This past year wasn’t one of the great years for film. In 2012, I had 17 films that made my **** range—this year I had 10, and a couple of those were barely there (though a couple of films might advance on second viewing). However, unlike last year, I thought most films this year more or less got the reception they merited. There were a few films that definitely got overrated (overhyped might be a better word), but there weren’t many truly underrated films. So for each side of the coin, I have 10 films and 5 runners-up. Let’s see how I went against the grain. (To save time on organization and ranking-based arguments, these lists will be alphabetical.)
- American Hustle – I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks this got really overhyped. It’s not a bad film, mind you (none of the films on this list are truly bad films, to be honest), but it’s trying to be both a Scorsese-type sprawling character study and a caper film (which calls for tight plotting), and it doesn’t quite reconcile these divergent aims. David O. Russell reputedly urged his actors to improvise and claimed to care more about the characters than the story, but the characters themselves aren’t especially rich or complex; the acting compensates for this (though Jennifer Lawrence really is kind of miscast here, and her role is underwritten), and Russell pulls off a few good scenes, but people talk about how wild and crazy it is, and compare it to Scorsese’s work, I just think how much better The Wolf of Wall Street is. All things considered, this is pretty tame.
- Blue is the Warmest Color – I was initially excited to find out this was three hours long. I thought the extra time could be used to really delve into the characters or environment, and expected this to be a strong contender for my 2013 film awards. I was the more deceived. For all the film’s redeeming elements—Lea Seydoux’s fine performance, a few insightful moments into Adele and Emma’s relationship—they’re mostly lost in a sea of utter filler. So much of this film is taken up by mundanity, by rambling conversations that illuminate nothing, by histrionic moments (there’s one scene where Adele begins weeping, and her nose begins to run, and several minutes pass before she bothers to wipe it), by scenes of eating…it could have been cut in half and probably nothing of note would have been lost. I remain unsure whether Adele Exarchopoulos’ performance is lacking or if the character of Adele is merely terribly written, but she’s in nearly every moment of the entire film, and one gets weary of her blank expression and her selfish nature—when called out on her infidelty, she lies, then starts crying hysterically—some might excuse her behavior as a part of her immaturity, but the film does not balance this with the insight that would make us really sympathize with her mistakes. The sex scenes were heavily criticized as being exploitative and disruptive to the story, but ironically, they’re among the few moments of the film that actually have any impact to them. The rather ordinary direction is merely icing on the cake.
- Dallas Buyers Club – This was on the list to start with, but when the Academy gave it SIX nominations, it cemented its position. Best Picture? Not even close (it’s #46 on my annual rankings). Best Original Screenplay? Good God, no. All the weird anti-AZT ranting would be enough to knock it off my list, but it’s also just not that good of a script. Best Actor—McConaughey is fine, but his work in Mud was far more interesting to me. Here, he mostly just lost a ton of weight. Best Supporting Actor—Leto, too, does a solid job, but the role is incredibly baity (a gay trans prostitute, addicted to drugs, dying of AIDS), and though he keeps the role relatively believable and compelling, I can’t say the performance was especially accomplished beyond that. And Best Editing—it was nothing special at all. Oddly enough, the sound design and directing, which were actually quite interesting, got overlooked completely. Oh, and Jennifer Garner is pretty awful here. It’s not as bad as I might have made it sound, but it’s just a *** film that got way more acclaim than it ever needed.
- Fruitvale Station – The climactic train station confrontation (ending in Oscar Grant’s fatal shooting by BART police) is superb, an incredibly tense set piece that shows just how easily a tense situation can turn deadly. In fact, the whole second half of the film is quite strong, and Michael B. Jordan gives a fine, sympathetic performance, matched by Octavia Spencer as his mother. But the first half, showing Oscar’s efforts to get his life back in order (he had been in prison), was heavily fictionalized, and it shows; one scene involving a stray dog is especially hard-to-swallow. Basically, there’s the material for a great 45-minute film here, but the other 40 minutes aren’t all that hot. I admire the film’s passion, and don’t deny the tragedy of Grant’s death, but if there is a great film to be made of his story, this was only partially it.
- Gravity – Even if I liked this more than I did, the level of praise it received would be enough to get it on here. It’s been called an absolute masterpiece (97% on Rotten Tomatoes), and some critics have compared it to 2001, but unlike 2001, there aren’t really any themes being explored here (at least not to a meaningful degree); it’s a thrill-park ride, a brilliantly crafted you-are-there story of the isolation and potential deadliness of space, wherein the protagonist is hounded by a series of unfortunate events until, after 80-some minutes, they secure their return to Earth. And that’s it. And as an exciting experience in the theater, it’s just fine. But I don’t see a great film here. Just a good piece of entertainment, one that has rather shaky writing and thin characters (redeemed by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s fine performances). It’s telling that the Academy gave it 10 nominations (tied with American Hustle for the most of the year) yet didn’t nominate the script, favoring…Dallas Buyers Club.
- The Great Beauty – If it didn’t take this film so long to figure out just what it is, I’d probably have left it off. But it wants to have its cake and eat it, too—it wants to have Felliniesque touches of surrealism and grotesquerie, but at heart it’s the story of a man trying to recapture his youthful optimism, and by extension, his muse. It looks good, and Toni Servillo is excellent in the lead, but it wastes too much time and doesn’t reach high enough heights to get above ***.
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – A lot of people have been saying it’s better than the first. It’s not. While I like the dark nature of the story’s politics, I think too often it feels more dour than dark. I’ve only seen the first film once, but it had something that this one lacks. Still a good film, but it just doesn’t quite…catch fire. (Wasn’t even trying for that one, it just fit perfectly.)
- Lone Survivor – A good film with some great scenes of battle, hampered by the fact that the characters aren’t well-developed in the script (they were real people, too, so there was really no excuse). The strength of the cast makes up for this, but it keeps it from being a truly great film—I don’t really remember Black Hawk Down, but I have to imagine it’s just as good.
- The Place Beyond the Pines – The idea here was incredible: a three act film, covering two generations, where the first part is about Ryan Gosling, the second part is about Bradley Cooper, and the third part is about their sons. But the execution was mediocre. The characters are thin, the actual story is incredibly predictable, something about the production design seems very off…it just didn’t come together for me. The cinematography and music are really good, and some of the performances are quite solid (the rest are forgettable), but it’s all at the service of a weak script. And yet, it got pretty good reviews (82% on Rotten Tomatoes).
- Short Term 12 – The acting in this film is absolutely stunning. Brie Larson, Keith Stanfield, and Kaitlyn Dever all should’ve been nominated for Oscars; that Larson was not, in favor of Meryl Streep getting her 18th nomination, is truly tragic. But many of the reviews also praise the script, and the script isn’t on the same level as the acting. Most of it is excellent, but there are moments, especially in the first and last scenes (which, annoyingly, are basically the same scene), and in the relationship between Grace (Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) that feel self-conscious, that feel “indie” rather than independent. I still recommend it, but it’s not the perfect film some have made it out to be.
- All Is Lost – Better than Gravity, but the protagonist’s string of tragedies still feels somewhat contrived. Also, Robert Redford didn’t really deserve an Oscar nomination for this. Good movie, though. Great soundscape.
- Escape From Tomorrow – If this had just been a guy having a breakdown at Disneyworld, I’d have been with it. There are some beautifully directed moments here. But so much of this is just random, self-consciously weird nonsense, that it gets increasingly tiresome. That it was shot guerrilla-style on location is cool, but I’m not going to pretend it makes up for the film’s missteps.
- Much Ado About Nothing – Some of Shakespeare’s plays are timeless, but others are reflective of the time they were written, and Much Ado, which centers around medieval ideals of marriage and familial bonds, is one of the most prominent examples. So setting it in the modern-day (filmed mostly in Joss Whedon’s house) without adapting the material in any form, doesn’t really work. Plus, they tried to add a few slapstick moments here that fall totally flat. As a home movie, it’s pretty damn good, but as an actual film, I wasn’t really with it. Plus the acting is mostly unnoteworthy, Nathan Filion’s Dogberry being especially underwhelming.
- Saving Mr. Banks – From the start, I wasn’t sure why this film needed to be made. It’s not bad at all (and at least it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination), but it’s not great either.
- This is the End – Plenty of laughs, but the weird religious tone it took towards the end threw me off.
- Beautiful Creatures– Not just another young adult fantasy, this was a really nice little film, well acted (with Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson having some fun), and much better than I expected. Definitely not great, but I enjoyed it.
- The Bling Ring – This got criticized for being shallow and pointless, but my only major problem was the decision to leave the Ring’s leader, Rebecca (Katie Chang), as an enigma, which robs the film of an admittedly major dimension. Beyond that, I quite liked it. Sofia Coppola’s direction was great, Israel Broussard was excellent as the de facto protagonist, and Emma Watson got a chance to be amusingly vapid. Definitely more worth a look than you’d think.
- Bullet to the Head – Not as good as The Last Stand, but still a good little throwback action film. Stallone was in good form, Christian Slater was campily fun, and the finale has Stallone and Jason Momoa fighting with axes. It does its job.
- 47 Ronin – I expected this to be a total disaster. The production went hugely overbudget, it got pushed back from Thanksgiving 2012 to Christmas 2013, there were tons of reshoots, and the reviews were abysmal. But I was, shockingly, entertained. Yes, it was muddled at times, and the story didn’t always have sufficient room to breathe, but it looked great, the action was satisfying, and Hiroyuki Sanada (as Oishi) gave a shockingly fine performance. Go in expecting a fun B-movie, and I think you’ll like it.
- The Last Stand – Schwarzenegger’s back, yet no one cared. And this was a really fun little action film, too—a simple, sort of Rio Bravo-ish slice of action that was quite satisfying. What more do you need?
- Man of Steel – Everyone loves to bash on Zack Snyder, and when he took on Superman, some got really vicious. And while I won’t say this is without its flaws, I really enjoyed it. Henry Cavill is a great Superman for our time: totally earnest and likeable, with just a hint of complexity (but not too much). And the supporting cast—Michael Shannon as a fanatical Zod, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents, Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, etc.—is no slouch either. Snyder pulls off some great scenes, too: Zod’s address to Earth, Terrence Malick-ish moments of Clark Kent’s childhood, Superman waking up underwater, staring at whales, Superman sinking into a pile of skulls…there’s some great stuff here. I didn’t even have too much of a problem with the climax, though the level of destruction does get a little wearisome. Still, I liked it, and think the criticisms got rather excessive.
- Rush – An excellent film that got great reviews, but it basically flopped and, aside from a Globe nomination for Best Picture and a few notices for Daniel Brühl, was overlooked by the awards groups; it was totally snubbed by the Academy. That’s not fair.
- The To Do List – A sex comedy starring Aubrey Plaza. Nothing outstanding, just a fun little raunchy comedy that somehow got fairly weak reviews (53%) and did relatively little box-office. It deserved better.
- To the Wonder – Now THIS was truly underrated. No, it’s not as good as The Tree of Life, but 44% on Rotten Tomatoes? That’s ridiculous. Yeah, it’s a little shaky to start—too much twirling in fields—but it eventually settles down into a good, abstract portrait of a love triangle and a reflection on love and relationships, beautifully directed and photographed, like everything else Malick has done. Plus, it has arguably Rachel McAdams’ best performance, and if she was in the film more, I’d have her in contention for some awards.
- A Touch of Sin – A great, great film that was critically acclaimed but was disastrously underseen here. Blue is the Warmest Color and The Great Beauty got noticed, but a few critics’ lists aside, this didn’t. But it’s one of the best films of the year, bar none.
- From Up on Poppy Hill – Some criticized this for being too low-key and uneventful, but I was utterly charmed by it. Studio Ghibli is usually reliable.
- Prisoners – Aside from making the NBR Top 10 and getting an Oscar nomination for its cinematography, the awards groups haven’t really touched it. I don’t know why. It’s better than American Hustle.
- Side Effects – I really loved this. A great little Hitchcockian thriller. It got solid reviews and made money, but it seems to have been kind of forgotten, which is too bad, because Soderbergh did a great job with it.
- Spring Breakers – It did well for the most part (as well as you can expect, given what it is), but I feel like some people didn’t quite get what it was really going for, and so wrote it off as a well-done bit of exploitation. But it’s so much more than that.
- The Wolf of Wall Street – I know, it got 5 Oscar nominations and is doing well. But the reviews weren’t as good as they could have been, and some have come down pretty hard on it for being sexist, for glorifying its characters, etc.—and I don’t think it is. Granted, Scorsese was never the best with female characters, but given what this really about and how it’s about it—this was right on the money.