My Castle of Quiet 2013 year's-end film and music list, I saw several films that, had I seen them earlier, would have fattened out that list most definitely, being the kind of films that surprise low (or lowered) expectations, and leave the viewer reflecting and contemplating these works of cinema far beyond the initial viewing. This resonance, by and large, is often how I measure a film's "greatness."
They are: Monsters | You're Next | Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay | Right At Your Door | Sunset Strip ... (IMDb links)
Monsters (see image above), from 2010, is a most-definitely-unsung subtle and clever road movie, following two characters (a freelance photographer, and his boss' daughter) through a "contaminated zone" between Mexico and the U.S., an area where large, extraterrestrial creatures have bred and inhabited the landscape, after a UFO crash a few years earlier. Fans of both road movies and intelligent science-fiction tales will find this feature quite satisfying and engrossing from start to finish, depicting both the standard of corruption and "palm-greasing" that still reigns in third-world nations, and applied to this most-tragic of circumstances, as well as borrowing a page from the equally smart Cloverfield of 2008. I don't want to give too much away, but the viewer is left with the feeling similar to that of the 2009 box-office hit District 9, that these creatures are simply so large, powerful and/or different from us, that their mere existence endangers humans, though at the same time, their "intention" is not necessarily to be harmful to humans (unlike the monster in Cloverfield) and simple coexistence is a challenge, and therefore met with the predictable shock-and-awe of a military response. The story unfolds, as a believable love story quite naturally evolves between the protagonists, though it takes a decided back seat to the overall moral "message" of the film. Fans of my year-end film list for sure will not be disappointed.
You're Next, surprising on nearly all levels and loaded with action and several adroit plot twists, comes on like the now-familiar, home-under-siege tale (comparable, on its face, perhaps, to something like The Purge.) Directed by the talented Adam Wingard (V/H/S) and cast with a string of indie talent (AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and dazzling newcomer Sharni Vinson), You're Next is a fast, pulsating horror tale, and considering it's not at all a supernatural or hyper-realistic story, it rocked my world unlike most slasher/killer films, a genre of which I've just kind of had my personal fill. ...Having gathered for a parental anniversary party, a wealthy family begin to get picked off one-by-one, but not only is one of the guests unusually good at self-defense tactics, but the plot twists and turns are so genuinely and smartly woven into the narrative, that You're Next must have killed at the box office (no joke intended), considering the word-of-mouth it likely generated, weighed against what it probably cost to make. Writer Simon Barrett and director Wingard collaborated not only on some V/H/S 1 and 2 segments, but also on the brilliant, understated and underrated A Horrible Way to Die (scroll down to my 2011 favorites here), also starring Bowen and Seimetz as its principals, and inhabiting the same space as far as rich and unexpected characterizations, and neat plot twists. My only question now is how do I get my hands on the original score—a bubbling, 80s-style electronic suspense-builder.
Deceptive Practice... is an immediately engrossing and economically rendered quasi-biography documentary of sleight-of-hand/magician/writer Ricky Jay—his world, his personal history, his influences and mentors. Jay came up from his humble roots as a Jewboy in suburban NJ, through the 70s and 80s as a long-haired card-flipper playing between rock acts, both in nightclubs and on TV programs like The Midnight Special and The Dick Cavett Show. Despite being a legendarily crusty curmudgeon, the film is packed solid with great stories, anecdotes and quotes, from journalists, colleagues and friends, regarding Jay's talent, wisdom and respect (both that which he commands and affords others), shared with the public via Broadway shows and almost-countless film and TV roles (one may recall a particularly notable X Files episode starring Jay, and David Mamet's House of Games, just to cite two very-memorable examples.) I could go on, but it's best you just see Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, all regardless of whether you have a particularly acute interest in card magic or Ricky himself (mine was middling before I saw the film, and I was nonetheless both moved emotionally and thoroughly educated and entertained.)
Right At Your Door is a jarring, realistic depiction of how it might go down were a series of dirty bombs set off in downtown Los Angeles, and how one couple copes with this very doomed and relatively hopeless scenario. Made great both by its economic script, and a brilliant performance by Rory Cochrane, a woefully unsung talent, who you may remember as Freck in Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (for my money the most spot-on cinematic rendering to date of a Philip K. Dick novel, and one that, unlike most films based on Dick novels, thoughtfully renders the mounting paranoia and consummate intelligence of the author's challenging prose.) Here, Cochrane plays a decidedly non-Freckian character, a loving husband who must haplessly regard the governmental reaction to such an epically proportioned tragedy/emergency. Right At Your Door will shake up the viewer, and is most definitely not an "easy watch," pulling no punches with its both epically and personally tragic subject matter. It's great performances, writing and direction that save Right At Your Door from simply being a huge bummer and instead make the film a challenge well worth meeting.
Finally, Sunset Strip is a haunting, charming, sad-yet-exciting history of those few most-happening blocks of L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard, starting in the early 20th century and rolling until present day, with warts-and-all commentary from Johnny Depp, Kenneth Anger, Paul Mooney, Kim Fowley, Steve Jones, the members of X, various actors, journalists, entrepreneurs, hair-metal bands, Peter Fonda, Mickey Rourke, Hugh Hefner, countless rockers and gangsters—all the sin, glory and engrossing history of the various characters, from Mickey Cohen to Jim Morrison, from Lou Adler to the Osbournes, River Phoenix and Miss Pamela—the small people, the larger-than-lifes like John Belushi, the cocaine, the tattoos, The Garden of Allah, The House of Francis, the Chateau Marmont, the Rainbow, Tower Records, Sammy Davis, Jr., the nightclub-Rat Pack days, the sex alleys, the 60s street-riots and arrests, Hustler HQ, garage rock, hair metal, biker bars, Rodney on the ROQ, Led Zeppelin's notorious debauchery and groupie abuse, The Viper Room—those who survived, and those who didn't. In general, I've often considered this locale of uniquely American history, sin and lack of subtlety, to be a place that I personally never needed to visit, but the thoroughly intense and vital tenor of this documentary both intrigued me and turned my head around.