It’s been a wild few weeks at the TWoD offices, by which I mean that it hasn’t been that at all. The efforts of concocting a comprehensive (by our standards, at least) guide to the year in streaming, and an unfortunate inconvenience of timing sees to it that this edition has to shoulder some three weeks worth of Netflix Instant additions. Be they good or bad, those films below are the most noteworthy of the bunch, carefully culled from an ever-sprawling list for your consideration. Also covered, in feature-length review form here, is Post Tenebras Lux, which deserved at-length elucidation for all the wrong reasons.
“On that day… we are demon” declares the tagline for 13/13/13, sure to set out even on its poster just how utterly nonsensical a movie it is. As their unprecedented success this year with Sharknado showed, low-budget exploitation production house The Asylum thrives on the ironic enjoyment of the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. That’s a reality 13/13/13—no relation to their earlier 11/11/11—eagerly embraces, employing obnoxiously awful performances and a plot that goes out of its way to defy its own interior logic to construct a film, they hope, you can’t but laugh at. But it’s a slippery slope, aiming for awfulness: the idea of enjoying a film ironically rests on the absurdity of its makers actually thinking it a success; 13/13/13, simply spouting stultifying dialogue and building a nonsensical narrative, manages only to be exactly as awful as it desires. Think about what it wants to do and whether it succeeds: is this really anything other than a failed comedy? UNWATCHABLE.
All About Eve (Read our full review)
That George Sanders was the sole member of the cast of All About Eve to earn an Oscar for his work is an absurdity, not least of all in light of the film’s standing as the only in Academy history to earn four female acting nominations. And what a movie for actresses it is, both as material for these four and in terms of its content too, exploring the relationship between an aging stage star and the young up-and-comer who adores her. Bette Davis is extraordinary as ever as the former, a presence whose utter unpleasantness doesn’t preclude her intoxicating radiance. Anne Baxter’s work as the eponymous Eve is every bit as commanding; both performers undergo subtle slides across the course of the drama, playing the audience as cunningly as their characters do each other. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sizzling script seals the deal on what’s deservingly held as one of the great Hollywood classics. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
There’s an amusing ignorance afoot in the central scene of (A)sexual, Angela Tucker’s documentary investigating the phenomenon of those who feel no sexual attraction at all, when a number of her subjects marching in an LGBT pride parade are mistakenly taken for abstinence advocates. Even among those intent on equality for all sexual identities, Tucker tells us, this minority goes misunderstood. Primarily concerned with David Jay, founder of the online community whose membership has grown exponentially to represent this prevalent reality, it’s a genial piece of work that adopts the same patience as do its interviewees in dealing with the widespread misperceptions of who they are. Where it’s most interesting, though, is in the questions it raises of the intersection between love and sex and their regular conflation in our perception of human interaction. Albeit more a conduit to ideas than a particularly probing look at them, (A)sexual is affable, endearing stuff. WORTH WATCHING.
A Shot in the Dark
Those who think the Rambo series suffers from a case of silly titling would do well to pay attention to the Pink Panther films, named for the diamond whose theft was the concern of the first movie but often understandably confused for the title sequence’s animated animal who went on to helm his own kids’ show. A Shot in the Dark is the series’ second, following the once-supporting character that is Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in a story whose irrelevance to its predecessor is evidenced in the unrelated title. It’s all immaterial, of course; plot’s of little concern to Sellers and director Blake Edwards, who delight in slapstick sequences and a script—courtesy of Exorcist scribe-to-be William Peter Blatty—stuffed with sharp lines that hit the mark more often than not. It’s not an entire success, often goofy to a fault, but A Shot in the Dark is a fine slice of silly, superbly British fun. WORTH WATCHING.
Berberian Sound Studio (Read our full review)
Afforded only a line in Catching Fire, Toby Jones might be the very definition of an underappreciated actor, a criminal fact given the man’s magnificent range, somehow at once chameleonic and instantly recognisable. Peter Strickland gives him his first leading role in Berberian Sound Studio, a strange and striking pseudo-cinematic wonder following a British foley artist who’s unwittingly employed on an Italian giallo in the 1970s. Uncomfortable in the extreme, Jones’ face as he feigns the sounds of brutal murder lends the movie its pervasive sense of unease, as of course does Strickland’s impeccable aesthetic—and more importantly aural—control over the audience. Attesting the extensive effort that goes into shaping a soundscape, Berberian Sound Studio is as much about the sensory nature of cinema as the psychology of its perceivers and the power of horror to play with that. Eerie and enervating, this is a movie that shows that power at its height. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Blackfish (Read our full review)
An interesting film to consider in terms of the debate as to whether documentary cinema can get away without being at all cinematic, Blackfish is understandably acclaimed as one of the year’s most impactful actualities, yet few could argue for it as a particular pinnacle of filmmaking finesse. Is this tale of institutionalised animal abuse in Seaworld, and the loss of human life it’s demonstrably led to, enough in itself to earn the movie its widespread approval? It is, though not perhaps to quite the extent it’s had. For as important a piece of activism as Blackfish is, and as affecting as its interviewees may make it, it isn’t especially effective in a way a newspaper article couldn’t be. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be seen: cinema is a tool of information presentation after all, and this is information that needs to be presented. It’s just important to remember that a great film is more than a great cause put to film. RECOMMENDED.
Drug War (Read our full review)
Making appearances all over as we come to enter year-end top ten season, Johnnie To’s latest’s placement among many such lists betrays the director’s perennial popularity with the arthouse crowd. Perhaps To fandom is a pre-requisite; Drug War, for all its achievements—among them an exquisite climactic action scene that’s indicative of the movie’s excellent approach to re-invigorating genre formula—is a cop-and-cartel movie of very shiny nuts and brand-spanking-new bolts. The gloss of the production and its impressive atmospheric invocation of the understated amorality of this whole bloody enterprise do well to disguise the fact that this is no great deal more than a story strongly told. It’s not for nothing that To brings to mind the crime films of yesteryear in his urban sprawl: this is the stuff we know well—business as usual—albeit in the most enjoyable sense possible. A great movie it ain’t; a damn good one it is, exemplarily. RECOMMENDED.
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism
It’s evident almost immediately in Gerald Peary’s documentary that he’s himself a critic and not a filmmaker; For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism is extremely evidently the work of an amateur. But amateur, lest we forget, is a word predicated on love, and Peary’s passion for the subject shines through even when his clumsy structure does its all to get in the way. Moving from the major players of movie criticism’s earliest days through to the famous Sarris-Kael feud of the ‘60s and beyond right on to the very internet culture in which we all now thrive, this is an informed overview that benefits from a wealth of worthy interviewees and a treasure trove of archival material, both cinematic and critical. Dulled as it is by montages of critics answering interminably dull and generic questions, For the Love of Movies tells its story with palpable passion. And Rex Reed decries falling standards. Try not to laugh. WORTH WATCHING.
Gods and Monsters
It’s hard to imagine a time when Ian McKellen wasn’t the adored pop culture icon he is now, yet even as recently as 1998 the Shakespearean thesp was relatively unfamiliar to cinema audiences. Gods and Monsters was instrumental in changing that, earning McKellen his first Oscar nomination for his role as Frankenstein director James Whale in the last months of his tormented life. It’s astonishing work, imbuing the man with the kind of campy enormity for which he was famed and yet underscoring it all with a monumental sadness too. Bill Condon’s Oscar-winning script deserves plaudits aplenty for its ability to tread that line with such grace, but perhaps the movie’s greatest strength is a supporting turn of remarkable humanity from Brendan Fraser as Whale’s gardener, a character entirely of the movie’s invention. Bumpy biopic tropes take away from it a touch, but Gods and Monsters remains a terrific take on Whale’s sad life. RECOMMENDED.
How confident a feature debut is Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s expansion on the 1993 short he made in lieu of a college education, and an apt indication of the great works that were to come from the burgeoning auteur. Bringing to fame the great character actor Philip Baker Hall, whose jowls have the ability to project personality all on their own, it’s a cracking crime story centred on the relationship between Hall’s aged gambler and a down-on-his-luck kid he takes under his wing. If understandably less so than in his later work, Anderson’s talents shine through here in a film that’s exceptionally entertaining despite the self-testing stature that deprives it of the sort of character depth for which his follow-ups have strived. But that’s appreciable in a movie that’s as much a stellar showreel as it is a self-serving story; Hard Eight, above all, is Anderson showing us what he could do. It’s a promise he’s kept. RECOMMENDED.
An early leading role for Brad Pitt centres Kalifornia, Dominic Sena’s stop-start serial killer thriller that’s never as interesting as its premise promises to be. David Duchovny’s the true crime writer touring the sites of slayings who unwittingly invites Pitt’s parolee along for the ride when he publishes a ride-share ad to meet his gas bill. Juliette Lewis outdoes them both—no mean feat—as Pitt’s tagalong girlfriend, unaware of his murderous streak. It’s a fine conceit, though one underserved by Tim Metcalfe and Stephen Levy’s underwhelming script, which descends all too often into trite faux-tension as it tries to keep as guessing as to whether anyone will make it out alive. It might help if we cared; as Duchovny’s girlfiend, Michelle Forbes is especially unsympathetic in a manner emblematic of the movie at large: these just aren’t terribly interesting characters, and eerie as their journey might be, it’s one whose destination seems inconsequential. SO-SO.
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue
There isn’t a whole lot of insight one can offer into American horror cinema across as short a running time as 96 minutes; think of Never Sleep Again, which took some four hours just to cover the seven Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Still, Andrew Monument’s Nightmares in Red, White and Blue arrives an admirable effort, recruiting usual suspects John Carpenter, George Romero, Roger Corman, and more to overview the evolution of US shockers and their ties to changes in the cultural paradigm. Lance Henriksen’s gravelly voiceover and a strong selection of clips the span the decades do as much of a service to the genre as can be managed in so short a time: horror aficionados will find absolutely nothing new here, but as a guide to the uninitiated, it’s as good a starting point as any. Even so, some additional enlightenment on something more than the obvious choices might have been nice. WORTH WATCHING.
Not Fade Away (Read our full review)
It was a long five years between the cultural moment that was The Sopranos’ last iconoclastic fade to black and the arrival of creator David Chase’s next project, the loosely autobiographical musical drama Not Fade Away. Inevitably comparable to Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, it’s a movie that’s about the idea of a cultural moment, using its young protagonist and the inspiration his rock band takes from the dominant sounds of the ‘60s to explore the idea of inter-generational strife and every young kid’s sense of self-importance as the voice of the future. It’s also, like Assayas’ film, almost too personal: whatever cathartic worth the movie has for Chase finds little equal in the audience, for whom the weight and stakes aren’t nearly as much. Still, there’re strong performances aplenty to be admired, not least of all from oft-loathsome lead John Magaro and the late, great James Gandolfini. SO-SO.
There might not be a more interesting character study this year than Our Nixon, Penny Lane’s documentary forged from hours of intimate Super 8 footage shot by the disgraced president’s closest aides. Envisioning Tricky Dick as both ruthless political mastermind and insecure human, it’s an engaging piece that asks where man ends and monster begins. The result is engrossing, and while these tapes—confiscated as part of the Watergate inquiry and never before publicly seen—may provide less titillating material than many might have hoped, the way Lane weaves them together with PR-conscious phone calls makes of this an effective behind-the-scenes glance at one of America’s most oft-explored presidencies. For as much as we might like to think of Nixon’s acts as a shameful affront to the democratic process, might his actions not be indicative of the power-hungry beings that system fosters? Lane’s film thrives on leaving the matter open to our interpretation. RECOMMENDED.
A well-timed Netflix release for the prior two parts of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, whose capper Hope just opened in cinemas, emphasises the importance of understanding the lot as one super-narrative as well as a trio of standalone pieces. Faith, in the centre, is the weirdest and weakest, a vision of religious fundamentalism that’s undermined by odd comic efforts. Those scenes in which the bible-pushing Anna Maria literally wrestles would-be converts to the floor have the strangest sense of silliness to them, utterly at odds with the oft-unnerving imagery of self-flagellation. That’s not to say it’s an uninteresting piece: led by Maria Hofstätter’s startling performance, this is an apt portrait of the frightening outcomes of utmost devotion, lending a spiritual sense to Seidl’s overarching exploration of the idea of love in all its many, macabre forms. Yet for all its difficulties, it’s a film that never feels entirely genuine; it’s as though Seidl himself has little faith in Faith. WORTH WATCHING.
Far stronger is Love, the series’ point of departure and arguably its peak, which follows Anna Maria’s sister as she explores sex tourism in Kenya and struggles to accept the monetary motivations of her various young beaus. What’s fascinating is how balanced the blame here is: boosted by the stark shadow of colonialism, this character might seem a pointed criticism of lingering Western rapacity, and yet Seidl’s affords equal exploitative characteristics to his Kenyan characters. The result is a film of unlikely humanity, nihilistic in its worldview, certainly, but sympathetic too, able to appreciate our universal inability to ever really understand each other’s needs. Margarete Tiesel’s complex performance embodies that especially, being at once ugly in its ignorance and engrossing in its loneliness. In the end, as Seidl sees us, we’re all the selfish same, and yet no less pitiful for it. We’re all, however much we pretend not to be, so desperately human. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Prince Avalanche (Read our full review)
Not since… well, not since every single new Woody Allen film, truth be told… has a film been as widely proclaimed a “return to form” for its director as has Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green’s first indie offering since making the leap to studio comedy with Pineapple Express. And it is, in the sense of its being a resurgence of the aesthetic concerns that characterised his earliest work; what it isn’t, in any particular way, is a return to that erstwhile comedy. For as much as this miniscule road movie might invoke ideas of an America in crisis, its desperate clinging to potty humour renders it little more than a failed—if fascinating—effort to meld the dual tendencies of this interesting artist’s career to date. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch offer affable performances, but both they and their relationship lack definition beyond the basic; if it’s a return, it’s a rote one. SO-SO.
Sightseers (Read our full review)
Ben Wheatley, meanwhile, remains on form with his third effort Sightseers, another audacious intermingling of the most ordinary characters with an extraordinary affectation for grim grotesquery. The script, this time, comes courtesy of leads Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, whose off-screen romance lends a commendable credibility to its onscreen equivalent as they tour the English countryside in a tiny caravan and end up indulging in a spate of semi-accidental murders, as you do. It’s material right up Wheatley’s street, and he meets the laugh-out-loud oddity with a brutal bloodiness that makes of this much more than standard horror-comedy fare. Yet still, the tones never quite congeal, and Sightseers’ keenness to question its and our morality can’t but clash with its imbalanced celebration of these rugged renegades. It makes it Wheatley’s weakest yet, which is praising with faint damnation; there just isn’t anyone out there making movies as enjoyably out-there as this. RECOMMENDED.
Comparisons to Catfish abound in Talhotblond, albeit more as a means to show how this story should be told than any marker of achievement. Barbara Schroeder’s true-crime documentary is a dreadful dearth of drama, stunning considering the sheer fascination its source material commands. Recounting the story of an impotent middle-aged family man who found a sense of self in a virile online alter-ego, its eventual—and immediately stated—end in murder makes of this a fascinating tale, yet one rendered unbearably boring in Schroeder’s approach. There’s an extended sequence about ten minutes in length where we read an IM conversation in real-time; it’s amazing to see how dull it all becomes when given such uncinematic treatment. Indulging in all manner of TV true crime documentary tropes, it manages magnificently to strip all life from the case, adding the insult of ignorant fear mongering to the injury of an utter inability to tell a story. AVOID IT.
Acclaimed for his role in defining the New Hollywood with The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich ought to earn equal esteem for his 1968 debut Targets, which employs Boris Karloff in a self-aware story of the evolution of horror across the ages. Soft-spoken as ever, Karloff’s essentially playing himself as an aged actor whose chillers seem almost comic in comparison to the real-life horrors of Vietnam-era America. Funded by Roger Corman—hilariously, under the condition that Bogdanovich reuse footage from the dreadful The Terror, which he does as well as was probably possible—it’s exemplary of the kind of excellence that could emerge from the approach the practical producer took to making movies on the cheap. Additionally boosted by a brilliantly game Karloff happily sharing drunken scenes with Bogdanovich’s frustrated director character, Targets is a film that’s variously hilarious and horrific, emblematic of its time yet effective across all. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Angels’ Share (Read our full review)
Currently at work on what he’s claimed to be his final narrative feature, Ken Loach must not realise how much more joyous the world is for his and regular writer Paul Laverty’s unique brand of comically-inflected social(ist) realism. As interesting as he is a documentarian—this year’s The Spirit of ‘45 is an enlightening, if imbalanced, affair—films like The Angels’ Share are Loach’s defining strength: uproarious small-time adventures crammed with colourful characters and a healthy appreciation of real-world worries. Paul Brannigan makes an excellent debut here as a new father determined to have his son escape the social cycle to which he fell victim. The eventual caper conceit that emerges is, albeit a conduit to a whole lot of fun, perhaps a disappointing disavowal of the more interesting socio-political ideas at hand. Still, The Angels’ Share is wildly and wonderfully fun, bursting with humour and heart no matter who unlikely it becomes. RECOMMENDED.
The Short Game
An interesting choice to launch Netflix’s original documentaries, The Short Game casts a glance over the phenomenon of an international youth golf tournament, trailing eight participants of vastly different social backgrounds through all the typical ups and downs of the sporting life. Sharply shot and stuffed with scenes of kiddish cuteness, it’s a deceptive film indeed, using a veil of sweetness to mask its curious toothlessness: passably pleasant an experience as it is, it’s strange that The Short Game never deigns to exploring the evident cultural and class chasms that exist between its subjects. Evidently shooting for a family-friendly film, director Josh Greenbaum’s motivations are clear; easy viewing needn’t preclude engaging with issues, though, and the failing here is glaring. Still, this is a solid way to set the scene for many more docs to come, including in the New Year the acclaimed The Square, a film that’s sure not to pull the same punches. WORTH WATCHING.
Where the Buffalo Roam
Long before Johnny Depp bequeathed pop culture his wide-eyed take on the wild antics of the infamously intoxicated journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there was Bill Murray’s nonchalant turn in Where the Buffalo Roam. Opening with a scene of shouting and shooting—or writing, as it’s intended to be—and only escalating from there, it’s a movie that indulges entirely in the Thompson mythos as it explores his relationship to his attorney and the source for the same in Fear and Loathing. Peter Boyle is perfect as he, every bit as unpredictable as Thompson and often even more eccentric. Perhaps inevitably, the maddening looseness of the narrative consigns it to a fate of shapeless sprawl, albeit one punctuated with furiously funny asides. Where the Buffalo Roam, in all its myriad misgivings, might strangely be the most apt movie of Thompson’s life we could ever concoct. WORTH WATCHING.
Wish You Were Here (Read our full review)
Deftly delineating its dual narrative strands of past and present with Jules O’Loughlin’s marvellous lensing, Kieran Darcy-Smith’s feature debut Wish You Were Here makes ethically agonising the tale of two couples whose holiday in Cambodia is cut short when one of their party goes missing. Soaring on the strength of powerful performances from Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price, it’s a relationship drama masquerading as a mystery, albeit one that eventually comes crashing does as the scripting can’t quite sustain the story’s demands. It’s no failure, mind: this is an affecting and absorbing piece to work whose failures seem accentuated only by the potential for greatness they scarper; the film that emerges, if not the best it could be, remains very fine indeed. Edgerton’s exceptional, keeping us guessing as to just how much he knows, and retaining our sympathies even when we find out. Wish You Were Here may falter, but it never fails to find its feet again. RECOMMENDED.