The end of the year is near. Subsequently, Prancing Through LIFE will be posting a review of the year in each of its cultural categories before concluding on the year as a whole. Each post will take a different format but will take a look at 2013’s highs and lows (more of the highs – if we’re honest). From Miley to Malala – it’s been quite a year.
‘It is all settled beneath the chattering and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant splashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity.’
Paolo Sorrentino, The Great Beauty
I’ve started with the end. A very bleak end, it seems, but that’s not my intent. Wait and see. The Great Beauty has only reached UK screens at the tail of 2013, but I think even its trailer serves to articulate my conclusion on the trend of cinema release this year. There’s been a lot of chattering and noise – and at times underneath the truly bad films it’s possible to hear the wary squirming of production companies during this double-dip recession. Of the top ten box office grossers this year, for example, a whopping seven were franchise sequels. The big-shot bastards know where the money is and they’re playing it safe. But amidst it all, for the first time in a few years, I’d say, some raw splashes of beauty have managed to rear their heads.
That’s not to say I’m not also a sucker for all things loud with eye-candy – they must get a look-in, too. They, also, have held true to these aforementioned themes of beauty, emotion, bleakness: humanity. Film, as a form of art, always manages to manifest in its collective exactly what lies beneath the surface of the era. So, 2013:
First Half of the Year
Life of Pi – Ang Lee, 20/12/12
This was the first film I, for one, saw this year, it was also the first to convert me to the experience of 3-D. Ang Lee adapts Yann Martel’s lonely adventure story by utilising its linear plot-line and limited cast to focus on sound and colour. He lets the story seep gently through the spectacle of India and then, as the film progresses, the marine world at large. Wearing those irksome 3-D glasses, the surface of the sea water looks crisp enough to break with your own finger. Pi’s prized family zoo specimen, a Bengal tiger who ends up trapped on Pi’s lifeboat as they drift from the sinking wreckage of his family’s ship, slinks through IMAX close-ups and each fur follicle is seen distinct, shifting in the sea breeze. One particularly entrancing moment occurs when the mise-en-scène switches to Pi’s POV and we stare in extreme close-up into the malignant bronze eyes of this wild creature. The stillness and peripheral danger of the instance is enthralling. Through these little visual anecdotes, against the backdrop of a story that is riddled with loss (loss of family, loss of home, loss of sanity and lost at sea), Lee manages to present and preserve the wonder of the world through the eyes of a boy who keeps his integrity against all odds. One great big splash of beauty.
Les Misérables – Tom Hooper, 11/01/13
Pioneer of simultaneous screen acting and singing, through tears, rain, corsets, starvation, I fell in love five or six times over the course of this film (cut me some slack, I’d never engaged with the story before, ok?), and resolved to be a revolutionary in nineteenth century Paris when I grow up. Made with half the budget of Life of Pi, Tom Hooper packed the same punch in the box office – and a soppy musical, at that! For this, I salute him. There’s certainly no silence in this film, but beneath the noise of Hugh Jackman’s interesting vibrato is a beautiful compilation of sheet music that I will continue to sing in the shower for the rest of my days.
Zero Dark Thirty – Katharine Bigelow, 25/01/13
Genre: War Thriller
A roller-coaster of determination, violence and the heart of darkness suggested in the title, Zero Dark Thirty builds and builds momentum and stops not at the reconciliation of its inevitable climax in catching Bin Laden, but afterwards, when there is nothing left to strive for. In Catherine Bigelow’s more complex, more pop-culture conventional follow-up to The Hurt Locker, Jessica Chastain is a stoic and beautiful tour-de-force who drags the audience along with her sheer power of will, through the wretched squalor and miserable humanity of those at war with faceless, untraceable terror. At the end we are left, like her, drifting in silence and sans sentiment with no place of refuge to go: Bin Laden is dead and the West can no longer place on the cult of his identity all the fear and fury that comes with feeling unsafe. There is no dark monster, only humanity.
Lore – Cate Shortland, 22/02/13
Told through the eyes of a child, and so much classier than the forthcoming over-sentimental adaptation of The Book Thief, Lore tells the story of the fall of Nazi Germany with lots of piano, aperture and a cold, raw beauty. Lore must look after her siblings when her parents are taken to a similar fate as their beloved Fuhrer, but needs the help of an emancipated, emaciated young Jew whom they encounter as the film makes its way across war-ravaged Germany. Hope is palpable in the ages of the protagonists and the resilience of nature, whilst the damage to the characters is understated and subtle: left unspoken by freckled and innocent faces, as the ashes that fall through the trees suggest a barely-concealed darkness burnt like pockmarks upon the beauty of the natural world.
Flying Blind – Katarzyna Klimkiewicz, 12/04/13
Genre: Political Thriller
April 2013. Along similar lines to Zero Dark Thirty, it didn’t do as well because it wasn’t as good (and because it was British and the publicity budget miniscule, to be fair). Starting off as a self-indulgent romance, I found myself persisting because instinct told me it was going to get better. Luckily, it does, and a tense, intense political thriller of secrets and lies ensues: ‘do you know what your drones do?’
Second Half of the Year
The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrmann, 16/05/13
Cusp of summer, a fabulous soundtrack to accompany revision, and the promise of parties, desire, lavish new money. Baz Luhrmann never fails to deliver life on the fast track. Another 3-D spectacle, The Great Gatsby was fun and dramatic, but didn’t quite manage to surpass the surface of its own highly contrived image: substance seems somewhat lacking, and Luhrmann misses a trick in failing to capture with any sincerity the sense of impending collapse across the Western economy, which draws so many parallels with post-2008, and in the minds of the characters which Fitzgerald managed so well. Too much attention spent on music and champagne, the film is slightly off-key.
Superman: Man of Steel – Zack Snyder, 12/06/13
Henry Cavill. Completely worthy of mention for this alone, and enough said. There is no other reason to see this film.
The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorentino, 06/09/13
There are so many amazing soundbites in this narration, reeled off in an old man’s soothing Italian. In an age where fame seems instantaneous, popularity is measured in online profiles, likes, and pictures from parties, social isolation is presented as paramount to life. How can one be in a crowd and feel so alone? It’s the cry of the modern man. Here, social aspiration and desperation is revealed as contingent: the protagonist is sheer, blind appetite throughout his whole, long life. He consumes all the beauty he sees in the world, and becomes more ugly, and yet is salvaged by his ability to feel. Emotion and fear. Silence and sentiment. The man of the age, the film of the year. The OSCARS is farcical for overlooking this one. Luckily, not all film critics are as narrow-minded and USA-orientated, and it still did well.
Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón, 08/11/13
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller
I had to sit in my seat, knees shaking, for a full five minutes after this film ended. The relentless pumping of the credit-music doesn’t allow for any relief from the tension of the film itself – it is too triumphant and loud, and revels in itself, and my heart refused to slow. Gravity was insane. So still and quiet and distant, the earth a blue, green and white lobe that loomed, insurmountable in mass, in the background. It is only in the final scene of the film, when the audience is reunited with their natural and only habitat, that we realise just how strange and flat, almost alien, a human is without it. In a zero-gravity environment, everything slows: happiness, anxiety, survival – it is all measured in oxygen levels. The concept of the film, that Sandra Bullock’s Ripley-esque character Ryan Stone, must leave Earth in order to discover how to live again, is the only cloying aspect. The rest is mind-blowing. Not so much a must-see as a must-experience.
Blue is the Warmest Colour – Abdellatif Kachiche, 22/11/13
They’re loving to call this one the new modern romance tale, and missing the point of Abdellatif Kachiche’s movie-making altogether. The ache beneath the surface of the film that critics have taken to calling heartbreak is still tied in to the social stigma and miscomprehension of lesbian love. Kachiche doesn’t intend for his audience to be lulled into an accurate representation of modern romance by mere inclusion of gays in the romance film demographic. There is anger, an intent to shock and distance the audience, in his aggressive and explicit depictions of sex, the urban teenage environment. He shows us what it is like to be an outsider – as if each of us, in our own way, didn’t already know. And through it all, especially in Adèle Exarchopoulos’s beautiful and often implacable young face, the numb sense of life’s inevitability is breathtakingly captured.
* * *
What have we learnt about film-life this week? We’re living in pretty bleak times, economically, existentially. We’re ambitious, isolated, with an ever elite fame-hegemony and social interaction that is transferring itself online. Films haven’t failed to depict this sense of loss, this alienation, the superficiality of society. But many of them have succeeded also in reverting back to a more basic structure of existence. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Rust and Bone last year, unlikely protagonists and underdogs have emerged as the most heartening success stories. Emphasis lies on the natural world and human physiognomy – the physical experience. Children and teenagers, strong women, a tiger who represents the beauty and the darkness in mankind, have managed to compete with Iron Man and Thor. We may still be troubled, but there is definitely a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Disclaimer: Alas, I am poor, and have not yet seen Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Filth; Long Walk to Freedom; Cloud Atlas; Inside Llewyn Davies; Frozen; Blue Caprice or Blue Jasmine. I have high hopes for all of these.
The ones to watch in the next month pre-OSCARS: Her; American Hustle; The Patience Stone; Nebraska; 12 Years a Slave and Blood Ties
Hannah Oliver studies English Literature at Edinburgh University. She would like to think that this is an apt excuse for her tendency to be overly florid, pleonastic and long-winded (yeah, we couldn’t find a more pretentious word for long-winded). However, there are two things to effectively shut her up – coffee and/or chocolate. ’Nuff said.
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