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.

Gravity

 
Astronaut for the faint of heart.
 

Gravity (2013)

As I’ve discussed before, I hadn’t really been paying attention to Gravity until it released its first amazing, minimalist trailer. Suddenly, it was my mission to see this film and the long wait between U.S. and U.K. release dates, peppered with extremely positive word of mouth, coupled with the fact it was burning up the box office Stateside, was agonising. Despite describing my frothing excitement a mere line ago, I actually saw it over a week ago, but I found myself in the position of not quite knowing what to say about it all, so I did the brilliant thing of umming and ahhring over it and procrastinating until it’s past the point of relevance, because that’s what all the best film critics do. Anyway, (sort of) finally made up my mind now. Hey, at least I’m open about it. You wouldn’t get that sort of honesty from the stuck up “what I say goes” dogmatic tossers in the press.

“It’s going to be one hell of a ride.”

The basic story of Gravity concerns Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who is sent on her first space exploration mission to test some smart science-y type thing. She’s accompanied by veteran astronaut and anecdote machine Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), but they soon run into trouble as a deadly band of space debris, moving faster than Superman with the squits, slams into the space station and bollockses things up. Now, Stone and Kowalski have to battle the elements in one of the most inhospitable environments imaginable and the whole thing becomes a fight for survival for a chance to return to Terra Firma. Gravity has some fantastic things going for it. There’s a scene from the opening of Connery Bond film You Only Live Twice where an astronaut gets his lifeline cut and just drifts away into the inky nothingness of space that really stuck with me as a kid and the concept is no less terrifying here. Helplessly spinning into the void and being completely exposed to the chaotic space elements is a brilliant idea and certainly something that had my heart racing. It taps into one of those fears you probably never knew you had. It’s like Jaws in space, but don’t bloody quote me on that. Both Bullock and Clooney are stunt cast to save time and do admirably in their parts. It’s easy to forget how good they both are, especially Bullock, who tends to get a rough time when it comes to weighing up her contributions in other flicks. I’m a big fan of director Alfonso Cuarón, who did the brilliant and often overlooked Children of Men back in ’06.

So, what about all this indecision I mentioned in the opening? Well, on the technical side of things, Gravity is brilliant. I’m not just talking about the impressive special effects, although they are worth writing home about. Structurally, it’s a solid film, with the characters and pace just right for the story it wants to tell. The thing is, I just didn’t feel it as I kept getting hung up on a number of elements. Firstly, the dialogue was pretty damn mediocre. I could have done with a more naturalistic take on the whole thing as talking about what they miss back home and the pros and cons of space life has been done to death and certainly done better elsewhere. They didn’t talk like real people, which I found to be quite distracting. Secondly, stop me if you heard this one before- a lady has to battle some ungodly horror in space, mostly alone, has a scene where she strips down to her undercrackers and leads a film thick with themes of motherhood and taking responsibility for one’s own life back on Earth. Now, I’m pretty sure that Cuarón has seen Alien, like 98% of all humanoids with eyes have, so that became an issue for me too. That’s not to say Alien should have the monopoly on such things, but it was handled with a defter touch back in the late ’70s. There are some great moments though and if you do manage to catch a last gasp screening, by sure to watch the short film companion piece when you get home, which ties into the film nicely and is very well done.

I saw the IMAX 3D version of Gravity and I felt it was worth every extra penny. I can’t imagine it working nearly as well on DVD. To me, Gravity belongs to the same camp as Avatar in the way that they both work better as Disneyland/Captain Eo type experiences than they do as actual films. The effects and the zero gravity stuff are jaw-dropping and well worth seeing on the biggest screen possible. The 3D is used to great effect and I didn’t tire of seeing dimensional things floating about inbetween the actor and the camera. It sidesteps one of the biggest problems of the gimmick (i.e. making big things look small) by its space setting where making things like the various space stations and astronauts look smaller doesn’t matter because they’re in the vast, seemingly endless vacuum of space. I would say that the 3D actually enhanced the viewing experience for once, which, if you’re keeping score is about four points to 3D and eleventy billion to Team 2D.

“You’ve got to learn to let go.”

By the time it was all over, I walked out entertained. It’s a thrill ride whilst it’s on, but on reflection it may not hold up to actual in-depth thought and dissection. I’ll reserve final judgement until it comes out on Blu-ray, stripped of its bells and whistles, because fun as it all was, I think the big-screen experience may have been making up for a lot of the film’s shortcomings. It’s been a while since I was this foxed when it came to the final judgement on a film and I haven’t decided if that’s brilliant or annoying yet. Time will tell.