I wasn’t originally going to do this–I figured I’d said enough about these films over the last few weeks–but what the hell? This and my post-Oscar article will round the year off nicely (he said in March).
My Top 10:
1. Spring Breakers
Because this is 2013. This is how we live now. Is it an exaggerated view of our world? Yes, but does anyone think Easy Rider wasn’t a little romanticized itself? I mention Easy Rider because I think of this as a film that captures the 2010s like that film captured the late 60s. So later generations may not quite see what I see in it. And that’s fine. But it’s more than just a generationally significant film. It’s hugely entertaining, thought-provoking (when Alien says “This the fucking American Dream, y’all”, he’s more right than he might have guessed), funny, shocking, and all too true. When Faith (Selena Gomez) tries to encourage her friends to leave Florida and return to their safe, dull hometown rather than associate with Alien, and they opt to stay as though it were an obvious choice…let’s just say that moment resonated with me quite deeply. The performances (and not just James Franco’s mad tour-de-force) are great (Vanessa Hudgens, Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine make an eminently believable quartet), Harmony Korine’s writing and directing are just about perfect–as are the editing and Benoît Debie’s cinematography. It even uses Skrillex music to good effect. It’s one of those films that’s so good it makes me almost giddy.
Sprang break. Sprang break. Sprang break forevah.
2. 12 Years a Slave
Oh, this film. This, if we’re going by purely objective standards, is the best film of the year. But unlike Spring Breakers, this is film that stands apart from its year–it is a story of 12 horrible years, but it also touches, however subtly, on a deeply universal theme–that of the individual caught up in forces they cannot control. Solomon Northup tries–he protests his true identity, he tries to inspire his fellow slaves to rebel, he writes secret letters, he contemplates running–and yet it is only by a stroke of luck (in reality, the letter he gave to Samuel Bass did not have his exact location, and it was only with difficulty that he was found and rescued) that he ever escapes the horrors of slavery and returns to his family–though, as the final scene makes clear, he is not the man he once was. As a portrayal of slavery, it’s hideous and unflinching, often showing quotidian activities alongside horrors–like the women picking cotton, trying to drown out the sounds of a whipping with their humming. Steve McQueen’s direction is nothing short of incredible, John Ridley’s script is nearly as good, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o turn in amazing performances. And it uses end-titles (a device I have long since wearied of) better than any other film I can think of; “The date, location and circumstances of Solomon’s death are unknown” is as quietly devastating as anything I’ve ever seen.
3. A Touch of Sin
While everyone was going nuts over Blue is the Warmest Color, I was trumpeting this. It tells four loosely linked tales of individuals fighting back against a corrupt system; it’s a scathing portrait of modern-day China, but it’s no mere political screed, and the basic theme is quite a universal one. When Dahai (Jiang Wu) goes on a rampage against the bureaucracy which has left him and his hometown high and dry, or when Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao) turns on a man who beat her when she would not sleep with him, who cannot empathize? Most of us would not react to the degree that they do–but then what else are the movies for? Not that this is some kind of vigilante wish-fulfillment story, but I think writer-director Jia Zhangke wanted the viewer to feel some small sense of hope–the final scene ends the film on a hopeful note. It’s a beautifully made film, too. The script is probably the best of the year. The direction is sharp and clear. The acting–especially Wu and Tao–is superb. And Yu Likwai’s cinematography is just incredible. I really hope this gets the reputation it deserves in the years to come.
So much has been written about this film and why it works, so I’ll keep my comments brief. The word that came to mind after seeing it was “lovely”. An appropriate word, I’d say, for a film about love and how difficult it really is for two separate souls to form the bond that we call a love affair. That one of those souls is, in this case, an operating system makes a difference–but not so big a difference as you might suspect. At its core, it really is just an allegory for the difficulties of love–very soft science fiction, but science fiction nonetheless. Joaquin Phoenix is as brilliant as ever; Scarlett Johansson, using only her voice, is excellent; Amy Adams gives a low-key yet deeply effective performance; Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde are no less accomplished in their brief roles (and Chris Pratt is a welcome presence). Spike Jonze’s script and direction are quite stunning, the production design marvelous, and the Arcade Fire score quite affecting–not to mention, Karen O’s utterly beautiful “Moon Song”. Oh, and it’s very funny, too. One nearly forgets, with all this beauty to contemplate.
5. Upstream Color
All artistic mediums have works which can only work in that medium–prose or poetry that can only be read, images that can only be seen, music that can only be heard…and Upstream Color is a film that could only be a film. Written down, its story seems convoluted, even absurd. But taken as an experience, it’s astounding. The synopsis Carruth provided (“A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.”) is actually about as useful as anything I could tell you. You really just have to watch it and let it work on you. And, if you can, watch it multiple times; the first time I thought it was good, but baffling; the second and third viewings were what cemented it in my mind as a masterpiece. Shane Carruth wore many hats here–director, writer, producer, co-star, cinematographer, composer–and he wears them all superbly. His score is my favorite of the year, the images are gorgeous, the story strangely absorbing, and he isn’t too bad as an actor, though Amy Seimetz in the lead outdoes him; her sincerity and belief in the material simply makes the film work. And Andrew Sensenig provides a mostly silent but utterly compelling presence as the mysterious Sampler. It’s not for every taste, but I absolutely loved it.
It’s not perfect. It starts off problematically (the actress playing David’s ex is shockingly bad), and there are a few look-at-these-hicks-amirite moments that don’t sit well. But so much of it is so good that I can forgive the flaws. I’m from a small town (though hardly as small as Hawthorne) and my father is of the same generation as Woody Grant (though not quite as old and decidedly saner), and so the film’s themes–the death of the Midwestern small town; the connection between a father and a son–struck a chord with me. Bruce Dern’s performance is a big part of that; the best role he’s had in years, he resists any urge to make Woody cute, and honestly portrays his directness, his stubborness, and his sense of peace with himself. Will Forte (a co-lead, whatever the awards groups might say) is David, and he’s nearly as good; one sympathizes, shall we say. June Squibb is a snarky delight as Woody’s long-suffering wife, and Stacy Keach, as an old associate of Woody’s, shows he hasn’t lost a step in portraying smug menace. Bob Nelson’s script is very good, but it’s Alexander Payne’s witty, low-key direction that makes it work–and shooting it in B&W was a stroke of genius.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street
If it didn’t feel quite so derivative of GoodFellas, it might be a spot or two higher. But it doesn’t matter. That Scorsese, at his age, is still making films this ballsy and entertaining, is enough for me. Some might complain about the length (three full hours), but I’m not one of them. It’s rightfully overstuffed, excessive, glutinous, overwhelming, what have you. If GoodFellas is about the seductive lure of out-and-out crime, then Wolf is about the lure of treading the fine line between the legal and illegal; Jordan Belfort lives more lavishly than Henry Hill could have ever dreamed of, consumes drugs and alcohol at a horrific rate, and becomes obscenely wealthy by means that may be legal, or may not be, but which target those who do not know the difference. And at film’s end, after a stint in prison, he’s still out there, taking advantage of the desire to get rich quick, by means which may be totally legal but are just as unsavory as those of his past. DiCaprio’s performance is nothing short of amazing, the script is hysterical, the supporting cast (Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, and of course, Matthew McConaughey) is great…what more can I say? It’s a great film, a three-ring circus of mad greed that kept me riveted from start to finish.
8. Captain Phillips
Not a whole lot to say here. It’s just a brilliantly made thriller. Paul Greengrass can raise pulses with the best of them, and he’s at his best here; the second half, a series of tense negotiations and standoffs between the Somalian pirates and the U.S. Navy, is utterly nerve-wracking. Tom Hanks is marvelous (the final scene is one of the best pieces of acting he’s ever done), and Barkhad Abdi makes a hell of a debut. Part of me feared this film would be rather generic and dull; I was very happy to be proven wrong. I hope this wins an Oscar or two.
9. Side Effects
I might not have nominated it for Best Picture (it’s a bit too lightweight for that), but this is still a great film, and if it’s Soderbergh’s theatrical swansong, it’s a really fucking good one. It’s just a good, slick Hitchcockian thriller, with a sharp script, twists and turns that might catch you off guard but don’t feel contrived, superior acting (Jude Law is amazing here), and of course, Soderbergh’s excellent direction. I hope this is decently well remembered. It deserves to be.
Another great film I left off my Best Picture list, because it’s great in a smooth, professional way, rather than a daring, ambitious way. But great is great, and Ron Howard, a generally solid director, shows how good a craftsman he can be when the material engages him. Refreshingly, the sex and violence of the Formula One lifestyle isn’t watered down here; the depiction of Niki Lauda’s recovery from a near-fatal accident is gruesome, but it rings true. Daniel Brühl probably came pretty close to an Oscar nomination for his work as Lauda (oddly enough, the film was totally shut out of the Oscars), and he’s very good indeed, but one can’t overlook Chris Hemsworth’s work as James Hunt, either; he made a strong impression with his sincere, sure-handed portrayal of Thor, and he’s just as good here, showing Hunt’s daredevil-playboy nature and his essential (if hardly undiluted) goodness without diminishing either. The racing scenes are marvelously handled, the period detail is fine, and the script, while not quite as in-depth as it could be, gives the film a most satisfactory framework.
My 11-20 (in alphabetical order):
11. The Act of Killing – I’m not entirely sure what my feelings are about this film, but it’s unquestionably fascinating and horrifying, one of the most unique documentaries I’ve ever seen. Anwar Congo is as compelling as any fictional protagonist I’ve seen.
12. Computer Chess – Just a great, bizarre little piece of nonsense. It captures the feel of these little conferences eerily well, and the story goes in such unexpected and insane directions I couldn’t help but love it.
13. Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach’s portrait of a twentysomething coming to grips with adulthood is a showcase for Greta Gerwig’s greatness, and no wonder–she co-wrote the script with him. A funny, sweet, insightful little film, and I’m so happy Gerwig got a Golden Globe nomination for it.
14. From Up on Poppy Hill – Studio Ghibli can usually be counted on to provide intelligent, beautifully animated, and totally satisfying films. This, a tale of an adolescent girl coming of age in mid-60s Japan, is no exception.
15. Mud – A Southern Gothic tale of obsession and friendship, a film that could’ve easily gone precious or overwrought, but in Jeff Nichols’ sure hands, it works beautifully. Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey give outstanding performances.
16. Pacific Rim
Because it’s Pacific fucking Rim. I might have wished for a slightly sharper script or a slightly more charismatic lead (though Hunnam does a respectable job), but the kaijus and Jaegers go at it, everything else seems immaterial.
17. Philomena – Another potentially sappy film saved by expert handling. Judi Dench is as good as ever, and the script is commendably sharp and sweet at the same time.
18. Prisoners – Frustrating, uneven, and one of the most fascinating films of the year. One of the most genuinely thought-provoking studio films in recent memory, superbly acted, directed, and photographed.
19. Short Term 12 – The acting is the thing here, but God, what acting. Brie Larson, Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield all give Oscar-class performances, and Stanfield’s brilliant confessional rap “So You Know What It’s Like” made the Best Song longlist. The script has its issues, but its virtues make up for them.
20. To the Wonder – A lot of people dismissed this as lesser Malick, but I thought it was great. Not as good as The Tree of Life, to be sure, but how many films are? Gorgeous cinematography, of course, a great performance by Rachel McAdams, and Malick’s typically beautiful direction make for a great experience. Hopefully this gets re-evaluated someday.
My Bottom 10:
1. Grown Ups 2
This movie makes me sick. This is a disgusting, mean, kind of racist, definitely homophobic, totally misogynistic, condescending, lazy, incoherent sack of shit. This movie has contempt for itself and its viewers. I responded in kind.
Its eligibility is dubious, but…just look at it. Some of the worst animation I’ve ever seen. Voice acting for which “half-assed” would be high praise. A script so muddled and unfunny it defies description. It’s not a hateful film, though…you can have fun mocking it, and you will, should you ever decide to watch it. I would legitimately be shocked if anyone non-ironically liked this.
3. A Talking Cat!?!
Pointing out that the cat on the poster looks nothing like the cat in the film would be letting this film off lightly by not eviscerating it with every word I spent upon it. Eric Roberts gives less of a shit here than I thought humanly possible. This was shot on a porno set (with some porno actors in the cast) and it shows. Johnny Whitaker is inhumanly horrifying. Suffice to say, it’s a near-perfect film.
4. Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
Tyler Perry trying to be serious is even worse than Tyler Perry trying to be funny. The ending alone–which suggests that the HIV-positive protagonist is no longer worthy of her husband and must cede him to another–gets it this low, but the ludicrous melodrama and overwrought acting are enough to get it on the list.
5. A Haunted House
Lazy and depressingly unfunny. And there’s going to be a sequel. I might have to go see it.
6. Movie 43
There’s one good sketch (“Beazle”, about a perverted cat), and the rest is varying shades of lame and outright repugnant. There are so few actual laughs here it’s ridiculous.
7. Pain & Gain
I don’t even know what I really think of this movie. So many people close to me despise it that I have a hard time being objective about it. Some people thought it was an effectively subversive film. Some thought it was as ugly and repugnant as its protagonists. All I can say is–it’s ugly. And sexist. And kind of anti-Semitic. And kind of homophobic. It takes a fascinating true story and…doesn’t nail it. Let’s just leave it at that.
8. A Madea Christmas
I’m with the kid here. Though, this wasn’t that bad–it was just lazy, an excuse for more Madea antics and some half-assed moralizing.
9. Safe Haven
Yay, another Nicholas Sparks movie, and one with a twist ending so ridiculous even the movie seems kind of embarrassed by it. Julianne Hough is bland, Josh Duhamel is blander, and only Cobie Smulders shows any sign of life (ironic, really). Lasse Hallstrom is a long way from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (think about that statement, why don’t you?).
10. Evil Dead
In response to the tagline: it’s not. It’s just the same old shit: a bunch of white twentysomethings, a haunted cabin, evil forces, blood, blood, blood, the end. The characters are annoying as fuck, and the gore is hardly worth the trouble. Just a total waste of time.
And here are the Bottom 11-20, worst first (I’m not gonna bother with posters):
11. Paranoia (generic as shit)
12. The Lone Ranger (oh dear God)
13. The Last Exorcism Part II (I don’t even know)
14. Only God Forgives (I sure as hell don’t)
15. Escape From Tomorrow (could have been great if they’d let well enough alone)
16. The Hangover Part III (some good directing, just no laughs)
17. Post Tenebras Lux (as incoherent as it is boring)
18. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Elba is good but the script is unforgivably shallow)
19. Oblivion (derivative and painfully dull)
20. The Counselor (…what the fuck was this supposed to be?)