I’ve been told by people in the biz that a best of 2013 list is irrelevant and less than garbage after January 3rd. Fuck that. Half the movies that end up winning awards in February and March either just came out or were in and out of theaters so fast you never had a chance to catch them. I missed two big films this year (and a bunch of foreign films) that I hope to catch up with soon: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Here’s the movies of 2013 that I did see that I thought were cool.
Brit Marling crafts herself another complex role as a woman who finds her belief systems challenged as her wardobe shifts from J.Crew to “Derelicte.” If you go in looking for political thriller chills, you might come out the other end half satisfied, but see this as an intimate character study that reveals the poisonous pathologies of civilized life and it hits all the right notes. It’s almost, and I mean this as a compliment, a super-charged Lifetime “one woman’s story” type of movie. I was just so pleased to see a film that wanted to take me somewhere fresh: corporate espionage, freegan anarchists and a female character ultimately more concerned about saving her soul than her romantic entanglements.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
This is the must see film of the year… that you will never want to see again. If you dismissed it as “Oscar-bait” or a “prestige” film… you clearly have never seen either of Steve McQueen’s earlier films HUNGER or SHAME. This is not Lee Daniel’s THE BUTLER. This is not a feel-good, triumphant story about a man who overcomes. 2013 was the year of the survivor and that term has come to carry with it a pitch black darkness. 12 YEARS A SLAVE has brutally long takes of utter helplessness. It does the opposite of empowering you, it makes you feel powerless in the face of great evil. The lead character Solomon Northrup embodies this. He keeps looking away and down and anywhere but at atrocity. He can’t be a hero. He doesn’t have that power. The real life history of the man even ends on downer after downer. BUT WATCH IT, PLEASE!!
As un-empowering as 12 YEARS A SLAVE was, FROZEN empowers. Queen Elsa’s song LET IT GO is the anthem for weirdoes, outcasts and people who hide their loves, their talents and their true nature because of how they perceive it will affect others. It’s no wonder it’s turned Elsa into one of the most popular Disney princesses of all time. I’ve written at length about why I love the film but I just have to say: The songs! The feels! The ice! The characters! That final icy breath! The Kristen Bells! Also, it will always hold a very special place in my heart for being my daughter’s first in-theater movie. If ever I find myself in a life or death situation I’ll close my eyes and see her at 2 and half years old, hopping in our apartment singing “let it go~!” with her mouth drawn up into an adorably zen-like oval spinning and spinning, arms out stretched, until she softly thumps to the wooden floor with a surprised giggle.
PACIFIC RIM is a masterpiece of scale. I’ve seen all three TRANSFORMERS films and never did I feel the size and heft of lumbering machines like I did in PR. Maybe that has to do with the analog feel of these beasts. I love that we get inside of them and see the pistons and… clockwork. The kaiju menace has tons of personality and they switch things up in such delightful ways –bat wings anyone? It’s a really good story too with some cool “out there” sci-fi conceits like “drifting” that only work in a film like this. I don’t feel the need to qualify my enjoyment of this with some call to “look past the cardboard characters” because these are exactly the characters they should be to tell this outrageous story; the dorky scientists, the grizzled authority figure with a not-so-secret-heart-of-gold, the gruff father and petulant son. This had me grinning from ear to ear and even managed to bring a little heart and quiet contemplation to a genre usually bereft of it. Honestly, it has a button with a picture of a sword on it. Okay?
I like Frances. She reminds me of all my worst instincts. That need to be the center of attention when you have absolutely nothing of value to say. That need to take a humbling moment and put a huge spotlight on it. The movie reminds me that sometimes the hardest part of chasing a dream is knowing when to park the car. I like how the movie becomes a platonic love story between two women who take turns peeling each other’s skin.
I didn’t have much time for deep thoughts during this one. From the opening, a scene of spare tire Christian Bale wrangling his hilarious and sad toupee/combover, I was all-in. There’s been some criticism of the tone of the film veering wildly from farcical to melodramatic but… it’s all right there in that combover. If you want to see sad clowns chase their tails (their clown tails?) this is the film for you. It’s great. Everytime Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn was on screen I started a small chant of her name to encourage further psychotic behavior. I think my favorite passage of dialogue is about her stank fragrant nail polish. Amy Adams probably has the better performance here but ROSALYN, ROSALYN, RO-SA-LYN!
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
A lot of movies really rubbed my face in social injustice but none did it with more panache than uncle Marty’s deliriously funny ode to excess. Leo shows some fresh comedic chops in the year’s doofiest scene that I shall simply refer to as ‘Ludes for fear of spoiling it. I have no idea if there was ever any point to any of this but taken as a story you’d sit around a bar way past the last train to hear the end of… this is a doozy.
Jeff Nichols’ previous film, TAKE SHELTER, got a lot of attention from critics but audiences stayed pretty lukewarm about it. I can’t see how anyone could be anything but passionate about his latest film, MUD. I’m a sucker for movies that exploit “the adventure of childhood.” Here, we get two boys (one of whom is awesomely named Neckbone,) who float down river to an island where they find the eponymous, Mud, a drifter living in a boat in a tree. It’s such a snickering Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn set-up. Thanks to strong performances from two dirt-in-nails child actors and a perfectly cast Matthew McConaughey, it’s never less than enthralling. Some of the best scenes are just of Ellis leaning in as Mud spins a tale perhaps too tall but filled to the brim with hope that maybe love really can conquer all.
I think Chan-Wook Park’s OLDBOY goes too far. That ending makes my stomach turn. I know it works for some people but for me it was PAIN. Although, I dislike where the journey ended, I’ve been a constant admirer of the sights on the way there. Park is a brilliant visual director and STOKER might actually be his magnum opus in this regard. While the plot isn’t all that worth following, what Park does with even the most perfunctory scenes is dazzling. When India, played by a stunted and calculating Mia Wasikowska, goes down into the basement to get ice cream and Park does these cuts between the swinging of the overhead lights and her, it’s terrifying and gorgeous. The transition from Nicole Kidman’s amber locks to a field of grain would be stupid if it weren’t so mesmeric. There’s so little character to India in the dialogue or the script, but so much that comes from the film world that surrounds her. Her fetal position surrounded by over a decade of black and white saddle shoes speaks volumes about her.
After I watched this once, I had to immediately watch it again. I am no booster of Harmony Korine. I haven’t been this drawn to his work ever. I guess my new appreciation is partially due to the neon dream cinematography of Benoît Debie -who is always amazing. I showed it to my friend Chris and for the first fifteen ass jiggling, Disney-princesses-gone-bad minutes, I felt his burning glare judging my genetic design. However, once you get to the marrow of this bone, you find a story about longing that’s as deeply profound as it is insulting. What you won’t find is much sense. Narratively the story is both a breaking of bad and a cautionary tale and it all technically makes sense but the best parts are just out of left field pitches that vanish as soon as they are thrown. Britney Spears. Gangsta. Look at my shit. Americana. This was a message movie that felt no need to ever deliver that message if not by dubstep.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Best actress of the year: Jennifer Lawrence for Catching Fire. I’m not even kidding. My wife succumbed to the feels at least five times and I fought back tears at least three times. Lawrence is by turns fierce and fragile, heartbreaking and inspiring. I saw the other contenders she’ll go up against and if she were nominated for her work here, she’d win every award ever. The movie itself is much more grotesque than the first one not just in the gore department but in the way director Francis Lawrence’s camera peeks beneath the funeral make up that is now barely disguising the rot of the capital. So fucking good.
This is fear in 2013. Being alone. Out of control. Beyond your limits and your simple understanding. The 3D transported me to my own personal hell and it was thrilling. Not for the weak of heart. That opening fifteen minute shot when everything that can go wrong does is a nailbiter of the highest level. Cuaron came back after 7 years and astounded me.
THE WORLD’S END
This film took me two viewings to fully appreciate. The first time I was, of course, in love/loathe with Simon Pegg’s party poisonous Gary King. His circular logic high wire act got the loudest laughs from me this year. This is Pegg’s best character yet and that also makes it his best performance. I don’t know where this fits in with the rest of the so-called Cornetto trilogy, but I really like the meat of the idea here. The “starbucking” of individual expression. The idea that we’re surrounded by technology that brings us closer together but somehow makes our lives more artificial. Honestly, I could’ve done without the replicant part of the story, as I was thoroughly enjoying the old friends come home aspect, but then I would’ve been robbed of a finale which is as triumphant as it is stupid. I’m saddened that so many best of lists missed this one. It’s ideas are exciting filmmaking.
I saw this one in early-January but since Hollywood is lumping it in amongst 2013, so will I. It’s genius. Without giving too much away, how awfully dull it must be to love a human being? We’re so… limited. Perhaps, those limitations are what make love so important to the equation of us? HER uses its high concept “man falls in love with Siri” premise to explore the nature of love but not in a pretentious Hollywood or mumblecore way. It looks deep and hard at some surprising truths and places this impossible premise against the backdrop of an eerily plausible future world in which the technology that isolates us might finally provide comfort and companionship. It’s a lesson and a beautiful one at that. It’s also hilarious. I will say no more but know this: I have not liked a film as much on first viewing since THERE WILL BE BLOOD. That’s huge for me.