).

The winner for November is Gravity, a film that was worth waiting seven years to see.

Five films in the Film Fight for October…

First up, Filth is a film in the Irvine Welsh tradition: an anti-hero swept into a maddening situation of his own making, presented in a surreal technicolour, before dropping into a cold, dank reality. That Filth isn’t anything new doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s not. James McAvoy does a fantastic job of showing the breakdown of a cop who was always a little on the edge. Supported by a fun cast, he is certainly the film’s highlight. The film is somewhat undone by the weirdness. While it mostly fits the portrayal, it sometimes lacks a point beyond being strange. Overall, the film is decent, but could’ve been better. A film to watch, rather than rewatch. (See my Filth Twitter review).

How I Live Now is the story of an American girl who comes to stay a summer with her cousins in rural England. Unfortunately, a devastating war breaks out whilst no adults are around. The film could’ve descended into a crude Lord of the Flies rip-off at this point but it doesn’t. Instead it does an excellent job of building a new survivalist world in the background, the young cast slipping into it seamlessly as the world collapses around them. There are many excellent moments of despair (that I won’t spoil) but the film is somewhat let down by a flimsy central romance, hints of psychic abilities that go nowhere (apparently they’re more important in the book), and more than a few lines of clunky dialogue delivered poorly by the youngest actors in the cast. All in, it’s a beautifully presented work, let down by the details. One to see. (See my How I Live Now Twitter review).

Wherever you sit on the Wiki Leaks debate, The Fifth Estate should’ve been an interesting insight into the organisation’s early days and founders. While Benedict Cumberbatch puts in an excellent performance as a controlling, jealous and paranoid Assange and Daniel Brühl does a good job of playing his level-headed counterpart, they can’t save the film from its many flaws. When it has to lower itself to silly CG office spaces filled with countless copies of Assange to explain the technology of the organisation, you know that it’s not going to get better. A real shame, given the meaty subject. (See my The Fifth Estate Twitter review).

The problem with Prisoners is that it’s an afternoon murder mystery with torture porn set-dressing: it has the cliched attempts to mislead of the former, and the unnecessary and over-the-top suffering of the latter. I don’t really want either. The cast can’t be held responsible here, as everyone puts in an outstanding performance; from Jackman’s angry father-figure to Dano’s disturbed young man, the principle actors do a great job. It’s a shame, then, that they don’t get better material with which to work. You’ll see many of the attempts to fool you coming, as not one hasn’t been seen many times before. All of that said, when it lets Jackman’s character go off-the-rails, things can get remarkably tense. Just how far will he go to save his daughter? Good, but not a classic. (See my Prisoners Twitter review).

Finally, if you’re looking for a ridiculous, over-the-top action film with lots of B-movie trimmings, then Machete Kills will work for you. It’s not as well made or silly as the original, but you’re unlikely to care. You’ll get the intentionally terrible dialogue, wonky effects, explosions and half-baked characters you’d expect from a grindhouse film. Enjoy after a drink or two for maximum impact. (see my Machete Kills Twitter review).

The winner for October is Prisoners. It’s not a strong winner, but the best of a fun-to-average bunch.

A fairly quiet month in September, with only two films…

First up, The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age indie film, about a dorky boy who, with the help of Sam Rockwell’s character finds the self-confidence he badly needs. It does the dweeb-stands-up-for-himself trope reasonably well, but balances it with some difficult family moments. The performances are all decent enough, with Steve Carrell standing out as being cast against-type but doing well. As these kind of films go, this one is remarkably good. (See my The Way, Way Back Twitter review).

Finally, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has Casey Affleck as an outsider who suffers for someone else’s mistakes. As he goes to prison, he leaves behind a family who have to cope without him. The problem is that nothing in the story makes you care particularly about the suffering of either of the leads, and the film has little else going on. Without any reason to buy into the narrative, the movie feels unnecessarily drawn-out and dull. Entirely forgettable. (See my Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Twitter review).

The winner is The Way, Way Back for a good take on a well-trodden genre.

For August, we have 5 films in the Film Fight…

First up, Monsters University is the entirely unnecessary prequel to what is possibly Pixar’s greatest film, Monsters Inc. It obviously has a heavy burden to live up to its forebear. The good news is that it doesn’t entirely fluff it, though it clearly isn’t operating at the same level. It has a number of funny bits, interesting characters and the charm you’d expect of a Pixar movie, so you won’t miss out in seeing it. That said, it feels like it’s just being made for the money; building out a backstory that no-one needed. It’s good, not great. (See my Monsters University Twitter review).

Nicholas Winding Refn has directed some excellent films, like Bronson and Drive (which won the 2011 Film Fight Finale - even if I latter changed my mind, and decided that Another Earth should’ve won). Only God Forgives is not an excellent film; it’s astonishingly bad. While it looks incredible throughout, the rest is pretentious, lacking substance, flimsy and poorly constructed. It’s unevenly paced, has paper-thin characters, and many of the scenes simply do not matter. It is incredibly badly judged on almost every level. A strong contender for the worst film of the year, and certainly the most disappointing.  (See my Only God Forgives Twitter review).

Kick-Ass 2 manages to be even more nihilistically fun and gleefully violent than its predecessor, which is no easy task given the explosion of colour and carnage of the original. The main plot is about a supervillian uprising, funded by an unexpected source, and a group of vigilantes trying to stand up for normal people while realising they’re not playing a game. There’s a subplot following Hit Girl to high school which has some laughs, but is entirely superfluous to the main plot. On the whole, it’s hit-or-miss, but fun enough that it’s worth seeing. (See my Kick-Ass 2 Twitter review).

Lovelace is the dark story, based on her biography, of Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. It is first presented as a “fun” telling of her story (with enough warning signs to see what is coming), but the narrative doubles back to show the horrendous abuse she suffered, essentially being forced into the industry by her then husband. Peter Sarsgaard puts in a terrifically terrifying performance as the abuser, and Amanda Seyfried (an actress whose output I would normally avoid) is very believable as the abusee, showing real vulnerability. Very worth seeing. (See my Lovelace Twitter review).

Finally, Elyisum is Neill Blomkamp’s first film since the very impressive District 9. How has he done with a bigger budget and better known cast? It’s certainly a grander presentation, but a much less effective story. As an allegory, it’s clunky and obvious, whilst as a straight-up story it’s inconsistent. Even the action sequences are, at best, hit-or miss. The physicality of District 9′s action (even though much of that was CG) gives way to some limp shoot-outs with gadgets that you will not care about. The film, tellingly, comes alive each time Sharlto Copley’s character, the main antagonist, is on-screen as he tears himself towards some goal through sheer force of will, even if we don’t care much about said goal. Mostly bad. (See my Elysium Twitter review).

The winner is Lovelace. The performances were worth seeing, and the rest of the production wasn’t exactly slouching either.

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