After spending too much thinking about it, it's time time to say farewell to the 2013 film year. Yes, yes, I'm perfectly aware it's nearing the end of January, the Oscar nominations have already been released and nearly everyone and every place else in sight has already named their top picks of the year, but these things take time-- the world would likely be a better place if the Oscar ceremony took place in September instead of February (or in this years case, March-- thank you Sochi!), after all, it's difficult to gauge how a film really connects unless sufficient time is spent to thoughtfully analyze and ruminate. I viewed 114 films that were released in some capacity in 2013 and here is my careful ranking of all of them. Enjoy.
114) To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
This is painful, quite literally painful to say that the auteur behind rightfully esteemed American masterworks Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line made for my least pleasurable film experience of 2013. In my proper review of the film, I retitled the tedious romantic yarn starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, "To the Pretentious Bits of Cinematic Hell," further stating, "There's nothing to cling to either by way of nostalgia or novelty and
for the first time in his career, Malick seems to have, perhaps, been
swayed [more} by the decades of being heralded a filmmaking genius, and offers
little more than post-card ready snapshots shot to the ether, ready to
raved and lavished upon." The photography by Emmanuel Lubezki (more about him later on) is beautiful, but there's nary a grain of substance to hold onto or any sort of yearning to the central love story. Simply, it's the film version of a teenage girls' Instagram summer crush.
113) Movie 43 (13 directors)
Thirteen different directors (including the Farrelly Brothers, Griffin Dunne, James Gunn and Elizabeth Banks) contributed to this omnibus film from hell which featured a cast of major A-list actors going all dirty and seedy because, one assumes, they had bets that were owed. One of the ugliest, most disgusting films made in recent memory.
112) The Counselor (Ridley Scott)
A terrific ensemble cast including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Brad Pitt is terribly wasted in Ridley Scott's joyless and tedious exercise of fan-worshiping at the feet of Cormac McCarthy, making his screenwriting debut. A film full of listless monologuing but no actual story, The Counselor marks a major embarrassment for its strongly assembled creative team. It's about drugs or something, but more so a missed opportunity for the trashy, B-rated pulpy thrill ride that it surely could have been-- at the very least Cameron Diaz as the cheetah loving femme fatale steals the show in all her car-humping gamesmanship.
111) Upside Down (Juan Solanas)
Jim Sturges and Kirsten Dunst pantomime a star-crossed romance in this wan futuristic haves-and-have-nots love story where the 99-percenters are literally forced to live below the rich. There's a nugget of invention to Solanas' storytelling but nothing is fleshed out enough to give it life and the chemistry-less, Prozac-nation performances of the leads makes this quite a tedious affair.
110) Romeo & Juliet (Carlo Carlei)
This umpteenth adaptation of one of the Bard's most cherished love stories is one of the blandest. Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth are flat as the doomed young lovers in an adaptation that will likely displease anyone who dares to watch it-- non-Shakespeare devotees will be bored by the stiff leads while fans will be pissed by the sliced and hacked prose. Lose-lose scenario.
109) The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (Harald Zwart)
Twilight knock-off about demons and a chosen something or other. The memory has faded, but I'm certain even the filmmakers didn't know what was actually going on here. Lily Collins, just as pretty and blank as a porcelain doll, stars and Jamie Campbell Bower, who looks two days off heroin, is her Edward, or Jacob, or whatever.
108) The Lifeguard (Liz W. Garcia)
Kristen Bell stars as a self-absorbed brat who chooses to give up on such horrid grown-up hindrances like a good job and a nice New York apartment to go live back at home, work as a lifeguard, smoke lots of pot and take up with a barely pubescent young man. One of the least believable and certainly one of the least entertaining depictions of quarter-life angst to be presented on film.
107) A Good Day to Die Hard (John Moore)
The fifth installment of the once great and now, sadly regrettable John McClane franchise is so bad, it's not even bad enough to be fun in a leave-your-brain-at-the-door way. Put aside that this film pretty much negates nearly everything that made Bruce Willis' iconic character so badass to begin with, it's one the blandest action films in recent years. Willis: go beg Wes Anderson to put you in another film.
106) Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
Part L.A. Confidential, part Dick Tracy, all garbage. A dressed up noir with no place to go. There's fits of style, but nothing to chew on as actors like Sean Penn, Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling all go the beats of their own drum without a through-line to cohesively connect them together. Gangster Squad was altered for viewer sensitively in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado, tragedy but really should have been abandoned altogether.
105) Diana (Oliver Hirschbiegel)
2013 was a pretty rotten year for Naomi Watts-- she unfortunately agreed to be a part of the foolishness that was Movie 43 and appeared in the son-swapping melodrama Adore that got trashed by the critics and headlined this dreary, listless biopic which chronicled the last two years in the life of Princess Diana. Watts, a steely and talented actress, should have known better considering the ridiculousness in sceenwriter Stephen Jeffreys and Hirschbiegel's meandering and sodden screen treatment. The film traps her in a hokey, Nicholas Sparks-lite tryst with a particularly uninteresting Pakistani doctor and does equal service in both tarnishing the reputation of not just the gifted performer who needs another Mulholland Dr-like shot to the heart, but also to the People's Princess who is deserving at the very least of a The Queen-like movie of her own.
104) Escape From Tomorrow (Randy Moore)
The most interesting thing about Moore's Disney-vacation-from-hell micro-indie novelty is that the film was secretly (and illegally) filmed at the Disney parks of California and Florida. There's a nugget of ingenuity to the idea of regular Joe slowly losing his grips on reality at the happiest place on Earth, but Escape From Tomorrow is tedious and tiresome. After the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, few festival-goers expected the film to see the light of day, but even the most litigious-minded of folk at the Disney Corporation probably figured, "What the hell."
103) The English Teacher (Craig Zisk)
Julianne Moore plays a spinster librarian-type in this basic cable trifle of a prudish English teacherwho gets her groove back after bedding a former student and agreeing to put on a high school production of his ignored and obscene play. Fans of the great Moore know that comedy isn't particularly her strength-- this does nothing to change that claim.
102) Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (Tyler Perry)
My first venture to a Tyler Perry joint (I saw For Colored Girls, but that doesn't really count) and very likely my last if this woman-hating piece of trash is any indication of what his oeuvre stands for. The filmmaking is shoddy, but the gender politics of this piece are despicable. Basically, the take-away from Temptation through the prism of the great and powerful Mr. Perry lies in that if a strong, intelligent, career-driven woman is stuck in a rut within her marriage and career and chooses to claw herself out if it, she is to endure a dowdy, miserly (not to mention HIV+) existence for wanting more. Oh brother!
101) Identity Thief (Seth Gordon)
Melissa McCarthy is a funny woman-- damn funny in a way that's loose and weird and utterly inspired, but in Identity Thief, she is shackled to bargain basement high concept as a trashy scam artist who has stolen from Jason Bateman and countless others. There's a few funny bits here and there, but the entire film is overly long, gratuitously violent and nearly embarrassing.
100) 21 & Over (Jon Lucas & Scott Moore)
The writers of The Hangover bring their brand of sexist and homophobic humor to the college set. I previously wrote, "While it may prove a moo point to beat a dumb, forgettable film such as
this, there's something fishier here and in so many films of its ilk
that present straight while males in situations that are loathsome, and
often criminal, only to be left with the heartening message that they're
not so bad after all-- just boys being boys goofing around-- their
hearts are made with gold." True that.
99) Trance (Danny Boyle)
I suppose it takes a certain degree of ingenuity to hinge an overdone con-men-out-conning-themselves mindfuck on the genitals of it's female star (in this case Rosario Dawson), but we should expect more from the director of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire or least something less tedious.
98) Salinger (Shane Salerno)
The Weinstein Company was forced to sell this trashy documentary of one of America's finest and most enigmatic writers as a don't-spoiler-the-twist mystery because, surely, even they were aware that the film was mere flimflam, a lip service tell-all that functioned as something with the integrity and depth of a People magazine profile. Of course the twist that more works for Salinger were on the arrival was spoiled before the film opened and that just about explains why the film failed with critics and audiences and ended up DOA on the 2013 awards race.
97) Iron Man Three (Shane Black)
The caustic, unpredictable personality of Robert Downey, Jr., which felt like such a refreshing jolt in the first Iron Man in 2008, is starting to date itself. He runs the risk of falling into Johnny Depp/live-sized cartoon terrain with each stroke of uninspired Marvel hokum. Yet another film that takes a cue from Nolan's "let's darken things up" but mashed with Marvel's "all is bright" agenda-- the result is silly and unhinged, but not in particularly interesting ways.
96) A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola)
Roman Coppola decided to have an offbeat picnic with some friends and a few relatives and film the ever-precious and utterly eccentric festivities. Charlie Sheen plays the title character-- a loathsome, aging Lothario who gets caught on a Charlie Kaufman-styled bender. The film offers little to the mind of Charles Swan III, but the audience (the few of us who actually saw the bloody bore) should probably be grateful for that.
95) The Book Thief (Brian Percival)
Overbearing in its lack of subtlety and made with a sheen that's practically begging for "For Your Consideration" campaigns, this artificially sweetened WWII drama tells the story of an adorable orphan who is taken in by a Spielberg-inspired family who risks it all by taking in a kindly Jew. The film looks like it was filmed at Epcot Center and is full of nothing but sugar.
94) The Canyons (Paul Schrader)
The infamous Lindsay Lohan trainwreck of 2013, but the thing is that Lohan is actually not bad in this sexual thriller written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and directed by Schrader (American Gigolo; screenwriter of Taxi Driver.) The film is miserable dreck, a sleazy and unconvincing retread of past Ellis creations filmed all micro-budgeted with a sheen of high art pretension, but Lohan is completely watchable and even absorbing; of course it likely didn't hurt that the actors surrounding her are about as compelling as rock.
93) Fill the Void (Rama Burshtein)
This was Israel's submission for the 2012 Academy Awards and the film did particularly well on the 2012-2013 festival circuit, yet it provided one of the sharpest divides between myself and the greater critical community. The story revolves a young Hasidic Jewish woman who is arranged to be married to her late sister's widower and while well-filmed, it left me at a total disconnect with its characters and the story as a whole.
92) Lovelace (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman)
Amanda Seyfried gives a committed but misguided performance as Linda Lovelace, the porn phenom who came to fame as the star of Deep Throat back in the 1970s. While the film features a few fun performances (Sharon Stone hamming as her disproving mother and James Franco as Hugh Hefner, for instance), it slugs along to the basic tune of tea-pot melodrama. Type-casting alert number one: shouldn't any pretty girl know by now not to trust Peter Sarsgarard?
91) We're the Millers (Rawson Marshal Thurber)
Jason Sudeikis is a small-time pot dealer who convinces stripper Jennifer Aniston, wayward runaway Emma Roberts and innocent as ice cream teenager Will Poulter to pose as his family in order to stow massive amounts of weed into the country. This improbably high concept comedy rivals Identity Thief and expands on it's need to shock and meld R-rated antics with spits of overcooked violence. If it rates just marginally higher, it's due to giving gifted comedians Kathryn Hahn and Nick Offerman chances to get all weird for us on screen.
90) Stoker (Chan-wook Park)
Park, the director of the original Oldboy, makes his English-language debut with this hot-boiled American Gothic thriller with a juicy cast that included Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode. I wrote, "While Stoker's plot and ever consuming silliness and ugliness
prevent the film from being considered a great piece of art, the
alluring aesthetic of the film still tantalizes on the thrill of what
Park and team could have created had the story being stronger. His
visual inventiveness is sharp as a tick, even in the most mundane of
89) Oz: The Great & Powerful (Sam Raimi)
This retelling, reboot, what-the-hell road kill Disneyland attraction should have been titled "Oz: The So-So and Kinda Sexist," as that's more reflective of the finished product. No magic, just a sprinkling of fairy dust along with bullshit.
88) Out of the Furnace (Scott Cooper)
Out of the Furnace visually and stylistically recalls Vietnam-era classics like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home,
yet the effort is strained because the characters are generic cinematic
tropes of the most hopeless kind. And however dressed up with a METHOD
(the caps are important) preparedness by an ensemble of great actors,
the film never manages to come close to bringing it close to the human
heart, soul or mind.
87) Girl Most Likely (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini)
There's a moment inside a scene of Girl Most Likely
that hits something close to what it may have been given the talent
assembled, which included Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening and American Splendor directors Berman and Pulcini. Imogene (Wiig) gets her face painted by a boardwalk glitter kiosk
girl whose inspired to give her a fabulous look that expresses who she
really is on the inside of her soul. It's a hokey and overly-extended
item that segues into the niftiest, sad and silly spirit of a project
that clearly needed more excessive fine-tooling before the filming
process. In any way-- the punchline is that her fabulous glittery
makeover is the form of small teardrops aside her cheek. A better, more
generous comedy of manners would have carried that touchstone more
authentically throughout the entire film...a film not unlike Wiig's own Bridesmaids, which expertly matched the silly and the bitter in nearly beautiful tandem.
86) The Family (Luc Besson)
Besson, director of Leon: The Professional is not exactly known for his light touch, which is what's missing from this fish-out-of-water comedy about a relocated family of ex-mobsters trying to blend in a small town in France. Robert De Niro utilizes the same comatose Meet the Parents schtick that's given him so many paychecks. Thankfully, Michelle Pfieffer barely has to bat an eye to remind us she's still a movie star-- to bad the movie is still terrible.
85) Lone Survivor (Peter Berg)
There's one great scene in Berg's rah-rah 'merica Afghanistan war picture where the mostly anonymously characterized group of soldiers played by Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster argue the consequences and ramifications of an enemy capture-- it's a chilling sequence that reminds how much more this film could have been. Instead it's mostly a collection of elaborately choreographed stunts entwined with a SEAL recruitment advertisement. Missed opportunity more than failure.
84) Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski)
Wonderfully detailed production design and cinematography can't escape the middling science fiction story where Tom Cruise plays cloned versions of an arch and boring Tom Cruise character. Credit is due however for amidst all the bland storytelling that Melissa Leo and Andrea Riseborough rise above it somehow with weirdly vivid impressions.
83) Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua)
The White House is under attack, who are you going to call? Gerard Butler, but of course. The Scottish brute feigns an American accent while quality actors like Angela Bassett, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Melissa Leo grab easy paychecks.
82) The Call (Brad Anderson)
Halle Berry gives a steely and commanding performance in this ridiculous Silence of the Lambs rip-off as a 911 operator who tries to save a teenage girl from a knock-off Ed Gein.
81) Monsters University (Dan Scanlon)
Monsters University is not a good movie, it's not the unforgivable travesty that Cars 2 was, but it further advances the admission that all is not well in the Pixar universe, once a triumphant beacon of storytelling and artistry. They further brand themselves into mediocrity with this forgettable prequel to the jazzy and inventive Monsters, Inc. There's no joy in Mudville anymore.
80) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)
Or how it should be referred to as is eHarmony and Papa Johns Present The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, oy the product placement in Ben Stiller's tale of a sad sack daydreamer of to find adventure for himself is terribly distracting, not to mention confusing. There's a wisp of something to Stiller's vision, beautifully, but vacantly photographed and perhaps even something quietly moving behind it too, but the entire enterprise is short-thrifted by shoddy attempts at being everything and all without doing th work necessary to get there. For a completely different, but utterly inspired take on the James Thurber short story, I'd suggest the 1947 Danny Kaye version.
79) C.O.G. (Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
Based on an essay by the amazing American humorist David Sedaris, there was certainly expectations to Alvarez's staging of a lost young man who finds himself while working at an apple farm in Oregon, yet the film fails to ultimately go much of anywhere. It meanders much like its leading character, but lacks the identity of which is so infused in Sedaris' writing. Jonathan Groff stars and gives a gently modulated performance but perhaps proves that a living, breathing character out of Sedaris' work comes off a bit...well...prickly.
78) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson)
How is this thing not over yet. Yes, certainly, some of the visual effects and the production design are as striking as ever, but am I the only one that hopes that the dragon prevails in the next outing, letting this once beautiful franchise die finally.
77) Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
The first, and I would suggest the worst film that sums up a consistent narrative thread throughout the 2013 movie year. Many critics and cinephiles and college frat house members who forever will adorn their rooms with "Spring Break Forever" posters have argued the Wolf of Wall Street go-to argument that if you don't care for the film, you simply don't get it. Well, I get the not-so-hidden the-kids-are-not-alright commentary behind this needless and excessively pretentious piece of art house exploitation, I just don't care for it. Cinematographer Benoît Debie and James Franco do some weirdly hypnotic work, but otherwise the film is little more than a wank.
76) Man of Steel (Zack Snyder)
There's a sweaty, pulsating sense of pressure that permeates through every frame of Man of Steel,
Zack Synder's exhausting reboot of the long in distress Superman movie
franchise. So strenuous and aggressive is the entire enterprise, the
only summation that can truthfully be felt is an urgent sense of nerves. Henry Cavill has nice abs, but Man of Steel has extremely little to offer in thrills.
75) This Is the End (Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen)
A stoner, R-rated, more "meta" than can be handled apocalypse buddy picture that joins the canon of the
whole 2012 prophecy films of late. This Is the End is apart of the hot
bedded sub-genre. In between Roland
Emmerich's rock 'em, sock 'em effects show 2012, Lars von Trier's revelation by way of anti-depressant art house pot boiler Melancholia and last years little seen romantic comedy Seeking a Friend For the End of the World,
it would appear at first, that this would something that could get a
novel 21st century sheen of the old Mel Brooks treatment. This Is the End
could have been that film, I suppose, but there's hardly enough gas in
the tank to sustain the first attack, even as sputtering spots of
74) Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock)
Emma Thompson gives a carefully shaded performance as P.L. Travers in this nasty, Disney revenge fantasy that details the tenuous making of the classic Mary Poppins. Never mind the little nugget of actual history in store here, but Hancock's paint-by-numbers studio-assembly line filmmaking is sub-par at best. The worst offensives of the film occur when it flashes back to Travers' upbringing in Australia when a mere glance on Thompson's delicate face would suffice.
73) The To-Do List (Maggie Carey)
An early-90s sex comedy starring Aubrey Plaza as a prickly type-A college bound girl trying to find her inner slut should have been a great deal more fun than it actually turned out to be.
72) Mother, I Love You (Janis Nords)
Latvia's entry for this years Oscar race is a delicately filmed chamber piece about a troubled 12-year-old boy and his tenuous relationship with his mother. It surely constitutes one of the more forgettable entries in this years foreign film selection even though it has a respectable polish to it.
71) Jack the Giant Slayer (Bryan Singer)
There's a nice nearly homemade look to the effects of Singer's costly failure Jack the Giant Slayer, plus a chance for Ewan McGregor to exhibit his inner ham to a good effect, but the writing was on the wall for this one to sink and sink badly and film doesn't offer enough of a good argument against it.
70) I Give It a Year (Dan Mazer)
Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall play a pair of unsuited newlyweds in this lightweight British sitcom that aims to upend the trite and corny rom-com formula but merely falls right into it. There's some slapstick and a plethora of sex jokes, as well as a roundabout of supporting cast members yucking it up for top ham prize (including peeps like Minnie Driver and Stephen Merchant), but there's little heart. The film grows desperate for bellyaches and pats itself on the back for it's ironic happily ever after. Two pluses: Spall, son of great Timothy Spall does a delightfully bumbling Hugh Grant impression and Anna Faris (in a thankless part, groomed in an unbecoming wig to boot) has some terrific line readings.
69) Two Lives (Georg Maas)
Germany's submission for this years Oscar race-- a shortlisted one to boot-- features a supporting performance from the great Liv Ullmann, but it's a tiny, fairly thankless part, so film aficionados shouldn't feel any great sorrow for skipping this maudlin, predictable thriller about a woman (Juliane Köhler, Nowhere in Africa) living a double life with painful WWII connections.
68) Europa Report (Sebastián Cordero)
Trippy sci-fi thriller that boasts an impressive cast (Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Michael Nyqvist, Anamaria Marinca) and a pseudo-documentary feel in this tale of a space mission gone wrong, but it's little too unpolished and cheap looking to totally be believable.
67) Elysium (Neill Blomkamp)
The surprise attack of District 9 dissolved now that Blomkamp is
invited to play with major studio money and all that that encompasses,
including movie stars. It feels wrong from the start, or even at all,
to spit upon Elysium if nothing more for the fact that it's a big
studio-approved science fiction film not at all based upon a superhero
or a toy. It also is a high-minded, well-intentioned, socially
conscious movie filled with ideas-- perhaps too many ideas and not
enough cohesively developed, but ideas nonetheless. In fairness, Elysium
even in its messy, shaggy, unfiltered state is a gamble that Hollywood
should be willing to bet on a lot more than it actually does and I will
gladly take one messy Elysium any day over thirty Iron Man 3s. That being said, Elysium doesn't quite work. Also, Jodie Foster's worst...performance...ever-- that voice, oh vey!
66) Admission (Paul Weitz)
Tina Fey radiates a simultaneous intelligence and exasperation that's ever
gracious and nearly always welcome. It's somewhat unfortunate that Admission,
directed by Paul Weitz, strands Fey by trying to keep her Portia down so
much of the time. In the sense that a strong independent and
successfully career-minded woman, even in the finicky sociopolitical
climate of 2013, still must be burdened and bridled by the archaic
standard of having it all. On the onset Admission is not too
much unlike a star vehicle that Katharine Hepburn might have played many
moons ago-- that of a savvy and sharp woman who must be brought down a
few pegs in the nature of seeming "womanly" and thus, appealing.
65) The Croods (Kirk DeMicco & Chris Sanders)
Dazzling visuals can't save a stale script.
64) Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter)
Elle Fanning is wonderful in this chamber piece about a young woman on the throes of adulthood (and on the cusp of rebellion) in 1960s Britain. Shame the film segues into mawkish melodrama instead diluting the power of its ripe character study.
63) John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli)
Without even the slightest bit of sincerity and everything (plot, characterizations, performaces) left in quotation marks, it would be easy to reduce John Dies at the End
as wannabe, too-cool-for-its-own-good indie, but there's a light charm
to it-- an inventive sense of play and genuine charisma in the group of
62) Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick)
Timely and utterly well-intentioned, but there's little insight in Chadwick's Mandela biopic as it glosses through the history of one of the twentieth century's most significant men and does the whole paint-by-numbers routine. Idris Elba is commanding, as is Naomie Harris as ex-wife Winnie, but the tone is steeped so far into the reverent that there's little that actually pops in the filmmaking.
61) World War z (Marc Forster)
Despite a stellar star turn by Brad Pitt, this zombie apocalypse "real
world" thriller adapted from the seemingly unfilmable novel by Max
Brooks is a wank of movie, despite absorbing twists and sequences. Biggest pet peeve about modern blockbustering dynamics: yanking the chord for franchise potential; please just try and give us a complete movie with a proper conclusion. It's frankly just rude otherwise.
60) Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
For a documentary that tackles the noble duel agendas of animal rights protest piece and evil corporation shutdown, Blackfish is certainly one of the more notable films of 2013 simply because it has enacted a small degree of change. SeaWorld is a corporate evil-- their treatment of the beautiful orcas as sideshow attraction is really, really, really bad. One just wishes the film were a bit more fully formed, more intriguingly or artfully designed or padded with more thought-provoking insight. There's a few searing images that are haunting, but the film is more of an emotional manipulative fluff story than a testament of real anger or outrage.
59) Mama (Andy Muschietti)
There's a square elegance to Mama as well as a pleasing, albeit highly derivative aura from this less-is-more mystery. The story-- essentially a bargain basement pillaging of
sharper films-- putters out into banality, there's a nicely calibrated
tickle of scares and twitches that teases through the first two-thirds
of the film.
58) The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
There's a lot of brooding in The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 film Blue Valentine.
There's much more than brooding however, as the angst-ridden,
alpha-male melodrama unwinds and twists and turns. There's a sense from
the very beginning that Cianfrance's scope is large and looming, that
there's a stake for the mythic in the somber staging of a film about
fathers and sons and cops and robbers. That sense starts at the opening
shot. It's of a ripped tatted torso belonging to star and Blue Valentine
alum Ryan Gosling, himself no stranger to mythic archetypes of damaged
anti-heroic men (or of showing off his physique, which at this point
must surely be insured for a handsome sum.) The camera moves out and
the establishing shot and nearly bravura opening sequence showcases
Gosling nearly already as something of a legend. Cianfrance employs an
artful, if a tad indulgent, opening tracking shot that follows Gosling--
here playing a mythic figure in his own right as a carnival stunt
motorcycle driver with the moniker Handsome Luke-- as he enters the
whirly motorcycle cage with two other stunt drivers. And off he goes,
spinning in circles, entrapped in a steely prism of danger and dread
with the mere glint of exhilaration at its ridge, not unlike the movie
that surrounds him.
57) The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)
Newcomer Liam James plays an awkward teenager at the center of this nice and tidy and blandly inoffensive, Little Miss Sunshine-y summer diversion. An all-star roster of adult performers circle in and about, including Steve Carell, Amanda Peet, Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell and the always welcome Toni Collette giving a little something for everyone in this coming of age tale of how a social introvert finds his groove while working part-time at a second-rate water park while on a summer holiday from hell. And while the adults hem and haw and ham it up, the center problem with Way Way Back for me was a lack of connection with James' Duncan, whose performance is strangely both off-putting and nearly sidelined altogether.
56) Prisoners (Denis Villenueve)
One of the more frustrating films of the year. There's about six startling different movies all going on at once in Villenueve's beautifully filmed and gracefully acted thriller and nearly half of those differing narratives are interesting and worthy; the remainders not quite so much. Pitched as a real-time horror story about how the abduction of a child can lead to a father's desperate fall from grace, transfused into one particularly red-herring filled episode of Law & Order only to sputter into a schlocky "gotcha"-soaked finale. Prisoners is a prestige-package, old Hollywood affair interspersed with a New Hollywood sense of grisliness that's ultimately all dressed up with no place to go, which is a shame considering the depth and commitment that actors Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal bring to it, as well as a wasted supporting crew like Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard. Ah, well Roger Deakins' Oscar-nominated cinematography is pretty.
55) Rush (Ron Howard)
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl give charismatic performances in this real-life telling of the rivalry between Formula One racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The filmmaking is sharp, but this a paint-by-numbers affair that attempts to trump up more significance to a story that doesn't really have too much going on from the start. Curiously, Ron Howard films the Thor star with more sexual luster than anything else to date-- not a bad thing.
54) Lee Daniels' The Butler (Lee Daniels)
An undisputed mixed bag of a film. Perhaps several mixed bags of
several films incorporated into one overly stuffed, luminously messy
package. The startling detail that makes Lee Daniels' The Butler
necessary and worthy of discussion and fascination is that's still
only one of the very few films to focus on the Civil Rights Movement
from the black point of view. More so, it's one of the extremely
limited accounts of such from a black filmmaker. With few exceptions
from the likes of Spike Lee (whose reputation, whether fairly or not)
have limited his features critically and financially, The Butler, in all its unhinged messiness is a necessary and essential American film. Worthy even more just because Oprah gets to say, "You take that trifling, low class bitch and get out of this house!"
53) GriGris (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
An amiable, if a bit meandering film from Chad about an aspiring dancer (Souleymane Démé) who gets embroiled with his thuggish, petty criminal brother. The film has a more than a few flights of fancy and a pace that's distancing, but there's a morsel of charm to the movie.
52) Greedy Lying Bastards (Craig Scott Rosebraugh)
Name calling and rousing its audience into a fitted bit of rage while
not forgetting the impossible entertainment value of the even harsher
nature of modern-day politics, Rosebraugh attempts to remake An Inconvenient Truth
as though it were a Michael Moore film, but with few exceptions-- and
to the lacking of the film itself-- he's far too diplomatic, far too
reserved and, well, not nearly angry enough to own up to it.
51) We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wiki-Leaks (Alex Gibney)
In attempting to neatly package the entire messy origin story of Julian Assange and the controversy-laden Wiki-Leaks universe, Gibney gets the point, and does so in the entertaining degree of which has marked his career (Casino Jack & The United States of Money, Mea Maxima Culpa, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), but glosses over the big picture. In that end, Assange and his team of pranksters and muckrakers remain an enigma.
50) Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
If Sookie and Michael Fassbender's character from Shame spawned a fictional character, it might look a lot like Gordon-Levitt's Jon, a shallow, but likable bro obsessed with his vanity and online pornography. As a (first time) filmmaker, Gordon-Levitt infuses a confidence and bravado that dilutes a lot of the weakness of the not-quite-rom-com and gets the most out of his game cast, especially Scarlett Johansson, who gives a full-bodied and fully textured performance that one sort of wishes the film had just been about her.
49) About Time (Richard Curtis)
There's a shaggy-dog charm to Curtis' time-bending romance. It's implausibe, slightly ridiculous, more than a bit too long and, to be fair, the film falls apart on its Twilight Zone-y meets Love Actually conceit in such a hands-up, whatever fashion at the end, but there's a rousing refrain within its thinly structured sentiment. Domhnall Gleeson plays a bumbling romantic and Rachel McAdams his one and only, but the real love story is the between time-traveling son and his dad, effervescently played by Bill Nighy, and gosh darn it, it kinda-sorta works in its hokey, manipulative way.
48) Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas)
Dane DeHann, a striking young talent and is mesmerizing and alive as Lu, the snot college student who takes center stage in this featherweight footnote of beginnings of the Beat generation. DeHaan
manages to mix wide-eyed curiosity tinged with arrogance to an effect
that's simultaneously endearing and creepy. He magnetically sharpens
the film throughout its broad corners and map of famous players. He
also draws us in to the quieter, more reserved Allen Ginsberg that Daniel Radcliffe takes on,
summoning a nice rapport that helps mask much of artificial sweetening
surrounding the movie. Of which makes Kill Your Darlings hardly enough for it be considered vital filmmaking but more than enough for serviceable pleasures. And a worthy footnote to the annals of queer filmmaking.
47) Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery)
There's a swirling beauty in the muted color palette in the period outlaw love story Ain't Them Bodies Saints.
The camera flows and swirls, the meticulous compositions are nearly
divinely filmed and authentically observed. If there's one major
takeaway from the film that was a hit at this years Sundance Film
Festival-- where it garnered a seemingly much deserved cinematography
prize-- and I do believe there is just one, it's in the discovery and
hopefulness of a great find in director David Lowery. He stages his
tale-- one steeped partially in cinematic homage but also carved out of
legend-- with such an assurance, a confidence, a tender but sharply
honed-in verve, one in such that stretches of the film seem merely coast on
its effervescent dream-like potential. The work of Terrence Malick
reads a huge influence aesthetically, but the great Robert Altman films McCabe and Mr. Miller and Thieves Like Us and perhaps, most influentially, Bonnie & Clyde figure in as clear pieces of the framework of this tale of doomed love in the Texas Hill Country in the 1970s.
46) Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)
In a historic bid, director Kechiche shared the Palme D'Or prize with leading ladies Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for this hot potato, controversy-laden French coming of age tale. And while there was much about Blue that got journalists and critics all riled up-- from the much-argued"male gaze" debate of the much-talked-about explicit sex scenes to the behind the scenes drama between the director and his actresses, the Cannes jury (headed by Steven Spielberg) did right by giving the leading ladies a share in the top prize. For their performances-- naked both physically and emotionally-- are the chief among the films successes; Exarchopoulos in particular hits notes of confusion, bewilderment, excitement and agony within the same beats and with a naturalism that seems well beyond her years. It's the shapeless form outside the story of a young woman coming of sexual age with another woman and the nearly listless dragging of its near three-hour length that kept me at a disconnect with the film. The actresses are nearly always compelling, but Kechiche drags everything out with a such a bewildering pace that keeps distance on a movie that I desperately wanted to cherish.
45) Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Nearly novelistic by design, but director Jeff Nichols has a sweeping flow of the
rhythms of character and intrusive visual scheme that is lovely to look
at times. If perhaps it feels a bit of come down from the bravura
metaphysics he was playing with in his last film in the mesmerizing 2011
indie apocalypse tale Take Shelter, the promise and intrigue of an American journeyman filmmaker still looms strong. Mud is certainly a film worthy of a look and a thought, I just wished it lingered a bit longer. Terrific performances of the young Ty Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and a rejuvenated Matthew McConaughey.
44) Philomena (Stephen Frears)
Even a sleepy Judi Dench performance is a good Judi Dench performance. A fact proven yet again in the crowd-pleasing, overly eager to please British trifle that finds Dench playing Philomena Lee, a real-life Irish woman attempting to find the son she was forced to give up fifty years ago by the Catholic Church who shunned her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It's a devastating story and Dench transmits a dignity and poise. Yet the film, scripted by Steve Coogan (who stars as the journalist who aids Lee in finding her son) and Jeff Pope, aims to turn the tale into a slight and twee bit of effervescent fizz, of such that only the British could provide. All of which makes awkward bedfellows considering the inherent drama of the story. And yet by reworking the tragedy into a generational gap road trip between a kindly old woman and a cynical reporter, the film sort of in a small way works in favor over what a more romanticized, melodramatic Hollywood version of the story would be. Is it enough to justify it's Best Picture Oscar nomination? Not in the least, but Philomena is the best film of 2013 to recommend to your grandparents.
43) Boy Eating the Bird's Food (Ektoras Lygizos)
There's something nearly poetic in this Greek entry (the film was the country's official entry for the 2013 foreign-language Oscar), a somewhat meandering, but well made essay of a young man's very-contemporary plight. Yes, the title is a bit strange, but it's not a metaphor for anything too far reaching-- Yorgos, the leading character (played with stylish minimalism by Yiannis Papadopoulos, who had a bit part in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight) does indeed, eat his pet bird's food, he also eats his own semen in one memorable bit (however that may have provided an off-putting title to a film) in this tale of poverty and hunger set in the current financial murky Greece. Yet, it could be stand-in for anywhere and there's a well-focused through-line to the film. Or, as a conceit for one. As as Boy Eating the Bird's Food is compelling, but also elusive. There's a style and a strong central performance at its center, but there's not much a story to surround it. As an installation, avant-garde art project, it provokes, yet as is film, it's as skinny as it's leading man.
42) The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola)
Coppola brings an earthy sensitivity to her stylish and frenzied film about a group of celebrity-obsessed, hyper-aware teenagers who broke into the homes of the rich and famous and looted their little (quite little, indeed) hearts out. That it's based on real events hardly matters, Coppola is more interested in the culture that breeds the vacuous young hooligans at its center, and like other 2013 DIY American dreamers of the profiled in films as varied as Pain & Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers, Coppola's points the finger at all of us. The chic youngsters in The Bling Ring are nearly hard to differentiate (aside from Emma Watson's inspired "does she get it" fashionista and Israel Broussard's charmingly gay BFF), but that's part of the nimble trick of Coppola's compassionate commentary of the today's completely glued-in, utterly disposable world.
41) The Heat (Paul Feig)
The best place in 2013 for mindless belly laughs. The plot for The Heat is in nothing but quotation marks but the chemistry, flair and unadulterated joys of performing are in full measure by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Silly, stupid and smart, The Heat is the rare summer blockbuster that passed the Bechtel Test in flying colors, but also inspired the best joke to laugh ratio in all of big budget movie land in 2013.
40) Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)
Shockingly, and this comes I believe as a first, director Michael Bay made a reasonably decent film, a resolutely intelligent indictment of the eternal quest to achieve of a piece of "it." Emphasized with a disclaimer that, "sadly this is a true story," Pain & Gain chronicle of the absurd follows three hulking bodybuilders as they scheme and kidnap and kill to establish themselves with the one percenters crowd. It would be easy (perhaps even encouraged at the start) to treat this an ugly little trifle from one of Hollywood's least delicate hands, but he film is a frolicking adventure of access, a madcap screwball satire of boys so outside the lines of reason, they've invented a new curve that's almost alluring in it's own luridness. Mark Whalberg, Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson give invitingly nuanced performances in this slick, dirty little tale of ambition, greed and fitness. It's best to think of Pain & Gain (and The Wolf of Wall Street for that matter) more as dark comedies of the dark touches of society-- both films say it's okay to laugh while awakening a deeper consciousness. Hopefully this is a glossy, decked out bar for Bay to set up for himself in the the future.
39) What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee & David Siegel)
Sensitively wrought modern update to Henry James' novel of a young girl pushed back and forth by separating parents and their respective new partners. Onata Aprile gives one of the most polished, irresistibly natural child performances in the recent memory as the girl caught in between-- so much so that just by a simple glance or tilt of the head, it elicits a near emotional foaming. Julianne Moore plays her flaky rock star mommy and Steve Coogan is her corporate a-hole of a pop, while Alexander Skarsgard is adorable as Moore's put-upon boy toy. But the real attraction is Aprile.
38) Warm Bodies (Jonathan Levine)
Writer-director Jonathon Levine, of 50/50 and The Wackness
fame, has fashioned a fairly witty and affectionate little oddity that
transcends mere Twilight clone status. The film's best moments matches the
well-traveled metaphor of adolescent arrested development as apocalyptic
nightmare with sensitivity and visual astuteness. Warm Bodies,
with its wink-wink self awareness, unapologetic filing of genre past is
mostly good-humored and blessedly not as self-serious as it could have
been is sort of a girly, twirly version of the Walking Dead, but
one that meets Nicholas Sparks. with a dash of John Hughes spliced in,
and while hardly original (it's based on the novel by Isaac Marion),
there's a dash of a pulse and slight affection for this undead variant
of Romeo & Juliet.
37) Thanks for Sharing (Stuart Blumberg)
Stuart Blumberg's Thanks for Sharing, a smart, Shame-lite
ensemble dramedy centering around three men in recovery for sex
addiction is one of the more surprising films of the year. In its
affably low-key, albeit slight way, Blumberg has fashioned a film that's
nearly better than it has any right to be, showcasing the daily
struggles of recovery with a refreshing honesty and earnestness,
infusing it with a nimble and disarming charm and rarefied sense of
36) The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
The whimsical and melodramatic meet well in Mordaunt's affectionate, if meandering drama of a family torn out of their home in Laos and the little boy who enters a rocket-building competition in the hopes of saving his fledgling family. The Rocket, which was Australia's official submission for this years foreign language film race, is like a even scrappier version of Beasts of the Southern Wild with its distinctive and impassioned charm and ebullient soulfulness.
35) Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
If pressed into a corner to describe the plot of Upstream Color
one may experience a dizzy spell, a headache or an irrational body
twitch. The film, the second by filmmaker Shane Carruth-- his first
since the confounding, bravura brain trip that was 2004's Sundance Film
Festival Grand Prize winner Primer-- is yet another
micro-budgeted art house oddity. Enigmatic to the point that it reads
like a stiff middle finger to those who even attempt to sort out its
narrative mysteries, Upstream Color is the epitome of a film not
for everyone. Yet, it's also haunting and compelling in a weird,
elegant way and made with a crystalline precision, visual sophistication
and sense of wonder that recalls a nearly poetic and dreamily absurd
marriage of Terrence Malick at his most ethereal and David Cronenberg at
his most playfully eerie.
34) Sound City (Dave Grohl)
The Sound City Recording Studio, a hallowed musical institution for many
of the greatest musical talents of the last four decades, closed its
doors in the spring of 2011. Sound City, a part home movie, part video diary requiem that
celebrates the innocence and magic of a place where many musicians
called church. The film also harkens back to the pre-digital age of
recording where artists played and mixed letting everything on the line,
forced to go with the subtleties and imperfections of which could be
easily fixed in today's mass produced product-branded world-- in other
words in a place like Sound City, the talent must be present from the
start to the finish. And while the film, an affectionate ode to the
yesteryear of recording, is but an anecdotal footnote, there's a warm
and alive feeling as the famous talking heads that Grohl has amassed
share their stories and the gritty pleasures of performance.
33) Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée)
What works splendidly and marks Dallas Buyers Club as a notch far
above just well-intentioned time capsule film are the steady and ace
performances that command the film with a gravity, generosity and
humanity on which shades the micro-scope of the film into something
larger and quite moving. McConaughey, in the culmination of his great
second act renaissance is soulfully alive and magnetic as Woodroof.
Deftly swerving the caricature of a bigoted rube who must learn to be
tolerant, the actor brings a grand-scaled minimalism to his performance,
subtly being awakened and pinged without completely changing or
straying too far left of where a straight-and-arrowed Texan put in such a
circumstance would believably veer. The physical transformation of the
once famously chiseled star will likely entrance awards bodies to
droll, but the weight loss means nothing without the soul underneath
it. Jared Leto, who is revelatory, deserves equal plaudits for
commitment and scale of emotion.
32) August: Osage County (John Wells)
Meryl Streep huffs and puffs and nearly blows the house down as the grande dame matriarch of a warped Oklahoma family in this messy, but grandiosely performed adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play. Wells proves himself a fairly shoddy director of ceremonies in the truncated, best-of showcase but the performances stick and the films runs sheer and steady when the filmmaker holds back and lets his impressive ensemble cast do all the heavy lifting. Of which, well Streep forms the most steely foundation in American film and Julia Roberts matches her histrionic by histrionic, dismantling all of her America's sweethearts tics in the process, in this sprawling, you-can't-go-home-again family melodrama.
31) Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour)
The significance of Wadjda was fully cemented long before it
appeared in movie theaters. The first movie to be filmed in the kingdom
of Saudi Arabia, a nation where movie houses themselves are banned and
the cinematic art form itself is considered corrupt, the achievement of
Haifaa Al-Mansour's warm and gentle debut film would be considered a
triumph even if the end result wasn't nearly half as strong as it is.
To boot, Al-Monsour is a woman, and Wadjda is a film about women
set in a culture that vehemently suppresses the feminine experience .
The searing behind-the-scenes machinations are enough reasoning to
30) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens with a moment of
reflection. Earthy huntress Katniss Everdeen (again played with a wily
grace by Jennifer Lawrence), the lethally clever co-victor of the
teenage bloodbath of the last chapter, is seemingly lost, fragile and
scarred. Staring into a meadow with the demons of her past in a state
of unease and terror. The moment doesn't stick very long, but Lawrence,
who has become a major movie star and won an Oscar in between the first
two cycles of her massively successful YA franchise, manages to shade
the smallest morsels of subtext and longing throughout the assembly line
busy work of the sequel (there are basics that need to be covered and
quickly), igniting the film with a conscience it doesn't necessarily
earn nor deserve. That the second installment of Suzanne Collins'
bestselling trilogy rests solely on her mighty shoulders would be an
understatement; Lawrence infuses a soul amidst the corporate branding
and provides a reason to care.
29) Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener)
A compassionate dramedy of manners and one of the loveliest, most subdued romances in some time, Enough Said finds Julia Louis-Dreyful (in prickly peak form) and the late James Gandolfini (sublimely sweet) in an unlikely, middle-aged romance. The performances and the writing are nearly as strong as anything else this past year.
28) Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg)
Unassuming, but sweet and smart, Swanberg's indie kinda-sorta romantic story of two young peeps (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson) who work at a micro-brewery together and are kind of perfect for each other, despite being attached to others (Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick.) Funny and sad, yet vibrating in the honesty of bittersweet coming of age, I vote for Drinking Buddies to be the cool, cult movie of 2013.
27) Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams)
However it extends or contorts from
it's established lore, Star Trek Into Darkness is a crisp and grandly entertainment summertime
popcorn thrill ride. It may not exactly overshadow the singular
surprise factor of the first prequel, but it's a confident and enjoyable
companion piece. The spot-on ensemble is aces, expertly mining the
right, just slightly exaggerated way to posit their famed characters
with the right balance of humor and homage.
26) Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar & Benjamin Renner)
Lovably sweet and tender hand-drawn French animated feature about the unlikely friendship of a mouse and a bear. The film earned a richly deserved nomination for this years Best Animated Feature Oscar (not that this year has exactly been a boon for animation, but still) and is undeniably one of the most affable and infectious bursts of entertainment of the year.
25) Beautiful Creatures (Richard LaGravenese)
The surprise in filmmaking is without question mostly determined in the how and not the what. Case in point: Beautiful Creatures, a teen-lit adaptation green-lit under a corporate structure looking for the next Twilight.
The film-- a junky mishmash of Southern Gothic hokum, Jane Austen and
teen angst cliches-- is an almost serendipitous delight. And while
graded on the curve of less than encouraging expectations, the quietly
clever bits of intelligence, alert wittiness and playfully alive
performances transcend this creature, written and directed by Richard
LaGravenese and based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl,
from the moribund of its genre limitations. It's not a science, nor a
spell mysteriously cast, but a certain divinity feels attached to this
ripe guilty pleasure.
24) American Hustle (David O. Russell)
A razzle-dazzly, free associative con job, one based awfully loosely on the FBI-endorsed ABSCAM sting in the 1970s where a quite a few powerful people went to jail. None of the that matters, American Hustle isn't interested in being a history lesson, but instead eliciting a charmed sense of glee and sensory thrills over its audience. As grandly entertaining flimflam it's the tops. Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner deserve best in show credit.
23) Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
Coogler, a youngster, aged twenty-seven, exhibits a clear-eyed
expressiveness in telling his tale, an authority and a clarity that's
for the most part devoid of earnestness and easy reductions. His
greatest asset exhibited in Fruitvale Station is in his view of the late
Oscar Grant, taking a harder to trod, more difficult assertion of raw
humanity rather than painting the young man as saint nearing martyrdom.
It's in his unflinching presentation of man over issue that keeps the
film fresh and nearly always above the surface. We learn throughout
that Oscar spent the New Years holiday a few years earlier incarcerated;
Coogler neither judges nor dismisses.
22) The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)
"Is it too much?" asks a nervous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the
first section of Baz Luhrmann's "Spectacular Spectacular" retelling of
the often told F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby. The
much in question refers to the abundance of flowers that enshroud a
living room like a hanging green house that he has anxiously
over-prepared for his first meeting in many moons with his longtime
obsession and love, Daisy-- played this time by Carey Mulligan. Of
course it's too much, and much can said about the movie itself with its
artifice dripping off the walls and burning the holes of the retinas of
its audiences. Yet in that very nature of being too much, Luhrmann and
team bring such a forceful and unrestrained visual aesthetic to The Great Gatsby,
that in it's over-the-top cartoonish, blaring third dimension,
cornucopia of colors spectacle of sight and sound, they uncannily sum up
a modernized look at the too much that was the Jazz Age house of
mirrors that Fitzgerald was commenting and ruminating about at such
rigorous detail. There's certain hints in the text that demand the
Luhrmann Red Curtain Trilogy treatment. The problem is that while
Fitzgerald was in loathe of the artifice while Luhrmann cannot help
himself but be ever encapsulated by it.
21) Bethlehem (Yuval Adler)
A sobering and alert thriller of such poise and control, it's crazy to think that Bethlehem, Israel's Oscar submission, was Adler's debut as a feature film director. The film tells a complex, utterly involving and clear headed tale of the agenda-filled relationship between a wayward Palestinian teenager and an Israeli secret serviceman with such alert, apolitical authority that it's nearly jarring in its crisp slicing. It's also promising in that neither side is vilified nor canonized-- ultimately Bethlehem may be the years most striking call for arms in peace.
20) The World's End (Edgar Wright)
A joyous, rollicking good time as Wright bids adieu to his genre-busting Cornetto trilogy. It would be easy (perhaps even to the point) to write the film off as a silly genre unravel, but there's a depth and a dash of moving pathos to the journey of group of old high-school friends reunited to finish an epic crawl in the brink of a robot apocalypse. I will gladly be Simon Pegg's drinking buddy.
19) Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh)
Stylish and immaculately staged-- lensed by Soderbergh himself, and as all
of his films credited under the alias Peter Andrews-- Side Effects is a
nervy, head-scratching reworking of the classic whodunnit with a gentle nod to
cinema past, but not incidentally featuring a broader, more difficult to digest
subject matter at its periphery. Emily (Rooney Mara), a product, if any,
of the Prozac Nation, is a angst-ridden Manhattan twenty-something. She's
battled depression before and things seem to taking a downward turn as her
husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four year
stint for insider trading. One of the disarming and nearly comically
asides of Side Effects comes directly from a culture that's all too
aware and seemingly in the know of the ingredients for mind and soul
improvement-- and the culture chic for antidepressants isn't exactly anything
new, but it's still a bit strange that in the decades-plus, there really hasn't
been a great movie to explore those effects candidly on screen before.
The fodder is endless-- from the countless television ads from the newest
miracle aid to just idle conversation with friends and passersby-- the stigma
is long gone and the pharmaceuticals are seemingly all the more richer because
18) The Kings of Summer (Jordan Vogt-Roberts)
One of the most delightful surprises of 2013 was this spirited and beautifully made coming-of-age bash about three teenage boys who run away and build themselves an idyllic little fortress in the forest when the pressures and irritations of the world start to build up. There's an angsty truth that grounds the film and the performances of the three talented leads (Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias-- all refreshing newcomers) engross and enliven the film with equal spurts of charm and naturalistic grace. More encouragingly, director Vogt-Roberts establishes himself a rarefied humanist talent as he navigates the film from screwball farce to whimsical playground to Stand By Me-pathos. One of the strongest, most unsung films of the year.
17) Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Ingeniously crafted take on the real-life story of an American cargo ship boarded by Somali pirates, Greengrass delivers a chilly and masterful depiction of this "ripped from the headlines" story adding humanity and great tension to both sides of the drama. On which end, Barkhad Abdi gives a terrific and commanding performance and Tom Hanks dares to do something that Tom Hanks hasn't done in ages: surprises. Go back and watch the last fifteen minutes of Captain Phillips and ask why the single greatest performance in his extraordinary everyman career was denied an Academy Award nomination.
16) In a World... (Lake Bell)
In a World...sticks with a hopeful refrain, one of quiet and slight power and a tinge
of depth and indispensable humor. Of quiet originality and beatific
beats as it parcels out themes of female empowerment, father/daughter
relationships and Hollywood power politics, In a World... marks a
significant debut feature for Bell, who won the Waldo Screenwriting
Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival, and proves a versatile and
compelling performer. In a world, at least someday, somehow, she's a
15) 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Throughout cinematic history, there's been an undeniable race problem
that's run deep in Hollywood filmmaking, particularly when tackling the
subject of slavery. The grand global practice whose currents throughout
America still run with a trepidation, a fear and a tremendous supply of
guilt; it would be difficult if nearly impossible not to impose some
kind of sermon. In that respect, the immense impression of brute
honesty, violence and degradation on display in director Steve McQueen's
impeccably made 12 Years a Slave does more than a solid, it
provides a lulling and masterful refrain to decades of Hollywood
glossing over an aspect of a repugnant period in American history. More
so than anecdote to the Hollywood treatment (expressed from Gone With the Wind to last years' Django Unchained),
McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have adapted the
amazing-purely-for-the-sake-that-it-exists first person novel written by
it's real-life protagonist, one Solomon Northup, and made a searingly
truthful, lived-in account of the horrors of slavery. And if the utter
and intentional lack of Hollywood spectacle and overt emotional
manipulation marks the film a bit cold, a bit emotionally detached in
the end, it's still remains an essential film merely for existing in the
14) Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)
What's old feels strikingly and delightfully new with Disney's fifty-third animated feature Frozen,
a fresh and engaging musical charmer that hews closely to the Mouse
House's patented wheelhouse, yet nevertheless is sharply woven together
with the very fabrics that established said wheelhouse. Loosely based
on Hans Christen Anderson's The Snow Queen, Frozen is yet another princess fairy tale to add to the canon,
but one made with a generous supply of warmth, tenderness and visual
aplomb, beckoning back to the hallowed Disney Renaissance days. And
that's the remarkable thing about a good Disney flick, the way it charms
the senses back to that child-like sense of wonder, magic and
possibility, one that begs you to tear down all the formulaic trappings
on the wall and marvel at something mystifying. With its grand sense
of play Frozen does that just enough to pull at the heartstrings
and, in its stronger moments, make you in believe in the beautiful hokum
that can only be concocted in the land of make believe.
13) The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
If Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and Pain & Gain served as appetizers for dispensing the underlying theme of 2013 American cinema of the ugly self-entitled bidding to have it all, Martin Scorsese's searing Jordan Belfort biopic/bacchanal orgy was the entrée, souffle and heartburn afterwards. This maddening, exhilarating, how-dare-it-be piece of filmmaking marks not just a the work of true master of form, but also one the angriest pieces of unsettling entertainment offered in the past year. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his most gonzo, committed work to date as the cutthroat, devilishly charming titular swine. Yes the film is overly long, a bit unshaped and every scene seems to go on five minutes longer than necessary. Yes, it's ugly and naughty and nearly filthy from start to finish. Yet ss the film an encouragement of repugnant behavior? Absolutely not, this is a call-to-arms, lets-unite piece of filmmaking calling each and every one of us out to proudly engage in a "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" movement.
12) Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
It's slightly remarkable that at this point in Woody Allen's career, he
still can achieve this kind of only once-in-a-while sort of alchemy,
even as his factory made one-picture-a-year-plan has proved on an uptick
since Midnight in Paris two years ago became his most profitable
yet. Yet, while that picture held the lovely grace note of nostalgia
and it's captivating allure, Blue Jasmine achingly and
thoughtfully lives in the present and represents a new moral code of
arms for Allen, one which hopefully will stick around. Plus, there's the greatness that is Cate Blanchett's best performance to date.
11) Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
Payne is notoriously rough on his characters, but there's an underlying sweetness and richly nuanced sentimentality that works beautifully throughout the family portrait created in his sweepingly earnest and beautifully modulated Nebraska. Bruce Dern gives the kind of the performance it takes decades of life to muster, while Will Forte nicely underplays as his soft-spoken son and June Squibb gives a generous and lovingly ball-busting performance as a long put-upon wife and mother. There's moments in Nebraska that strike as classic scenes from my own family dynamic and a huge rooting factor in this clan.
10) The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)
It might take a few beats to soak up what an accomplishment the new indie film The Spectacular Now
really is. Rooted in the familiar set up of lost teenagers coming of
age, it tells its story gingerly but simply. It courses a well-trodden
path, and nearly in refusing to neither subvert nor flair with stylistic
excess, the film feels real, delicate and graceful. There's nothing
flashy about The Spectacular Now, which was directed by James Ponstoldt (who made the twelve steps totem Smashed last year) and written by the (500) Days of Summer
screenwriting team Scott Neustradter and Michael H. Weber. Yet it's
one of the most perceptive and emotionally intelligent film about
teenagers to come around in quite a while. Its seeming conventionality
wears off sometime after viewing (at least it did for me) and settles
into something a bit deeper-- a real world sense discovery of the great
unknown that everyone faces as they make their journey into adulthood. Beautifully realized performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller.
9) Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
Sarah Polley started young. First as a budding actress on Canadian
television shows before taking a giant leap into the independent film
subconscious in 1997's terrific The Sweet Hereafter and becoming one a bonafide indie queen in films like Go and Guinevere
in the late 1990s. Since then she has straddled a strong acting
presence while becoming a first rate filmmaker in her own right (her
directorial debut, Away From Her earned lots of praise, including
a writing Oscar nomination for herself.) Now she's turned the camera
on herself as well as her family in the lovely and delicate new
documentary Stories We Tell. A collection of memories from
herself and her family. It's a startlingly sneaky and inventive film
which, on the outset would appear like a frilly showcase or a collection
of home movies that wouldn't seem like they would have much interest
outside the Polley family. But the film has the tug and power of a
great drama, a mystery of the heart and the past which quietly unravels
as altogether something grander, slightly bold and immeasurably special.
8) Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
Obsessing about movies is healthy. I hope so at the very least. But
then there are some who take this natural and quite healthy obsession
into uncharted territories. Room 237, a playfully insane rumination of the hidden codes and agendas of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining,
goes well and above the realm of uncharted obsessiveness. It's easy to
get hooked, especially coupled with the sparsest of backstory of the
famed auteur and his storied reputation. Kubrick was a stylist,
innovator and a meticulous showman whose exacting visual prowess
pervades all of his work-- there could never for once be something in
his films that was a mistake, right? And on the surface of things, The Shining
was his most linear work-- an adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller
starring Jack Nicholson-- made and financed with the pretense of
mainstream accessibility a few years after Kubrick threw everything to
the wall for the ambitious, if lowly attended, period drama Barry Lyndon. One piece of commentary that Room 237
articulates with clarity and verve is a sense that perhaps Kubrick was
drained, or furthermore, even bored with filmmaking as he approached The Shining,
and he just wanted to make the whole thing more interesting for
himself. And theories abound as to how we are supposed to read the
whole damn thing.
7) No (Pablo Larraín)
Chile, 1988: Under the fifteen-year rule of dictator Augusto
Pinochet the political climate is harsh and often dangerous. Due to
immense international pressure a public vote is set up as to whether he will
continue his reign over the country. The decision was set on a simple
vote, either YES or NO. YES would keep the status quo in a country under
siege by corruption, censorship and grand inequality and NO would lead to the
founding of a newly instated democracy for the country for Chile. For this measure, each camp is allotted
fifteen minutes of television airtime every night in the twenty-seven days
leading up to the landmark election in an effort to present their case before
the public vote. Director Pablo
Larraín chronicles these tenuous days leading up the election with the rousing
and electric No. Larraín has crafted
a crisply sharp movie of unmatchable intelligence and enterprise, a moving and
delicate piece, driven by a grace and immediacy of an important chapter in a
6) Her (Spike Jonze)
It starts with the silly conceit of a lonely man who falls for his operating system, yet there's more at play with this generous, melancholy, playful romantic comedy. It starts with the a setting-- Los Angeles in the near future, immaculate and credible-- hey there finally managed to to get that subway line from Downtown to the beach-- all kinds of awesome. But it ends with something infinitely deeper and emotionally rich as Jonze navigates and slipper and tricky slope from his offbeat conceit, concocting a pristine and smart, funny, rich, beautifully wrought tale of romance and intimacy in the modern age. Joaquin Phoenix is the most approachable and witty he's ever been and in just her voice, Scarlett Johansson is lovely and amazing as the instantly lovable Samantha. In my opinion, Jonze is four for four when it comes to his feature film output...I want more...NOW!
5) Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Celine and Jesse Forever! This third outing is the most volatile yet in the romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as the impassioned smarty-pants young lovers we first met eighteen years ago aboard that joyous 1995 train to Vienna. It's the darkest, richest, most fullest study of romance perhaps ever conceived on the cinema in my (albeit short) short lifetime and Before Midnight marks a watershed moment in film history, at least for me. Let me please have this cinematic chronicle before my eyes for many more decades to come-- Celine and Jesse at 80-- I'll be there.
4) Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
The most spectacular visual display in cinemas throughout the year, Cuarón, that magical concoctor, shape-shifter, world builder, dream holder, amazed, delighted, thrilled and elated the senses with his grand space exploration. Yet the beauty and wonder (poet cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserves some of the credit here as well) of his adventure would be only half the movie it was without the emotional heft provided by Sandra Bullock in a career enriching performance. Bold spectacles can have it all and Gravity proves that sometimes we can have nice things.
3) Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen)
Nearly note perfect in shape and design. It would be easy to simply dismiss the latest offering of the Coen brothers as an exercise of an artist's failure, but there's an all-consuming warmth that permeates the chilly facade of Inside Llewyn Davis as it charts the rags-to-rags saga of 60s-era folk singer a beat before Bob Dylan captured the zeigeist of contemporary music. As played by Oscar Isaac in one of the very best performances of the year, Llewyn is a jerk, but an effervescent talent, one of singular spirit and charisma and there's a giant rooting factor in watching him croon, belting his heart out, while it aches at the same time and he traverses a cold New York winter without a proper coat or a home of his own (sometimes with a cat in his arms.) There's a tough exterior to Inside Llewyn Davis, but a beating heart and eternal soul.
2) Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
"27 is old though," so says a friend to Frances (Greta Gerwig) in the new comedy Frances Ha,
the gorgeous, generous and utterly beguiling new film from director
Noah Baumbach. The comment isn't said out of cruelty or resentment,
it's uttered as an off the cuff observation of which both is and isn't
true in itself, but it does unsettle Frances in it's brash honesty and
bequeath an aura of reflection. Frances is an aspiring dancer living in
New York City who hops from apartment to apartment because she has none
to call her own. She has troubles with money and no actual job nor
stable romantic relationship. She has her friends, her intellect and
the hopefulness that many young people lie to themselves (and others)
about in keeping on, especially when that means pursuing something
creative. She is somewhat a symbol of twenty-something complacency-- a
subset of a hyper literate, somewhat arrogant and entitled, irony
infused generation sorting out and coming to terms with the messiness of
adulthood. It would be wrong to describe Frances Ha as a coming
of age tale of a hipster gal getting finally her shit together, because
the film, in all its quirky dalliances, rings truth in the romanticized
notion of growing into, as Frances might put, a "real" person, if not
quite a successful one. Gerwig gives the performance of the year.
1) The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Absolutely, without a doubt, quiver or hesitation, the movie of 2013 was this fearlessly inventive documentary that puts former Indonesian death squad leaders in charge to re-enact and stage their own dramatizations of their past crimes in getting rid of the "Communist problem" that permeated throughout the country in the 1960s. Jaw-dropping, horrific and unforgettable, this is one of those singular bits of filmmaking that will haunt your dreams and stay with you forever.