I'm not much of a theater-goer so most of the new films that I'm interested in will have to wait until they pop up on blu. I did, however make the trek to the local cineplex a few times this year. Man of Steel had a first half so good, so Nolan-esque that its second half, so bad and so Snyder-esque, brought the whole good time to a shrieking halt. Watching one man in tights beat another into the ground (or through a building... or...) constantly for over an hour is not my idea of a good time despite my love for comic books. This second hour (and the addition of Ben Affleck as The Dark Knight) has me seriously worried about the sequel.
Iron Man 3 was, if possible, even worse. Seeing one man in armor beat another into the ground (or through a building... or...)... well, you get the idea. Lots of folk thought what Shane Black pulled of with The Mandarin was fabulous. Me not so much. Outside of the destruction of Tony Stark's cliff house and that sensational plane crash, this was one big headache and its finale ranks as one of the worst I've ever seen.
I heard lots of great things about The Conjuring: "Scariest movie in years!"Scariest movie of the decade!!" "Scariest movie of all time!!!" Hell, Entertainment Weekly picked it as one of the Ten Best Films of the Year. It's watchable, but scary? Nah, no scarier than any of those reality shows on the boob tube. I reckon by default it's the scariest movie of the year but it didn't scare me. Technically, Silver Linings Playbook was a 2012 film but I didn't catch it until it hit blu and I loved every minute of it. I'm glad that such a "small film" found such a wide audience. Seriously, when was the last time you watched DeNiro in a film and thought "man, this guy is gooood!"
The less said about Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, Pacific Rim (or at least the half hour I managed to eke through), the better. So, was there anything I liked this year? Well, I did see several vintage films for the first time this year. The continuing plunge in blu-ray prices make it easier to take chances on titles unknown. The treasure I unburied this year was Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear, thanks to a gorgeous (some might say sumptuous) print offered up by Criterion. I'd seen, and loved, William Friedkin's remake, Sorcerer, several times (due for a blu release in '14) but somehow managed to miss the original. Four men must transport highly explosive nitro to an oil rig that refuses to burn itself out. To get there safely, they can't hit any bumps in the road and they must maintain an average speed. Nail-biting is the term I've read in several reviews and that's fair but it's also so much more than just an action thriller. The viewer literally does not know what may happen from frame to frame nor who will survive (in fact, two of the quartet are killed off-screen and the effect is jarring). I also braved the wilds of The Warner Archives for a heaping helping of "rare films" (read that as old movies Warner doesn't want to spend $$ on to make up a big batch) including The Hanging Tree, a mini-masterpiece starring the always watchable Gary Cooper and Karl Malden. Cooper plays a very unlikeable gun-toter come to a small village to set up shop as a doctor and, save for a pat climax that feels tacked on, there's not an ounce of fat on this one.
I saw only two films in the theater this year that I can recommend. The comedy/drama, Enough Said, starring the late James Gandolfini and the gorgeous Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is a well-written fable about the traps and chores of dating in the 2010s. I found myself nodding in agreement with quite a few of the predicaments and laughing out loud several times at a few others. The other I caught just under the wire a few days before New Year's and that's American Hustle. George Clooney and Lily Tomlin can't stand David O. Russell but I think his flicks are loopy and always a lot of fun. This time out, Russell seems to have wanted to make a Martin Scorsese film and comes pretty close to nailing it. The cast is insanely good: Christian Bale (almost unrecognizable and channeling Pacino), Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence (a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress), and Jeremy Renner are all picture-perfect, and there are a few surprise guest stars thrown in for good measure. I'd be snapping up the equally perfect 1970s-era soundtrack if the songs weren't already in high rotation on my iPod (incorporating ELO's "Long Black Road" is genius). A very funny, unpredictable film.
The Attack-A terrific movie, this time from Israel, about a doctor whose wife commits a suicide bombing and what he learns after her death.
In a World-A lovable independent film about a young woman who wants to break into the male-dominated world of movie trailer voice overs. Worth seeking out.
Mud-Matthew McConaughey is excellent in this coming of age story set in Mississippi, which also features Sam Shepard in a key role.
Nebraska-Very entertaining and extra points for being in black and white! I am still laughing about the two sons who are a little confused about how long it takes to get places.
Philomena-Judi Dench is always great, but it was nice to see Steve Coogan in a serious role. I loved him in The Trip and watch clips of the impressions over and over on YouTube.
Silver Linings Playbook-I resisted seeing this but finally gave in early in 2013 and I really enjoyed it. Is there a more likable young actress in Hollywood right now than Jennifer Lawrence?
Starbuck-Recently remade in the U.S. as Delivery Man, the original is from Quebec and is very funny.
Terraferma-A heartbreaking film about the problem of North African emigrants flooding onto Lampedusa and on to Sicily and central Europe. This film was made a couple of years ago but was released here this year and the problem is getting worse every day.
Wadjda-A great movie from Saudi Arabia about a girl who wants a bicycle. Fascinating to see this culture portrayed.
|Jamie Dornan of "The Fall"|
Broadchurch-Best series of the year for me, and the only one where I had trouble waiting a week to find out what happened next.
Detective Montalbano-A Sicilian detective series I watched on DVD; four new episodes premiered in Italy this year. One of the best detective shows around.
Endeavour-Season one was good but this year's season two was even better. I love Inspector Morse and these mysteries that took place when he was just starting out are quite worthwhile.
Foyle's War-Having the series go beyond the end of WWII was an iffy proposition, but the scripts and acting this year were great and having Foyle get dragged in to post-war espionage was brilliant.
House of Cards-Definitely up and down--and the one where he went back to his old school was awful--but Kevin Spacey was so good it held my interest.
What with all the blogging I do around here, I never seem to get the time to read and, since that's the case, I tend to give up on something that's not grabbing me. A few things this year grabbed me enough to see them through to the -finis - though none of these were in the fiction category.
I'm a World War II buff but I find most histories are dry and tedious. Not so Antony Beevor's The Second World War (Little, Brown) which takes us from the very beginning of the War in 1939 right up to the last days in 1945 in a style that involves the reader and keeps those pages a'turning. I'd read a few books on WWII but all from an American perspective (Beevor is English) which may have heightened the sense that I was reading about a completely different set of conflicts than those I'd studied before. Highly recommended for those who might want to dip their feet into this important part of our past without being overwhelmed.
Though I'd have preferred that author John Szpunar spend a little more time on the vintage years, his overview of horror fanzines, Xerox Ferox (Headpress), is a massive collection of entertaining information and trivia. Produced in a xerox style (crappy reproductions and all), the book presents interviews with over forty small press editors and publishers without becoming repetitive (a massive surprise since it seems a good portion of these guys were inspired by the same splatter films). Some of these I obviously skimmed or skipped altogether but some (such as the talk with Dave Szurek, a guy I briefly corresponded with while I was co-editor of The Scream Factory) are fascinating insights into just what makes a fan publish. Yep, there are a few glaring omissions (how you could include Tim Lucas, whose Video Watchdog is anything but a fanzine, but ignore Mark Frank, Jim Clatterbaugh, and Dennis Druktenis, is beyond me) and the coverage of post-1980 zines consumes a good 80% of the book, but until we get Steve Bissette's promised overview of monster magazines, this is about as good as it gets.
I want to also give shouts out to four wonderful reprint projects I discovered this year:
Noir City 2012 Annual (Film Noir Foundation), the fifth annual compilation of the best noir film writing taken from the e-zine, Noir City. Here we get overviews of sub-genres, mining of lost films, focus on genre actors, and interviews with the talent behind the camera. Edited by Donald Malcolm and published by noir expert Eddie Muller, Noir City Annual is the last word on the subject. Until next year's volume, that is.
John Benson's The Sincerest Form of Parody (Fantagraphics), an overview of the 1950s rip-offs of MAD, one of which was even published by EC Comics itself! With titles like Nuts!, Crazy, Riot, and Eh!, the publishers made no mistake which bandwagon they were attempting to jump on to. Most of the stories give evidence that the offenders were merely looking at the surface rather than trying to discover if there was anything deeper but a few manage to tickle the funny bone while presenting spot-on art clones. Since this volume is already out of print and highly priced, some may be driven to the Digital Comic Museum for examples of the type of story presented.
Weasels Ripped My Flesh (New Texture) is a compilation of lurid "true life" stories written by such respected writers (usually under pseudonyms) as Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and Lawrence Block for magazines like Male, Man's Life, Untamed, Gusto, and Sir! I've seen stacks of these things at paperback conventions (usually for ungodly sums) and it boggles my mind that the newsstand was once gobbed up by covers flaunting the "Grisly Rites of Hitler's Monster Flesh Stripper!" Just with that title alone I think we just sold two more copies of Weasels. Lovingly compiled by Robert Deis (who provides a compact history of the men's magazines) and reprinting twenty-two examples of just how bad taste can get while still remaining an entertainment, Weasels could be this year's biggest guilty pleasure.
Finally, I must stand up and applaud the reprinting (in one sturdy trade paperback) of the legendary Ray Harryhausen fanzine, FXRH (Archive Editions/Creature Features), a groundbreaking project produced by editor Ernest Farino (another talent ignored in Xerox Ferox), reproducing the rare fanzine which saw four issues published from 1971 to 1974. More than just a reprinting though, this 300+ page volume also presents material never before published. I'd love to see like volumes of Photon, Gore Creatures, and, yep, Garden Ghouls Gazette.
Becoming Ray Bradbury by Jon Eller. Part one of a biography of the author, and very readable. I corresponded with the author to ask some questions for bare*bones.
The Big Screen by David Thomson. Long but entertaining survey of the history of film. Unintentionally funny when he tries to tackle porn movies from a critical perspective.
Robert B. Parker's Lullaby by Ace Atkins. The first Spenser book to be written by someone other than Parker and it breathes much-needed life into the characters.
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter. I am reading my way through the Inspector Morse novels (see TV, above) and this one was a standout.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. The most original "new" novel I read this year.
The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri. If you have not met Detective Montalbano (again, see TV above), it's time to start. A classic mystery from the 1990s.
I don't read new comic books. Haven't done so for years. The last time I bought new comics regularly was when Captain America was "killed." That one did me in yet again (it was the third or fourth time I'd quit buying comics) and I'm fairly sure I ain't goin' back again. To me, there's nothing new under the sun. So, for me, the only thing new is old: discovering vintage comics I'd never run across before. The Digital Comic Museum is a website devoted to uploading public domain comic books and making them available to fans absolutely free. Thousands of complete horror, crime, hero, humor, and romance books at your fingertips, free to download. This month, I managed to obtain a near-full set of Harvey's Chamber of Chills title from DCM and intend to use them as research for an upcoming bare bones project on pre-code horror. I'd love to be able to afford the Harvey Horrors hardcover reprintings of Chamber of Chills but the 4 volumes would set me back $200. It's just not worth that kind of money. Currently, DCM uploads dozens of obscure funny books every day and the menus are all easily traversable. As a matter of fact, once this project gets up and running (sometime in 2014), each issue I cover will be accompanied by a link to the comic on DCM.
I said I don't read new books and, technically, that's true. There's only one title I pick up religiously and that's IDW's Haunted Horror, a bi-monthly reprinting pre-code horror stories, edited by comic historian Craig Yoe. Each full color issue comes packed with seven stories ripped from the pages of such 1950s titles as Horror From the Tomb, Beware, Weird Terror, and The Thing. These are not all gems, by any standard, but most are worth a giggle or two and the reproduction is super. If I have one complaint, it would be the lack of any editorial presence. I'd like to see historical data a la the wonderful early 1990s reprint title, Tales Too Terrible Too Tell, which made up for its lousy black and white reproductions with fascinating history and trivia about the original publishers. That's all that's missing here.
I am reading two series of hardcover comics: The All-Star Comics Archives, collecting the Golden Age series, and The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library. The Golden Age DC comics are fun and the books--which were published at $50 a piece--are easy to find online now for less than half that. The Barks books are fabulous and a big thank you is due to Fantagraphics for taking on this project and making the books affordable (less than $20 per book online).
I tend not to stray from the artists and music that's been put in my grocery cart through the years so most of the "new music" on my iPod is courtesy of my hip girlfriend. This year she turned me onto Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers, Jake Bugg, Phillip Roebuck, and Ray LaMontagne (whose God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise is my favorite new cd of the year). My Rolling Stones addiction continued to be fed this year thanks to the band's 50th Anniversary. The documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, provides plenty of backstage footage but stops short of essential when it ignores most of the post-1978 activity and sidesteps most of the ill will between Mick and Keef (an integral part, I think, of the chemistry in the band) through the years. Still, it's an enthralling trip and provides ample proof that The Stones were once a force to be reckoned with on stage. Ironically, the tour that accompanied the anniversary gave those of us who'd written the boys off a chance to stop and rethink our stance. Take a look at a clip from their night at Glastonbury and you can see why critics insisted The Stones were the most vibrant band of the festival. Now let's get these guys back in the studio one more time.
Another music doc I absolutely loved (and one that didn't spare the controversy) was The History of the Eagles, a massive three hour celebration of the most popular American band of all time (in sales figures at least). Home movies, rare concert footage, celebrity endorsements and indictments and, most importantly for entertainment value, the monstrous chip on Glenn Frey's shoulder. I'd venture a guess that three minutes doesn't go by without Glenn singling out ex-Eagle Don Felder as a "fuck," an "asshole," "greedy" or any number of derogatory nicknames. The audio of the last time these two performed onstage during the first round of The Eagles is chilling and laugh-out-loud at the same time. Booze, drugs, celebrity girlfriends, in-band fighting. It's all here. There's a bonus disc featuring a segment of a 1977 concert during the Hotel California tour that proves these guys were replaced by robots on stage.
Um, er, uh . . . I guess it's bad that "Blurred Lines" was stuck in my head for quite a while, since now it's being vilified. I rediscovered Freedy Johnston when he and Marshall Crenshaw did a benefit concert near my home. That's about it for music. I mostly go on YouTube and pull up old hits from the '60s and '70s when I want to hear something. "Hooked on a Feeling" gets played way too often.
*Our favorites of, in some cases, may not actually be from 2013, but we saw or read them for the first time in 2013.