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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.

Four films in the Film Fight for July.

First up, The East is something of a missed opportunity. Having thoroughly enjoyed Brit Marling’s performance in the mesmerising Another Earth, I had high hopes for her in this. I was not disappointed. Marling shows the right mix of vulnerability, naivety and determination for her character (a corporate spy) to make sense. The rest of the cast, however, are a little wasted. We know both Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard are capable actors, but here they don’t have much to work with. The film ticks over nicely, until a muddled last act undoes a lot of the ground work, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Worth seeing. (See my The East Twitter review).

Man of Steel, however, is not worth seeing. It spends twenty or so minutes building up a fascinating mythos and origin at Superman’s home planet which makes you yearn for a better movie called Krypton: Civil War. Sadly, we quickly move to Earth and see an incoherent mess of characters play out pointless CGI battle after CGI battle; motivations and actions being principally determined by the needs of the plot. There’s very little to redeem the film outside of the first stretch; even Michael Shannon can only do so much with his take on General Zod. I’d avoid this, and would have concerns about the rest of the DC universe they’re trying to build out. (See my Man of Steel Twitter review).

If you like big monster films and don’t feel they’ve been done well in a long time, Pacific Rim is for you. The plot is dumped through exposition at an alarming rate, a lot of it is clunky, and you’ll see every twist coming a mile away (the pilot that hates the protagonist will eventually grow to respect him? Shock!). That all said, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Unlike many CG films, it manages to deliver action sequences which are exciting but clearly shown (take that, Transformers), and which you can’t help but get involved in despite the fake nature of it. The comic relief between Charlie Day and Ron Perlman is pitched just right to not be annoying, and the stakes rise at just the right pace throughout the film. One of the better action films of the year. (See my Pacific Rim Twitter review).

Finally, The World’s End sees Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunite for a comedy simultaneously smaller and much larger than their previous efforts. It follows the reunion of a group of old friends determined to finished a pub crawl in their old home town, when something apocalyptic begins to happen. The details of that, I’ll leave to the film, but the first moment you really see something is wrong is excellent. The remainder of the film is fun but not particularly funny. If you see it as a silly adventure, rather than a pure comedy, then you’ll be okay. Decent.  (See my The World’s End Twitter review).

Tough to call the winner here, but I think I’ll go with Pacific Rim. While The East is a very good film, Pacific Rim edges it as the film I’d most like to see again right now.

Yes, yes, it’s late, I know. For June, we have 5 films in the Film Fight.

First up, The Purge has an interesting enough premise: for one night, the rule of law is suspended in order to allow people to exercise their pent-up emotions. Murder, as you might guess, is rampant, and this goes predictably badly for the protagonists of the piece. The problem with the film is that it can’t seem to settle on what it wants to be: it sets up a social commentary but doesn’t give it the time to breath, instead degenerating into a home invasion horror with just a hint of Funny Games thrown in. If it had focussed on either side, it might have been better, but as-is it’s a predictable and mindless horror. It’s not awful, but you won’t see it again any time soon. (See my The Purge Twitter review).

The Iceman sees Michael Shannon deliver another mesmerising performance as an ice-cold hitman. His paranoia and shady dealings see his life beginning to unravel in ways he can no longer control. It’s not exactly an original story (though it’s based on a true one), but the lead performance makes it worth the admission by itself. Even though some of the supporting cast are notably weak (you’ll want to switch off any time his family appear) and the last section feels rushed, it’s still a great film. (See my The Iceman Twitter review).

Whedon’s first film after The Avengers couldn’t be much more different: Much Ado About Nothing is a timeless take on the Shakespeare play. It is fantastically well-done. The cast, stuffed with Whedon alumni, nail every part, bringing out the wit and comedy of the source material in every scene. It’s beautifully shot, shown in black and white, with nothing extraneous to slow down the pacing. There’s not a moment where you feel that it doesn’t work, and that’s without compromising the play for a modern audience. An excellent film that feels small and perfect. (See my Much Ado About Nothing Twitter review).

I am a big zombie move fan but having heard about the post-production issues with World War Z, I didn’t hold out much hope. I was surprised to find, then, a film that was not without charm. While every character in the film was utterly two dimensional, there merely to service the plot, the whole thing worked quite well as a big, dumb action film. The pacing was frantic for all but the last act, which was a nice little diversion. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, but it was quite fun. (See my World War Z Twitter review).

Finally, This Is The End is the epitome of Judd Apatow style comedies. If you hated or loved Superbad, Knocked Up or Pineapple Express, you’ll feel exactly the same about this. By now, you’ll undoubtedly have heard that it features James Franco, Seth Rogen et al. playing versions of themselves at a party on the fateful night of the apocalypse. Hopefully you won’t have heard about too many of the cameos or the silly ending, as there are some great moments that shouldn’t be spoiled. Again, this film will really depend on how you feel about the cast. I enjoyed it, but if you’ve seen them before you know what you’ll think. (See my This Is The End Twitter review).

The winner for June is Much Ado About Nothing, a flawlessly executed take on a classic. Contender for film of the year.

The first batch of big summer blockbusters have arrived, alongside some more thoughtful films, making for five films in today’s Film Fight for May.

First up, Iron Man 3 is the prototypical big-budget, CG-heavy, plot-light blockbuster we’ve come to expect from much of Marvel’s output (Avengers aside). This movie, however, gets ideas above its station, trying to instill more human qualities in its protagonist by giving him a young boy as a sidekick for a reasonable portion of the movie. It fails badly, as the kid is thoroughly unlikeable, Stark’s interactions with him (and many other ordinary people) are creaking and awkward, and he all but gets dropped out of the last act, making his set-up pointless. There are decent set-up pieces about The Mandarin, but the mid-film reveal is silly and he is replaced by generic baddies fighting lifeless CG battles. You’ll stop caring about anyone by the half-way mark, if you cared at all. The worst entry in the Marvel Film universe since Hulk. (See my Iron Man 3 Twitter review).

A better big budget film wasn’t far away, in the form of Star Trek: Into Darkness. It’s light-hearted, enjoyable, nonsense; the plotholes are many and consistency is low, but it’s fast and it’s fun. By the time your brain catches up, you’ll be on your way home. It’s weakest point is the relationship between Kirk and Spock. It’s sold as a strong bond, but it’s difficult to buy that after they’ve had so little screen time together, much of which they’ve spent despising each other. Ignore that, and you’ve got a decent film, but certainly not a classic. (See my Star Trek: Into Darkness Twitter review).

Matthew McConaughey continues a recent run of excellent performances (Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, The Paperboy) in Mud, a movie about two young boys finding a man hiding in a swamp, and the few days that follow. While the pacing is as mired as the setting, you couldn’t ask for a better cast of character actors. They do their best to keep things moving forward, but it’s slow going. It’s worth sticking with it though. (See my Mud Twitter review).

Upstream Color is Shane Carruth’s first movie since his debut, the excellent Primer. Where that film was difficult because of the complexities of time travel being depicted as naturalistically as possible, Upstream Color is a challenge for many other reasons. It’s a beautiful mess of fast edits, dreamy music, half told moments, pieces that don’t quite fit and motivations that are far from apparent (Carruth himself has said he’s bothered by the motives of the voyeuristic sound recorder). I won’t begin to describe what this film is about. It’s involved, but worthy of the time it’ll take you to truly consider it. A classic. (See my Upstream Color Twitter review).

Finally, Dragon is a very interesting idea: it plays out as a Chinese period take on Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, swapping out the mafia for martial arts. It should’ve been good, but too much of the film is played for laughs; silly and slapstick, where it would have benefitted from being more sombre and serious. A wasted opportunity. (see my Dragon Twitter review).

The winner for May is Upstream Color, for its unique vision.

Note: Upstream Color won’t appear in UK cinemas until later this year. You can wait until then, or get a US copy imported (I got a region-free copy).

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