An epoch, a year, has passed since I last wrote one of these—an impossible accumulation of hours gunking the automatic motivations of pride, lust, foolish rightness. The exhaust of former days encrusts us chokingly, insulating and incensing ambitions to blackened husks—trophies of divvied attentions. Such is time. But time is also the hunted. It is we who with our histories and our fixed hours attempt to net every moment in place, to hold it where etiquette has told us it belongs. What a mask! We are toothless ants specked on a wet mammoth, our shuffling dance our only glorious protest. Fee fi fo cha cha! Just another year, and again I need this stock taking. I need to place everything in context, to two-step over the great brown spines of mammoth hair and spin my partners (you) away. We need this, together, for it to do its work on us too, for it to fix us in our right places just as assuredly.
Is that why we write? Why we make decisions and commit solid opinions to paper until they form something of a nest of truth? It’s one reason. It is the reason this year. And so now that I’ve whisked you darkly into the right state of mind, let’s look at my top ten movies of 2013.
10. Frozen –This last spot here was definitely mushy. The next nine films were easy, sure. Any number of movies could have ended up number ten, but when the buzzer went off today, I put Frozen here. I wasn’t sure at first what was going to differentiate Disney animated films from Pixar animated films after the former acquired the latter, but the music is obviously the big difference. This film is chock full of catchy songs, and while that is not usually a selling point for me, I neither found them annoying nor insulting (as they can so often be in kids’ films). Furthermore, the songs were not just filler or recaps of the thoughts and actions we already learned—they presented new information, in fact showcased key plot turns. This is how real musicals should be done. The plot itself was a nice change of pace as well, mercifully devoid of damsels in distress or unnecessary explanations (for the magical stuff). The movie is about how we deal with the love we have to give, how to responsibly reach out to people without hurting them or ourselves. It’s a lesson that never gets easier to learn, priming open-minded adults to get as much out of this movie as kids. Great pacing and plenty of chuckle moments don’t hurt either.
9. Frances Ha – Where are my arts majors? Come on, let me see your talons. Ding ding ding! You chose wisely! You will graduate with a rounded and worldly curriculum under your belt—top of the class. You are smart—as smart as (possibly smarter than) anyone studying business. You understand Hegel. You know when the Han Dynasty rose and fell in China. You go to museums. You are not boring. You will NEVER read a self-help book to improve your influence over people or any book coopting quotes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to tell you how to behave in a board room. Lame! You can place things in their proper historical context and thereby evaluate your own worthlessness better than anyone! You will move to New York. Someday. You’ll make rich friends but they’ll be cool liberal people too that will treat you like you deserve. You’ll scratch and struggle but you’ll find success. Someday. Then you’ll be rich and an artist. Win! If any of this sounds familiar, watch Frances Ha. Like other Noah Baumbach films, it focuses on academic hipsters that may grate on your nerves, and so often those types of characters can be oh so quirky, because quirky is unique and isn’t our movie memorable and I’m a good writer because I can write people that are really weird in a specific way . . . . But Baumbach understands this all too well, and while his characters are quirky indeed, they’re often trapped by that in a way that’s even more personally limiting to them than simply annoying the audience. It becomes something they want to outgrow—a perspective shift that frees us up to romanticize about being young in New York without the awful and inconsequential taste of indie overpowering everything.
8. Gravity – As much as I loved this movie, there’s really not much to say about it. Its story is a specific and well-planned contemporary space nightmare. (As such, I wonder if this movie even falls into the realm of science fiction. I mean, nothing magical or futuristic happens in it at all. It’s just a story that happens to be set in space. Is that enough of a qualifier?) What makes this film work so unbelievably well is the beautifully composed symphony of long takes and sound design. Everything is bent on making you feel like you are floating around in space with these astronauts (at times even in their suits). The camera is free in the same way you probably dreamed up adventures as a kid, zooming your action figures in front of your face and whooshing them into greater and greater perils. Even the film’s serious theme, though not obfuscated in the slightest, was integrated with the action enough that it only rarely feels heavy-handed. Besides, they have me in their camp anyway. Any film that charges head on into the overwhelming mass of the universe and our inevitably and futility therein is one that fluffs my inward honesty.
7. The Act of Killing (Jagal) – What’s so strange about The Act of Killing is that it often feels so not strange. In case you don’t know, this is a documentary about a bunch of low-level gangsters that rose to prominence by leading anti-communist death squads in the purges of the mid ‘60s in Indonesia. The men at the center of the film are still around today, each of them have personally murdered—by hand—hundreds of people. And they walk around freely in their home country, heroes and figurehead leaders in the political party / paramilitary organization, Pemuda Pancasila. The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, must have known as soon as the idea for this film came to him that it was brilliant. It couldn’t fail to be. Tell all of these murderer-heroes to get together and make a movie showcasing reenactments of their (in)famous deeds. And who will play the young fiends? Why, the older versions of themselves, of course. Some of them are vaguely haunted by what they did, others possibly unbothered or with any guilt so deeply buried they have been able to go on with full lives, worry manifested only in an inability to sleep. This sounds heavy, and it is. But trust me, it is not a laborious sit. It sounds like it will be horrible and graphic and difficult to watch—and the naked emotion is indeed awkward and difficult at times, but like I said before, what it makes it so eerie and conversely so watchable is how normal it all seems. What so many serial killer films try to get it in some satanically mad way this film reaches all too easily, by using the real thing. I would be fascinated to see another follow up that shows the reaction of these men to seeing the actual movie that Oppenheimer made.
6. Before Midnight – They said it couldn’t be done the second time. Before Sunrise was a quintessential wandering soul kind of movie. It doesn’t get any better for the intellectually curious, emotionally hungry twenty-something than romanticizing about a perfect one-night-stand through philosophy with a beautiful girl (or handsome stranger, coming from the other perspective) on the streets of Vienna. Indeed it doesn’t get any better for those who can remember being an intellectually curious, emotionally hungry twenty-something either. Watching Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke fall in love over excited musings of endless possibilities is one of the great romantic comedy experiences. I guess I’m going to tout the whole trilogy here. Who wasn’t flabbergasted on first hearing of a sequel in production nine years later? What were they thinking? This small indie gem was the last kind of film that needed a cash-grabbing sequel. Surprise! Before Sunset turned out to be not at all what people expected, catching our leads in completely different—and separate—places in life, in the kind of complicated and messy way we do find ourselves ten years gone. Nothing is easy; and no matter how much you want to you can’t go backwards, though that doesn’t mean all is lost. Now, nine years further along again, no one seemed to have many doubts about the second sequel. Of course they would figure out a real reason to check in on Céline and Jesse. Of course we’ll soak in some beautiful, exotic landscapes. Of course we’ll be drawn in by intellectual debates and self-reflections—would love having these people at our own dinner parties. Of course . . . of course there will be some things we don’t expect. This trilogy of films offers the chance to see a story take place over a lifetime. Wherever they are in nine more years, I will be lined up at the theater to see. If you haven’t watched them and you are even mildly afflicted with romanticism, seek out these films.
5. Like Someone in Love – Abbas Kiarostami, acclaimed Iranian director, surprises me by finding his way onto my top ten list for the second time in as many of his films as I’ve seen. Certified Copy was a comfort film—a languid trek through the Italian countryside and personal history or fancy (maybe). Like Someone in Love is a spikier trip through the social spokes of Tokyo. Here we sit in at the crossroads, the meeting points between classes, ages, genders, walks of life. This is a film about how people rub together, and their discoveries of each other. Unlike so many films that need to present us with a point for their own existence, however, such exterior explorations do not necessarily lead inevitably to self-discovery in this one. Can we, in fact, change ourselves in such ways? Can we break through our isolation, or is anything else just a delusion?
4. Nebraska – Alexander Payne has been hit or kind-of-hit for me over his career. So of course I wondered whether this film would be more Sideways or more About Schmidt, two other road trip movies he’s made. At number four on my list, I obviously loved it, so yes, it’s more of a Sideways. He knows how to balance believable with funny with true. I guess it’s really a trick of perspective. Most of life’s drudgeries and results are pretty funny seen from a kind of tired, wry point of view. Hell, this movie manages to get chuckles out of the idea that one woman’s son is a possible rapist. I probably have a soft spot for it though too, being from the Midwest. It’s a bit deflating how much the family gathering scenes (watching TV) remind me of visits to the old farm in Oak Harbor, OH. Of course, Bruce Dern deserves every accolade for his performance as well, never letting a desire to play “old kook” get the better of him.
3. 12 Years a Slave – What a lucky year for moviegoers! I have to say that from this point on, any of my top three might be interchangeable. I love all three of these movies for different reasons, as they are very different films and difficult to truly compare. Ultimately, of course, any list such as this is pretty meaningless besides giving us a reason to think about why we like the movies we like and to talk about them. 12 Years a Slave is the most serious of the three. It’s definitely the one that would scream “Oscar bait” but that it seems to be above that somehow. Steve McQueen makes movies about harsh subjects not because they attract accolades, but because he seems fascinated with explorations of human extremism, because out there on the fringes, we find the stuff most of us keep hidden in our pedestrian lives. Out there, starving to death in prison; out there, going to any lengths for the next orgasm; out there, putting human beings to work like farm animals, we stare down things we don’t even want to glace at. This confrontation with true things gives us a feeling of accomplishment. Yes, from watching a movie. And maybe we do accomplish something. With the right reflectiveness and a deft touch, a subject like slavery can show us shades of things we maybe hadn’t considered. Solomon Northup certainly isn’t perfect. He would like to be able to stand up and be himself, but often it’s easier to ball that up inside and do what needs doing. This makes him surprisingly unsympathetic to some of his fellow slaves. I loved this about him. Chiwetel Ejiofor and the writers (both Northup and the screenwriter) make him a real person, with flaws. So too for all the characters, from Paul Dano’s smarmy cowardliness to the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf routine between Michael Fassbender’s slave owner and Sarah Paulson as his wife that frighteningly uses their human property as pawns in a cold war. The danger with a movie like this is that it will become exploitative torture porn—that we will watch human beings so miserable and broken that we will dread the next scene. This movie is better than that. It certainly contains those elements, but Northup’s impassion shelters us a bit. The scribbled cotton landscapes also ease beauty into the mix. Such restraint is what ultimately makes the film so much more powerful.
2. Her – There are four things to really recommend this movie:
One is the vision. I am sucker for technology and well-done sci-fi can really grab me. Here the future vision is a not-too-distant Los Angeles and some kind of post-hipster world where the mustache has become a normal accessory once again and things are rich, colorful, muted, square, and wooden. We interact with our tech largely through voice, and we are never without it. It’s really just a tweak to our own world, but it’s enough of a tweak that it seems novel. In fact, it coats the world with the sort of revamped sheen that attracts us to things like new operating systems . . . .
Number four, the conceit. This is the kind of high-concept idea sure to have caused plenty of eye rolling—a romance between a lonely man and his operating system. Plenty of eye rolling—at least until you hear that it was written and directed by Spike Jonze, of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are fame. Not exactly a résumé of predictable films. Just like those others though, there’s something real under all the bizarre imagination at work. When it comes down to it, the relationship at the center of the film is the relationship of every movie, is the relationship we all have (or had, or want).
Secondly, the acting is great. Joaquin Phoenix could have played lonely as a sadsack, as a loser, or even as a more charitable loveable loser. But he isn’t. He’s actually kind of funny and an interesting guy that probably could get a human girlfriend, making his relationship with Samantha, the A.I., not one of desperate necessity but one of choice (at least as much as any relationship is free of desperation).
The third ingredient that makes this cocktail do is woozying work is the humor. That’s it. The movie is just plain funny. Both the romantic leads (yes, even the disembodied voice) are funny. Much of the time intentionally so. In fact, there’s only one character in this movie that seems to be without a sense of humor. No one likes him. I’ll leave it at that because I really don’t want to get any deeper into the plot or the messages of the movie. It should be experienced as blindly as possible. Enjoy!
1. The Wolf of Wall Street – Much of the time these lists are stuffed with pretentious foreign meditations and tough sits. I had some of those this year. But fully half are comedies of one sort or another, including, surprisingly, the latest from Martin Scorsese. That’s not to say this year’s crop is pointless. Comedians have been teaching us for years that good jokes are funny because they are unexpected; great jokes are funny because they tell us something true about the world around us—about ourselves. Scorsese did comedy successfully in the ‘80s, of course, with The King of Comedy and After Hours, and many of his gangster films are certainly aware of their ridiculous characters, so this shouldn’t have been a total surprise. But for some reason, hearing that Scorsese was doing a movie about Wall Street, I assumed it would have fewer masturbation jokes. Of course, the film deals offhandedly (hehe) with ideas of pride and ambition, the long gap between what people know and what they believe. But Quaaludes. Coke. Every hooker in New York. The simple truth is that I had more fun with this movie than with any other this year. I had a smile on my stupid face for three full hours. Simple test. Did you think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was funny? Good, then you should watch this.
Is it sad that this film made me want to join the one percent? Maybe. I’m not sure what that says about my moral compass, but I think it was also intentional on the part of The Wolf of Wall Street. The film invites us to join in the debauchery, as alluringly as Jordan Belfort goaded his people into following his completely irresponsible ways, as he was goaded into them by the promise of living above everyone else.
All Is Lost – Yay, a shipwreck movie! A guy stranded trying to survive alone! We get these every now and then, and they always seem like they’re going to be a chore to sit through, but I’m always surprised when they are not. Go figure. Redford is good in this.
American Hustle – I’m having trouble figuring out why I didn’t like this movie more. It certainly plays like a tribute to Scorsese. And Christian Bale’s performance was more than a weight-gain gimmick. His character was more than the butt of a joke. Maybe it just felt like it was trying too hard, for lack of a better explanation. I did enjoy it though.
Beautiful Creatures – Surprisingly good, silly horror/romance/comedy. I mean on paper it sounds terrible, and it does get a bit long in the tooth, but really kind of a promising film for some of its young stars.
Behind the Candelabra – Kind of a left-field project for all involved. Soderbergh directing this HBO movie about Liberace, starring Michael Douglas as the man and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorston. It’s very well done on the relationship and history, if very creepy when it comes to the plastic surgeries and the tacky taste, though these may be read as symptoms of some emptiness in Liberace.
Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 et 2) – This Cannes Palme d’Or winner is really transportive. Takes you to a different place in a kind of travelogue way, and to a different life in the way good literature can do. We live with Adèle. We feel like we truly know her. It is the moments that make memories of love what they are.
Blue Jasmine – Really powerful performances. Interesting that both Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese took on the one percent this year, but there it is. Obviously owes a huge debt to A Streetcar Named Desire, but I suppose this movie does kind of stand on its own. Impossible not think of that one though, and while Andrew Dice Clay was good, he’s no Marlon Brando.
Captain Phillips –Tense movie, good action. Great acting. Indeed Hanks is great.
Computer Chess – Bizarre little movie about a computing convention in the 1980s. Sort of a funny, nerdy, Napoleon Dynamite-meets-Linklater kind of vibe.
The Conjuring – Good horror films are hard to come by, so I was pleased with this. Very ‘70s vibe to it without grinding that aspect into the ground. It just is.
Dallas Buyers Club – McConaughey gives one of those Oscar bait performances as a man dying of AIDS in the 1980s. He’s not a very likeable guy though for most of the movie, and it builds realistically. You know certain characters have to come together in certain ways, but it’s free of overpowering coincidence in making that happen. By the end, you will root for them too.
Drinking Buddies – Yeah, the movie certainly feels like it hails from mumblecore, and thus a lot of the comedy gets pretty awkward, but it also feels pretty real, pretty lived-in.
Enough Said – Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini star in this great rom-com for grownups. The kind with kids and responsibilities. A very nice movie. Gandolfini shows his versatility, playing an honest, sensitive man with a sense of humor and Louis-Dreyfus stretches out into more serious territory than she’s known for. Refreshingly, both of them actually play their ages too.
The Grandmaster – A bit hard to follow, I would love to see the Asian (longer) edit sometime. It definitely felt like some things were left out and the ending was pretty abrupt. Still, enjoyable.
The Great Gatsby – Surprisingly enjoyable. I say surprisingly because the book is so good, and while the movie is not something I will probably ever watch again, it was luscious to look at and DiCaprio actually made Gatsby come alive in a way I didn’t see him before. And Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. No one else really added anything new to their parts though.
Inside Llewyn Davis – I’m afraid I might be wrong about this movie. Not just because critics loved it and I didn’t, but because I felt the same way about The Big Lebowski the first time I saw it, only to watch it again a few years later and appreciate it for one of the greatest comedies of its era. So what am I missing here? The music is good, but John Goodman’s character levels a particularly singeing critique at it with which I have to agree. I don’t know, watching the ups and (mostly) downs of this guy’s pathetic struggles was frustrating and not particularly insightful.
Leviathan – This talked-about documentary was very boring. Part of me wanted to succumb to its silent rhythms and join the artsy crowd, but I just couldn’t go that far. Sorry, I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I just don’t think it’s that clever. Some of the shots can be interesting. For the first minute or two.
Man of Steel – This script was: is there a word that means worse than terrible? The Krypton part in the beginning was actually kind of enjoyable. I liked the design and the society it set up. Everything else was a turd. Case in point. We learn all about Superman’s history and the war on Krypton and whatnot in the beginning. Bam. Backstory. Covered. Guess what. We have to sit through an explanation of the whole thing again when Clark Kent finds the ship and learns about it. WHY? This is the kind of mistake that anyone working in Hollywood should have been able to easily see, right there on the page in black and white. The fact that they didn’t—or chose to do nothing about it—is indicative of the quality of this whole movie. I like Costner, but why he was getting praise for his role in this movie I cannot understand either. His performance is a bizarre single note of “hide your powers, don’t use them, EVER!” He’s utterly non-human. The movie is so hokey, it has Costner sacrificing himself to a bloody tornado instead of just letting Superman use his powers. And why? Oh yeah, for the family dog. Guh! In fact, no one in this movie is anything other than an unrealistic outline of a caricature of a person. Some Super Bowl spots have characters with more depth. That being said, I disagree with critics who say it was just a bunch of explosions. I wanted more explosions. The fight scenes were great, the characters had the heft you might expect from their superpowers and they also managed to be visually inventive and considered, not to mention somehow harrowing in spite of, yes, the superpowers. I guess I’m saying, please find a new writer, but keep the director.
Much Ado About Nothing – Interesting staging. I like making the characters all happy alcoholics in a modern setting. Somehow Dogberry doesn’t really work as a modern policeman though. Maybe the timing of the jokes was just off or something. Overall I still prefer the Kenneth Branagh version from 1993. Look, it has Kate Beckinsale, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Michael Keaton!
Mud – Shades of Huckleberry Finn and magical realism mix together in this story about growing up. The kids are just as good as the adults in this. Jeff Nichols will be up for an Oscar someday if he keeps this up.
Oblivion – Again, I’m a sucker for sci-fi, and this one was pretty enough to pull me in. The plot worked well enough too. I don’t want to spoil it, but it takes a bit of a silly turn. It could have gone so much worse though, so it does get some points back.
Only God Forgives – I’m pretty sure the only reason I got any enjoyment from this movie is because I happen to like slow, dark, violent, depressing movies. Even for one of those, it’s not very good. Disappointing.
The Place Beyond the Pines – I liked each of the sections of this movie, but how they sit together as a whole left me underwhelmed. Not to say it’s bad.
Rush – Not even on my radar, but I heard good things so I watched it. I am happy to say that although I find most Ron Howard movies mediocre at best, this one falls into the ranks of his good ones.
Side Effects – Very good movie. Surprising turns make this kind of a thriller and kind of a mental illness drama. I don’t want to say more except: see it. Supposedly Soderbergh’s last time in the director’s chair. We’ll see if that holds up.
Spring Breakers – I get that the vapidity of the girl’s lives in this movie is intentional. I get that their pinings to escape trapped lives is supposed to invoke the same clichéd discoveries even the dimmest of us make at some point in our pathetic lives. I get that finding the solution to their existential angst on spring break is supposed to make us feel sorry for them. All of this works well. It’s all the stuff with James Franco in the second half of the film that—while entertaining—is much more predictable and less interesting than the first part. The movie plays out like a leveled descent into every parent’s worst spring break nightmares—the kind of scenarios that make you roll your eyes at your parents because nothing like that ever actually happens. I found the ending weak because of the lack of real danger or concern we had for the protagonists by that point. Counter to that, the best scene is a robbery that we get to see twice, telling a very different story each time; one telling is stylish and the other kind of really horrifying. If only the rest of the movie could have blended these two elements better, or excelled as well at either.
Star Trek Into Darkness – I’m getting exhausted just thinking about how I want to tear into this movie. Just watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan instead. I thought some of the critics were being harsh on this movie at first. Then I did go back and watch the old one. Nope, this movie sucks in comparison. I actually like this cast, but there’s no emotional pull at all when one of the characters sacrifices himself to save the rest. Why? Because we’ve only spent ONE OTHER movie with these guys. Oh yeah, also because we totally know it’s bullshit. Why? Because we’ve seen Star Trek II. I just don’t get it. Why not make a new story that belongs to these new actors and builds up their lore instead of rehashing the best movie of the originals? Enjoyable moment-to-moment though, so I guess if you’re not a Star Trek fan you might like this movie. There was some other stuff too but I saw this movie a year ago and I’ve made myself forget now.
This Is the End – The movie starts out really, really strong. Then tapers. Loved the party sequence. They spend too much time trapped in the house in the middle though. And then we never settle in and get a lay of things once they leave.
To the Wonder – Terrence Malick is on a tear. I’m not sure this movie knew what it wanted to be though. It feels like Javier Bardem’s priest character is just kind of thrown in to the pot to see what happens. Other characters bubble up from time to time, but the only thing I will take away from this film is that I could easily see how someone might fall in love with Olga Kurylenko.
Upstream Color – Um, what? I’m glad I saw it, but if you are not into out-there movies with nontraditional structures, stay away. I would probably have to watch this a few more times to really understand what happened. Or maybe I shouldn’t even try for that.
Warm Bodies – Entertaining film that manages to find a new angle to the zombie story. Not bad for a rainy night at home I guess.
The World’s End – Funnier than Hot Fuzz, but not as shattering as Shaun of the Dead. The filmmakers are older now, and they deal with slightly different issues. Also, having Simon Pegg and Nick Frost swap roles as the man-child and the straight man makes it interesting. Pegg is hilarious (and seriously a bit sad).