2013, Best Movies of January: ‘West Of Memphis’ leads the pack
#1: West of Memphis
Directed by Amy Berg
Written by Billy McMillin and Amy Berg
Following from the original Paradise Lost film and its two sequels, West of Memphis follows the events of one of the most media-covered American crime stories of the last two decades: The West Memphis Three, a case in which three teenagers (Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin), were arrested for the murders of three eight-year old boys. The case spawned four documentaries, several books, and a campaign from high-profile celebrities such as Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. Much like the Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis chronicles the history of the incarcerated men, all the way up to the eventual release.
Amy Berg’s film is an ambitious mixture of documentation and investigation. Along with co-writer and editor Billy McMillin, Berg selects moments from almost 20 years of stock footage to retell the story of the crime, the trial and several appeal attempts. Throughout, we witness dozens of interviews, conducted with lawyers, judges, journalists, family members, witnesses and some of the activists who fought to get the case retried.
There two things that set this film apart from previous efforts which documented the story before: first and most obvious, is that the documentary is wrapped around a love story, told through narration between Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who led the campaign to prove her husband’s innocence. As the film weaves back and forth through time, Lorri and Echols read the letters they wrote to each other, with recorded phone calls of their ongoing conversations injected throughout. The second, is that producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, hired a private investigative team with legal and forensic experts (including a veteran pathologists and a turtle expert), to re-examine old evidence. In fact, West Of Memphis is the “only crowd-sourced investigation in history.” and in the end, Berg and the investigators amass enough evidence to help convince the state supreme court to allow a plea agreement, and thus set the falsely accused free after almost two decades.
Much like The Central Park Five, West of Memphis tells the stories of wrong men in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film’s conclusion is far from comforting and West of Memphis is yet, another example of social injustice. Unlike Central Park Five, the case remains unsolved, and the guilty still walk free.
#2: Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal
Zero Dark Thirty is as much about the central character as it is about the hunt for Bin Laden, and director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates that she is as proficient with human emotion as she is with pulsating action. ZD30 is a compelling contemporary thriller, a political drama, an espionage action flick and above all, an engrossing character study. This is the story of a fearless young woman who becomes obsessed with a mission – overcomes several roadblocks and dodges death in the process of finding the world’s most wanted man. Maya symbolizes America and the countries ten year struggle of dealing with the effects of September 11 and the war which followed. Chastain gives us one of the best performances of the year as the powerful, uncompromising female protagonist who dominates what is traditionally an all male genre, and no matter where you stand in the pro-torture controversy, Zero Dark Thirty is best appreciated not as journalism but as an old-fashioned espionage thriller which interweaves elements of the historical record with fictional accounts.
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead
Written by Justin Benson
Resolution is the debut feature film from a pair of directors who deliver a clever, engrossing and original meta-horror film about a man helping his friend to beat his drug addiction. As one character states: “If we can get to the end of this reel of film, we will be fine.” The same can be said for the viewer.
Resolution feels like a distant cousin to last year’s Cabin in the Woods, in that, it is a self-aware postmodern horror film, that just so happens to take place in and around a cabin in the woods. With Cabin In The Woods, director Drew Goddard and his co-screenwriter Joss Whedon, commented not just on the conventions of the genre, but on the audience’s desire to continue watching, even when a movie revisits the same old, tired genre tropes. Much like Cabin, Resolution is a satisfying exercise in examining the way in which stories are told, only Resolution takes an opposite approach: Where Cabin revelled in movie monsters, Resolution’s monsters are instead, internal.
With Resolution, Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead aren’t working on as large a scale, but they achieve a little more, with substantially less. What starts as a micro-indie about addiction and friendship, quickly takes a terrifying turn, when a character discovers strange artifacts in and around the cabin: an eerie collection of ominous old photographs, records, 8mm movies, webcam footage from a hidden cam, and more. It gets even creepier when videotapes containing footage of the friends arrive at their doorstep (a la David Lynch’s Lost Highway). At first they discover these objects seemingly by chance. And neither we, nor they, know quite what to make of the situation. But it soon, becomes apparent that these artifacts are deliberately left behind, for them to find. But by whom or what?
Resolution delivers an intelligent commentary on the genre and our relationship as a viewer, without ever feeling smug or shallow. This is truly a unique film and recommended for fans of mystery rather than robots of reason.
#4: The Last Stand
Directed by Jee-woon Kim
Screenplay by Andrew Knauer and Jeffrey Nachmanoff (rewrite)
Working from a script from Andrew Knauer (which borrows elements of High Noon, Rio Bravo and it’s quasi-remake, John Carpenter’s 1976 Assault On Precinct 13), director Jee-woon Kim delivers a fine tuned modern day Western. As the first Korean auteur to direct a large-scale American movie, The Last Stand is an unabashedly invigorating action flick. Stand is no doubt gratuitously violent, and arguably the NRA’s wet-dream, but Knauer and Kim inject a couple of tender moments and a whole lot of humour amidst the muscular, high-energy shootouts and gunfire. The script is the weak point here, built on lazy clichés, silly one liners and propelled by a ticking-clock-plot, but you get what you expect: A narrative which serves the purpose of giving Schwarzenegger the opportunity to fire a few guns and utter a few one-liners.
Thankfully the director in charge is talented enough to overcome it’s flaws and gives us a perfectly serviceable Schwarzenegger vehicle, powered by a few unique car chases, a Mustang and a pimped out Corvette.