Monday, January 13, 2014

FILMS OF 2013 - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

So last year I did a "Top 10 And Then Some" list regarding film in 2012, and being that 2013 has just recently ended, I feel it's time to revisit this idea. I like talking about stuff that I enjoyed, and there was quite a lot to enjoy in cinema in 2013 - while it wasn't as good a year for big blockbusters as last year (no AVENGERS or SKYFALL), it delivered with plenty of smaller human stories.

And some of the blockbusters were pretty great as well.

Once again, there are a few films I haven't been able to see yet, but again, I don't like waiting too long to do this. So here we'll do the best, the worst, the surprises, and the rest.

As always, these are the movies that wound up sticking with me most or that I found most fulfilling. Like with last year, here are "the rest" - the movies that didn't quite make the list but get an honorable mention:





The fact that Roland Emmerich made the best DIE HARD movie (in all but name) since the 1988 original was shocking enough. That the film featured a genuine emotional backbone (Emily Cale guys, EMILY CALE) AND had a few actual ideas on its mind that it used to comment on the political theater in which it takes place? Yeah, was not expecting that. WHITE HOUSE DOWN ended up being one of my absolute favorite films of the summer, nearly everything I could want in a big, loud blockbuster.


I was ready to hate the first HOBBIT film, but was pleasantly surprised to find a movie that had a solid handle on character relationships and the easy charm of the book. The narrative was wandering and bloated, but at least had a decent sense of focus and strove to give more things for the title character to do in order to be involved in the action.

Its sequel, on the other hand, gives in to the worst sense of indulgence of its predecessor with none of the better parts. Too much is drawn out and padded (undoubtedly because of the decision to turn 2 films into 3, this is mostly filler), and in the shuffle Bilbo is all but lost in what is supposedly his own story. There's a great couple of movies somewhere in here, and maybe when the third film is released some enterprising fan can provide a 4-5 hour edit of the entire story.

Because so far it's less a story and more "Running Away From Stuff: In 3D!"



Here's the only tie on this list. I'm a huge fan of blockbuster film-making done right, even when it's big and loud and goofy (see my BIGGEST SURPRISE), but when it's done wrong, it's downright painful. Both OLYMPUS and A GOOD DAY utterly fail at the most basic tenets of action film-making - the action isn't fun. Also, none of the characters are interesting. The story is almost non-existent and the tone is a confused and shifting thing. Both films feel like an exercise in cruelty rather than escapism, and the laziest kind of inept action peddling to boot.

They also both look cheap as hell. Especially OLYMPUS, which features sets and models that look like dollhouses and CGI that comes off like a decade-old video game.

And now, without further ado -

THE BEST: Also known as: "My personal favorites - deal with it."


Last year's THE HUNGER GAMES was an admirable, but ultimately not-quite-great piece of dystopian science fiction. It was mainly handicapped by some under-explanation and poor photography (particularly problematic was the camera work during action beats), but showed plenty of promise, especially in the understated performance given by Jennifer Lawrence.

But where its predecessor faltered, CATCHING FIRE finds its footing. The film boasts a better focus on character, a deeper exploration of the themes and the movie's world, and some fantastic surprises. But the actors are what really drive the enterprise, creating a cast of believable characters that are both familiar AND a total upset of traditional gender roles. Katniss is very much the "male" in her relationship with fellow tribute Peeta (who is sensitive, a painter, baker, and often in need of rescue) but she also gets to show the sort of raw emotional reaction to her world's horrors that most male action heroes have to keep bottled up inside them. The fact that there's a huge audience for this series is impressive, and the fact that the films seem to be improving to the point of deserving the adulation is a thing of beauty.

9. MUD

This film kinda got lost in the shuffle of summer blockbusters and then mostly forgotten as the holiday "Oscar Bait" season closed in, and that's a shame because this is a swell little movie. The titular character, a drifter on the run from bounty hunters who runs into two young boys on the Arkansas river, is one of THREE brilliant performance by Matthew McCaugnahey this year. The film is a coming-of-age story that deals with the end of things, at times in an unapologetic and brutal way. There are times when it threatens to devolve into "Rugged Individualism: The Movie" but refuses to buy into the worst myths of that ideology with a finale that perfectly straddles the line between bitter and sweet.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for the third film in Iron Man's series to coast on franchise success (which is pretty much what IRON MAN 2 did), especially given the historic grand slam that his previous starring feature THE AVENGERS turned out to be. But instead, Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. dig deep into the character - and the genre at large - and use the events of previous films to explore unexpected consequences of super-heroics AND deconstruct the genre. Not only does it turn several comic book conventions on their head, but it even skewers the way we, as a society, construct the villains of our national narrative. That's some heavy material for a summer blockbuster, but IRON MAN THREE still features plenty of fun and action (including a dazzling plane rescue) AND a 100% character-driven narrative.

Am I an easy mark for a movie directed by Guillermo Del Toro featuring giant robots punching giant monsters? Yes, I sure am. But what makes PACIFIC RIM special - aside from being a wonderful update of rubber-suit monster movies/mecha anime blown up with a budget that could only be previously dreamed of - is that it builds its story and characters completely out of the same visual material it uses to construct its world at large. Del Toro takes shameless advantage of film as a visual medium, throwing in major character details into momentary reactions or wardrobe elements and trusting the audience to be smart enough to catch on. What's more, the character development that most films would relegate to static exposition is here handled right in the middle of the action, thanks to the central narrative conceit of the Drift (where mech pilots fuse minds and memories in order to fight monsters), providing real ground-level personal stakes to action sequences that are literally larger-than-life.

Also, it's a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters!

There's something to be said in judging a film largely in how well it succeeds in its intentions. And if THE CONJURING was chiefly concerned with scarring the crap out of me, it succeeded in spades. The movie has elements that will be familiar to anyone who's seen haunted house movies, but approaches these horror tropes as though they hadn't been seen before, milking every moment of masterfully-built tension (sometimes to the point of having the audience squirming for the inevitable jump) and reveling in refreshing low-tech scares. The movie boasts a quaint 1970's style to go with its period setting - but never becomes obnoxious or distracting in its affectations (see: SUPER 8) - as well as a host of strong performances from a cast of great character actors. And HOLY DAMN is it ever scary.


Part of the genius of FROZEN is that the film spends the first half fooling the audience into believing it's exactly the sort of Disney film they've seen a dozen times, complete with love-at-first-sight, soaring musical numbers, and comedic sidekicks, only to utterly pull the rug out from under them in the finale with a story turn and message that's truly 21st century. There's a moment here that will be every bit as defining for a generation of children raised on Disney as Mufasa's death was to kids of my generation. FROZEN finally manages to get a hang on the "feminist fairy tale" that Disney's been trying for since their 90's Renaissance, not only boasting a great pair of princesses, but also featuring the best music of any Disney musical since THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. And Idina Menzel as Elsa belting  out "Let It Go" is one of the absolute best moments of the year.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have made five films together now, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is not only arguably the best (and I loved THE DEPARTED), but is easily their most entrancing and electrifying collaboration to date. The story of Jordan Bellfort's rise from pink sheet stock peddler to Wall Street kingpin is dizzying and disgusting in equal measure, showing the intoxicating excess of those who have "more money than they know what to do with" while never shying away from the fact that - money or not - these are terrible and not-terribly-bright people at the end of the day. DiCaprio himself is putting on a career-best performance (and that's saying something) and Scorsese is directing with a visual flair and energy that belies his 71 years. What's best, WOLF leaves its mark not as a neat "rise, fall, learn a lesson" piece, but as an angry, blistering indictment of the entire attitude toward this sort of gluttony, and those who allow and encourage it.

The main thematic hook of Edgar Wright's "Cornetto Trilogy" is the combination of wild genre homages (zombie movies, buddy cop action films, and alien invasion flicks) that revel in the childish, with a character who's struggling to find adulthood. In the first two films, SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ this is presented with an earnest but still primarily humorous bent, playing to the strengths of series stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in their roles as struggling man-child and lovable clown, respectively. But with THE WORLD'S END, everyone involved is playing an all-new game, casting the two leads against type in a story about the danger of succumbing to nostalgia and the ravages of addiction. It's a bit bleaker than their other films, but it's also far more ambitious and emotional while still delivering loads of laughs and gleeful action beats. It's rare that a movie about the end of the world can make you feel this hopeful.


Ever since seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor as "The Operative" in Joss Whedon's SERENITY, I knew he was special, so there's something gratifying about the fact that everyone's going to have to learn how to pronounce his name now. Because he absolutely owns this movie, heart and soul. And it's a great film in just about every other way. But it might not have been. Hollywood has a penchant for using melodrama and false catharsis to provide a safe distance for the audience when dealing with uncomfortable subjects like slavery (even  the brutal and brilliant DJANGO UNCHAINED allows its protagonists to be avenging angels), but 12 YEARS is utterly uninterested in letting the viewer off the hook. The film is disturbingly intimate, throwing the audience into the mental and emotional turmoil of Solomon Northrup as he's kidnapped and forced into slavery. The movie is less about his eventual escape and more about the toll that the institution of slavery takes, not just on the unfortunate captives, but on everyone involved in the business. Something so dehumanizing poisons everyone, the film says, and even the simple act of staying alive will take a heavy toll on Solomon, and by extension the viewer, who is made complicit in his circumstances and actions.

This film is not uplifting, it's not inspiring, but it is towering and emotional film-making of the highest order with a superb grasp on visual and aural language. And Ejiofor really is a revelation - the moment where he joins in the singing of his fellow slaves is absolutely heartbreaking because of what it shows that he's given up, while still providing him a final shred of humanity to hold on to. It's as close as the film gets to beautiful.

This is the one that stuck with me the most this year, the film that thrilled, terrified, and entranced me more than any other. GRAVITY is a thing of beauty, a monumental cinematic achievement that captures the viewer so totally that even though it was shot like one of the STAR WARS prequels, it feels more human, genuine, and honest than many all-practical movies this year. Sandra Bullock is a revelation in a role with a huge dramatic responsibility and a shocking amount of physicality (check out some of the behind-the-scenes info on what they put her through, it's impressive), and delivers one of the most memorable performances of the year as, for my money, the best female hero since Ellen Ripley. Director Alfonso Cuaron employs his gift for beautiful long shots to engage in rich visual film-making, full of memorable action beats and gorgeous thematic imagery in equal measure. And the final 20 minutes are so kinetic, rousing, tense, and triumphant that one hopes nearly every other "blockbuster" film-maker currently working takes careful notes.

Alright, 2013 was pretty awesome. 2014, you've got a lot to live up to, show us what you got. . .

. . . Dammit.

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