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.

Only God Forgives

Like it or not, Only God Forgives is unforgettable.

Only God Forgives (2013)

2011’s Drive was like a sucker punch to the chops for me. I’d heard of Nicolas Winding Refn (NWR for shortsies) and seen the unconventional Tom Hardy showcase Bronson beforehand but I sat down knowing next to nothing when it came time to watch Gosling stoically toothpicking his way around L.A. I’ve caught up on most of his back catalogue now and thusly Only God Forgives didn’t have the same potential to wonderfully blindside me. Or so I thought.

“Time to meet the devil.”

Only God Forgives focuses on Julien (Ryan Gosling), an American drug smuggler living in Bangkok, who uses a Thai boxing club as a front for his illegal activities. Things get more complicated when his mother Crystal (Kristen Scott Thomas) visits wanting vengeance for the death of Julien’s brother and her firstborn son Billy (Tom Burke). What follows is a tale of existential angst and brutal violence. Most of it having something to do with the wrath of a man named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a cop with supernatural abilities and a penchant for doling out his own form of justice at the edge of a Bushido blade. Right off the bat, it’s important to note that this ain’t Drive 2: Hammertime. It’s very much in the vein of NWR’s more weirder previous works like Bronson and Valhalla Rising. It’s a surreal, almost nightmarish journey. Gosling’s Julien is another man of few words like his Driver character, but is battling (and some would say losing) a lot more demons and internal conflicts this time round. As a Gosfan, I was pleased. Kristen Scott Thomas gives us a purposely detestable, manipulative mother character as Crystal. Despite the reprehensible way she acts and the odious things she says, she’s completely fascinating and engaging. Vithaya Pansringarm is fantastic as Chang and his roaring rampage of revenge is compelling as fuck. You know shit’s going to hit the fan when he turns up, looking like you’ve just keyed his car and shat through his letterbox.

It’s very tough to get a handle on Only God Forgives, at least initially. I felt that at least for the first half, the film was holding me at arm’s length, refusing throw me a bone until I started connecting with it in the way it intended. The opening is slow and methodical, cutting from scenes of brutal violence to sleazy goings on in the Bangkok underworld. You’re not sure what’s real and what isn’t, thanks to Julien’s disturbing daydreams and reveries. My brain was working overtime trying to connect the sparse dots and coming up with nothing. However, once I started to let the film wash over me, I suddenly got it. It’s meant to be several steps in front of you. You just have to keep up until it decides it wants to start spinning a more cohesive yarn.

The thing that is hard to get away from is how goddamn beautifully it’s shot. I’ve said this with other films, but I really think you could take any frame from the film and hang it up on your wall as a piece of art. Primary colours reign supreme, ranging from seedy, pornographic red neons to cold and distancing  glacier blues.  Never has Bangkok looked more alluring and unnerving. The way the film is shot certainly helps you get through the “what the fuck is going on?” first half. Cliff Martinez’s score also compliments the awesome cinematography incredibly well. Time to add another movie soundtrack to my already ridiculously massive collection.

Despite playing coy buggers and keeping you distanced for the most part, there’s one aspect that Only God Forgives wants you up close and personal for- the violence. The film takes a pornographic glee in its own brutality and it’s genuinely savage stuff. Apart from my main man Chang and his mad sword skillz, there’s one torture scene in particular that will be etched on my frontal lobe for the foreseeable future. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say when you hear the line “Remember girls, no matter what happens… keep your eyes closed.” You may want to heed the same advice. I was flinching like a motherfucker. Having said that, the highlight for me is a fight between Julien and Chang. Everything from the pounding music to the setting is brilliant and will almost definitely feature in my Scenes of the Year list.

It’d be easy to dismiss Only God Forgives as “pretentious”, especially with its occasionally heavy-handed symbolism. There’s a preoccupation with hand imagery and huge Oedipal overtones in the relationship between Julien and Crystal. Thing is, it’s done with such skill, I didn’t give a shit about whether the film was intellectually overreaching or not. People tend to use the word “pretentious” incorrectly to describe anything of higher intelligence than a ham sandwich or something that doesn’t lay its cards out on the table straight away. This pisses me off as it breeds contempt for anything attempting more than loud noises and explosions. I think NWR and crew understand what they’re doing. They may not be breaking new ground in terms of imagery or whatever, but I don’t know how to end this sentence so fuck you.

“Want to fight?”

Only God Forgives is a strange one. It’s an experimental, disquieting film that’s both beautiful and repugnant. It’s blindsided me in a completely different way to Drive. I’ll need to see it again to see if I can squeeze any more understanding out of it. However, even if a second viewing doesn’t warrant any more answers, I’ll be happy. It’s nice being foxed by a film sometimes. It’s a rare thing. Would I recommend it ? I have no idea. Alls I know is that I thoroughly enjoyed it and my brain may take quite a while to recover from the bending and twisting it received.  Here’s looking forward to Only God 5gives in 2015.

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