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.

Iron Man 3

It’s been a while since I’ve done an honest-to-goodness film review and what better way to break that lazy streak than to weigh in on Iron Man 3, arguably the start of 2013’s summer blockbuster season.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Circa 2008, the first Iron Man film found itself in a similar position to this year’s Man of Steel, having the weight of not only a franchise, but an entire interconnecting universe on its shoulders. It’s not entirely the same though, as Iron Man was and still is nowhere near the cultural icon that Superman is. As you know, Iron Man did ridiculously well at the box office thanks in part to its snappy dialogue and being a fantastic showcase for Robert Downey Jr., all of which kicked off Marvel’s Phase One (which would eventually culminate in The Avengers four years later) with a bang. Iron Man 3 on the other hand, has Phase Two to launch- a move that will end in The Avengers 2. It’s all go at chez Marvel, I tell thee.

You’re nothing more than a maniac. I’m not afraid of you. No politics here: just good old fashioned revenge!”

After his traumatic experiences in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t sleep and has anxiety issues. Live-in girlfriend and Stark CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to help Tony with his mental health but is finding herself pushed away by Stark’s suit-building obsession and constant technological tinkerings. Same goes for pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who finds himself donning a more jingoistic, red, white and blue version of the War Machine armour dubbed the “Iron Patriot”. Soon, a couple of people from Stark’s past show up, including sleazy businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and brilliant scientist and one night fling Maya (Rebecca Hall). This is all capped off with the terrifying presence of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist leader who threatens the U.S. over video broadcasts and carries out seemingly unpredictable bombings with no trace of any device used. When one of these bombings puts long time bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in the hospital, Stark takes it personally and issues a challenge to the Mandarin. The story is great. It takes Stark back to a state similar to where he was in the first film, alone and forced to rely on his own wits and ingenuity to survive. Tony is genuinely vulnerable in this film, rather than Iron Man 2‘s Stark who was a smug, wackier-than-thou dick who then had a woe-is-me poisoning thing going on which didn’t work. Everyone here puts in a killer performance, especially Downey Jr. who reminds us exactly why he’s an A-Lister. Of the new recruits, Guy Pearce is bloody brilliant. Rebecca Hall is underused in the interesting role of Maya, but she does a lot with what she’s given. It’ll be Ben Kingsley who will set most tongues wagging though. He absolutely walks away with the film tucked under one arm. It’s an interesting take on the Mandarin and I wonder what hardcore comic book fans will make of it.

I had two fears when it came to this film. One, Black wouldn’t be allowed to do his own thing and would be shackled to established canon and genre conventions and two, it was going to end in the same way the first two films did with an uninspired metal-on-metal thumpfest. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 allays those concerns. From the very beginning, the film sets out its stall. It’s clear that this is very much a Shane Black film. The film opens on a very Kiss Kiss Bang Bang note with some unreliable RDJ narration over slow footage of Iron Man suits being torched. Then, the film completely wrong-footed me by scoring the opening credits with one hit wonders Eiffel 65’s  one hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, a song I haven’t thought about in around 15 years. The incredulous, confused reaction this got in the cinema was delicious. This is one of many rug-pulls the film contains and in a genre plagued by predictability and cliche, it’s very welcome. If you pop open the film’s hood you’ll find more evidence of the film’s Black-ness beyond these superficial elements. The dialogue is fast, sharp and packed full of one-liners. The whole film is like a spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with the film unspooling like a Johnny Gossamer-esque tale, complete with bombastic and kick-ass end credits (which you should know by now you have to stay to the end of, you douchetools.)

Iron Man 2 isn’t the worst film ever, but it serves as a handy comparison point. Practically everything that IM2 did wrong, IM3 gets right. Where the War Machine angle didn’t really convince in IM2, Iron Patriot works beautifully in IM3. Black and Drew Pearce have managed to finally do something with Rhodey and convinced me to join Team Cheadle after being unimpressed by his performance in Iron Man 2. The Patriot side story runs parallel with Tony’s and is completely compelling in its own right. When the two storylines finally cross, Iron Man 3 becomes the best buddy picture around, with shades of Riggs and Murtaugh coupled with Harry Lockhart and Gay Perry. I loved the third act of this film. It was slightly sloppily executed at times, as most of the suits were red and gold blurs rocketing around, but by gum, is it fun. It’s kinetic with being disorientating and epic without being nonsensical. Basically the exact opposite of a Transformers finale. Plus, most importantly, it’s not a yawnsome suit-on-suit scrap. In fact, a lot of the action is incredible inventive. My personal favourite fight is when Tony has to defeat a large number of hired goons using only one glove and one boot from the Iron Man suit. Also, the falling-out-of-a-plane, “barrel of monkeys” sequence glimpsed in the trailer is truly astounding.

Despite having spunked out all the glistening praise above, Iron Man 3, like so many things in life, is not perfect. I really liked this take on the Mandarin, but I can’t help but wonder what a slightly more faithful interpretation would have been like. Maybe I’m just a massive hypocritical meathead who likes seeing the same things over and over again, but I suppose this isn’t a big concern. I have a feeling both Pearce and Black don’t really rate comics much. The film is based on the fantastic Extremis run of comics (a storyline that both previous Iron Mans borrowed from) but deviates pretty heavily from them. The film does well with it as a framework and maybe it wouldn’t have worked on the screen, but I would have loved to have seen Extremis done justice. Also, I wanted to see more of the Hulkbuster suit.

“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”

Iron Man 3 rocks the shit. It’s the best one of the trilogy and puts part 2 to shame.  It’s funny, the actual act of writing really gets to the bottom of how I feel about a film. Say I saw an underwhelming film. I’ll start off with an idea of a few points I want to make and the final star rating and during the process start feeling incredibly annoyed and revise my writing accordingly like in my Burt Wonderstone review. Here, it’s the exact opposite. I enjoyed the film hugely but was happy seeing it just the once. However, all this talk of snappy dialogue, daring story decisions and cracking action has made me start planning a second visit to the cinema to see it again. If that isn’t a sound endorsement I don’t know what is. Much like nearly all of Shane Black’s back catalogue (especially Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) this is highly recommended.