Nicolas Winding Refn

Early Bird Film Society’s Films O’ 2013!

Good evening and welcome to the EBFS review of the year (in film). Ahhhh…. 2013…. It seems a different, more innocent time. A time when the Academy saw fit to award Argo its highest honour at their annual, low-key shindig, despite their apparent belief that the film just popped into existence from nothing without any help from a director or anything. Cannes dropped to its knees over three hours of emotionally wrought, sapphic love in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, just to prove how stereotypically bloody French they are. Toronto, in a shameless attempt to hold onto it’s spot as “hot Oscar predictor”, hedged its bets and threw The People’s Choice Award at 12 Years a Slave, which is basically cheating. Venice and Berlin foisted their respective golden animal statues at Sacro GRA and Child’s Pose respectively. Two films so art-house and (eurgh) European that they have yet to see a release in either of the countries EBFS wanders around in. However, all of that backpatting, black tie dinnering, gladhanding was just window dressing compared to the (fanfare/family fortunes incorrect answer noise) annual verbal fist fight that has become the Early Bird Film Society’s Collection of Top Five Films And Some Bad Ones Of The Year! The title will be worked on.

Anyway, all four of us here at the global EBFS offices (Melbourne/Manchester Divisions) have picked our top five films that we saw at the cinema in 2013 based on a less than comprehensive release date schedule spanning two countries and poor recollection skills. It’s our list though, so don’t judge us and you’re welcome:

Top Five @DonDubrow

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2013)

Joss Whedon threw this Shakespeare adaptation together using his house, his wife, his friends and his deft ear for fast, witty dialogue. Delightfully playful, completely faithful and a little breath of fresh air amongst the towering mega franchises.

– DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown, completely ignoring any political subtext and a more brutal depiction of slavery for that reason. Great performances from Foxx and SLJ but Christophe Waltz’s warmth and DiCaprio’s gleeful evil earned them the plaudits. Extra points for surviving Tarantino’s inexplicable Australian accent which he’ll have to be brought to account for at some point.

ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

Divisive doesn’t even cover it. Nicolas Winding Refn’s desire to “violate” the audience came true with this lurid, neo fable of oedipal urges in Bangkok. Ryan Gosling’s easiest day at the office is a bleak and uncompromising, neon drenched nightmare set within the lowest parts of the human psyche. Maybe.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

Despite Spock’s presence, this embarrassingly colon free sequel was almost totally bereft of logic. Insane pacing and set pieces (and lens flare) and the worst kept secret of the year still made for a rip-roaring dash through a thousand tropes of the Star Trek universe all coated with JJ Abrams’ clever script reverses and cinema savvy. Best line delivery of the year too. Altogether now….”KHAAAAANNNNN!!”.

SPRING BREAKERS (2012)

Harmony Korine aims for the mainstream and thankfully misses with his visceral tale of hedonism and excess where the youth of America stop trying to be the best they can be and realise they no longer live in a country where anything is possible. Warning, contains James Franco saying “blue Kool-Aid” over and over and singing a Britney Spears song. Not for everyone.

Worst Film

After Earth (2013)

Will Smith “thinks” up an idea where he doesn’t play Will Smith but seventies Robert Duvall, his son convinces us that emoting is hard and M Night Shawaddywaddy directs? Ooh, it took a round of drawing straws to get one of EBFS into the cinema to begin with to gape open mouthed at a film with as much warmth, wit and charm as someone who bangs on a van at a sex trial. If this ruins Will Smith’s career (which it won’t), karmic film balance would at least creep back into the black….

Top 5 @stuartnbaillie

IRON MAN 3 (2013)

The award for best rug pull/slap in the fan boys faces goes to Shane Black’s exceptionally funny take on the superhero. RDJ nails it yet again as Tony Stark but the star of the show was Sir Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin/Trevor Slattery. Brilliant fun from start to finish.

GRAVITY (2013)

Adored by critics and loved by the public. Alfonso Cuaron’s marvelous film may have taken some fantastic scientific leaps in logic (seriously, look into it) but who cares, it was brilliant. Innovative and thoughtful this was on most critics top 5 lists. Ghost Clooney is my hero.

ALAN PARTRIDGE: ALPHA PAPA (2013)

The funniest film I’ve seen in ages. Steve Coogan inhibits a character better than any other actor of his ilk, (take note of how it’s done Mr. Ferrell) and does it to consistently hilarious effect. The lip synch to Roachford’s ‘Cuddly Toy’ and ‘the man fanny’ were two of my highlights. Excellent work from everybody involved.

– CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

Tom Hanks is as good as he’s been since he made me cry over losing  a chuffing volleyball. Special mention to debutant Barkhad Abdi who held his own against a hollywood legend, his turn as Somali pirate Muse was almost as good as Hanks’ titular hero. Intense,thrilling, fast paced and superbly directed (well-played Paul Greengrass) this was edge of the seat viewing. Worth it for the heartbreaking final scenes.

FROZEN (2013)

I’m a 35 year old man who likes boxing, MMA, rugby, NFL, horror movies and the 80’s back catalogue of ‘The Austrian Oak’ and Sly Stallone and yes….a Disney musical made my top 5. The music in this is as good as anything from the 90’s golden era. I’ll put ‘Let it Go’ up against ‘A Whole New World’ or ‘Be Our Guest’. It’s very funny thanks to a brilliant talking snowman and the message that you don’t need a man to feel loved plays totally against Disney’s apparent ethos.

Loved. Every. Second.

Worst Film

Only God Forgives (2013)

I thought long and ard about this. I nearly gave it to Anchorman 2 but as awful as that was it just didn’t make my blood boil as much as OGF. As beautifully shot and scored as this was it felt deliberately obtuse at times and constantly frustrating. I hate this film with a passion that burns with the fire of a thousand suns.

Top 5 by @noonanjohnc

-MANIAC (2012)

Elijah Wood is a maniac, maniac on the floor and he’s dancing like he’s never danced before. D’oh! He is NOT a maniac, maniac on the floor, dancing like he’s never danced before. He’s the puppy eyed, mumbling owner of a mannequin store, with an oedipal love for his dead mother. Oh and he likes to scalp women. Franck Khalfoun’s remake of the 1981 greasy cult classic, has the morals of American Psycho and the sheen of Drive. Shot from Wood’s POV, the film makes you an unwilling accomplice in his apologetic rampage (‘I won’t hurt you.’ He cries to one of his victims, before doing exactly that). Haunting, vicious and with a superb soundtrack, Maniac will stay with you for a long time. I suggest showering in Swafeger afterwards.

THE KINGS OF SUMMER (2013)

This tale of three lads building a house in the forest to escape their respective parents took me completely by surprise. Equal parts Stand by Me and The Hangover (Seriously), The Kings of Summer is brilliantly shot and hilarious. I’ve watched this several times now and it never fails to cheer me up. Pretty much every highlight includes either Nick Offerman’s grumpy sonuvabich father who continually fights with the local Chinese restaurant or Moises Arias as the alien-esque Biaggio; a boy who mistakes Cystic Fibrosis for being gay.

THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

Another coming of age film. This time from the writers of The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who also direct. Duncan is a boy forced on a summer break with his mum and her somewhat dominant boyfriend. Whilst trying to find something fun to do, Duncan ends up working at Sam Rockwell’s rundown waterpark. Everyone is on fire in this film. Patriculalty Rockwell who has never been better as the lethargic Lothario with *all together now* a heart of gold.

THE ROCKET (2013)

I’ve got two Aussie films in my top ten. Ivan Sen’s noirish police procedural Mystery Road and this from documentarian Kim Mordaunt. I’ve gone with The Rocket simply because it’s probably the most accessible. A film that is both heartbreaking and joyful, The Rocket tells the story of a young boy just trying to prove his worth to his family when all those around him consider him to be bad look. I’ve told people it’s like a children’s story for grown-ups, and I think it’s the most succinct way I can put it.

GRAVITY (2013)

What can I say that hasn’t already been said on this page. I’m not going to waste your time. If you’ve seen it and loved it, you know why it’s on my list. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading and see if you can find a cinema that’s still showing it. I’ll wait.

Worst Film

– I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2

I’ve seen a lot of tosh in 2013. Hell, I saw three Dolph Lundgren films alone. However, absolutely none of them, not even Diana, could be considered the worst of 2013 when you have I Spit on Your Grave 2 vying for your attention. This shitpile of a movie is everything that’s wrong with most horror films today. Replacing subtly and scares with vicious and nasty, the film tries to justify the brutal hour long rape and abuse of its protagonist by letting her have the final third of the film to exact her revenge. No movie has ever made me as angry as this Fanta bottle full of piss.

Top 5 by @noonanhannah

– STOKER (2013)

I must confess to having mixed feelings about Park Chan-wook’s English language debut upon first viewing. But Stoker is one of those films whose utter dedication to atmosphere stays with you months after viewing until you begrudgingly admit that actually, that was rather brilliant. Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode all put in stellar performances and Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography is positively lush. But the real star of Stoker is Wentworth Miller’s haunting script, a brilliant love letter to the twisted family shenanigans of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2013)

Flawed? Yes. Overlong? Absolutely. But Derek Cianfrance’s follow up to Blue Valentine is a brooding character piece that asks for a gamut of emotional responses from its audience, most of which it successfully achieves. Plus, it threatened to melt the internet by giving us a scene where Ryan Gosling dances with a dog to Bruce Springsteen, and if that’s not what you want out of a film, then we could never be friends.

THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s ode to coming-of-age films is beautifully judged, wonderfully directed and supremely enjoyable. Allison Janney puts in a brilliant performance as a fabulously awful drunk, and Sam Rockwell becomes the best friend any kid could want. There’s really not much else to say about the Descendants pair’s summer outing that I didn’t cover in my original review.

FROZEN (2013)

Disney’s wintery delight is a strong step forward for the house of mouse, and a beautifully woven tale of sisterly love, sassy reindeers and singing snowmen. But more to the point, the songs are fabulous and if you’re not singing ‘Let It Go’ by the end then you have a heart of ice.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

The second of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek outings is a two-hour exercise in fan wankery at its absolute finest and, forgive me, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Benedict Cumberbatch e-nun-ci-aaaates his way into the British bad guy canon of Hollywood, and anyone who says it isn’t entertaining watching just how far those nostrils flare is frankly a liar. Star Trek Into Darkness is a film that fiercely says no to logic, and yes to “LOOK! SHINY THINGS!” so excuse me for being a magpie.

Worst film

– OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

Most likely not the ACTUAL worst film of the year (I never got round to that Shyamalan affair with Will Smith and his young clone) but certainly the most souless and tedious film I spent money on. James Franco is sleepy and disengaged in this needless and saccharine A list pantomime. There’s a terrible CGI monkey sidekick, a creepy porcelain girl I swear I met in a nightmare in my youth, and the dullest of Bruce Campbell cameos. I love The Wizard of Oz, I love Sam Raimi, but this was such a disappointment.

So there you have it. Did you think any of us were blisteringly right? Howling wrong? Let us know.

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Drive (2011)

Drive is not a bad film. Far from it. You do find yourself caught up in the adventures of Ryan Gosling’s may-as-well be mute, The Driver.  But let’s not pretend we’ve travelled further than b-movie territory. The Driver is equal parts stunt man, getaway driver and racecar driver. Women want him, rednecks that hire him for robberies want to be him. He’s uber-cool. All this, despite wearing a silver jacket and constantly chewing on a toothpick like a nu-rave James Dean.

Into his life walks Carey Mulligan, who is only challenged by Emily Watson for most likely to burst into tears at the drop of a kitten. Mulligan brings with her a son and criminal husband who owes money to a local mobster. On attempt to woo Mulligan, Gosling offers to help the husband rob a pawn shop that will see his debt cleared. Then it all goes a bit Pete Tong. Not that the Driver listens to Pete Tong. He’s too fucking cool.

Walking around in skinny jeans and smiling like a 12 year old that’s got his first erection, Gosling borders on the edge of slapable. His ‘five minute’ speech being a particular low point of arsery. An over-rehearsed monologue that is sure to be recited by various university tits on a night in some pound a pint hellhole. That the film manages to make us care at least a bit for him by the end of the film is a feat in itself.

To say all this, suggests that the film isn’t worth watching. I guess if I’m criticising anything then it’s the reviews that have come before this. Drive is dangerously close to the cinematic equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. For all its plaudits and praise, underneath its aggressively faux-80s soundtrack, it’s really a wafer thin plot that would be sniffed at had it been done by other genre emulating directors. Cough, Tarantino, cough. There’s a boy’s club that suggests that if you don’t like Drive then you didn’t ‘get it’ because it’s arthouse. That Drive is classed as arthouse is amusing in itself, as it appears the definition of arthouse now means sloooowing things down for no clear reason. After a while, it starts feeling like a directors’ in-joke or, at the very least, a homage to Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace.

Some will be put off Drive because of what has been said before and it’s a shame. Once it gets into top gear, it is a tense little number that you’ll really enjoy. You’ll just wonder what all the fuss was about.

Pusher Trilogy (1996-2005)

As Drive takes in millions of dollars and is heralded as a birth of a new cool movement in cinema it’s probably a good time to finally sit down and watch the Pusher trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s sharp crime dramas, set in Copenhagen and shot with an eye for the real.

Every country in the world has a film like the first Pusher. A street level view of crime in the capital, hand to mouth criminals struggling to gain a foothold in the underworld. Learning the tricks and taking the consequences for their mistakes. Think La Haine or Mean Streets for the obvious comparisons. It’s probably not unfair to say that Refn watched and enjoyed those two films immensely. Such is the sprawling tree map of cinema influences

Pusher gives us Frank, a tough dealer of whatever he can lay his hands on, played by Kim Bodnia with a swaggering confidence that recalls Tom Sizemore before the cocaine and dildos took over. He’s accompanied by Tonny, a tattooed skinhead with wild eyes and a vacuum cleaner approach to drugs, alcohol and hedonism in general. Together thay end up owing money to Milo, a dealer a few rungs up the ladder. Not original except for the setting (who would’ve thought Coepnhagen had crime!) Pusher nevertheless is compelling, entertaining work. Not striving for social commentary like La Haine nor as fanciful as Mean Streets.

Now comes the intersting part; nine years later Refn revisits some of the characters from Pusher in two further films. Sequels, as Goldman intoned, are whore’s movies, made solely for profit and without creation as the primary motive. Still, these don’t feel like whore’s films. If more money was available then it sure isn’t on the screen. If anything these two are bleaker than the original, without any of the black comedy or buddy buddy to keep you going they feel more real, more visceral and at times even heartbreaking.

Tonny is the focus of Pusher 2: With Blood on my Hands. Tonny (played with startling bravery by Mads Mikkelson, witness his scene with two prostitutes.) emerges from prison scarred both mentally and physically, sexual abuse is alluded to and all his drug addictions remain firmly in check.He’s almost spent elementally and seems to have aged twenty years since we first met him. He’s thicker in the middle, lined around the eyes and eroded somehow, leaving a vulnerable core. Tonny searches out his father who doesn’t love him and in turn discovers he is a father of a child he wants nothing to do with. The ending is a testament to the power of films to instill an undeserved emotion, somehow, despite how reprehensible the character of Tonny is and the no doubt hard existence in store for his child there is an unashamed sense of hope by the time the credit’s roll.

Pusher 3: I am the Angel of Death (the subtitles make them seem like exploitation movies) deals with Milo, the richer, older dealer from the original. All set on the day of his daughter’s 25th birthday (surely a Godfather nod), Milo has to deal with a set of increasingly problematic circumstances that wouldn’t be out of place in an Eddie Murphy film if it didn’t involve mass murder, human trafficking and torture (although…..). Milo is getting on, no longer as frightening as he was and looking over his shoulder for a new breed of tough immigrant criminals. Pusher 3 is the darkest one, dealing with ageing, death and no hope for better in the future, it also has the grisliest scene. Milo and his old friend Radovan share an elongated body disposal scene that makes the ones in Pulp Fiction and Nikita seem tame.

Through the making of 2 and 3 Refn has rounded out what were very two dimensional and stereotypical characters into fully fledged humans with feelings, hopes, dreams and desires. He’s also retroactively improved the first one in the process. This isn’t a clarion call for all films to have two sequels or for the original to have been seven hours long it’s just interesting to see what can be done with some careful thought and a little bit of laying on of pathos.

In the end though the Pusher trilogy refuses to condemn it’s characters, nor absolve them of their actions and as such, walks a slightly higher line than many grubby little crime flicks.The Pusher‘s fall into neither exploitaton of nor the glamourising of a genre it makes a welcome addition to.