Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016

December 24, 2015

(This article on Jewish film releases in Australia in January and February 2016 appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 24 December 2015.)

“Goosebumps” (Roadshow, January 14) is based on the works of R.L. Stine, the mega-popular Jewish writer of children’s horror fiction. Stine – often called the “Stephen King of children’s literature” – is the author of hundreds of novels, which provide the basis for this 3D live-action/computer-animated children’s horror/comedy film. The film stars Jack Black (playing the character of Stine), Dylan Minnette as a teenage boy who moves to a new town, Odeya Rush as “Hannah Stine” – R. L. Stine’s daughter (in real life, Stine only has a son), In the film, Stine (Black) keeps all the ghosts and monsters in his books locked up in manuscripts. Zach and a friend unintentionally open one of Stine’s books, leading to the release of every ghost, monster, and villain. You can guess the rest. Stine briefly appears in the film playing a high school drama teacher, credited as “Hallway Parker”.

“Spotlight” (January 28) provides a gripping dramatisation of the child sex abuse cases that occurred in the Catholic Church, particularly in Boston.  Although this is not a “Jewish” story, it certainly is one of the most significant religious films of the year, and the events that took place had a profound impact on the ability of the US Catholic bishops to respond to other crises during and after that time.  That held important implications for Jews, as my (upcoming) review will make clear.  Directed by Tom McCarthy, and starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and John Tucci.

“Steve Jobs” (Universal, February 4) is the much-anticipated “biopic” about the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Although Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) was not Jewish, the film has lots of Jewish connections: written by Aaron Sorkin (Jewish), based on the book by Walter Isaacson (also Jewish), it includes the characters of (early Apple employee) Joanna Karine Hoffman (Polish Jewish father), technology journalist Walt Mossberg (Jewish), Andy Hertzfeld (Jewish, played by Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg from “A Serious Man”) and journalist Joel Pforzheimer (Jewish). Seth Rogen also plays Steve Wozniak (who is not Jewish). Australian Sarah Snook (not Jewish) and Jewish actor Adam Shapiro also appear. The film has received four Golden Globe nominations, including best actor/drama (Fassbender), supporting actress (drama) for Kate Winslet, screenplay for Aaron Sorkin and original score.

“Zoolander 2” (Paramount, February 11), the latest from Ben Stiller, has much to live up to, given the cult status of the 2001 original satirical film (now termed “Zoolander 1”). Stiller directs and reprises his role as model Derek Zoolander, and is joined by actors Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Christine Taylor (Stiller’s wife), newcomer Cyrus Arnold as “Derek Zoolandger Jr”, Billy Zane as himself, Justin Bieber as in himself, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Milla Jovovich, Macaulay Culkin as himself, Miley Cyrus as herself, Lenny Kravitz as himself and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the original “Zoolander”, Ben’s father Jerry Stiller’s memorable portrayal of “Maury Ballstein” has been called one of the “25 greatest Jewish characters in movies”. He spends the whole film with visible chest hair topped by a Magen David. A classic Ballstein quote: “I got a prostate the size of a honeydew and a head full of bad memories. It’s time to set the record straight.”

Hail, Caesar” (Universal, February 18): Advance word on the new Joel and Ethan Coen comedy “Hail, Caesar” is that it is one of the most “Coen-y brothers films yet”. So says “The Guardian”, inventing a new, and as yet unheard of word, “Coen-y”. Set for its international premiere at the opening night of the Berlin Film Festival (a frequent location for Jewish-themed films) in February, with an Australian cinema release a week later, “Hail Caesar” features Josh Brolin as a Hollywood “fixer” named “Eddie Mannix”, working on a new film called “Hail, Caesar”, which stars actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who in turn is kidnapped. Mannix has the job of bringing him back.

When this Jewish writing/directing/producing pair puts out a new movie, the film world takes notice. From “Barton Fink” to “The Big Lebowski” to “A Serious Man”, their frequently bizarre – and often Jewish – characters have set new milestones for creativity. This time, the cast also includes Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill (as a Jewish producer), Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton (as Hedda Hopper), Channing Tatum and notable Jewish actors Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”) and David Krumholz as Communist screenwriters.

“Son of Saul” (Sony, February 25) premiered in Australia at the Jewish Film Festival in October, and is widely tipped as a major contender for the “best foreign language” Oscar, already holding a nomination for the Golden Globe best foreign language film. From Hungary (in Hungarian), early reviews indicate that “Son of Saul” will soon join the ranks of some of the most noted dramatic films about the Holocaust.

The date is October 1944, and the place is Auschwitz-Birkenau. Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners isolated from the camp and forced to assist the Nazis. While working in one of the crematoriums, Saul discovers the corpse of a boy who he believes is his son. As the Sonderkommando plans a rebellion, Saul decides to carry out an impossible task: save the boy’s body from the flames, find a rabbi to recite the Kaddish and offer the boy a proper burial. A true triumph of the spirit.

(Photo of Ben Stiller in “Zoolander 2” below.)

Ben Stiller Zoolander 2


Jewish film releases in Australia on Boxing Day

December 24, 2015

(This article on Jewish themed films being released in Australia on “Boxing Day” – 26 December 2015 – appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 24 December 2015, in a shorter form.)

“Joy” (20th Century Fox), directed by David O. Russell, continues his run of great hits, having already received two Golden Globe nominations, for best picture (musical/comedy) and for Jennifer Lawrence (best actress musical/comedy). Although usually identified as Jewish, Russell continues to insist that he is an atheist.

Russell specialises in making stories about relatively unknown and off-beat Americans who become “larger than life” on the big screen. His “American Hustle” had 10 Academy Award nominations, and who can forget Irving Rosenfeld’s (Christian Bale) “comb-over”? In his new film, the biographical comedy-drama “Joy”, Russell charts the (real) life of Joy Mangano (Lawrence), a Long Island single mother and the entrepreneurial inventor of “Miracle Mop”, “Huggable Hangers” and almost 100 other new products. Robert De Niro plays her father, Rudy, and Bradley Cooper (a frequent Russell collaborator) plays Neil Walker, a Home Shopping Network executive. Cute Jewish trivia: Melissa Rivers, the daughter of the late Jewish comedian Joan Rivers and the late producer Edgar Rosenberg, has a cameo role, playing her own mother “Joan Rivers”.  Here is a YouTube clip from the film showing Melissa Rivers as her mother, Joan:

“Suffragette” (Transmission) is set in early 20th century Britain and charts, through a range of fictional and real characters, the rise and ultimate success of the “Suffragette” (women’s right to vote) movement in that country. Director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”) is Jewish (profiled in this paper earlier this month): her father is the late publishing millionaire and philanthropist Lord Robert Gavron.

“Suffragette” opened the London Film Festival in October, and has received particular praise for its cast, notably Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, with both actresses tipped for possible Oscar nominations, and the film itself as a “Best Picture” contender. Meryl Streep also appears, although the film’s trailer suggests that Streep’s character is more important than it really is.

Sadly, no Jewish characters appear in “Suffragette”, although a number of Jewish women played important roles through the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, including Henrietta Franklin and her sister, social worker Lily Montagu, a founder of Britain’s first Liberal Jewish movement. (Other notable Jews such as Israel Zangwill and Sir Rufus Isaacs voiced strong support.) Jewish involvement was significant enough that the Jewish Museum of London recently mounted an exhibition about them entitled “blackguards in bonnets”.

“Youth” (StudioCanal) is the latest effort from Academy Award-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”). The film stars Michael Caine – who has the distinction of being nominated for an Academy Award in five consecutive decades – and Harvey Keitel. They play best friends on holiday in the Swiss Alps, reflecting on their lives. The film is meditative, an carefully crafted “eternal struggle between age and youth, the past and the future, life and death, commitment and betrayal.”

Keitel is the Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Poland. He studied acting under legendary Jewish drama coach Stella Adler, and has had fascinating Jewish roles, including Judas in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Jake Berman in “The Two Jakes” and Mickey Cohen in “Bugsy”. Another Jewish actor in the film is Rachel Weisz, the British daughter of Austrian and Hungarian refugees, who will soon star as Professor Deborah Lipstadt in “Denial”, based on Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”, that describes her court battle with David Irving. Jane Fonda has also received a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role in “Youth” as an ageing film star.

“Trumbo” tells the story of blacklisted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston).  Although Trumbo was not Jewish, the Hollywood “blacklist” of left-wing and Communist sympathisers in the late 1940s and early 1950s was substantially directed at Jews working in the film industry.  Many Jewish characters appear in this film, including Otto Preminger, Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper.  Directed by Jay Roach. Review to come.

(Photo of Sarah Gavron below.)

Sarah Gavron2


Snowpiercer – the best film you may never see this year

August 9, 2014

If there was any justice in the world of film distribution, the new English language post-apocalyptic climate change thriller “Snowpiercer” by Korean director Bong Joon-ho would be taking the world’s box office by storm.

It’s a stunning film, technically brilliant, hilarious in parts and fabulously designed, paced and directed. It’s torn from tomorrow’s headlines, and shamelessly borrows from numerous recent films such as “The Hunger Games” series, “The Road” (which still gives me nightmares five years later), “The Day After Tomorrow” (global cooling), “Divergent” and “Elysium”.

Instead, despite a 95% positive critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, excellent acting turns by John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and from Chris Evans (“Captain America”) in the heroic lead, it is only playing in a handful of cinemas here in Australia (just two in Sydney, by last count) – with an Australian box office gross of about Aus$100,000. As of yesterday, it was only in 100 cinemas in North America, where it has grossed a paltry US$4,213,337.

By contrast, the film has pulled in some US$60million in South Korea. All of the reasons for this murky release pattern are unclear but seem to have something to do with arguments between the director and the Weinstein Company, and may well become an unfortunate case study of the decline of theatrical release of films.

“Snowpiercer” may well fall into the category of one of the best films you may never see, and what a shame if it does, because this is a big screen film if there ever was one. It’s winter here in Sydney, and the cinema I saw it in was running on the cold side in my mid-morning session (with just six other patrons), so I acutely felt the cold shown on screen – the only time I have felt this way before was when watching “The Day After Tomorrow” in the cinema some years ago.

The plot, outlandish as it is: scientific attempts in 2014 to avert global warming have resulted in a catastrophic global cooling that has virtually killed off all living life. Picking up the story 17 years later in 2031, the only humans left are those on a high-tech train – invented by mastermind Wilford – that circles the globe. But the situation on the train reflects the worst sort of social engineering and fascist inequality, with severe deprivation and brutality visited on the masses in the last few cars, who are fed with gelatinous protein bars, kept in concentration camp-like conditions and occasionally recruited to do special jobs for the rich and spoiled elite who live, work and – especially – party in the front cars. As a special delight, the film presents a great mixture of white, Asian and brown faces, neatly capturing our “multicultural” present.

The dirty masses dressed in rags are perpetually scheming about how to revolt, and when an opportunity arises they take it, led by Curtis (Evans), with the support of his grand master Gilliam (Hurt), attacking the ideologue “Minister Mason” (Swinton, in a role uncomfortably close to Margaret Thatcher at her worst). As Curtis and his supporters battle their way to the front, they meet one surprise after another: I won’t present any spoilers, because this is where “Snowpiercer” is simultaneously at its most wondrous and barbaric (those who fear gore, be warned).

“Snowpiercer” is an achievement of major proportions. Sure, it liberally uses ideas presented by others on-screen, but does so in a way that is unique, riveting and ultimately very personal. Like the best of films, this one reflects our present anxious moment of both climate change and inequality of wealth (see authors such as Thomas Piketty and “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”) in exceptional and unexpected ways.

Snowpiercer poster


Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.

*****

Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.


How’s Noah doing now?

May 17, 2014

Back on April 3, 2014 I published my review of the film “Noah”, and observed privately that the film was under-appreciated by critics but would turn out to be popular.

So how’s “Noah” doing now?

As of 15 May 2014, the film had grossed just over US$100 million in North America, plus an additional US$239 million outside North America (“foreign”, in the Americo-centric view of the world). This is by no means an American “hit”, but the international box office – comprising some 70.5% of the total – will give much comfort to the studio (Paramount) and the director/co-writer (Darren Aronofsky). It’s fair to say that “Noah” has not “broken through” to the American Christian audience, especially the “high value” Evangelicals that supported “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. But almost $340 million (and counting) in the international box office is no small change.

Here in Australia, after seven weeks of release “Noah” has grossed Aus$12,433,000. The “rule of thumb” comparing film popularity in Australia versus North America is the “law of ten”: Australia expects about 10% of the North American box office, setting aside differences in exchange rates. At $12.4 million/$100 million, we are running just over 12%: proportionately a bit more popular than in the USA. The Russell Crowe factor (although born in New Zealand, he – mostly – lives here in Sydney, so we claim him; sorry Kiwis) may be part of it. Not a great hit here, but respectable, very much so.

However the Box Office Mojo figures from other countries tell an even more interesting story: $30 million in Brazil, almost $5 million in Colombia (Colombia?), about $11 million in each of France, Germany and Italy; a staggering $33 million in Russia (1/3 of North America, surely this may be some sort of record?); $14 million in South Korea; and more than $6 million in Turkey (all $US).

You can do the sums. Increasingly, “big” films are being supported by international box office takings, and that’s no small thing.


Why is there no major commercial video streaming service in Australia?

January 27, 2014

So, why is there no major commercial video streaming service in Australia?  Australia is one of the richest countries in the world (by some accounts one of the top two, per capita).  We have a sophisticated and well-developed tech sector.  We have very high rates of literacy.  We love the audio visual media.

In August of 2013, BRW reported that, “Netflix’s subscriber base represents 30 per cent of all US households, while Quickflix has managed only a 1 per cent penetration into Australian living rooms.”  The article gives a number of reasons:  Australia’s “free to air” broadcast culture, and by contrast to Australians, Americans “are used to paying for content”; Australia’s smaller market; punitive download limits on many Australian internet plans (I believe that one); and limited access to content because of output deals.

But, as for paying for content – really?  Has anyone noticed how expensive cinema attendance and DVDs (as well as books, for that matter) are in this country?  Australia is one of the biggest profit centre country for the Hollywood studios.  How many American cinemas charge $21 a ticket, which is normal in Sydney these days?  And somehow Australians don’t pay for content?  Please.

But the last paragraph of the article is the real giveaway, the one that matters:

Then there are the users who change their IP address to get around country restrictions and pay for access to Netflix from Australia – that’s eating into Quickflix’s growth potential, as is the continued base of people willing to delve into the dark craft of piracy to download movies and TV shows.

For years, there have been rumours and half-announcements about Netflix coming to Australia, but the widespread IP shielding that allows Netflix access from this country may be a disincentive.  Look at Amazon – the biggest bookseller in this country, including extensive Kindle distribution, without one bit physical infrastructure – and possibly not even any staff.  With Amazon’s move into video production and digital streaming, who needs an on-the-ground presence?  The Amazon model:  let the internet service providers and Australia Post do the distribution work for them.

Getting bigger?  Yes.  For example, here is a copy of an advertisement for Amazon’s new video series, a full page from a November 2013 issue of The New Yorker:

Alpha House Amazon ad


Best films of 2013

January 2, 2014

So here it is, my “best films of 2013”, of the films that have opened here in Australia during the past twelve months.

My very favourites:

These ten are the films that most captivated, entertained and moved me: my three criteria for “best”.  I list them in alphabetical order, because they are so different that I simply cannot rank them.

Blue Jasmine is an unexpected addition to my “best” list.  Not because I don’t like Woody Allen; I love his work.  I just did not expect that he could do something this good.  People rave over his recent Midnight in Paris, and yes I liked that, but it does not carry the power and the frame-by-frame intensity of emotion that Blue Jasmine has.  Cate Blanchett’s performance will be listed as one of the greatest female roles of all time, but everyone on screen is more than special.

Elysium meets almost all of my requirements for a great science fiction film: pathos, drama, a unique world that I had never imagined and believable characters.  It fell apart at the end (oh dear) and has a few “cul de sac” plotlines, but Matt Damon pulls off his character and the two worlds are extraordinarily well drawn.

Elysium

Gravity is a great film and one of a rare breed: it could have actually run longer than its 91 minutes.  I am still marveling at how it was produced.  The feeling of being in space left me breathless and dizzy.

The Great Gatsby may not be a great film, but its exuberance, its flash and its energy won me over (I also liked the Sydney locations, standing in for New York City and Long Island!).  It was also heaps better than the Robert Redford version.  Baz Luhrmann never does anything “by halves” and this film glitters.

Life of Pi started life as an un-filmable book, so the achievement by director Ang Lee  is even more impressive (what cannot Lee do?).  If I had to choose one single best film that opened in Australia in 2013, it’s this one (note that it opened in North America in 2012).

Lincoln was too dark, too dreary and too talky, but Spielberg rarely misses and the performances by Daniel Day Lewis (as Lincoln) and Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) were fabulous.  I also am a “sucker” for Civil War films and Washington political intrigues; this film has both.  (Opened in North American in 2012.)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist only grossed just over $500,000 in North America, but it’s a superb and under-appreciated film, so much of our post-September 11th time.  I adored the original book by Mohsin Hamid (2007), as one of the truly great novels of the last ten years.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

Silver Linings Playbook also opened in North America in 2012, but the quality of the acting (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence – come to dinner any time!) kept me riveted.

World War Z surprised me.  I am not into zombies, and it is patently a ridiculous premise.  But the film-makers take their story very seriously, and it has some of the most powerful dramatic scenes of 2013, with a truly cinematic scope.  Brad Pitt carries the lead role well.

Zero Dark Thirty probably ties for my true “best of 2013” – again, one of the true films of this moment.  Muscular, spare, gripping, tight, exciting.  I loved it.

My honourable mentions:

American Hustle has more meaning than first appears, and underplays the real history that it charts.  Over-long and over-wrought, but a great slice of Americana, circa late 1970s. Best “comb-over” on screen.  Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and especially Jennifer Lawrence all shine.

Before Midnight is the third of the relationship films that began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004).  This Richard Linklater-Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke collaboration is fabulous.  Aside from the documentary “Seven-Up” series, I know of no film – and certainly no fictional film series – that has had foresight and maturity to use the same characters at nine year intervals in their lives.

The Butler never reaches the heights that it sets for itself, pulled down by its episodic nature and what appears to be sloppy direction, editing and writing.  But the acting and power of the subject – the African-American experience over from the late 1940s through the Obama era, as seen through the perspective of African-American men working in the White House – carry this film above the pedestrian.  Despite the faults, I enjoyed it thoroughly.  (Perhaps it should have been a mini-series?)

Frances Ha had the chance of reaching my “year’s best”, but missed by a whisker – possibly because it is just a bit too “small”.  I like Baumbach’s work and his Greta Gerwig collaborations are now becoming an important part of 21st century independent film-making.

Frances Ha Greta Gerwig

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (part 2 of the series) is predictable (no plot surprises here), but the dystopian settings (how many films this year fall into that category!?) and especially Jennifer Lawrence in the lead place this one near the top of true entertainment.

The Internship is, at its heart, such a warm-hearted film about such important themes – the changing nature of work in the digital age, and the role of middle-aged men – that I cannot pass it up.  It is surprisingly well-realised, despite a number of predictable scenes (face it, the film aims low, but still reaches surprising ly high).

Man of Steel may seem an odd choice for best of the year, and I did not expect that this new take on Superman would be so good.  But it is.  The most touching moments come from Superman’s two fathers:  his birth father (played by Russell Crowe) and his earth adopted father (played by Kevin Costner).  Read my review here.

Oblivion is a true “almost great” film.  The cinematography is breathtaking and the set-up is excellent.  Tom Cruise does a creditable job and Andrea Riseborough, playing his partner, is superb.  Pulled down by some mundane plot points, but a cinema experience unlike few others in the last twelve months.

White House Down was an unexpected and true guilty pleasure.  Oh sure, I thought, yet another film about terrorists in the White House.  Blah blah blah.  But this one transcends its subject and becomes a nail-biting, patriotic thriller with Channing Tatum remarkably effective.  Totally unbelievable from start to finish, but it touches all of the emotional buttons.  I am glad that I viewed it in a cinema for the full-screen experience.

White House Down image

Films that have not yet opened in Australia

Sadly, my “Best of 2013” does not correspond to many American “best lists”, because the following films have not yet opened here in Sydney.  All of them are potential candidates for my best list, but will wait until I see them over the coming few months before I comment.

–                      The Wolf of Wall Street

–                      Saving Mr Banks

–                      Mandela:  Long Walk to Freedom

–                      Inside Llewyn Davis

–                      Nebraska

–                      Her

–                      12 Years a Slave

–                      All is Lost

–                      Dallas Buyers Club