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20 to see in 2013

First, a couple of qualifications. I've avoided including films that have been released in the US but not the UK because anticipation is everything, and when reviews begin to spew forth that can be diluted. Even the couple on here that have received festival screenings have lost their lustre a little. Secondly, the absence of foreign language films. In part, this is an acknowledgement of my own ignorance. But it also relates to areas such as promotion and foreknowledge. Foreign language films often have the benefit of being a pleasant discovery. With Hollywood movies, if there is a positive realisation, it's that it wasn't the big pile of shit you expected from all the advance publicity. So here are some films I'm at least curious to see over the next year. 

1. The Zero Theorem

There’s probably a sound argument that Terry Gilliam has been past his best ever since Don Quixote floundered, but I’ve found merit in all three off his films since then. Dr Parnassus may have been something of a greatest hits package, and showed an indulgence that perhaps could have done with someone telling him "No", but I welcomed his imagination given vent again, unfettered (except by budget). Theorem’s script, by Pat Rushin, had been knocking around Gilliam’s door for a while and the production fell into place as Quixote continued to resist all attempts at financing. The plot concerns a computer hacker whose attempt to discover the reason for existence is continually interrupted by the Management. Shot in Romania, mostly centred on one set, it was reportedly made on a miniscule budget but managed to attract a starry cast by dint of Gilliam’s rep. Christopher Waltz takes the lead, supported by (Gilliam returnee) Matt Damon, Ben Wishaw, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis and Melanie Thierry.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

We were spoilt with a Coen Brothers film a year for four consecutive years until 2010. Their follow up to by far their biggest hit, True Grit, isn’t going to replicate that success but it should receive more exposure than 2009’s A Serious Man. Based loosely on Dave Von Ronk’s posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, this is a comedy set within the 1960s New York folk music scene. John Goodman returns to their fold for the first time in 12 years, while F Murray Abraham is an actor you know should have been in a Coens movie before now. The cast consists mainly of newbies, however, some of whom are called upon to flex their singing muscles. Oscar Isaac plays the titular character, while Carey Mulligan and Garrett Hedlund lend support. The question mark hangs over Justin Timberlake; can Joel and Ethan wrest a great performance from him? Bruno Delbonnel (who has collaborated with Jean Pierre Jeunet and previously lensed the brothers’ Paris, je t’aime segment) fills in for the unavailable Roger Deakins, possibly shooting on Super 16.

3. Calvary

Jon Michael McDonagh’s debut feature The Guard was shot through with the same streak of black comedy as his brother Martin’s In Bruges. Ultimately, it proved lighter and more optimistic. Whether that could be said of Calvary remains to be seen. McDonagh has commented that, while humorous, it is much more serious and dramatic in narrative than The Guard. Brendan Gleeson returns as the director-writer’s lead of choice and an eclectic cast includes Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly and Dylan Moran.

4. Upstream Color

I’m quite happy to admit that while I loved Shane Carruth’s Primer I knew full well that trying to pull apart its dense plot logic and time-travel mechanics would be a dangerous obsession I didn’t want to ensnare myself in. After eight year gap he returns with another science fiction tale which, if the trailer is anything to go by, owes a debt to the narrative obliqueness of Terrence Malick. The plot summary is almost willfully resistance to brevity, but appears to concern a couple drawn together through their connection to the lifecycle of an ageless life force/organism. Carruth stars again.

5. To the Wonder

And other Terrence Malick projects. TTW has already been shown at several film festivals, where it has received a predictably mixed response. Reportedly it furthers the metaphysical meditation conjured by The Tree of Life, but here centres on two romantic relationships. Voice-overs, whispered dialogue, a taciturn central character (Affleck); none of this should be surprising, and indeed is likely to be welcomed by Malick fans. I guess the only note of caution is that Malick’s films seemed all the richer for their rarity. Will we receive too much of a good thing in 2013? Also due are Knight of Cups and his untitled story set against the music scene in Austin Texas. Both of these feature Christian Bale (I think it’s safe to say he won’t be cut out of the finished films, but anyone else is probably fair game).

6. Elysium

Neill Blomkamp made a big impact with District 9, and the reward is another story of his own devising. Once again he returns to the well of sci-fi with a social conscience (the wealthy live on a space station, enforcing a strict anti-immigration policy, while everyone else slums it on an overcrowded, ruined Earth). And once again his protagonist (Matt Damon) sports some serious weapon tech hardware. Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley are on board as villains, and the great William Fichtner has a role also. 2013 suggests studios have been persuaded to back a number of original, high-concept SF productions so hopefully some of them will be successful (if this welcome trend is to continue). 


7. Gravity

Another science-fiction film, this long in post-production feature comes from Alfonso Cuaron, whose previous foray into that genre was the remarkable Children of Men. It’s essentially a two-hander (although that may be reduced by one for much of the running time) between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts left drifting in space following a shuttle disaster. It seemed for a while that this might never get made (finding a bankable leading lady proved problematic) but advance word suggests that what ends up on screen will be well worth the wait (as in, stunning).


8. The World’s End

Strange to think it’s nearly a decade since Shaun of the Dead (and far beyond that since Spaced). The geekgasm that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright triggered with their movie-love has turned a bit sour in some quarters, much of this down to the perceived over-exposure of Pegg (and his high profile casting in two J J Abrams franchises). 

The long-anticipated final installment in their Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy sees them reunite with Nick Frost for a science fiction comedy beginning with an epic pub-crawl. Shaun’s reputation has only grown in the intervening years, whereas Hot Fuzz’s has perhaps been slightly tarnished. Paul was patchy, frequently lazy where it could have been inspired, and possible evidence that alchemy occurs only when the full trio are present. Or maybe it just shows that Pegg and Wright are better writers than Pegg and Frost. 

Wright, the missing man on that film, had a rocky ride with his own project. Scott Pilgrim represented his first taste of indifference outside of the vocal online community. Pilgrim may have been an expensive misfire, but no one could claim Wright didn’t put everything into it. So expectations are high, if not quite resulting in the salivation that awaited their every move in the post-Shaun period. The supporting cast includes Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike and Paddy Considine. Probably one to savour, as who knows when or if the trio will reunite.

9. Side Effects

It can a fool’s errand hyping up a Steven Soderbergh movie. Both Contagion and Haywire sounded great on paper, but the director didn’t quite succeed with his genre dabbling in either case. In contrast, I had little expectation for The Informant! and it turned out to be a giddy delight. Side Effects is written by Scott Z Burns who previously wrote Contagion and Informant!, and is billed as a psychological thriller set against a background of addiction to prescription meds. With a cast including Rooney Mara and previous collaborators Channing Tatum, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, if this is the director’s last big screen project for a while hopefully he’ll be going out with a bang.


10. Iron Man 3

The previous Iron Man was distinctly underwhelming (that, and Cowboys and Aliens, lead one to suspect that Jon Favreau may have just got lucky with the first Tony Stark outing), but the character successfully emerged from Avengers at the top of the Marvel pack. The key ingredient in the anticipation for IM3 is director/co-writer Shane Black, who first made a splash at the tender age of 25 with his script for Lethal Weapon. Following 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight he seemed to vanish as a credited writer, until his directorial debut, the pre-career resurgence Downey Jr starrer Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Kiss Kiss is a gloriously irreverent little action comedy movie, which went belly-up at the box office. But he became friends with his star, and script doctored earlier Iron Mans. It’s credit to Marvel that they were approved the relatively untested director taking the reins. But in the post-Whedon Avengers world, that suddenly seems like a no-brainer. The trailer makes it look grimmer than it probably is, and with Ben Kingsley as the villain this could be the pick of the year’s superhero blockbusters.

11. Star Trek Into Darkness

As with Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, it was a surprise how well Star Trek was rebooted. The first film just flies, largely banishing misgivings over J J Abrams doing his un-Roddenberry thing with the universe. Largely, because devout fans will never be happy at perceived sacrilege (to the extent that some claim he out-and-out doesn’t get Trek). If film XI in the series had a failing it was that the plot was an unwieldy attempt to justify recasting the original crew while simultaneously claiming it as canon. The villain was a damp squib too, something that seems to have been consciously remedied with this follow-up (Benedict Cumberbatch is front-and-centre in the advertising). As for all the “Is he Khan?” discussions, there seems to have been a shift to “How is he connected to Khan?” I'd argue that feeding off the iconic status of Wrath of Khan is a bad move, as it suggests a lack of confidence with striking out into new territory (and didn’t both Nemesis and, to some extent, Nero in XI come unstuck trying to copy that formula?), but I have little doubt that Abrams’ film will be a superior thrill ride.

12. Much Ado About Nothing

As with To the Wonder, Joss Whedon’s quickie “home movie” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but doesn’t receive a cinema release until 2013. Praise has been effusive for his monochrome Shakespeare adaptation, and there seems little reason to doubt the good word. Whedon regulars were enlisted/lined-up for parts (Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Reed Diamond, Fran Kanz) and filming took place on the quiet.


13. The Lone Ranger

Johnny Depp has tumbled in reputation from daring fanboy darling to over-exposed hack, wheeling out the same old “weird” routine, in the past five years. Somewhere around the time of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie he stopped being their precious and became irritating. He was now a box office draw (terrible!), and worse he was joined at the hip with Tim Burton (who has come in for, possibly, even more vitriol) in EVERY movie. 

I note this because I’ve not “lost faith”. I’ve enjoyed his return outings as Jack Sparrow, even some movies he’s been savaged for (The Tourist, Dark Shadows). There have been misteps with Burton (Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter) and he could certainly be accused of failing to pick varied material, but I can’t fault him for teaming up with Gore Verbinski again. On Stranger Tides suffered from the absence of Verbinski’s imaginative compositions, but his departure from that series does not seem to have affected the relationship between star and director. They teamed on Rango (their first western together) and now reunite in the live action arena (with Pirates writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott). There have already been swathes of bad press written about The Lone Ranger; the runaway budget, the need for such expense on a remake that no one cares about, Depp’s take on Tonto. None of which puts me off if they are channelling the energies that went into Pirates (but fortunately minus Bloom and Knightley).

14. A Good Day to Die Hard/Red 2

Cheating perhaps, and quite possibly, as justice for picking two films for one position, both of these Bruce Willis sequels will turn out to be stinkers. Live Free and Die Hard did very nicely at the box office but was criticised by fans of the series who claimed John McClane never showed up and the jet scene was ridiculous etc. As if Die Hard 2 didn’t start the series down a preposterous route. And wasn’t a lousy film. The omens aren’t good for Die Hard 5; John Moore is directing and his filmography consists of tepid action fare and forgettable remakes. The scale of McCane’s environment continues to increase in a manner at odds with the first film’s premise (who could have foreseen Die Hard in a tower block evolving into Die Hard across Russia?) Likewise, the “One man against… “  set-up has been eroded since the third installment repositioned Die Hard as a buddy movie. So this time McClane teams up with his CIA son. Yet, the trailers have really worked for me; Willis seems to be wisecracking, the music consciously reminds us of the first film. “Yippe Ki-yay Mother Russia” is either a terrible pun or a glorious one, depending on your sensibility (I tended to the latter). Come February, we shall see.

Red was a lot of fun, mainly down to an amusing script, the chemistry between the ensemble cast and solid direction from Robert Schwentke. What’s to prevent the sequel from being The Whole Ten Yards? Hopefully director Dean Parisot, who scored a minor classic with Galaxy Quest then took a tumble with Fun with Dick and Jane. Anthony Hopkins is aboard, but that doesn’t mean anything.

15. The Monuments Men

The “based on a true story” strongly implies the formula of historical curiosity turned into prestige project that did so well for Argo. Which makes George Clooney’s involvement in both none-too surprising. Clooney directs, stars and co-authors the screenplay (the same as The Ides of March, then), although for my money his best film as director remains his first. The rest of the cast are a dream; Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Matt Damon (perhaps), Daniel Craig. The plot? The attempts by a team of art historians to recover works stolen by the Nazis before Hitler destroys them.


16. Before Midnight

I liked, but did not love, Before Sunrise. Which made Before Sunset, nine years later, a very pleasant surprise as it seemed philosophically and romantically much richer. There’s always the possibility that returning to the well again another nine years on might screw up what was so tantalising about where Sunset left Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters. But it’s probably worth the risk.

17. Malavita

One might reasonably assert that there’s little reason to anticipate anything Luc Besson has a hand in, since his indiscriminate hack storylines have formed the basis for the likes of the Transporter series, Takens, Lockout and Colombiana. And, as a director, he hasn’t wowed anyone in 15 years. But I’m willing to be hopeful. De Niro and Pfeiffer heading up a mob family relocated to France under the Witness Protection Program? Come on Luc, make it sing.

18. Riddick

This is all about David Twohy, rather than his chrome-domed star. Pitch Black is a sharp, economically-scripted and shot, science fiction horror. The follow up is contrastingly bloated, and stuffed full of unnecessary mythologising. But still, it was an agreeable movie hoisted by its own petard. It’s only been the petitioning of Vin Diesel (okay, so it’s not all about Twohy) that has guaranteed this third part and I suspect it will prove a the equal of the first. I’m more dubious about its potential for success, however. Twohy’s last film, A Perfect Getaway, was a twisty little beauty and he seems a safe bet for delivering when he’s working within limitations.

19. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Walter Mitty remake has gone through so many different stars and iterations (including Jim Carrey and Mike Myers) that it looked like it would be eternally in production hell. No bad thing, as anyone who has seen the Danny Kaye version would probably view a new take as borderline sacrilegious. But then Ben Stiller attached himself to it. Yes the star of A Night at the Museum. But wait, he also attached himself as director. Yes, the director of Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. I’m a fan of Stiller the director, not so much Stiller the jobbing actor. So I’m hopeful that this might be one big Hollywood comedy worth seeing.

20. Twelve Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to Shame is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup and boasts an enviable cast headed up by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Add in Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberhatch, Brad Pitt and Michael Kenneth Williams. No doubt a very different tone to Tarantino’s recent popcorn approach to the subject of slavery. 


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