Summer cinema sampler for 2013

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

One of the quirks of the summer film lineup is that it also coincides with the annual awards season in Hollywood and London.

It means a rush of films nominated for the Oscars as well as other top honours, such as the UK's Bafta awards. Success flows through to the box office.

It also means the year’s best lists based on New Zealand releases are something of a misnomer and do not fully reflect the year’s output.

Like the Oscars, overseas critics’ lists for 2012 are heavily slanted to films released in the final two months of the year, with many just starting to show here.

For example, the Wall Street Journal’s top 10 list (see below) contained only four films shown here in 2012: Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom and Skyfall.

The Journal's critic, Joe Morgenstern, also noted in compiling his list that no film of significance was released by a major studio before October 15, skewering the year into nearly 10 months of mediocrity outside of arthouse material.

Similarly, of the top 10 best film nominations for the Oscar, only Argo and Beasts of the Southern Wild were released here in 2012. Beasts was also in the International Film Festival, while another Oscar nominee in the festival, Amour, has yet to have its second outing.

The good news is that five of what Morgenstern calls his late harvest are among the highlights of the 2013 summer offerings in New Zealand, giving local filmgoers more choice of top attractions that at any time outside the regular festivals.

Ones to look out for on release now:

The title loosely refers to Scientology founder and cult founder L Ron Hubbard and this is a drama about how he uses his quack ideas on a traumatised World War II sailor who has returned to civilian life as a misfit. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) is a heavyweight by anyone’s standards and this is not most people's idea of entertainment. However, a viewing is rewarded with plenty of thoughtful material that is a world away from David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. As the Hubbard-like character, Philip Seymour Hoffman channels Orson Welles, while Joaquin Phoenix as the sailor is the creepiest psycho in a long time. Though slow and ponderous, this a film that will remain in the mind much longer than it takes to experience.

A reconstruction of the real-life, supra-legal crime syndicate busting operation in Los Angeles in 1949 against Mickey Cohen's gang, which had paid off the police, judiciary and politicians to build an empire based on guns, drugs and prostitution. Sean Penn overplays the former boxing champ-turned-mobster, while Josh Brolin and sidekick Ryan Gosling lead a cut-down Dirty Dozen-style special squad fighting evil with its own means. One of the several shootout scenes, filmed in Hollywood's Grauman Theatre, was reshot after a similar real-life shooting last year during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The plot is basic good-versus-evil from go to whoa, making it the best thriller since Argo.

The first of Sir Peter Jackson’s trilogy has struck box office gold because it doesn’t take itself so seriously and shows a lighter hand suited to fantasy. The amazing technology (3D and double frame speed) creates a spectacle that goes well beyond the eye-watering New Zealand scenery. The plentiful action scenes involving Gollum, trolls, goblins and stone mountain men don't prolong the length as much as some make out and, of course, others will soon be demanding more as Bilbo and his gang of dwarves get closer to their goal of reclaiming their kingdom from a dragon.

Few will find fault with Ang Lee’s wonderfully visual adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel but they will find the deeper themes of faith, truth and the nature of storytelling brushed over. The main action scenes of an Indian boy stranded on a raft in the Pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger are astonishing and the best use of 3D since Hugo. The big budget was considered high risk in a conservative industry but audiences have shown otherwise by appreciating some rare intelligence in a big-screen spectacle .

The 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise has produced one of the best. Much has changed since Quantum Of Solace (2008), which was stripped down and lacking in humour. The retro makeover makes a virtue of being old-fashioned (perhaps to a fault) and the stronger dash of patrotism introduces some British settings to usual exotic places (this time Istanbul, Shanghai, Macau and an uninhabited "fortress" island that is actually in Japan). The car chase occurs in the precredit sequence and Daniel Craig as Bond is more tight-lipped than stiff upper lip. The girls and quips have largely gone in a limp script but the villain, Javier Bardem as a turncoat MI6 agent, is better than ever and internet savvy.  The back to the future recipe has certainly won over audiences; this has become the biggest money-spinner yet of the Bond films.

The stage musical comes to life under the direction of Tom Hooper (The Iron Lady) and with a top-notch cast headed by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, who are better known for their acting than their singing. The gamble pays off, with Hooper also using single long shots for the big set pieces.

While the choice of Dustin Hoffman’s first effort as a director is set in an English retirement home for musicians, there’s no doubting its appeal to audiences that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a big hit last year.  With names such as Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon and Pauline Collins, there’s no room for disappointment.

British director Bart Layton’s almost unbelievable drama-documentary about French con man Frédéric Bourdin, who is a serial stealer of other people’s identities. Layton skilfully blends real footage with reconstructions of a Texas family who believe Bourdin is their 13-year-old son who went missing in 1994. Layton presents arguments from all the main players, including Bourdin himself, but leaves the explanation for the viewer.

Irish director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) tackles Hollywood in a film-within-a-film concept about a boozy and desperate screenwriter trying to write a film based on responses to an ad for psychopaths. This provides plenty of opportunities for the likes of Christopher Walken and Tom Waits to perform bizarre turns. The overall incoherence is no doubt intended. 

A robbery in a Catholic area of Belfast goes badly wrong, with unexpected consequences for all concerned. Though this includes a hostage drama and a conflagration, it is mainly played for laughs as only the Irish can do in their gritty and down-to-earth manner.

Some of the best is yet to come:

Director Juan Antonio Boyona recreates the real-life experience of a Spanish family on holiday in Thailand during the Boxing Day tsunami. The family’s nationality has been changed to British for the purposes of  casting Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Though the tsunami has been seen to spectacular effect in films before, including Clint Eastwood’s little-seen Hereafter, time has not reduced its impact. This is heart-rending stuff that doesn't diminish the scale of human suffering and the disaster effort that followed for victims and survivors.

Quentin Tarantino follows up Inglourious Basterds with another epic filled with equally huge dollops of violence and humour. Christoph Waltz returns, this time as a German dentist, who has a lucrative bounty-hunting business with freed slave Jamie Foxx as his chief accomplice. Plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio is the main villain.

Veteran French actor Niels Arestrup lacks faith in his own son to run his vineyard but when he chooses a more suitable outsider it all ends in tears. Director Gilles Legrand is following a strong tradition of family dramas, and this is no exception. The setting in the wine industry is an added bonus.

• Watch for previews and reviews of Lincoln, Anna Karenina, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty, all starting on January 31.

Philip French (The Observer)
Amour, Argo, Berberian Sound Studio, Killing Them Softly, Holy Motors, Life of Pi, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, This is Not a Film (alphabetical order)

Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal)
Silver Linings Playbook, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Gatekeeper, Lincoln, Les Misérables, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty (order of merit)

Sight & Sound (UK) consensus of 90 invited critics
The Master, Tabu, Amour, Holy Motors, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Berberian Sound Studio, Moonrise Kingdom, Beyond the Hills, Cosmopolis, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, This is Not a Film (order of merit)

Bafta (British Academy of Film & Television Arts)
Best film – Argo, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty (nominations)
Best UK film – Anna Karenina, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Les Misérables, Seven Psychopaths, Skyfall (nominations)

Hollywood Academy Awards (Oscars)
Best film – Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty (nominations)

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2 Comments & Questions

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Only film that does not deserve to be in that sort of company is The Hobbit. Lightweight fluffy kids' adventure flick.

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Re: your opening line. It's not a quirk, it's a deliberately timed profit-driven strategy.

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