(My apologies for the lateness of this Best of 2013 column. It's up much later than I planned, thanks to irritating computer problems and equally irritating life issues that sometimes pop up. An earlier, slightly longer and more refined version of this article was ready when it went away into computer heaven. I never had so many problems with a blog posting. But at least it's ready by the Oscars. The following is based on my viewing of 100 2013 releases I saw, either at the theater or on DVD, from January 1, 2013 to mid-February, 2014).
I must admit to scratching my head when I read some articles proclaiming what a great year 2013 was for the movies, for I thought it was a fairly undistinguished one, especially compared to last year, which I thought was probably the best year for movies in a decade.
2013? Overall, not so much. Oh there were some good movies to be had, but mainly of the independent film variety. Most of the splashy Hollywood productions were very disappointing, with the summer being, for me, offering one colossal clunker after another.
One thing that struck me particularly this year, is that Hollywood has forgotten how to entertain. Even up to 10 years or so I can remember leaving some movies exhilarated and moved, but that rarely happens today. It does happen occasionally, but it was the rare occurrence this year when I left the theater with a smile on my face and a soaring feeling in my heart. (Don't get me started on the majority of new comedies I saw this year. Blech!)
It seems to me like many contemporary directors and producers think entertainment is a dirty word, and they’re almost afraid of providing a pleasurable reaction. Even ideally sure fire ideas like this year’s THE LONE RANGER and MAN OF STEEL were bogged down in their own sense of self-importance and spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
The summer was an especially loud and obnoxious one. The only big summer movie I enjoyed was the giant robot vs. giant monster epic PACIFC RIM. I saw it once, and enjoyed it, but have no desire to see it again. But at least I was entertained while watching it.
I will give major props to our actors and actresses, many of which turned in terrific performances even in movies I didn’t care for, such as AMERICAN HUSTLE, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and SAVING MR. BANKS (I swear if there was one more flashback to Australia I would have torn out my remaining hairs). Great acting on display here, even if the films themselves, were, for me, severely wanting.
Still, I’m not ready to write off Hollywood yet. The tide has to turn sometime. Last year was a great year and this year not so great. But if one looked past Hollywood and sought out some independent or smaller films, there were a lot of jewels to be found.
The following is my personal list of what I think are 2013’s best films. The list will will likely strike some as pretentious and snobbish. But I didn't respond to a lot of what was offered at the theaters and got the most satisfaction from the many fine independent films I saw last year.
Before I get to my top ten, the following films are ones that almost, but did not quite qualify for the Top Ten. Readers may want to realize I tend to rate films that are high on the emotional level – both happy and sad. I don’t mean schmaltz, but films that speak equally to the heart and the mind.
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL – The year’s most pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but I thought it was pretty darn good. Great candy-coated color too and production design, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s nice to see a fantasy film that wasn’t dominated by steely-looking gray or blue dominance.
FRANCES HA – Wonderful indie drama starring the great Greta Gerwig as one of these lovable but sad sack types we all know who just can’t seem to get it together. It was wonderful hearing that music too from the late, great French film composer Georges Delerue. I’m usually against using old film scores for new movies, but it sure was nice to hear real melody in a movie again.
THE CONJURING – The year’s scariest movie, and proof positive filmmakers can generate plenty of tension and willies without resorting to gore.
THE WAY WAY BACK – What can I say, I like coming of age dramas and in a year of good ones, this was one of the best. Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney and Steve Carrel deliver some of the best work of their careers.
BLUE JASMINE – I like most Woody Allen movies and his winning streak. This is probably my favorite entry in a year of movies devoted to the ever increasing gap between the haves and have nots. Cate Blanchett delivers the year’s best performance.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – Another one where I liked the acting more than the actual film, but Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto deliver two of the year’s best performances about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Count me as a fan, so maybe I’m biased.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – Beautifully acted and written, this one just missed for me because I remembered a lot of details of the situation from, I believe, a Vanity Fair article, and I’m not a fan of shaky-cam (such a cliché now). But there’s no denying the solidity of the acting here.
HER – Major props for originality, but for me, a tad too cold and antiseptic (this is a minority opinion). I also thought the main character, Theodore, was such a mope before and during his romance with his computer operating system that I didn’t care. Another demerit – too long by about 20-30 minutes.
A HIJACKING – Similar to CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, this Danish film was a gripping look at a prolonged hostage situation involving Somali pirates as well. Unlike CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, which we knew how it was going to end, this drama fascinated with its look at the toil long negotiations take, not only on the captors and their prisoners, but the negotiators, the families involved and the board of directors of the shipping line who begrudge paying any more ransom than necessary. For me, the year’s most intense film.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW – One of the best high school coming of age stories in a long time. Studious Shailene Woodley falls for likable though alcoholic Miles Teller and what happens when their feelings for each other start getting stronger. It's the type of movie where I was silently pleading with the characters not to go down certain life decisions.
THE BEST FILMS OF 2013
My very personal picks for the year’s best movies.
10. DISCONNECT – HER is getting all the attention with its look at man’s relationships with his machines, but this multi-part story about how technology is affecting our relationships strikes me as more powerful. This one has continued to stick with me for a long time. Standout work by Jason Bateman.
9. ABOUT TIME – This time travel romance was easily the most charming and beguiling film of the year, in a year of movies were such qualities were in woefully short supply. Rachel McAdams is luminous here and like the great characters of old, we eagerly await for Bill Nighy to appear and wish he was in more scenes.
8. ENOUGH SAID – Beautifully written, acted and directed middle-age romance starring James Gandolfini in one of his last roles and Julia Louis Dreyfuss as a couple befuddled by their relationship and how what one person thinks could derail a relationship.
7. THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES – Another multi-part movie where several disparate elements that play off each other over the course of many years culminate in a shattering conclusion. I think Bradley Cooper was better here than in AMERICAN HUSTLE, but the latter is getting all the love.
6. NEBRASKA – Beautifully shot in black and white and one of the year’s most beautifully expressive scores highlight director Alexander Payne’s road trip movie starring the great Bruce Dern in the performance of his career. Equally memorable work by the feisty June Squibb as his long-suffering wife. The biggest surprise for me was how much I liked Will Forte here.
5. SHORT TERM 12– Wonderful drama about a foster care facility and troubled teens and how those in charge are not much older than those they are caring for. Despite their own troubled pasts, these young adults do their best to tend to those they are responsible for. Beautifully acted, and also heart wrenching, the final shot of this film may be my favorite of the year.
4. GRAVITY - Not the final shot, but GRAVITY's final sequence, with Sandra Bullock desperately trying to return to Earth is probably my favorite and life affirming. The year’s greatest technical achievement. What I liked about GRAVITY is I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day. A lot of movies. But Gravity showed me visuals and situations I’ve never seen before.
3. MUD – Deliberately paced, this Southern Gothic drama is one of the best coming of age movies I’ve seen in a young time, though the characters are younger than in THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Matthew McConaughey delivers his second best performance of the year, and Reese Witherspoon is the best she’s been in years. No other film had a better sense of time and place than MUD. An unforgettable experience.
2. PHILOMENA – The year’s most moving experience I had in a movie theater last year. Yes, I’m something of a softie, so that may have something to do with it. Some have said this is Anti-Catholic. I didn’t find it that way, and I attend mass every week. But it is a very powerful tale of forgiveness and Judi Dench is unforgettable as Philomena Lee who had her son taken away for adoption by nuns 50 years ago. She only wants to find out what happened to him and if he was happy. Wonderful on every level.
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE – My pick for the best film of the year is one of the most brutal and difficult to watch films. We all know how cruel slavery is but never has it been painted on such a dehumanizing level for both slaves and slave owners equally.
THE WORST OF 2013
Here my choices for the worst films of the year, each and every one of these an excruciating experience. How bad were they? If I left the theater after watching one of these turkeys, got into my car, turned on the radio and heard there was an asteroid on an imminent collision course with Earth, I would not try to flee to high ground. That’s how dispiriting these movies were.
I’m not going to rank them, because they all stink to high heaven. No descriptions either, as I don’t want to waste any more time on them than necessary.
In the order in which I saw them:
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
PAIN AND GAIN
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
MAN OF STEEL
WHITE HOUSE DOWN
THE HANGOVER III
THIS IS THE END
THE LONE RANGER
GROWN UPS 2
THE FIFTH ESTATE
Here's hoping 2014 gives us a year of great movies enjoyed by friends and family along with much good health and happiness. And more than a few TCM premieres.