Monday, January 27, 2014

The Top 13 Movies of 2013

Drum roll, please ...

I remember when I was first starting out 2013 - well, for the first several months, really, I just wasn't finding many really good movies. For big theater releases, that will always be a problem, as they just put out a lot of crap at the beginning of the year with only the occasional indie flick spliced in for good measure. Summertime brings us a bunch of big action movies. Whereas last year had a lot of them I found really great, this year we got a bit short-changed, let's say. I just wasn't finding much to really dig my teeth into.

And it's so hard to see everything you want to see when it actually comes out. That's why I spend January watching movies I missed over the last year. And lo and behold - what I thought was a fairly weak year for films turned out to be a year full of amazing movies. I still didn't even see everything I wanted to. I'll be catching up on this year as much as I have on any past year in terms of films.

But I did find a lot of gems I'd missed throughout 2013, and so I decided to make this list. Let's start from the bottom!

13. Prince Avalanche


Two guys, pretty much polar opposites, work on a desolate road in the late 80s. While doing that, they run into women problems and learn some things about each other. It’s fun and charming. Great acting from Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd is icing on the bromance cake. If there were a TV show with these two, I’d probably watch it – that’s enough for me to say this is a good, good flick.

12. Fruitvale Station


The real life account of Oscar Grant, a black male who was assaulted and killed by police on New Year’s Eve 2008 – a case which resulted in an overhaul of the police department. This is well acted and really does a good job of showing a real life account of this guy before the tragedy happened. While it’s a good account of police brutality and modern-day racism already (though it could have stood to include some more scenes after the event happened and been better for it), the real reason this deserves a spot is its between-the-lines commentary: your reaction to Grant’s death will gauge where you fit in terms of your opinions on those very complex issues. Whether you think the film was too sympathetic to Grant or did a good job presenting things idealistically, it just means the film had an impact on you. The only way this wouldn’t be a good film is if you didn’t care enough to think about it even a little.

11. Gravity


The deepest recesses of space provides the scariest movie all year. While this isn’t a horror movie by any standard, the sheer terror you feel looking at the vast black canvass of stars puts it up there anyway. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are great as two astronauts in this, but their characters aren’t the real focal point. The focal point is when you see Bullock spiraling uncontrollably away from everything she’s ever known into a dark abyss from which there is no guarantee of return. My heart stopped when I saw this in the theater. The sheer scope and magnitude of the events is just great and the film’s strong point is its adventurous feel and the danger it puts the characters in. A great survival film.

10. The Butler


Another real-life account, this time of White House butler Cecil Grant, who served under eight presidents from the 50s to the modern day. Forest Whitaker puts on an Oscar-worthy performance in this, and David Oyelowo as his son Louis is just as good. While parts of this get a bit Hollywood-schmaltzy, the best parts of the film, and the meat of it, are the interactions between the father and son – when set out over this vast historical backdrop, it really makes the film a genuine epic. Bonus points for the great choices of who’s playing the various presidential figures!

9. Pacific Rim


The best action movie of the year hands down. People will tell you this has no substance, that it’s just mindless action, but really it’s very well done action. The battle scenes are the best all year, the fights are incredibly well crafted and gripping and the special effects are amazingly good. The characters are serviceable; they’re not going to wow you, but they do the job they were supposed to – they keep the story fast paced and they allow the action scenes to roll over you like a fucking war tank. Pacific Rim rules.

8. Don Jon


A very down to Earth romance about a kinda Jersey Shoreish dude named Jon who can purportedly get any girl he wants and yet loves masturbating more than anything else. Through the course of the film he discovers true love, blah blah blah – sounds cliché, right?

Absolutely not. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s directorial debut is a splendid take on a tired genre, mixing clever, funny dialogue, some very memorable and snappy scenes and genuinely good characters into a delightful brew. It’s just very real, and shows off some great insight into the average human relationship. I like that the characters aren’t idealized; they are presented in a very natural, low-key fashion and not treated like they’re better than your everyday people. They are kind of unlikable, and that makes it all the better when, like real people, they have their individual moments of goodness.

Even when the film occasionally does get Hollywood on us, Levitt’s mastery of the style makes the moment feel realistic enough that we believe it. Don Jon is a top notch romantic comedy.

7. The Place Beyond the Pines


Grand, sweeping epic masterpiece. This chronicle of three different intersecting lives over many years spans a bank robber looking out for his estranged family, the cop who kills him and both of their troubled sons. At times this is a bit too baggy and long, but only in parts. The sheer weight of the film is massive and the acting and storytelling put together something very compelling about the effect one’s actions have on anyone on the receiving end. It’s very much the Butterfly effect, as each segment bleeds tangentially into the next one as the characters each try to get ahead and look for ways out of the darkness brought upon them by their ancestors and their circumstances in this life. They all dance on the edge of the place beyond the pines, which is a place none of them really wants to go.

6. In a World…


This was a delight. A quirky, off-beat comedy about a woman trying to get into the voice-acting field that doesn’t want her – as her father says, there isn’t a demand for a feminine voice in a movie trailer. But she goes at it anyway and actually gets the jobs despite her father’s misogynistic old-world views and the challenges from another arrogant asshole of a voice actor. This could have easily turned into a cliché ‘inspirational’ picture, but it plays things pretty mellow and doesn’t focus too much on the “little train that could” mindset. Instead it’s just a high-energy, kick ass comedy spliced with romance and just the right social feministic themes – it really is a very empowering movie for women, saying more with less. Nothing here is cliché, there are tons of funny moments and it’s got a lot of complex things to say and yet does it in a laid-back way like it was the easiest thing in the world. There is a lot to love with this. I’d be selling it short if I spoiled it. Just go see it.

5. Prisoners


The best crime film in years. This takes me back to a time when this genre was about good storytelling rather than stupid gimmicks, redundant cliché and gore-filled garbage. Reminding me very much of films like The Pledge and Mystic River, Prisoners will knock you on your ass with its palpable suspense and mounting tension. The film, about two families and a detective trying to find two missing daughters, is legitimately terrifying, and I found myself just forgetting everything else and sitting there with my jaw on the fucking floor at how good this movie was. Every time it seemed like there had been some kind of emotional high water mark of pure blackened screaming terror, something else happened to raise the bar.

Everything that happens is horrific to watch, but you can’t peel your eyes away because it’s also incredibly engrossing, and you have to see what happens next – the hallmark of any great crime film. The movie’s pacing is excellent and just rolls over you like a wave. The directing really works to create an atmosphere – this misty Pennsylvania with its high reaching trees and dark shadowy buildings – and add emphasis to the film’s best moments. I couldn’t stop watching this. At 153 minutes it was still too short.

4. Short Term 12


A bunch of 20-somethings working at a home for troubled teens discover some things about themselves – most notably Grace and Mason, whose relationship is about to enter turbulent waters. I can’t say very much else without spoiling this wonderful film, but it really is just a peach of a movie. Strong, funny dialogue and good dramatic scenes play off one another brilliantly, each knowing its place and not forgetting that the other is also needed for levity.

The characters are brilliantly done and the story unfolds gently but sturdily, not treating the audience like children or obscuring the point too much either. The story just is, and the bare honesty it has is just a breath of fresh air. It has something it wants to say and just says it in a way that is frank, honest, tragic, funny and heartbreaking all at the same time – yet ultimately rewarding at the end. Like any troubling time in real life, the tide breaks and the characters come through to the light again, and the feeling is very, very satisfying.

There’s no bullshit with this. I can talk about the technical reasons the writing is good all I want, but it speaks for itself. I loved the characters, loved the story – just a wonderful movie.

3. The World’s End


The worst thing about the final installment in the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright trilogy is that it’s over now. This stands up strong with its predecessors, and was well worth the wait. Like the other movies before it, The World’s End is full of great jokes crammed in at light speed, making for a very complex take on comedy. The story, about a bunch of old friends reuniting to try a pub crawl again after something like twenty years, is funny, heartfelt and thoughtful all at the same time, packing in a message about not living in the past and coping with the present day and future rather than fighting them. This might be the best I’ve seen Pegg yet, and the characters are all generally good, starting off a bit bland but really growing as you go through the film.

This isn’t gut-bustingly funny like the other two, but a more complex and calculated work. The jokes are even more based in repetition than before, with every scene a call-back or foreshadowing to something else in the movie and lots of little sight gags and wordplay crammed in. The whole thing unfolds like an origami. The maturing of Edgar Wright since Shaun of the Dead is notable – and we shouldn’t stop short of noticing the parallels between the evolution of these movies and the message of The World’s End: things change, and we should roll with it.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street


Martin Scorsese is the devil himself, and we’re just along for the ride. This is the best I’ve seen Scorsese in years, and also the best DiCaprio performance maybe of his whole career thus far. The Wolf of Wall Street … is not like other movies. It’s just not. This is a three-hour megalith of sex, drugs and insanity. It’s also a wonderfully, perversely deviant work that smashes boundaries and expectations like a wreckingball coming straight for your childhood home. You wanted a moral? A redeeming social value? Any kind of character development? Well, the movie has none of those things. And it revels in that.

I’m just so tired of Hollywood schmaltz like several of the films on my Worst Of list – I’m tired of movies that have to shove a moral down your throat out of some primordial Christian fear of being reprimanded or shunned – because that is what so many lesser movies are. They have to underline and bold-face their morals to fit into some kind of vague notion of what a movie should be. In doing so they don’t really have much of an artistic ground to stand on, because they are pandering to some sense of social normativity. They compromise themselves. This is something else.

If The Wolf of Wall Street was poorly made or acted, it would merely be a curiosity, but the production values are through the roof and the acting is outstanding. Jonah Hill performs at 110% as do all the other supporting cast members. And as I said, Leo is mint in this. Scorsese’s directing is master-class too, not that I expected anything else – but the rampant energy that courses through every minute of this three-hour film is something to be wowed by. Most movies this long slow down and get caught up in their own weight – this is full fuckin’ speed all the way.

Frankly this is a godsend for movies in the modern day. It will be polarizing, but I for one cherish it.

1. Catching Fire


With all the great movies already on this list, I can’t say this one is really sky-high above the rest, but it is a whole and complete work of art and really, stayed with me more than anything else. I was wondering why that was – and there are a lot of reasons.

The thing is, movies are escapism – whether it’s escaping into a realistic story and losing yourself in someone else’s problems, or escaping into a fantasy story and finding a whole new world. No other movie this year quite sucked me in like this one. The atmosphere in this is so thick, and the settings so good, that I felt like I really was there – some of the scenes in this are heartbreaking and haunting. I liked the jarring directing style of the first movie, felt it added to the effect, but the directing in this is just astounding in its scope, clarity and memorability.

As a book-to-movie transition it is an absolute triumph, as it successfully does pretty much everything that needed to be seen with the story while also remaining an artistic, very well done film on its own. I can’t imagine anyone complaining about stuff from the book left out in this one. The acting is just stellar, too, with Jennifer Lawrence getting my personal Best Actor/Actress in general all year – the fact that she was nominated for American Hustle instead of this really outlines how little respect there is for movies deemed “too young-adult.” Which is pretty deserved in a lot of cases, but not this one.

Overall this is a film about rebellion. It is an aching, angry heart in the middle of the film’s oppressive dystopian regime – every scene just bleeds resentment and rebellion. It is a movie about strength in the face of innumerable odds, about Katniss and her ongoing struggle. Above all there is strength in this movie. And that’s why this is the movie of the year.

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And that's my top 13 of 2013. I was so prepared for this list to be full of simply good movies - not stuff I was really passionate about. But I did find so many films to love when I was going back to see what I had missed. There were a lot of really amazing films this year. And there are every year. This is not some kind of lone-standing incident, but a lesson to be learned. Never simply be content with whatever's right in front of you. You never know when something else you may love even more is lying just a little bit left-of-center.

All images copyright of their original owners. I do not own any of them.