Boy was this an interesting year. Such a wild, eclectic mix of good and great movies of all different sorts. We had excess, we had anime, we had survival dramas, we had superheroes, we had indies, we had crazy experimental documentaries, all the good stuff.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Here’s my year-end summary of shenanigans, film watching, lists, and other such things.
My Top 25 Films of 2013
1. Her (Spike Jonze)
Perfect in every way. A beautiful romance, a thought-provoking sci-fi film, a deeply human character study, and an all-around supremely tender film. I love literally everything about it.
2. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki’s swan song is the most mature and complex work he’s ever created. His most devastating portrait of the fragility and corruption of innocence. Beautiful, astounding, haunting in every regard.
3. Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton)
I gave this film an A+ grade on Movie Mezzanine and I still stand by it. One of the single most emotionally honest and compassionate films I’ve ever seen. Brie Larson gives one of the performances of the year.
4. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada)
This was a great year for anime, and Hosada’s criminally underseen (in the States) Wolf Children is one of the most joyous movie experiences I’ve had all year. Earnest, wrenching, full of genuine heart on all regards.
5. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
The single most disturbing thing I’ve seen all year, yet there’s a moment of pure beauty that cemented this as one of the all time great documentaries. As harrowing as it is exquisitely wrought.
6. Inside Llewyn Davis (The Coen Brothers)
The quintessential “this movie gets better and better the more you think about it/rewatch it” movie. I already loved it upon my first viewing, but there’s a richness and texture to it that ranks it among the Coens’ best.
7. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
A crowning achievement. McQueen’s unflinching direction wrings out unforgettable performances and some of the most emotionally tormenting scenes I’ve seen on the big screen.
8. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
In some ways just as hard to watch as 12 Years a Slave. Linklater’s creation of Jesse and Celine has grown to be one of the single best movie romances of all time.
9. Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu)
Another sadly underappreciated work, Mungiu’s follow-up to 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days is one of the most disturbing films about religion and superstition I’ve ever experienced. At two and a half hours, it grasps you and doesn’t let go.
10. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Quentin Tarantino once said that filmmakers get worse as they grow older, with their final four films dipping in quality. So in comes Scorsese, crashing through the brick wall going “BIIIIITCH, SHOVE THESE ‘LUDES DOWN YOUR THROAT AND WATCH LEONARDO DICAPRIO FUCK EVERYONE UP!”
11. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
By languishing and celebrating the MTV Spring Break lifestyle, Korine has created a beautiful condemnation of American excess. Filled with unforgettable scenes and a masterful performances from James Franco, this more than any other film this year will be the cult classic of the ages.
12. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
Cate Blanchett and Woody Allen at the top of their game. A biting tragicomedy that manages to be one of the darker films Allen has made.
13. Stoker (Chan-Wook Park)
Deserves to be on any year-end list just for its piano duet scene alone. This Hitchcock riff elevates itself with incredible style, haunting images, and superb performances.
14. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
Instant happiness. Greta Gerwig gets to the heart of the millennial generation with more compassion and less acidity (directly counterpointing Lena Dunham’s Girls) with a film that makes you wanna dance your heart out.
15. The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt)
A richly observed portrait of that guy we all knew in high school, this is a beautiful and mature character study that examines the teenage psyche better than just about any movie of the last five years.
16. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
Manic Edgar Wright fun converges with one of the more cynical sci-fi visions of the world to create an all around blast that has a very human element. Wright’s most mature film, but that doesn’t get in the way of kickass robot fighting.
17. The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)
Takes a scrutinizing look at a no-win situation that’s rife with moral complexity. Mads Mikkelsen is stellar.
18. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)
A transcendent, meditative audiovisual experience of a film. It’s simply unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
19. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)
OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD! SPACE! SPACE! FUCK SPACE! SPACE IS SO SCARY! OH GOD! GET OUT OF THERE, SANDY! OH JESUS! LOOK OUT! OH GOD!
20. This is the End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
Funny as all hell, and one of the most entertaining times at the theater I’ve had all year. Also has a surprising bit of heart to it that offsets the crudeness.
21. The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
Yet another complex, infinitely layered masterwork from A Separation‘s Asghar Farhadi. Killer performances, a terrifically nuanced screenplay, and one of the best final shots of the year further cement Farhadi as one of cinema’s most unique and vital voices.
22. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
A beautiful, elliptical rumination of love, faith, and longing for something so otherworldly we can never truly see it. Malick is a poet like no other and it’s good to have him making movies frequently for once in his life. Olga Kurylenko twirls her way into your heart.
23. The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance)
Messily ambitious, but boy was I caught up in this tale of generational cycles of sin, crime, and justice. The best performance of Bradley Cooper’s career. Doesn’t hold up entirely, but I’ll take an ambitious work like this over something patronizingly safe any day of the week.
24. Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux give two of the best performances I’ve seen this year in this stirring if conventional romance. At 3 hours, I could’ve watched another hour and a half of these characters’ lives.
25. Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro)
The best pure spectacle of the year. Apocalypse canceled.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
All is Lost
The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Gatsby
White House Down
The Unspeakable Act
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Like Someone In Love
Escape From Tomorrow
Pain & Gain
Only God Forgives
The Worst of the Year
Keep in mind that I haven’t seen everything this year, but…
The Big Wedding
Even if this wasn’t totally unfunny, The Big Wedding‘s script is so utterly stupid and filled with near-offensive racial gags (all the more infuriating when the film’s Latino character is played by a spray-tanned white guy) that there is simply no enjoyment beyond De Niro’s shameless mugging.
A movie that strives for prestige only to end up with trash. Sean Penn gives one of the most embarrassingly overcooked villain performances of the year, but even that can’t save Ruben Fleischer’s misfire from the fact that it is simply one of the most boring things I’ve seen all year.
I still have a hard time believing I actually watched this movie.
The ABCs of Death
There are some really strong shorts in this horror anthology, but they’re all overshadowed by some of the most downright reprehensible garbage I’ve seen this entire year, and the film completely overstays its welcome at two hours of non-stop depravity. Even with the five or so good shorts to offer a brief respite from the worst of the worst, the shit was so shitty it can’t forgive the fact that I questioned my very existence watching this dreck.
Squandering two comedic talents instead of one! Identity Thief is just as insipid, stupid, and unfunny as all the advertising suggested. By the time the film tries to get us to sympathize with Melissa McCarthy’s downright hateful character with a hackneyed subplot and a scene of her finally looking “pretty”, I already checked out so hard that it only worsened an already terrible experience. Dreadful.
The Last Exorcism: Part II
At the very least has one of the most laughably “Please, please, pleeeeaaaassseee be scared of our movie!” endings of the year. The first movie was a welcome surprise. This installment basically kills any hope that this can be a horror series worth surviving.
Olympus Has Fallen
Two Die Hard in the White House movies were made this year. One was a genuinely fun, incredibly well paced film with nicely drawn characters, charismatic performances, a nice sprinkle of humor, and top-tier action filmmaking. The other was a grimy slog with incoherent camerawork and editing, SyFy channel visual effects, a deadly serious tone, an overacting Melissa Leo, and deadening pacing. Guess which one made a whole bunch of money and is getting a sequel. For fuck’s sake.
One of two worst-of-the-year picks I saw at the LA Film Festival, Brian Netto’s found-footage horror film is devoid of scares, likable leads, and only exists for a shocking final 5 seconds. But let’s be honest here, five seconds is not worth any amount of bad filmmaking, no matter how nuts it is.
Now You See Me
All sorts of thought-provoking questions were raised as I watched this magician heist thriller. Questions like, how was this movie made, let alone funded? How did someone write this script without so much as even considering how blisteringly stupid everything was. What was the thought process behind the absolutely ludicrous twist ending that’s ludicrous even by ludicrous twist ending standards. And how in the hell did this end up being a sleeper hit that now has a sequel underway? The more I look, the less I actually see.
One of the more disappointing films of the year, everything just falls completely flat. Characters are non-existent, action is shot and edited incoherently, the allegorical morality is so base and simple you’d think you were a toddler as you were watching it, and the performances from Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley are so out of left field terrible you wonder how Neill Blomkamp even made a good movie with District 9 to begin with.
Post Tenebras Lux
The first eight minutes of this movie is one of the most hauntingly beautiful things I’ve seen all year. The rest of it is the apotheosis of what a pretentious foreign art-house film is. Devoid of meaningful content or even so much as an interesting sense of wonder. It’s a pure slog to get through, but the fact that there’s nothing to chew on afterwards makes it all the worse.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The most disappointing thing I’ve seen all year. Stiller’s debut is visually lovely but lacking in any kind of thematic throughline. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem except that Steven Conrad’s script forgoes all the basics of good pacing to instead treat us with a bombardment of wannabe inspirational scenes, images, and sounds that never amount to any sort of coherent build up or pay off. An inept, misguided failure that had the potential to be so much more.
Of all the films that came out this year, this LA Film Festival player was the most annoying. I disliked it upon first viewing, but the more I thought about it, the more I despised it. Ostensibly a “hipster apocalypse” film, this is the ultimate white people problems movie, as we are witnessed to an interesting world of technological ruin only to focus on a band of well-off white people (and one black guy) and their mumblecore-y relationship issues instead of the interesting stuff that’s going on all over the world. It’s a simplistic film that thinks it’s saying radical things about modern society and human connections solely on the merits of its sci-fi conceit, when really it’s a low-tier indie dramedy devoid of any intelligence or discernible human emotion. A movie that so clearly and vehemently feigns intelligence that when its final scene comes with a sunny Starbucks commercial aesthetic and hippy message, I wanted to tear myself inside out. When this thing gets an official release in 2014 (it was recently picked up for distribution), don’t even consider sitting through it. Ugh. Just….ugh.
The Most Surprisingly Good Film of the Year: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
This barely scraped onto my Top 25, but I still wanted to give a shout-out to one of the most surprising films of the year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Showcasing a fascinating look at the civil rights movement through the lens of pure melodrama. There’s cheese in here, for sure, and the SNL-level casting of American presidents is an…interesting directorial decision, but Daniels successfully invested me in this world and these character just enough that I totally went along for the ride. I’d even argue that it’s a rather complex portrait of the civil rights movement, as we’re given a whole slew of different viewpoints: the MLK-inspired, quietly revolutionary acts of kindness symbolized by Forest Whitaker’s titular butler Cecil Gaines, the Malcolm X-inspired aggression and violence spurned from Cecil’s son, and the white folks at the equally White House who don’t seem to give much of a damn either way until it starts knocking on their door…from the inside. It even gets into surprisingly potent questions of racial and social identity in a spectacular dinner scene where our butler, the server, ends up being invited as a guest in an honorary dinner, where he himself sees what it’s like on the other side, confronting a crisis of the self that honestly brought up just as many interesting questions about race and class than most of this year’s films.
It got to the point that when Lee Daniels cut to our characters witnessing the 2008 election at the very end, what should’ve been a moment of pure contrivance and wish fulfillment ended up being an incredibly fitting and rewarding emotional capper to a movie that found something real through the lens of ridiculousness. I dug it. A lot.
Movies I Didn’t Hate That Everyone Else Hated
I totally get why people hated Randy Moore’s directorial debut Escape From Tomorrow. It is, for all intents and purposes, a gimmick movie (it’s a psychological horror film shot guerilla style at Disney theme parks), and everything is in the service of that gimmick. Characters are all broadly drawn, including a downright reprehensible protagonist played by Roy Abramsohn, all the ideas rely on iconography, and the film is rather shoddily made, as you’d expect from this sort of production. But I thought it was…interesting. I may have overrated it in my review, but I still found this to be a fascinating look at the psychology of American escapism gone horribly wrong, and I enjoyed the weird directions it took in the final third. It’s not a good movie in the traditional sense, but in its own cult-weirdness kind of way, I found something to latch onto.
Then there was, of course, Man of Steel, which has gotten the ire of every nerd and cinephile in the known universe, as far as I can tell. I liked it a lot upon first viewing, but it hasn’t really stuck as well as I thought it would. But even still, I wouldn’t even call it a bad movie by any stretch; just a somewhat misguided one with issues that keep it from being good. There’s ambition in the themes and ideas it’s willing to explore, Zack Snyder directs superlative action sequences (even if they get a little exhausting), and I thought that the best part of the whole movie was the ending, in which Superman had to make a difficult decision and ended up having to go against a certain rule in the historied superhero’s rulebook. It’s a shame that the structure is all over the place, keeping the film from really settling on those themes that make it interesting, but when the good moments land, they land pretty well, and for all the flaws that it has, I would in no way call this one of the worst of the year.
Then there was Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake. It was, as you’d expect, not as good as Park Chan-Wook’s Korean masterpiece. That much is obvious. But it is no way an awful movie. In fact, I’d argue that there are some really strong scenes in here. Namely, the one thing that this remake did better than the original was its extended sequence in the hotel room, which really narrows in on the monotony and paranoia that comes with being trapped in a single room for only twenty years with no one to talk to and only a television to use as a portal to the outside world. This sequence took its time, really made you feel the full extent of the twenty years, had a few really chilling moments of hallucination and psychological torture, and featured what the rest of the film lacked: Spike Lee’s directorial stamp. Of course, the movie completely dies once Sharlto Copley’s awful performance comes in, but it’s not enough for me to outright hate the film.
And… I have to just admit it up front, I didn’t hate A Good Day to Die Hard, which has been topping a lot of worst-of lists this year. I didn’t like it. It’s undeniably a bad movie. But that’s all it is: bad. It’s not awful. Not soul-crushingly horrendous. It didn’t ruin the franchise. The action scenes weren’t as dreadful as I had been lead to believe (just boring). Everything about it was just bad in a mediocre, average, stupid sort of way. Nothing felt offensively, irredeemably awful about it. I don’t blame anyone who hates this movie with that sort of passion, but…to each their own. There were worse films, for me, that were worth the ire that this movie got.
The Film That Best Defined 2013
There were many films that were said to “define” what 2013 in America was all about. There was, of course, the duo of Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring that looked at American excess in the teenage landscape, as both sets of sociopathic American teenage girls committed crimes to discover meaning in themselves, whether it be through mimicking of media (Scarface in Spring Breakers) or creating a cult of celebrity (that final scene in The Bling Ring). This trend continued with the DiCaprio double bill of The Great Gatsby (which I actually rather liked) and The Wolf of Wall Street (which we’ll get to later). The American Dream? More like the American Scam, am I right?
Then you had Spike Jonze’s Her release, which was a rumination of our modern society’s infatuation with technology, as the computers become more human than the humans themselves. It saw how human relationships evolved in the new generation of online social interaction, and how technology helps spur on that cultural evolution through adopting human behavior all on its own. As Joaquin Phoenix begins his love affair with his operating system Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson, we not only see him falling in love with a version of himself (Samantha was, after all, created to serve all of his needs) but also with the very idea of being close to something intangible. In short, he is in love with something that exists only in the intellectual or even spiritual level, which the film neither condemns nor glorifies as the ultimate endpoint of modern relationships. In a way, that’s what we all experience through technological interaction. A monolith that can convey the human experience and learn it all its own, that we can learn from and see a little of ourselves in by submitting ourselves to it.
Then you had The Wolf of Wall Street, which was saying something we’ve all basically already known–that Wall Street stockbrokers were probably a bunch of morally reprehensible dickheads–but with a coked up flair from Scorsese’s direction and DiCaprio’s brilliant performance that made you complicit in the debauchery, stepping in their shoes and seeing what all the fuss was about. This sparked one of the more interesting controversies of the year, debating whether or not Scorsese’s film was advocating central figure Jordan Belfort’s behavior. The obvious answer, at least in my opinion, is a resounding no. Scorsese morally undercuts Belfort every step he can, using the narration and even camera techniques to see Belfort’s life as a sham that even he is trying to sell himself on, no matter how much he buys into it.
Which was the definitive 2013 film? They all have their own contributions to the year. Part of me wants to say it’s Scorsese’s picture, just because the fact that so many of modern mainstream American audiences didn’t seem to get it and happened to either buy into Belfort’s scams or be repulsed by the cinematic journey despite not giving the same amount of attention to the real event… is rather hilariously ironic in its own right. But Her is a much more modern film, and does what all the best sci-fi films do: use the future to summarize the present. That being said, Spring Breakers will be quoted for years to come, and totally gets how our youth is changing and will continue to change. It’ll be interesting to see how future generations see that film.
So again, they all have their own thing to say, financially, culturally, technologically. Together, I guess they all make something of a piece of a puzzle. A puzzle that was 2013.