I spend every December catching up with films that I didn’t see in the theater, and every year I find interesting ones that never played in Tarrant County, thus denying me a chance to write about them in these pages. However, you can get most of these on disc or on demand, so consider this a guide to some of the more obscure movies in 2013 that kicked my brain into gear.
After This Is the End and Magic Magic, Michael Cera plays yet another jerk to good effect here, even though he gets upstaged. Sebastián Silva (who previously did the brilliant Chilean film The Maid) casts him as an American party monster who drags his Chilean friends (played by Silva’s brothers) into the desert outside Santiago searching for a cactus with hallucinogenic properties. Cera’s performance is laudable and his Spanish excellent, but the film is stolen by Gaby Hoffmann as a flower child who calls herself Crystal Fairy, tags along on the trip, and unceasingly irritates her fellow American. Early on, we see that this hippie chick (who often walks around naked) isn’t all she seems — having lectured the guys on the evils of sugar, we see her sneaking a swig of someone’s Coke. Crystal Fairy threatens to be a caricature, but in the climactic scene by a bonfire, she drops the act and reveals the teenage trauma she’s carrying around. That’s worth seeing all on its own.
Olivia Wilde can act! I wasn’t completely sold on her ability until I saw this comedy, in which she plays a sales and publicity person for a craft brewery. Joe Swanberg’s latest is his first with recognizable stars: Jake Johnson plays the brewer and best friend whom she might be attracted to, and Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick play their respective significant others. This is much better than Swanberg’s early efforts like Hannah Takes the Stairs, though he still has trouble bringing his movies to a point. The main attraction is Wilde’s performance, which is better than anything else she has done. Is it the heavily improvised dialogue that uncorks her, or is it this brash, foul-mouthed character who’s hiding layers of self-doubt underneath? Either way, I’d like to see more of this Wilde.
The title isn’t the cleverest, but then, who goes to Hong Kong action-thrillers for clever titles? Louis Koo plays a drug boss who gets busted by a hero cop (Sun Honglei) and offers to work with him as a mole to bring down a legendary kingpin who has never been seen. This is the latest from Johnnie To, who knows how to direct these things. He pulls off some nifty sleight-of-hand and two spectacular action sequences. One has two deaf brothers in the drug trade (Tao Guo and Li Jing) who get tipped off that the cops are coming and shoot it out with the law. The other is at the end, when the mole instigates a firefight between cops and drug lords at a school filled with children, where hell well and truly breaks loose. It all comes to a nihilistic conclusion typical of these Asian cop thrillers.
Reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Adam Leon’s low-budget lark starts out being about a small-time criminal job, only to have the characters and the planning become more important than the execution. Our protagonists are two graffiti taggers (Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington) in Queens who are sick of being disrespected by rival crews, so they plan the ultimate graffiti bomb: hitting the giant apple that pops up at Citi Field each time the New York Mets hit a home run. Trouble is, they need more cash to do it. Lots of subtle commentary on race and class here, especially when the guy delivers marijuana to a rich white girl (Zoë Lescaze) who makes out with him when they’re alone and then dismisses him as “the drug dealer” when she’s with her friends. It’s all done breezily and with no small amount of humor. A first-time feature director, Leon is a talent to watch.
Some people really detested Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s follow-up to Drive. I won’t argue that it’s a masterpiece, but this film lit in red neon is definitely from the Refn who made Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Gosling plays a drug smuggler in Bangkok whose brother is killed by police after raping and murdering a 16-year-old. The brothers’ horror show of a mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up in Thailand for revenge, but she meets her match in Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a short, fat, karaoke-singing middle-aged cop who carries a sword around so he can behead criminals in the street. Gosling is such a big star, and yet here he plays a weak character who takes on Chang in a fistfight and not only gets his ass kicked but fails to land a single punch. Refn remains fascinated by psychopathic killers, and Chang is his latest. God help me, I could watch a sequel with Chang implacably torturing and decapitating more clueless Western miscreants.
A lot of women make out with each other in this one, and it’s all about as sexy as a lecture on semiotics. Remade from the late Alain Corneau’s 2011 French thriller Love Crime, this movie stars Rachel McAdams as an American ad executive in Germany who steals an idea from her assistant (Noomi Rapace) to get a promotion. All the homoerotic tension kept just under the surface in the French movie is made explicit and far less interesting by Brian de Palma. After Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia, this is the third recent de Palma movie featuring girl-on-girl action. You know, if he had included the lesbian stuff in the thrillers that made him famous in the 1970s, that really would have been daring. Now, it’s just lame. On top of that, de Palma’s signature style (sinuous tracking shots, slow motion) is little in evidence, and I have no idea what happens at the end. This movie is called Passion, and it’s as cold as anything I’ve seen.
I caught this deeply flawed thriller during the one week in September that it played at AMC Grapevine Mills. Emily Browning plays a rock star who’s left reeling by the suicide of her songwriting genius brother and the subsequent flop of her solo album dedicated to him. No wonder she cheats on her husband (Cam Gigandet) with her band’s new guitarist (Xavier Samuel). Director/co-writer Catherine Hardwicke has a good feel for the atmosphere, and the diminutive Australian Browning does her own singing as well as a credible impression of a rock star. Disastrously, the filmmakers turn this into some Fatal Attraction-style erotic thriller with incomprehensible plot twists. This could have been good just as a study of adultery set against a music-industry backdrop. Too bad it didn’t stay that way.
Oh damn, this is twisted. Chris and Tina (Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who also co-wrote the script) seem like a nice English couple on a romantic road trip through the countryside. But then Chris sees a guy littering at a historical landmark and spends several minutes muttering to Tina about civic responsibility. Then he kills the litterbug in the parking lot. That kicks off a murder spree, as this couple discover their interest in offing rude people. The prolific Ben Wheatley (whose A Field in England played at the Lone Star Film Festival) films this all like a small-scale domestic comedy, which only makes the proceedings seem more unhinged. The last shot is the most delicious turn in this movie’s black comic irony. I gave this movie an honorable mention in my Top 10 list.
We’re talking incest, people! Tallie Medel (who’s like a sadder version of Kat Dennings) portrays a teenage girl who’s in love with her older brother (Sky Hirschkron). Writer-director Dan Sallitt determinedly treats this story without sensationalism or salaciousness, and his approach works too well. We feel how miserable this girl is beneath her sarcastic exterior, but wouldn’t it have been more dramatic to see her torture herself by listening to him talk about having sex with his girlfriend, rather than hear about the conversation from her voiceover narration? Why doesn’t she make a serious attempt to have sex with him, especially since he’s aware of what she wants? And why’s she in love with him and not her other brother? (Hirschkron gives a really bad performance, which doesn’t help matters.) The film is filled with other unanswered questions, and yet this sparse exercise still works better than it should, as the story of a girl who loves a boy who doesn’t love her back in the way she would like.