This week we cast our eyes forward to upcoming summer blockbuster season and discuss the films and film marketing trends we expect to see, along with some predictions for what will be the hits and misses of this big, brash season in cinema.
There’s always a sense of urgency as we near the end of another calendar year, and the urge to cram as many as-yet-unseen films into the last few days means I always wait until the dust has settled and the deadline has been irrevocably passed before I attempt to review the previous 12 months.
2013 may well go down as one of the great movie years, as 1999 and 2007 have done so recently, with an incredible wealth of cinematic achievements emerging from all corners of the globe. Ironically this seems to have happened despite the summer blockbuster season proving weaker than usual, with bloated sequels, remakes and superhero properties saturating the marketplace to the point of suffocation.
While 2013 couldn’t quite compete with 2012 Festageddon – mostly due to financial constraints forcing me back into full-time employment albeit briefly – I nevertheless managed to attend the Okinawa International Movie Festival in Japan, Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea and of course, Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, USA. Throughout the year, however, Hong Kong hosts a cavalcade of film festivals, and there is always something exciting going on. From the tentpole Hong Kong International Film Festival and accompanying HK Filmart in March, the spin-off HK Summer IFF and its newly-launched year-round Cinefan programme, to the always-excellent Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in October, we are always kept cinematically well-nourished.
Beyond that, the European Film Festival, French Cinepanorama, Jewish Film Festival, Russian Film Festival, Lesbian & Gay Film Festival all helped great new films from around the world make it to Hong Kong’s fair shores. As if that wasn’t enough, the sterling work of the Hong Kong Film Archive gave me the chance to see classics from Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau on the big screen, seminal westerns from John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone, a series of restored Billy Wilder & Marlene Dietrich collaborations, as well as masterpieces of Hong Kong Cinema in their long-running 100 Best Movies series – and so much more besides.
This year I was also gifted the opportunity to interview a number of filmmakers for various publications, not least an expansive discussion with South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho about his fantastic new science fiction epic, Snowpiercer. I also had a marathon telephone interview with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn for new digital film magazine, Verite, in which we discussed his entire career – from his breakout debut Pusher, to shooting Miss Marple TV movies, his Cannes Best Director win for Drive and his latest hallucinogenic thriller, the Bangkok-set Only God Forgives. I also talked on a number of occasions to Juno Mak about his new film, Rigor Mortis, and discussed the current state of action cinema with Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning director John Hyams, and Hong Kong rising star Philip Ng.
As if all this wasn’t enough, I was also delighted to have been invited onto a number of different podcasts over the course of the year, to discuss various films and filmmakers about which I am passionate. My dear friends Tim Buel and Jeremy Kirk of The Golden Briefcase invited me onto their show back in January to mark the release of Kim Ji-woon’s Hollywood debut, The Last Stand, by discussing South Korean Cinema. In February, Greg Sahadachny invited me on his Debatable Podcast to help promote the Full Disclosure project we had just launched over at Twitch. In May I appeared on a two-part episode of Felix Tsang and Charlotte Dockreay’s Dear HK podcast to discuss our most anticipated films of the summer, and in September I returned to The Auteur Cast to pick up their dissection of the James Bond series. This time, I guested on 7 episodes, each dedicated to one of Roger Moore’s outings as 007.
I rounded out the year by making two guest appearances on the Masters of Cinema podcast, dedicated to discussing the classic world cinema releases of Eureka’s boutique label in the UK. I appeared on two episodes, firstly to talk about Shindo Kaneto’s brilliant horror film Onibaba, and secondly as one of two guests on their year-end wrap-up show. In each instance, I had a fantastic time, did my best to pimp The Society For Film, and thank all those involved for having me on.
And so, finally, on to my favourite films of 2013. It has truly been an epic year, not just in the films on offer, but in just how many I managed to see. At final count, I watched 583 during the year, including 300 new releases that could be considered 2013 films. From that enormous list, I was faced with choosing just ten to represent what I enjoyed and appreciated more than any other. It was frankly, impossible.
At the half-way point, Fernando and I made Top 5 lists of our favourite films of the year so far, and discussed them here. At that time, my Top 5 looked like this:
While I still stand by all of those films today – every one is excellent in its own right – only one of them remains on my final Top 10, and another film that I saw in the first half of 2013 has moved up and into the list as well. What does this all mean? Frankly, very little. So much of this kind of exercise is determined by your current mood at any given time, and your memories, thoughts and opinions of a certain film will ebb and flow on a daily – if not more frequent – basis. Or maybe that’s just me and I’m petrified about leaving something off my list and somehow being seen as a lesser film critic for having done so. Let’s not get into the fact that local distribution deals have kept me from seeing a number of the films being touted by US critics as the best of the year: The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle and Nebraska. But hey, at least that means the run-up to the Oscars is gonna have some great treats in store.
Just to hold off the moment of truth for a little longer, these are my three biggest disappointments of 2013:
In each case, these were films I approached with a certain degree of expectation, either due to the past pedigree of the filmmaker at the helm, or simply because I like watching a wise-cracking cop waste bad guys on public holidays. However, each of these films failed miserably to come anywhere close to meeting those expectations. Pacific Rim probably retains the most respectability from these three, for the simple reason that it really does look incredibly good. To The Wonder was an interminable monotonous chore from start to finish, and the only thing keeping me in my seat for two hours was that I don’t get too many opportunities to simply gaze upon Olga Kurylenko. Otherwise, all three of these films let me down, bigtime.
One other thing that I like to do over at Twitch is to publish a list of my favourite Asian films every six months, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I see disproportionately more Asian films than most people so it’s a great opportunity to throw the spotlight on some smaller films that may otherwise slip through the cracks, but it also alleviates the burden for me to pack my year-end Top 10 with Asian films in order to meet some projected expectation. I watch films from all over the world, and I like many of those I see. Just because I live in Hong Kong and have a job description related to my geographical location, doesn’t mean I automatically have to defer to discussing only Asian Cinema. Anyway, bee out of bonnet, here are those two lists:
And now, I promise, we come to my Top 10 of 2013. If you would like to hear more of my thoughts about these films, be sure to check out our year-end show, or where applicable, follow the link to read my review:
10. The Dirties
Canadian first-timer Matt Johnson brilliantly dissects the high school experience, filmmaking in the iPhone generation and how high school shootings have become an all-too-real fear for today’s children. Hilarious, frightening, excellent.
9. The Great Beauty
Paolo Sorrentino creates a Fellini-esque love letter to the glory of Rome, through the eyes of a once-revered academic on his 65th birtday, who has spent too many years revelling in his genius and is now suddenly faced with the reality he may have wasted his life.
8. The Grandmaster
Wong Kar Wai’s martial arts epic finally arrives and it is resplendant, elegant, graceful, lyrical – everything we have come to expect from Hong Kong’s finest filmmaker. Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi turn kung fu into a mating ritual, smouldering, teasing and exciting us all in the process.
Unique and utterly bizarre, this Dutch absurdist comedy thriller follows a homeless man as he enters the lives of a snobbish middle class family that insulted him, and proceeds to dismantle their world brick by brick from the inside out. Impossible to adequately explain, but totally unforgettable.
6. Gangs of Wasseypur
Anurag Kashyap’s two-part five-and-a-half-hour gangster epic proudly touts itself as India’s answer to The Godfather and deserves to stand the test of time as one of that great nation’s finest genre offerings. An audio-visual feast for the senses that tracks three generations of feuding families as only Bollywood can.
5. Why Don’t You Play In Hell?
More feuding gangsters, this time rival yakuza clans, who agree to let a crew of struggling filmmakers shoot and choreograph their soon-to-be-legendary final showdown. Caught in the middle of all this is a petulant teenage beauty, sired by one gang leader, idolised by the other. Deliriously entertaining from start to finish.
4. A Touch Of Sin
The year’s best Chinese film is a bleak, nihilistic look at modern China from arthouse darling Jia Zhangke. Four separate stories follow four different protagonists driven to violence by the injustices around them and is by turns bloody, pessimistic and darkly comic. I loved it.
3. The World’s End
Edgar Wright re-teams with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in what might be their most profound and intelligent collaboration yet. Five school friends reunite for a pub crawl 16 years after leaving school. Has their hometown changed, or is it just them? The results are obviously hilarious, but surprisingly profound.
2. Before Midnight
The best American film of 2013 is a jaw-dropping work of humour, insight and keen human observation. The third part of Richard Linklater’s collaboration with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke is easily the best yet, cutting right to the bone of relationships and interpersonal behaviour. Amazing stuff.
Bong Joon-ho’s bleak, visually arresting and surprisingly downbeat science fiction epic is also a vigorous and breathlessly entertaining action thriller with a fantastic dystopian aesthetic and a slew of brilliant performances from a top-notch A-list cast fronted by a career-best turn from Chris Evans. After three viewings, Snowpiercer remains my favourite film of the year – I just hope the rest of the world gets to see it in all its glory sometime soon!
This remarkable and largely unique Sci-Fi action film will draw plenty of comparisons to Brazil, 12 Monkeys and even The Matrix but there is much about Snowpiercer that really stands alone. Perhaps the best and certainly the most visually compelling Sci-Fi film of the year, Snowpiercer really impresses and despite a little lag in the second act, when the film starts to feel a little like a level based computer game, the pace is solid and builds towards and devastating and philosophically engaging conclusion. Recommended.
Bong Joon-ho’s English language debut is an incredible work of dystopian sci-fi that delivers a career-best performance from Chris Evans in one of the most emotionally complex and challenging action thrillers in recent memory.
There was such a giddy sense of anticipation for Bong Joon-ho’s first English language film that ultimate disappointment seemed almost inevitable. But, where his countrymen Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon failed to transplant their unique cinematic perspective into Stoker and The Last Stand respectively, Snowpiercer is by comparison a monumental triumph of dystopian science fiction.
Adapted from the French graphic novel Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in a distant future where a man-made ecological disaster has triggered a new ice age that has engulfed the planet and killed off all but a few hundred lucky survivors. Their entire existence now resides within the confines of a single train, which permanently circumnavigates the Earth once every year.
The train is broken up into carriages, with each class residing in a different, predetermined section. The action begins at the rear, where the have-nots are plotting to stage the latest in a string of revolts – hoping to reach the engine at the front of the train and take control. Standing in their way is…well they’re not entirely sure. None of them has ever been any closer to the front than they are now. Their only contact with the upper classes that live ahead of them are the armed guards who maintain order and feed them foul gelatinous bricks of protein, and Mason (Tilda Swinton) – who keeps order according to the laws dictated by their elusive leader, Wilford – he who built the train and is exalted almost as a god.
While the frail, crippled Gilliam (John Hurt) imparts wisdom upon the impoverished community in the rear of the train, it is Curtis (Chris Evans) who emerges as their reluctant leader and agrees to front the latest assault. And so, outnumbered, outgunned and almost entirely unaware of exactly what dangers lie ahead of them, Curtis, Edgar (Jamie Bell) and the rest of their desperate kind begin their charge – which essentially spans the entire running time of the film.
One of the great pleasures of Snowpiercer is its sense of discovery, as we learn only as our heroes do what is behind the next door and exactly how diverse, surreal and batshit insane life really is aboard the train. Save for a few exterior shots reminding us of the constant momentum and speed of this ecosystem, and the ferocious hostility of the environment outside, Bong locates the action entirely within the carriages of the locomotive.
Praise must go, therefore, to cinematographer Hong Kyung-po and editor Steve M. Choe for creating a film so visually exciting and dynamic, claustrophobic yet somehow limitless, all within the cramped confines of a string of railway carriages. This is helped in large part by an arresting score from Marco Beltrami and the dazzling production design of Ondrej Nekvasil, who surprises and confounds the audience each time a new door opens and the rebels break through a new layer of their environment. I would take a moment to list out a few of my favourites would that not spoil the impact of the numerous reveals.
The reputation of Bong in the West, off the back of a string of exemplary South Korean films (Barking Dogs Never Bite, Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother) is clearly in evidence by the roster of international talent he has assembled both behind the camera and in front of it. The cast of Snowpiercer is both eclectic and uniformly excellent, with South Korean superstar Song Kang-ho and The Host‘s Ko Ah-sung more than holding their own opposite the likes of Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner and Alison Pill.
Tilda Swinton almost steals the show as the school matronly sheriff of the train, Mason. Broad Northern accent and hideous false teeth, she is vile, condescending and ruthless in the best possible way and in less capable hands could have easily become a cartoonish lampoon of herself. Swinton, however, creates a villainness to rival Cruella de Vil, teetering just shy of pantomime, while proving genuinely frightening in her resolve and dedication.
However, Snowpiercer belongs to Chris Evans every step of the way. He has never come close to delivering a performance as rich, layered and complex as Curtis before now. It is quite simply the best thing he has ever done. Curtis is secretive, noncommittal, yet ultimately a strong and resourceful leader – something the audience never honestly doubts for a second. However, as the film progresses and his resolve is put to the test, it soon becomes apparent that he is a far more complicated and flawed individual than we could have ever imagined, and for Evans to have leapt into a role like this hot off two performances as the squeaky clean Captain America is an astounding testament to his bravery and dedication as a performer. Chris Evan is a revelation in Snowpiercer.
There is so much to praise in this film that I could go on forever, but to do so would be to spoil many of its discoveries, treats and standout set pieces. Bong is that rare filmmaker who succeeds in creating works of genre cinema that feel infinitely more important and impressive than their source trappings might at first suggest. Snowpiercer, after all, is first and foremost a science fiction action thriller – an incredibly dark and violent one at that – but one with big ideas about humanity, heroism and our fight – and indeed our right – for survival, that are too often disregarded in favour of grand spectacle and cheap thrills. Bong Joon-ho ensures that Snowpiercer is intelligent, challenging and, honestly, remains very Korean in its execution, while also succeeding as a kinetic, visually arresting and hugely imaginative thrill ride with the wallop of a runaway locomotive.