Scenes of the Year 2013

When it comes to looking back at the cinematic year, most reviewers tend to do a “Best of” and a “Worst of” list, chronicling which films massaged their temples and which spat in their face. As you should know by now, I’m a kind of sexy maverick who doesn’t play by the rules. I decided to a “Scenes of the Year” list as it allows me to include a healthy mixture of some stellar and not-so-stellar titles. The only drawback is that in doing this, I exclude the more talky, cerebral films that I enjoyed and were released this year, because they don’t really lend themselves to scene by scene evaluation. These are just my favourites- the ones I couldn’t wait to talk about as soon as the film ended. This isn’t an objective list of the best scenes of the year, to attempt such a thing would be very difficult and tedious for me to write. So- in no particular order- here are my personal Top 10 Scenes of 2013.

1) Django Unchained – “Who’s your little friend?”

One criticism of Tarantino is that his films are made up of stand alone scenes that are stitched together by a vague thread. I can appreciate this point, even if I don’t entirely agree with it. However, his attitude toward filmmaking certainly meant it was quite easy to think of sequences from Django fit for this list and there were many contenders. However, the one scene that really stuck with me way after the credits rolled was Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his skull pal. To me, this typifies Tarantino. It’s a well-written, fucking barmy monologue where Candie explains the apparent inherent subservience of black people using the thoroughly discredited psuedo-science of phrenology. I’ve always found the fact that people believed that nodules in the skull spoke of deep personality traits completely fascinating, so I had a personal budding interest all ready to go. The thing I love about it though is that it really cements your hatred for Candie, with part of you wanting someone to forcibly shut his bigoted mouth and another part wanting him to carry on so you can hear the next demented thing that spills from his lips.  DiCaprio is on fire too, showing he can be properly menacing. The whole scene culminates with an unscripted masterstroke where Leo cuts his hand open on a glass and proceeds with the scene without missing a beat, adding a surreal element to the whole thing. I didn’t think I could respect him more than I already did, but damn, son. That’s commitment.

2) Pacific Rim – The Tokyo Showdown

In a year of disappointing summer tentpoles (Man of Steel, step forward and then fuck off), Pacific Rim was exactly what I wanted it to be and more. It’s probably my most rewatched film of this year. The one scene I freakin’ love though is the extended Tokyo sequence where Gipsy Danger takes on two Kaiju in a city-destroying series of scraps. Put simply, it’s like a good version of Transformers where hulking beasts beat seven shades out of each other and you can actually tell what’s going on and who’s hitting who. My favourite part is the fight with the second Kaiju in the rainy, neon-lit streets where Gipsy Danger brandishes an oil tanker as a club. It’s exactly as preposterous and enjoyable as you’d expect. There’s even a neat gag where the Jaeger’s fist smashes through an office block, destroying everything in its path, only to slow down at the apex of its reach and lightly tap a Newton’s cradle desk toy, setting the metal balls in motion. It’s a fun little bit in a titanic punch-up and proof that blockbusting entertainment is at its best when it doesn’t take itself so seriously.

3) Iron Man Three – “Barrel of Monkeys”

Whilst know-nothing twats didn’t like Iron Man 3 and publicly slated it because it wasn’t exactly the same as the first two films, I loved it. God Bless Shane Black.  I knew Iron Man 3 would feature on this list in some form, but it was a toss-up between this scene and the finale with tons of Iron Men. When it came down to it, despite the final battle avoiding the boring suit vs suit thumpfest ending that let the first two films down, it didn’t have me on the edge of my seat like the skydiving spectacle that was the “Barrel of Monkeys” sequence. It’s such an ingenious idea. It’s  completely built around Iron Man’s limitations. Basic set up is that a bunch of people are blown out of the back of an exploded Air Force One and Stark sets off in hot pursuit,  quickly analysing the falling bodies before swooping into action. The exchange below sets things up perfectly :

“How many are in the air?”

“Thirteen, sir”

“How many can I carry?”

“Four, sir”

Boom. You’ve got your stakes in a few seconds flat. Slick and efficient. If this was a Superman film or featured any other hero that could fly, they could do this whilst cartwheeling through the air. Stark has to use his brain to distribute the weight of the falling people evenly whilst they’re all hurtling to the ground. It’s genuinely thrilling and definitely one of the best action scenes of the year.

4) Frozen – “Let it Go”

Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. I thought Frozen was brilliant and the soundtrack was a real high point.”Let it Go” stands tall above the other songs for a number of reasons.  Firstly, this is a proper belter with a real “I Am What I Am” vibe. The song starts off quiet and rather self pitying, but soon evolves into an empowering barnstormer where Elsa (Idina Menzel) finally unleashes her true power after years of isolation and repression. Secondly, Menzel’s big voice sells the shit out of Elsa’s revelation and coupled with the beautiful animation it makes it a truly memorable moment and an instant Disney classic. As I said in my original review, I actually got goosebumps during this scene. I’ve watched the scene an embarrassing number of times on YouTube since and have pre-ordered the shit out of the Blu-ray. When Disney’s bad, it’s frustrating but easy to dismiss, but when it’s this good, there’s nothing else like it.

5) Behind the Candelabra – Dr. Jack Startz

Behind the Candelabra is definitely one of my favourite films of the year. Steven Soderbergh continues his insane streak of great films by not only doing a fantastic job of a Liberace biopic, but making it one of the darkest, funniest films I’ve seen in a long time. During one of the many, many fucked up scenes, Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes new beau Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) to get plastic surgery, intending for Scott to end up looking like Liberace himself as a younger man (!). This is all overseen by walking advert for the dangers of plastic surgery, Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe), a man with his face pulled so tight, you’re afraid it’ll split at any given moment. Lowe sells the character perfectly and is a complete joy to watch. There’s a bit during the consultation where Dr. Startz attempts to drink a glass of water but, due to his paralysed features, can’t swallow it properly and ends up dribbling it out the side of his mouth and sloshing it down his front. This little bit made me laugh so much I had to rewind it a good few minutes to catch up on what I’d missed.

6) The Lone Ranger – The William Tell finale

OK,  I didn’t like the film that much, but I don’t think The Lone Ranger deserves to feature on as many “Worst of the Year” lists as it has. There are plenty of big budget films out there that don’t even attempt what it tried to do. It didn’t wholly succeed, but it’s too weird and off-kilter to earn a complete panning. Plus, it has a cracking train finale scored by Hans Zimmer’s reworking of the classic William Tell Overture. It’s an innovative, hugely enjoyable sequence that features galloping horses in and on top of a speeding locomotive, genuinely funny beats involving Tonto and THAT GODDAMN MUSIC that could make a trip to the shops on a rainy Sunday an epic, pulse-pounding affair. Few scenes from 2013 made me want to stand up and applaud once they were over and this was one of that select few. It was definitely the talking point as soon as the credits rolled. It’s a shame the rest of the film didn’t match the same fun quality that this had, but it has to be said that no other film this year has had a more satisfying finale. There, I said it.

7) World War Z – Israel

Initially predicted as a box-office bomb, World War Z actually managed to do good business and was one of the more interesting blockbusters of the year. Everyone’s sick of zombies, with the whole notion of the walking dead being played out in almost every form of media. It’s not as sharp or satirical as the book, but the film was a very decent attempt at a new take on the old cliché. One of my favourite elements of the film was how the zombies moved en masse like a tower of army ants. The Israel sequence is incredibly exciting, combining political elements (Israel is protected from the outbreak because it merely had to finish the existing segregating wall around itself) with scenes of massive tension as the inhabitants start celebrating their safety a little too loudly, attracting the attention of the horde and causing the mass pile up seen above. World War Z succeeded in giving us a fresh twist on a tired old formula and that’s commendable.

8) Gravity – Space debris

Mild spoiler alert– There are multiple space debris scenes that feature in Gravity, but none of them have the impact of the first volley, which totals our heroes’ ship, sends it spinning out of control with poor Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attached before finally breaking and flinging her into the vast empty blackness of space. Christ, even just typing that was enough to get my stomach churning again. Yes, I did have a problem with the lackluster dialogue, but no-one can deny that Gravity is pure cinematic spectacle and an absolute thrill ride to boot. Instead of the amazing special effects being the focus, they’re used to service the story, not to be the main attraction, which is all kinds of rare. No other film had me gnawing at my knuckles with tension quite like it did. That initial scene is incredibly disorientating and downright unsettling, tapping into a fear I didn’t even know I had. Most importantly, it was completely unlike anything I’ve seen this year. Can’t say much more than that.

9) Only God Forgives – “Wanna fight?”

In this online age, difference of opinion is a given when it comes to films. No matter how positive the general consensus is on a film, you are guaranteed to find loud, dissenting voices calling it the worst thing since time began. Nothing has split opinion quite like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, with the film appearing on both “Best of” and “Worst of” lists equally. The sticking point for me is that even if you think the film’s themes and tone are bullshit, you can’t argue that it’s devoid of artistic merit. It’s a beautifully shot film, for one. I blame unreasonably high expectations after the stylish but infinitely more accessible Drive. Only God Forgives is a mood piece filled with all sorts of things that will make you wince and shift uncomfortably in your seat. The film’s visceral torture scene was a frontrunner for this list, but the scene where Julien (Ryan Gosling) squares off against Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) won out. Basically, what we see in this scene is the very definition of hubris. Julien thinks he can take the supernaturally powered Chang and gets soundly beaten without Chang breaking a sweat. He’s fighting a battle against his demons and getting annihilated. Factor in Cliff Martinez’s hypnotic synth-heavy soundtrack and you’ve got an unforgettable scene. Fuck the haters.

10) Fast and Furious 6 – The tank sequence

I actually respect the Fast & Furious series. In a climate where there are crusty old pieces of toss masquerading as old school action films to make some quick bucks (The Last Stand, The Expendables films, Bullet to the Head etc) F&F is the true spiritual successor to the heyday of dumb action flicks. It’s evolved into an A-Team type series where a gang of crooks are roped in to solve a problem, many bullets are fired and things blown up, but hardly anybody gets hurt. When it came time to watch F&F 6, I thought the tank scene was really well executed. From its “Oh, shit!” reveal onwards, it’s fast, innovative (the steel cable gun is a brilliant invention) and exciting. Whilst it does feature some spectacularly dumb moments, that’s par for the course as far as I’m concerned. It’s a highly enjoyable sequence full of the carnage one would expect when a speeding tank is involved. More of this sort of thing please.

So, that’s my list. It’s an odd one I know, but I had to be honest with myself. Here’s hoping 2014 throws up just as many interesting moments.

Django Unchained

Now that Potter’s done and dusted, time for your regularly scheduled programming. If you hurry, you can probably still catch Django Unchained in the cinemas, so hooray for relevance. I finally got to see it last week and it’s still buzzing around my head.

Django Unchained (2013)

Much like most people and things that are popular in this Internet savvy world, Tarantino is a polarising director. Some people can’t get enough of his mashing of genres and love of all things bloody whilst other people can’t stand his posturing bullshit and find him to be massively overrated. I belong in the former camp. There are very few Tarantinos I haven’t enjoyed and I really appreciate the passion for all things cinema that permeates all his work. Since its release, Django has been doing the controversy circuit, partly due to its subject matter and partly because American suburban mothers like appearing on the news to discuss violence and oh god won’t somebody think of the children. Meanwhile in a tragi-comic turn, their kids are at home eyeing up the unsupervised family stockpile of firearms as a solution to the bullying problems they’ve had at school that the mothers were too busy appearing on television to pay any attention to. It’s a fucked up world. Anyway- back on topic.

“Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”

Django Unchained follows Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave who is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz makes a deal with Django that if he points out his former slave drivers, the Brittle brothers, Schultz will make him a free man and help find his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is under the ownership of Southern plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his confidant Steven (Samuel L. Jackson). Cue the usual Tarantino roaring rampage of revenge. Of Tarantino’s films, Django is most like his previous effort, Inglourious Basterds in terms of it being a hyper-violent historical remix. I’d forgotten all about Jamie Foxx, but he makes a barnstorming return to the forefront of my mind as Django. He’s fantastic and gives a perfectly understated performance. Christoph Waltz gives us another memorable character in the form of Dr. King Schultz, who is best described as a Bizarro World Hans Landa. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an amazing turn as the detestable Candie and Samuel L. Jackson is a brilliant scary Uncle Tom figure. The only possible problem is with Kerry Washington’s criminally underused Broomhilda, who doesn’t get to do much.  I thoroughly enjoyed Django‘s story. It’s so rare for me to sit down and have no idea where the story is going or who’s going to do what. Modern film plots are usually so signposted and telegraphed I barely see the point in seeing anything more than the trailer. Django drew me in and then hit me with several plot turns that I couldn’t have anticipated.

The unavoidable talking point is the film’s setting as it takes place during the heyday of slavery, about two years before the Civil War.  Look- slavery is one of the ugliest things we as a species have done. There’s no getting away from that. As a privileged white male I realise it’s the furthest thing away from what I can fully appreciate and understand. There have been understandable cries of racism from several groups of people, with the now culturally irrelevant media whore Spike Lee accusing Django of  being “disrespectful” to his ancestors. Slavery has been one of those areas that has been off-limits to anything but reverence for a long time. I think it’s kind of refreshing to have Tarantino make a violent cartoon out of something so serious. To keep something, no matter how horrible, locked in a little box preventing it from being talked about in any manner but hushed respect is odd to me. Hey, people may avoid stuff like Roots and Amistad, but even thick types will go and see Django. To move on as a people, we sometimes have to face the dark side. At least us Brits faced up to what murdering and pillaging bastards we were whilst flying under the Empire’s flag, right?

Django is not a stony-faced exposé of the horrors of slavery, but it does confront you with some uncomfortable truths from time to time. There are two flavours of violence in Django: the realistic, palpable cruelty to slaves and the usual, over-the-top bloody fun. Never do the twain meet. Also, to people who have a problem with the film’s usage of the “n word”- grow up. This is superficial stuff. These were slavery times. It’d have been very strange to have the plantation owners calling their slaves “African-Americans” just for the modern audience’s benefit and comfort. It’s a bad word, yeah, but the difference between how the characters use it is very cleverly done. Watch how Schultz and Django use it compared to someone like Candie, it’s like ash in their mouths – only used as a necessity to keep their cover from being blown. I get the feeling that Tarantino wanted some of the controversy he received  There are some excellent bits including Django whipping the fuck out of a white slaver and a shot of blood splattering over some cotton fields that were bound to get a few tongues wagging.

Serious stuff aside, the film pops along at a fantastic pace.  It’s maybe slightly too long (a feeling not helped by the fact that the film has what feels like a climactic battle and then carries on for a further 20 minutes) but I was entertained every step of the way. The only things that broke my immersion were the appearances of Jonah Hill, purely because I was too busy thinking “hey, that’s Jonah Hill!” rather than paying attention to the story and Tarantino himself on fine non-acting form and doing a strange accent. These were only momentary things though and it was soon back to being brain-deep in awesome dialogue and decent directorship. Tarantino’s ear for amazing soundtracks serves him well again with a hugely eclectic mix of tracks ranging from Ennio Morricone to 2Pac. Some songs in Django just make the scene and I had a huge grin on my face when this happened.

The major successes of the film are Waltz, DiCaprio and Jackson. I’m inclined to talk less about Waltz because we all know he’s good.  His Dr. Schultz is every bit as erudite and charming as Basterds’ Landa, except you don’t feel bad for liking him. DiCaprio and Jackson were the real surprises for me. Leo’s never played this kind of character before. Candie thinks he’s sophisticated and enigmatic, but he’s really just pretentious and hateful. One of my favourite scenes in the film was when DiCaprio’s Candie is explaining through the use of Phrenology (a pseudo-science based on the shape and size of the skull) why black people are inherently subservient. It’s tension-filled and unpleasant. You want Candie to shut his vile mouth as quickly as possible, but at the same time, you’re utterly fascinated by what batshit thing he’s going to say next. When he wants to, Tarantino can ratchet up suspense with the best of them (see also: the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds). There’s a moment where Candie slams his hand down on the table, cutting his hand. This is real- DiCaprio accidentally cut himself and kept going despite the red stuff gushing from his hand. Wow. Jackson finally gets to play a role where it isn’t a “Holy shit, we got Samuel L. Jackson!” type part as seen in things like the Star Wars prequels, Snakes on a Plane and The Avengers. He’s awesome in this film. Whilst this isn’t the best critical statement to make, it’s worth saying that Django is the coolest film I’ve seen in a long damn time.

“I like the way you die, boy.”

I don’t want to just go on and on about how much I enjoyed Django. Tarantino’s a genre unto himself and I happen to be a big fan of what he does. Django isn’t going to change your opinion of him, whatever that may be. The guy consistently entertains me, what more can I say?