Happy New Year, gang! Well, another movie year is in the books and man, it was a doozy. I went to the movies an astonishing 209 times in 2013 -- by far a new record that elevates my
obsession passion to preposterous levels. Fortunately, it was mostly time well spent: There was tremendous quality to be found from week to week, across the board, in all genres, from multiplex to art house, from filmmakers old and new. Yes, it was a great year for cinema -- and now, after much consideration, soul-searching and the occasional Sophie’s choice, here is my crème de la crème....
10. SHORT TERM 12 -- There were several titles vying for this spot but I keep coming back to this one -- a lovely film about a group of twentysomethings who work with at-risk kids while also dealing with their own complex lives. Written & directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film is impeccably crafted on every level, unfolding slowly but surely and exuding authenticity as it introduces a motley crew of personalities and reveals harsh truths and unending optimism. Brie Larson’s understated but multifaceted performance is a revelation and one of the best of the year -- the film may be too under-the-radar to generate serious Oscar buzz, but she deserves it. SHORT TERM 12 is an honest and resonant film, filled with both laughs and tears, and should be added to everyone's queues immediately.
9. FROZEN -- Amazingly, in all the years I've been compiling these lists (since the late '90s), Walt Disney Animation has never made my Top 10. But FROZEN isn't just a return to form for the Mouse -- it’s a veritable return to the transcendence of the Golden Age. I loved THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG and TANGLED (not to mention ENCHANTED), but they finally, really nailed the pitch-perfect balance of classic and modern style and sensibility. With themes of sisterhood, friendship and self-discovery, Anna and Elsa's respective journeys are funny, smart and tug on all the right heartstrings. The film has fun with Disney clichés and features amazing animation (even though it is CGI, it somehow feels hand-drawn), memorable characters (Olaf!) and a truly great soundtrack that may eventually rank among Disney’s best and catchiest. Of all the movies on this list, including this one gives me the most pleasure!
8. 12 YEARS A SLAVE -- The story of Solomon Northup, a free northern black man in the 1800s who is kidnapped, brought to the south and enslaved for twelve years, is a meticulous, staggering, devastating portrait of our nation’s darkest time. Starkly directed by Steve McQueen, who is no stranger to creating palpable environments (see also: HUNGER and SHAME) this film pulls no punches -- before all is said and done, you will have gone from cringing to crying to exulting and back again many times over, sometimes within the same scene. Certain images and situations will stay with you long after the credits roll. Unbelievable performances across the board, but Chiwetel Ejiofor is majestic and Michael Fassbender presents one of the most heinous portrayals of evil of all time. An extraordinary, overwhelming, challenging film that should be required viewing for all.
7. STORIES WE TELL -- I’ve always enjoyed Sarah Polley as an actress, but with films like AWAY FROM HER and TAKE THIS WALTZ under her belt, she has proven to be a formidable director, too. In this documentary, Polley explores the skeletons in her family’s closet, which is interesting in itself. But as the layers are peeled away, details are sifted and mysteries are revealed, we find that the film is really about memory, truth, perception and the very nature of storytelling. The result is a riveting, revelatory, moving and at times exhilarating experience that must be seen to fully understand what the heck I’m raving about. For whatever reason, it’s been a while since I’ve had a documentary in my Top 10 (ten years, to be exact) but this one transcends the format in most unexpected ways.
6. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET -- Martin Scorsese once again proves that he is the master of his domain with this scathing, wildly entertaining and jaw-dropping look at the madness and excesses of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCaprio gives the most incredible, physical, over-the-top performance of his career as Jordan Belfort, a despicable, irredeemable louse who lies, cheats and snorts coke out of hookers’ assholes on the way to ridiculous fortune with minimal consequences. (Seriously, the Lemmons scene had better be his Oscar clip.) Everything is on point: direction, acting (Jonah Hill is also unreal), script, editing, soundtrack... it’s a perfect storm of cinematic hedonism... immersive, vile, and hilarious in spite of itself. It might make you lose faith in humanity but you’ll have a blast in the process. This is Scorsese at his engaged and exuberant best and would make one hell of a triple-feature with GOODFELLAS and CASINO -- yes, it’s THAT good.
5. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR -- One of the most honest, raw and passionate films of the year, this three-hour, French, NC-17-rated, Palm d’Or-winning lesbian coming-of-age romance earns all of its accolades and controversy. Director Abdel Kechiche immerses us into the story of young Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux) and intimately captures the exhilaration of first love, the intensity of sexual discovery, the complexities of adult relationships, the devastation of heartbreak and all points in between. The two lead performances are brilliant and utterly fearless; indeed, the much-heralded sex scenes are long and graphic but somehow don’t feel gratuitous -- a testament to the film’s power and the unbridled emotion that it both displays and evokes. It’s a true work of cinematic art. (And if you’re not craving spaghetti bolognaise immediately afterward, there’s something wrong with you.)
4. GRAVITY -- I don’t like paying for IMAX 3D if I can help it because it costs over $20 in NYC and few films are worth that much money out of pocket. But I would have paid twice as much to see one of the most harrowing, breathtaking movie-watching spectacles in recent memory. Director (and reigning master of the long-take) Alfonso Cuaron takes his skills to a new level and somehow gets us as close to the infinite vastness of outer space as we will likely ever be. It’s a perfect storm of fine acting (easily the best work of Sandra Bullock's career and George Clooney is, of course, a man among men), precision filmmaking and groundbreaking visuals to complement a refreshingly simple, human story with a soulfulness that you don’t often find in big, effects-laden blockbusters. A true cinematic thrill ride with a heart of gold -- and unlike anything we’ve ever seen on the big screen before.
3. HER -- Spike Jonze is at the top of his game with this wholly original vision of a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who, while attempting to get over his failed marriage, develops an intense relationship with his computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). This is the kind of story that could have easily been mined for laughs or with uber-twee sensibilities, but Jonze plays it straight and the result is an wonderfully realized, expertly detailed and eerily prescient vision of the future. But at the same time, the highs and lows of this bizarre relationship are all too familiar and timeless. Beautifully acted across the board: Phoenix is quickly becoming one of the best in the business, ScarJo’s voice is luminescent and Amy Adams is at her all-time cutest, while Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde and Chris Pratt, among others, lend their worthwhile presences. A wildly creative, unpretentious and deeply affecting film on many personal and universal levels and a triumph for Jonze -- easily his best film not written by Charlie Kaufman (and maybe just as good as MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION in its own right).
2. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS -- A young folk singer (perfectly realized by Oscar Isaac) struggles, musically and spiritually, amidst the burgeoning backdrop of early ‘60s Greenwich Village in the Coen Bros.’ latest triumph. It’s a film that should resonate with anyone who has tried and failed (and maybe never had a chance). It is deceptively simple yet mind-bendingly complex, desperately melancholy, bleak yet romantic, strangely philosophical and loaded with the Coens’ unmistakable brand of dialogue, humor, situations, characters and relationships. It generates thoughts and emotions (not all of them pleasant) that will likely require several viewings to fully process. Plus, the soundtrack is outstanding. The Coens have been on a recent streak of genius that is impressive even by their lofty standards (see also: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A SERIOUS MAN, TRUE GRIT) but this may be the richest of the bunch.
1. BEFORE MIDNIGHT -- BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET are two of the great cinematic loves of my life, so to say that this third installment was one of my most anticipated movies of the year would be an understatement. Miraculously, it lives up to the hype and then some. Nine more years have passed and Jesse and Celine are still together, but... well, it’s trickier now. If the first film was about falling in love and the second film was about rediscovering love, this film is about STAYING in love... and as many of us can surely attest, that’s the hard part. Their chemistry is still undeniable, and they still walk around and talk better than anybody ever, but due to the nature of their relationship, there’s a bit more bubbling under the surface than there was in Vienna and Paris. To say any more would be a disservice, but suffice to say, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy manage to not only continue one of cinema’s all-time greatest romances but add even more depth and emotion. All in all, it completes one of the finest trilogies ever forged -- at least until 2022 when it will hopefully become a quadrilogy -- and for my money, the best movie of 2013.
Other Noteworthy Titles (in alphabetical order):
About Time. The Act of Killing. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. American Hustle. The Angels’ Share. Blackfish. Blue Caprice. Blue Jasmine. Brave Miss World. Captain Phillips. Concussion. Dallas Buyers Club. Don Jon. Drinking Buddies. Enough Said. Escape From Tomorrow. Frances Ha. From Up on Poppy Hill. Fruitvale Station. Gimme the Loot. The Great Beauty. The Great Gatsby. The Hangover Part III. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The Hunt. In a World.... In the House. Kill Your Darlings. The Kings of Summer. Man of Steel. Monsters University. Much Ado About Nothing. Mud. Museum Hours. Nebraska. Oblivion. Pacific Rim. Pain & Gain. The Past. Philomena. Prince Avalanche. Prisoners. Saving Mr. Banks. Side Effects. Sightseers. The Spectacular Now. Spring Breakers. Stoker. Therese. This is Martin Bonner. Upstream Color. Wadjda. The Way, Way Back. What Maisie Knew. The Wind Rises. The Wolverine. The World’s End. You’re Next.
And now... Ben’s Top 10 WORST Films of 2013:
10. THE CANYONS -- Were Bret Easton Ellis and Paul Schrader taking the piss when they made this awful, soulless dreck about the death of cinema, or is it just a truly inept debacle? Who knows. At least Lindsay Lohan looks good (well, parts of her, anyway).
9. DIANA -- Naomi Watts acts her heart out, but this biopic about the last two years of Princess Diana’s iconic life is flat, dull, riddled with clichés and more than a little tacky.
8. OLDBOY -- Spike Lee's remake of the classic Korean revenge thriller may be the single most unnecessary remake in the long, sad history of unnecessary remakes. A lifeless rehash that has absolutely nothing to offer.
7. HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS -- How many shitty retellings of beloved fairy tales do we need to endure before Hollywood realizes it’s just not a good idea? Even a surprising amount of gore and nudity can’t save this hot mess.
6. SAFE HAVEN -- Gotta give props to the twist ending, which admittedly had me fooled. Unfortunately, the twist is so bad, M. Night Shyamalan saw it and said, "Now will everyone please get off my back??" The rest of the movie is shite, too.
5. THE LONE RANGER -- Competently made, sure... but so misguided, unfunny, embarrassing, indulgent and borderline offensive, it makes me wonder if Verbinski and Depp actually hate the Lone Ranger franchise and purposely set out to shit all over it. If so, kudos!
4. THE SECRET LIVES OF DORKS -- I hate to rail on a little movie that no one has heard of, but goddamn. The inept script, direction, acting and tiresome “cinematic comic book” gimmick are bad enough, but at this point in our pro-nerd/geek/dork society, there's just zero reason for it to exist.
3. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD -- Not only is this fifth installment bad, it’s one of the worst installments of ANY popular franchise. Ever. It is practically unwatchable. Everything that made the first DIE HARD great has been swept away and John McClane as we knew him no longer exists. Sad.
2. IDENTITY THIEF -- I like Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman but they are utterly wasted in one of the most wretchedly awful, unfunny comedies in recent memory. Nary a laugh nor shred of entertainment value to be found. Shameful.
1. R.I.P.D. -- Just as I knew BEFORE MIDNIGHT and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS would be among the best movies of the year, I knew that this would be one of the worst. Its very existence is puzzling -- not only is it a blatant MEN IN BLACK rip-off with dead people instead of aliens, but it looks & feels like it was lifted from that same era. But instead of being groundbreaking and smart (as MiB was) or campy (as, say, an Asylum spoof might be), this dreck has been stripped of everything good and fun. I hope Jeff Bridges enjoys the new wing on his house and Ryan Reynolds enjoys direct-to-DVD purgatory. Now let us never speak of this again.
Some Semi-Stream-of-Consciousness Movie Thoughts!
A Few Titles That Just Missed the Top 10: Since 2013 was such a strong year, there were plenty of movies that would’ve easily made the Top 10 in most other years. In random order, first we have AMERICAN HUSTLE, one of the most purely entertaining cinematic romps of the year -- haters be damned. Sure, it’s fluff… but it’s damn good fluff with a powerhouse ensemble cast. In a year filled with very good coming-of-age films, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is a standout, overflowing with heart and featuring two tremendous performances from Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller. The Age of McConaughey continues with DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, a tremendous film and even better lead performance (but it’s Jared Leto who arguably steals the show, much to Angela Chase’s combined delight and chagrin). THE GREAT BEAUTY is a dizzying assault on the senses and an enthralling reflection on the decadence of life, love and Rome from director Paolo Sorrentino. Woody Allen is in fine form with BLUE JASMINE, which also features a tour-de-force performance from the great Cate Blanchett. ENOUGH SAID is one of the best, funniest and all-around smile-inducing romantic comedies in recent memory thanks to the perfect chemistry between Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and the late James Gandolfini. Greta Gerwig is at her absolute best in Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA, a lovely, funny film about the frequently-awkward but unending pursuit of happiness in NYC. Alexander Payne is now 6-for-6 as a director after NEBRASKA, a superbly crafted take on smalltown middle America and missed opportunities. The best horror movie of the year is YOU’RE NEXT, which drips with blood & dark humor and turns the home invasion concept on its ear most spectacularly. Last but not the least, there’s THE ACT OF KILLING, a jaw-dropping, unsettling, riveting, infuriating, bizarre, mind-boggling documentary about Indonesian death squads that absolutely must be seen to be believed.
A Few Titles That Just Missed the Bottom 10: Unfortunately, when one sees over 200 movies in a calendar year, one tends to see quite a few turds. Aside from the ten I’ve already mentioned, there’s also RUNNER RUNNER, a dopey thriller about online gambling that nearly cancels out all of Ben Affleck’s ARGO goodwill. THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE makes one wonder what the hell Steve Carell was thinking when he ditched THE OFFICE for a movie career. Starring Russell Crowe, Mark Wahlberg and Catherine Zeta-Jones, BROKEN CITY should have been entertaining but is not. 21 & OVER strives for a “HANGOVER for college kids” vibe but is one of the worst drunken sex comedies in recent memory. I love Aubrey Plaza but she should be embarrassed by THE TO-DO LIST, a wannabe ‘90s period piece that falls completely flat. AFTER EARTH is a sci-fi failure, but we can blame that more on Jaden Smith than M. Night Shyamalan (for a change). THE INTERNSHIP drives another nail into Vince Vaughn’s coffin. Any earthquakes that were felt when GROWN UPS 2 was released were just Chris Farley rolling over in his grave. And as for the much-maligned, hit-or-miss MOVIE 43... well, the misses are pretty awful... but I chuckled enough at the hits to save it from the worst of the worst.
Guilty Pleasures: Hey, remember THE HANGOVER PART III? That was a movie that happened in 2013. Well, I am on record as a fan of the trilogy-capper (and the trilogy in general), and I think I’m the only one, so I guess that counts as a guilty pleasure. Screw you guys, it’s funny and I love these characters! SPRING BREAKERS is a movie I can watch over and over, but I don’t actually feel guilty about it because it’s so good (“LOOK AT MY SHIT!”). Most geeks worth their salt appreciate PACIFIC RIM, so this is another borderline “guilty” pick, but it will almost certainly become part of my regular background movie rotation -- it is cinematic popcorn fun in its purest form. However, if there’s one single scene from 2013 that could be considered my biggest guilty pleasure, it’s when Rosario Dawson, er, grooms herself in Danny Boyle’s wacky TRANCE -- a moment made even more memorable by the bizarrely loud buzzsaw sound effect that accompanies it. It’s such a “WTF?!” moment that it has embedded itself into my pervy mind. (Also, Rosario Dawson rules.)
Pleasant Surprises: I certainly did not expect THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE to be so awesome and probably the best franchise blockbuster of the year. This is particularly impressive considering I didn’t love the first movie, nor did I love the CATCHING FIRE book. But everything in the film, from the handling of the story to the cast/acting to the action, is totally on point and Jennifer Lawrence is a goddess of badassery. Meanwhile, THE WOLVERINE overcomes the previous lame “origins” installment and is highly entertaining; Hugh Jackman has to be considered one the most iconic superhero depictions of all time (plus, the credit stinger / DAYS OF FUTURE PAST teaser caused pandemonium at my screening). In a year that saw not one but THREE White House-under-siege films, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN is by far the best and puts Gerard Butler back on the badass map (WHITE HOUSE DOWN and G.I. JOE: RETALIATION were the others). With its great cast and atmosphere, THE CONJURING provided some legit mainstream scares in our first SAW/PARANORMAL ACTIVITY-less year in what seems like forever. And while I didn’t have much hope for LONE SURVIVOR based on the cheesy, jingoistic trailers, it turned out to be a solid, respectful military procedural with a strong ensemble cast and harrowing, true-to-life action.
Disappointments: Sigh... it pains me to say it, but ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES is a huge letdown. Granted, it’s probably my own fault for having such high expectations in the first place... but it isn’t even in the same stratosphere as the original. Most jokes are rehashed and/or overdone and fall flat. (Who knew that too much Brick Tamland and an even bigger news team rumble would be bad things?) Plus it is distressingly unquotable. It’s a damn shame. Meanwhile, as a fan of BLUE VALENTINE, Derek Cianfrance’s THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES turned out to be an overwrought mess. Similarly, ONLY GOD FORGIVES feels more like Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling are spoofing themselves than anything else -- a sad letdown after the greatness of DRIVE. Speaking of Gosling, the stylish GANGSTER SQUAD had potential but failed to capitalize on his smoldering chemistry with Emma Stone. THE BLING RING is a bit of a letdown after Sofia Coppola’s prior greatness, though it is noteworthy for Emma Watson’s performance. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and KICK-ASS 2 were both disappointments after the great first installments. THE COUNSELOR somehow didn’t work despite being directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy and starring Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz. And I’m not even going to count A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD in this section because, really, did anyone expect it to be good?
Underrated: There actually weren’t many movies that fit this description, at least when it comes to my opinion vs. the general public’s. I mean, I loved divisive films like THE HANGOVER PART III and MAN OF STEEL but there are certainly valid criticisms to be made. I do think the backlash against great films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, AMERICAN HUSTLE and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is utterly misguided and proof that people will complain about anything. But as far as great movies that may have flown under the general public’s radar: I haven’t heard much about DRINKING BUDDIES, a wonderful, beer-soaked comedy about love & friendship, and further evidence that Olivia Wilde is a perfect specimen (Anna Kendrick rules, too). The few people I know who have seen Lake Bell’s directorial debut IN A WORLD… have loved it, and rightly so. More people should see it. Paul Rudd and Emilie Hirsch are fantastic in David Gordon Green’s offbeat, thoughtful buddy picture, PRINCE AVALANCHE. And as a LOVE ACTUALLY fan, I was sorry that ABOUT TIME came and went so quickly -- Richard Curtis’ time-travel rom-com is imperfect, but funny and sincere and right up my sappy alley.
Overrated: Similarly, there weren’t many movies that I disliked that got widespread praise. That said, I didn’t much much care for RUSH, which is 89% fresh on RottenTomatoes and actually generated some Oscar buzz when it was released. It is slick and generally well-acted, but I couldn’t get past all the clunky dialogue and the fact that I don’t give two shits about car racing. Terrence Malick made a really great-looking perfume commercial with TO THE WONDER, arguably his most Malicky film yet (in a bad way), yet I’ve actually seen it on some Top 10 lists, which is baffling. I also don’t appear to have loved THIS IS THE END as much as most people, but maybe I was in a bad mood that day? I’ll give it another shot eventually.
Hobbits and Dwarves and Dragons, Oh My: I should talk a bit about THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG because, well, I love it unconditionally. It’s another glorious journey into Peter Jackson's vision of Middle-earth -- and at this point, it really is PJ’s vision, as opposed to Tolkien. Jackson is bordering closely into the realm of fan fiction with some of the stuff he’s giving us here, but somehow, because this world is so immersive and comfortable and feels like a second cinematic home, it works. For example, on paper, I could have done without the gratuitous Legolas subplot. We know from Tolkien lore that Legolas would have been in Mirkwood at this time, but a brief cameo would have sufficed. That being said... Legolas still kicks ass... so, hey, why not. All in all, SMAUG is a legit improvement over the first installment because all of the long-winded intros are gone and we get right to the action. The film has a fun, episodic feel, almost like an old-time serial. The 48fps high-frame rate lends itself nicely to the CGI-heavy but visually amazing experience (Smaug himself is a digital miracle). It's a hugely satisfying Middle-earth fix and I can’t wait for the grand finale in December. After that, I hope Jackson comes back and makes THE SILMARILLION, and Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, and, and, and....
Animation Conversation: Overall, it was a good but not great year for animated fare (with the exception of FROZEN, which, as we’ve discussed, brought Walt Disney Animation back to the Golden Age). THE WIND RISES may not quite live up to Hayao Miyazaki’s previous masterpieces, but it is still lovely and a worthy swan song for the Japanese master. Another Studio Ghibli film, FROM UP ON POPPY HILL, is also very solid. I’m getting a little tired of Pixar’s sequel-happy streak, but MONSTERS UNIVERSITY actually works quite well -- of course, it helps if you just unabashedly love Mike and Sully, as I do. THE CROODS is a nice piece of work thanks to some offbeat humor and one of Nic Cage’s wackier performances in a while. DESPICABLE ME 2 improves on the original, though seeing it at an advance screening in a theatre full of kids helped -- their collective love of the Minions is infectious! At the bottom of the barrel, EPIC is bland bland bland, and I didn’t even bother seeing such titles as TURBO, PLANES, FREEBIRDS and (God help us) SMURFS 2.
Foreign Cinema: Much to my shame, I did not see many foreign films in 2013 and will probably have a lot of work to do when the Oscar nominations are announced. Fortunately, the ones I did see were quite good. Of course, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR leads the pack, closely followed by THE GREAT BEAUTY. With its many layers and complexities, A SEPARATION director Asghar Farhadi proves that he is the master of the domestic drama with THE PAST. I really loved Francois Ozon’s IN THE HOUSE, a brilliant, twisty-turny ode to the creative process. WADJDA is significant because it’s the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia AND the first by a female Saudi director -- plus it is a wondrous story about the power of the human spirit. Mads Mikkelsen is incredible in the unsettling, thought-provoking THE HUNT. My love, Audrey Tautou, gives one of her finest dramatic performances in the darkly methodical THERESE. And hey, we got a new Almodovar film this year, too -- I’M SO EXCITED! is not his best work, but still worth a watch.
Documentary Delight: I did a little better in the documentary department. We’ve already talked about the brilliance of STORIES WE TELL and THE ACT OF KILLING, both of which need to be seen ASAP. I have never been to Sea World, and BLACKFISH assured that I never will -- a stunning, infuriating film that will make you weep for our orca brethren. LEVIATHAN delves into the world of deep-sea fishing and takes the documentary format to crazy, visceral places. DIRTY WARS offers an eye-opening look behind the U.S. military curtain, though I could have done without the stagey melodrama. BRAVE MISS WORLD, an empowering story of rape survival, is one of the most important doc of the year and I hope it finds a wider audience. Calvin & Hobbes fans will find great pleasure in the love letter that is DEAR MR. WATTERSON, while fans of THE SHINING should enjoy the preposterous conspiracy theories of ROOM 237. I knew nothing about the crazy ‘70s hippie cult of THE SOURCE FAMILY, but now I do. THE HUMAN SCALE basically informs us that big city-living will destroy human interaction as we know it. Michel Gondry and Noam Chomsky talk about life, the universe and everything with an animated backdrop in IS THE MAN WHO IS TALL HAPPY? Werner Herzog’s voice and a gaggle of Siberian dogs are the real stars of HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA. And lastly, innate intrigue and some legit eye-opening revelations help SALINGER rise above some needless sensationalism.
Blockbuster Snoozefests: Unfortunately, for every good 2013 blockbuster like GRAVITY, CATCHING FIRE and PACIFIC RIM, there are a bunch of duds. I enjoyed IRON MAN 3 in the moment, but the more I think about it, the more underwhelming it becomes (especially compared to the first IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS). Elsewhere in the Marvel universe, THOR: THE DARK WORLD is solid but so far, Phase 2 has yet to resonate with me. FAST FIVE was surprisingly awesome but the self-indulgent FAST & FURIOUS 6 reverts the series back to shite (with all due respect to the late Paul Walker). I have a soft spot for the bold and brash MAN OF STEEL, but all joking aside, the destructive final act really sticks in my craw. And then there are the real turkeys: I highly doubt they’ll be showing OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL on TNT in 75 years. JACK THE GIANT SLAYER has delusions of grandeur but is highly forgettable. G.I. JOE: RETALIATION would’ve been better if it had just been two kids playing with action figures for 90 minutes. And WORLD WAR Z lands with a resounding “meh” -- keep trying for that tentpole franchise, Brad Pitt.
Coming-of-Age Antics: The biggest movie theme of the year was that of of “excess” (see: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, THE GREAT GATSBY, PAIN & GAIN, SPRING BREAKERS, THE BLING RING and THE GREAT BEAUTY) but the coming-of-age story was also very well-represented. Leading the pack is the aforementioned THE SPECTACULAR NOW, a wise, sensitive, genuine and heartfelt look at the anxieties of unexpected love and approaching adulthood; I will be following Shailene Woodley’s career with great interest. THE KINGS OF SUMMER is enjoyable in a “PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER meets STAND BY ME” kind of way. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are fantastic in GINGER & ROSA, a ‘60s political period piece and character study. On the grittier side, MUD is slow-boiling Southern mystery that features two great young performances (plus Matthew McConaughey in top form). A BIRDER’S GUIDE TO EVERYTHING also follows the STAND BY ME mindset, but with the kids looking for a rare bird instead of a dead body. THE WAY, WAY BACK is hilarious and heartwarming and Sam Rockwell gives one of the year’s most memorable and likeable performances; in a perfect world, he’d snag a Best Supporting Actor nod. And on the bizarre end of the spectrum, there’s KID-THING, which feels like something dark & weird crawled out of the NAPOLEON DYNAMITE universe.
Obscure-ish Indies: As a card-carrying member of the IFC Center, I had the opportunity to see lots of random indies that I may have otherwise not given a second thought. For example: THIS IS MARTIN BONNER, an understated look at human connection & second chances, featuring one of my favorite performances of the year (Paul Eenhorn). Brandon Cronenberg proves that he is a chip off the old block with the icky, interesting ANTIVIRAL. I’ve already mentioned KID-THING, which is worth seeking out. Bronx graffiti artists plot to tag the Home Run Apple at Citi Field (seriously) in GIMME THE LOOT, a colorful slice of NYC life. Michael Cera portrays a magnificent American asshole and Gaby Hoffman is fearless in the drug-addled CRYSTAL FAIRY. Elijah Wood plays a serial killer in the occasionally eye-rolling but atmospheric MANIAC (nasty Hobbitses!). Loved THE ANGELS’ SHARE, a tale of Scottish ne'er-do-wells who find redemption thru whiskey and epic swearing. SOMETHING IN THE AIR is a fine French ‘70s counterculture nostalgia trip starring the lovely Lola Creton. THE WE AND THE I is an interesting urban experiment and worth watching if you’re a Michel Gondry fan. I USED TO BE DARKER is an engaging, low-key and contemplative look at a family in various stages of disarray. BLUE CAPRICE is a quietly chilling, character-driven portrait of evil about the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. It’s great to see Kathryn Hahn in a lead role for a change in AFTERNOON DELIGHT, a funny film that takes a dark turn. Also, Jem Cohen’s contemplative MUSEUM HOURS, while not really obscure because it is critically-acclaimed, is an IFC movie that I liked very much. Meanwhile, over at the Angelika, I caught the intense (albeit overly melodramatic) FRUITVALE STATION, as well as a movie called CONCUSSION, the story of a lesbian housewife who gets hit in head, develops a midlife crisis and becomes a prostitute to fulfill new-found desires. I know this description sounds like it could apply to a late-night Cinemax flick, but it’s actually a smart, nuanced, semi-satirical drama that features a commanding lead performance by Robin Weigert. Trust me!
The Year of... the Rock?!: We know that we are deep into the Age of McConaughey, but also, the Rock had a pretty damn big year. Of course, he is in FAST AND FURIOUS 6 and commands the screen more than Vin Diesel ever could in his wildest dreams. That same screen presence definitely helps G.I. JOE: RETALIATION improve on its predecessor. Preposterous plot aside, SNITCH is slow-boiling and character-driven and allows the People’s Champ to flex his acting chops. But above all, there’s Michael Bay’s PAIN & GAIN, the crazy true story of a bunch of bodybuilders-turned-conmen and the American Dream gone horribly awry, in which the Rock takes his game to a whole other level and utters this now-legendary line: “Jesus Christ himself has blessed me with many gifts -- one of them is knocking someone the fuck out!” Good stuff.
Fortysomething Actresses Showing Off Their Bangin’ Bods: This was another movie trend that I enjoyed in 2013. You have Jennifer Aniston doing a wet strip tease in WE’RE THE MILLERS, an otherwise “meh” comedy. Gwyneth Paltrow dons sexy lingerie in the sex-addiction comedy THANKS FOR SHARING. The Australia-set ADORE, about two best friends who have affairs with each other’s strapping young sons, is trashy but Naomi Watts and Robin Wright are smokin’. Cameron Diaz ensures that we will never look at a catfish the same way again in THE COUNSELOR. Lastly, Kathryn Hahn offers perhaps the most unexpected nudity -- and a graphic sex scene with Josh Radnor, of all people -- in AFTERNOON DELIGHT. Yowzas all around!
(Mean Girls Gone Wild: While we’re on the subject of nudity... I’m just saying... Lindsay Lohan got naked in THE CANYONS, Amanda Seyfried got naked in LOVELACE and Rachel McAdams got naked in TO THE WONDER. Your move, Lacey Chabert!)
Hey, Old Timers: A bunch of our favorite old-time actors were in movies in 2013 and they all seemed to intersect. Observe: Sylvester Stallone played a badass New Orleans hitman in BULLET TO THE HEAD. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the big screen as a badass sheriff in THE LAST STAND. Then Sly and Arnold joined forces to break out of a maximum security prison in ESCAPE PLAN. Sly later appeared in GRUDGE MATCH with Robert De Niro (the heralded Rocky Balboa vs. Jake LaMotta boxing movie) and Alan Arkin. De Niro also appeared in LAST VEGAS (i.e. THE HANGOVER for the elder set) with Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman, while Arkin appeared in STAND-UP GUYS, another hitman flick, with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken. Long story short... none of these movies are particularly good, but all are worth watching some night on cable because these old fogies have still got the stuff.
Scores and Soundtracks: First off, big props to SPRING BREAKERS -- not only do Cliff Martinez & Skillrex perfectly set the mood of madness, but the soundtrack includes arguably the best use of a Britney Spears song in a movie ever. Steven Price’s GRAVITY score is appropriately epic & awe-inspiring. Ramin Djawadi’s PACIFIC RIM is one of the more hummable themes of the year. Hans Zimmer doesn’t quite match John Williams’ iconic Superman theme, but his MAN OF STEEL score is very solid and certainly better than anything we’ve heard from the Marvel universe so far (though Brian Tyler’s IRON MAN 3 theme finally gives us something remotely memorable there). Speaking of Williams, it was a pleasure to hear his familiar strains in THE BOOK THIEF. Howard Shore continues to paint a perfect musical portrait of Middle-earth in THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. OBLIVION is a fun conglomeration of every sci-fi movie ever and M83’s score sets a sweeping tone. I remember liking the music in HER, AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, PRINCE AVALANCHE and NEBRASKA, too, and I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting. However, my personal favorite soundtracks of the year are BEFORE MIDNIGHT and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and FROZEN -- all of which I’ve been listening to repeatedly while writing this very blog post.
Old Favorites the Way They Were Meant to be Seen: 2013 was a solid yet for repertory cinema, too. The IFC Center screened GOODFELLAS with a Q&A by none other than Anthony Bourdain -- it was my first time seeing one of Scorsese’s greatest classics on the big screen. IFC also offered me first-time big-screen viewings of THE SHINING, SPACEBALLS (!), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and HAROLD & MAUDE, all of which were awesome. I reveled in the 3D re-release of JURASSIC PARK and saw it twice on two of NYC’s biggest & best screens (Loews Lincoln Square IMAX and Regal E-Walk RPX). The Film Forum, of all places, screened a dusty 35mm print of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. I took a rare trip to Brooklyn to see THE GODFATHER 1 & 2 back-to-back at the grand, newly-renovated Harvey Theatre. And in my own neck of the woods in upper Manhattan, the magnificent United Palace, a former Loews Wonder Theatre, reopened its doors to film for the first time since 1969 with screenings of CASABLANCA and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. All the great 2013 releases notwithstanding, there’s nothing quite like seeing your favorite classics on the big screen and I fully intend to see more in 2014.
Aaaaand there you have it, folks. Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Death threats? Let’s discuss!