Monday, February 3, 2014

Best Films of 2013

Honorable Mention

Before Midnight

What a satisfying trilogy.  After 2 very romantic films, our couple are part of one heck of a downer of a third film in many ways.  But how bold is that?  And realistic.  It's as if Buttercup and the Man in Black we find out years later, did not live happily ever after, and actually have a pretty volatile relationship; often treating each other horribly.  I so often hate trite predictable romantic films that always end all tied up in a bow.  Watching this I thought, "ok, I get those trite predictable romantic films, because this is kind of a bummer."  But also, its brave and unique and realistic and yet still romantic; and I respected this film in the morning.

Captain Phillips

A solid action film, despite the fact it seems its very much just "inspired" by true events.  Much of it might actually be a total lie.  But hey, its a movie.  And its a good movie.  The final scene is the strongest moment for Hanks.  What I loved was that the military doctor played in the film is played by an actual military doctor.  The woman was star struck in meeting Hanks (understandable) and the next thing she knew she was doing a scene with him.  Hanks essentially directed this scene himself as he calmed her down and they improvised, with him telling her to just do what she would normally do if someone with his "injuries" came onto the ship.  Excellent work Hanks.  Its good to have you back, doing good movies again. 

Warm Bodies

Aren't you tired of Zombies?  I kind of am.  But I never had seen a zombie date movie before.  Clever and sweet.


10.  Gravity

"Gravity" to me was essentially an action film.  Kind of a 3D "Die Hard" meets "Alien" meets "2001" if you will.  While some people take "action film" to be a put down, I do not mean it that way.  For one thing the original "Die Hard" is a great, classic film.  Action films, like any film, are not easy to do well.

"But wait, there is very little dialogue and at times people are just floating!"

Ok.  So it is the type of action film Alfonso Cuaron might make.   Technically, the film is very impressive.  But this is both a strength and a weakness.  It is understandable this is what most of the talk is about, but there is another element to the film that truly elevates it.

The 3D (and I am still not sold on 3D in most films) is one of the more effective uses of that effect I have seen.  At one point Sandra Bullock's character pushes forward towards us in a close up of tension and heavy breathing for the tragedy that has just occurred.  It is a heck of a good shot, unfortunately made even more effective by an effect that most people must wear glasses to see done this well.  There is a scene where we see her tears leave her face and float towards us.  This could have been overly melodramatic but I thought Cuaron found the correct balance.  These are some reasons that technically the film is a marvel to look at, but also why the film might not be technically remembered  years from now, unless 3D does finally become a true standard in a streaming on your laptop age of movies.  

But the best element of the film is Sandra Bullock.  I was thinking recently why I like Jennifer Lawrence as an actress so much.  Is it because she is simply a very strong actor?  I believe that is true and I have believed it since I saw her performance in "Winter's Bone."  But there are lots of great actors.  Why is Lawrence one of my favorites to watch on screen?  Is it because she is attractive?  She is, but so is Alyssa Milano.  So is Eva Mendes and so is Rosario Dawson.  I am not going to see a film based solely on any of them.  It has to be because she has a charisma, an IT factor that is hard to describe.  That certain je ne sais quoi that some artists simply have, and if we knew how or why, that might not make it so special anymore.

Sandra Bullock has that quality.  And I don't think everyone appreciates that.  When she seemed to do her first "serious" work in the film "Crash," I felt "oh, hey, she is doing a dramatic film and she isn't bad."  Bullock can play the comedic role or the action role or the sassy southern mother role.  And as she herself said, when winning her Oscar for "The Blind Side," did she win it so much for her performance or for wearing us down over the years?   Maybe winning us over, over the years.  It was a strong performance, but I think her performance in "Gravity" is better.

Bullock must carry a film that essentially has only 2 characters.  If she is weak, it is merely another well executed but shallow effects film.  Another one of my favorite actresses is Marisa Tomei. Surprisingly winning her Oscar years ago for a comedic role, the urban legend spread that the wrong name was read on Oscar night.  A disrespect she did not deserve.  Since that time, Tomei has been brilliant in so many roles, you know she deserves the phrase "Oscar Winner" before her name as much as anyone working.  While she won the award years ago, it took a few more to truly be an "Oscar winning actress."  Bullock, after "Gravity," to me is now truly an Oscar Winning actress.

9.  The Wolf of Wall Street

The reclusive Gene Wilder was recently tracked down for an interview and was asked his thoughts on actors today.  He mentioned how Leonardo Dicaprio started off his career so well in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," but has been wildly miscast in almost everything sense.

I agree.

I have found Scorsese's fondness of Dicaprio over the last decade or more, kind of perplexing.  Not because he is a bad actor.  He is not remotely, and the rare critic who seems to think this isn't seeing what Wilder does.

While you might applaud DiCaprio taking on such a role as Howard Hughes, it is mystifying to me why beyond box office appeal, he was ever given that role in the first place.  I almost always find myself thinking, "well, he was good considering."

His role in "The Wolf of Wall Street," while it might feel familiar, finally feels (by Scorsese) correctly cast.  This and his role in "Django Unchained," is his best work.  While this type of material is second nature for Scorsese, it is the best collaboration between the two (yes including "The Departed").  And while, like that film, it seems just a bit uneven and overly long; there are more scenes of greatness here.  The funniest scene in any film this year is not anything from "Anchorman 2," but is in seeing DiCaprio's, Jordan Belfort, try to get home in time (without the use of his legs or voice) to keep his business partner off a tapped phone.  "Get OFF the PHONE," has never been so well delivered.

8.  American Hustle

All 4 main performances are so good.  Lawrence is not seen enough.  She steals every scene she is in.  Amy Adams proves again, she is one of the best actors working.  Christian Bale does yet another great performance.  How often in his career has he been able to use his own accent?  I wonder if people are taking him for granted he is so good.  Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the FBI agent who is morally on the same level as the hustlers.  I find myself almost feeling this film is a bit overrated.  But it is just a lot of fun to watch these actors.

7.  To The Wonder

No director was more meant to be seen on the big screen than Malick.  The most divisive film on this list.


6.  Her

Part of the joy of watching "Her," is the amazement that it works as well as it does in the first place. This is an audacious concept.  It is as if Jonze challenged himself to writing something that seems the most ludicrous premise he could think of, and succeed in making it heartfelt and emotional and real.  For the vast majority of the film, he succeeds.

Did you ever really expect to see a love story about a man and his Operating System and hear people crying around you in the theater?  One group of young girls came out and I overheard "that was stupid."  I was 100% sure I had heard these same girls crying just moments before.

And how far fetched is this story really?  I do not believe it is very much.  As the great irony being that social media and technology help us become more isolated from one another and not less so.  This is a near future I believe could be quite accurate.  We are almost there as it is.  Will it take our computers to truly understand us on a broader level than people are capable?

With a few things, I caught myself predicting how a character might react.  Usually, Jonze's character did the exact opposite and I would immediately realize it was the correct decision on his part.  This is a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a predictably strong performance.  What is pleasantly surprising and kind of appropriate for this film, is that Scarlett Johansson, known as much for her attractiveness as anything, gives her best performance ever. And she is never seen.

5.  Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey gives one of the best performances I have ever seen on film.  He is that good.  An actor at the peak of his abilities; and it is a glorious thing to watch.

I don't know what clicked in McConaughey in the last few years.  He burst on the scene years ago as an actor with promise.  He then made a career out of making horrible to aspiring for mediocre romantic comedies.  "What a waste of talent," I often thought to myself.  But I had no idea how right I was.  Please continue on this path Matthew.  It is currently a lot of fun to witness.


4.  Inside Llewyn Davis

Does the cat symbolize Llewyn himself?  Or maybe its art, itself.  The struggle to hold on to your dream.

Is there really any good people in this film to root for?  Davis is kind of a sonofabitch.  But he refuses to compromise his art.  And for that, I'd call him a hero.    

The Coen Brothers are remarkably consistent, considering how also prolific they are.


3.   The Place Beyond The Pines

Ryan Gosling continues to be one of his generations best actors and Bradley Cooper continues to exceed my expectations.  I suppose I could nitpick some things with this film.  But it stayed with me.  More than almost any I have seen in the past year.

2.   The Act Of Killing

A documentary that focuses not on the victims of mass murders, but the murderers themselves.  People that dance and talk gleefully of the past and have grandchildren they love and dote on.

At least one that seems to become haunted in reliving what they did in their past.

A great film to reflect on the larger themes it evokes.  As one character says.  "War Crimes are defined by the winners.  I'm a winner, so I can make my own definition."

Contains one of the great film closing scenes.

1.  The Hunt
 A man works at a Kindergarten.  He cares for the children genuinely.  Though they are not his own, he shows them love.  Love and consideration, that at times, one child's own parents are too busy fighting to give.  He steps in when they do not do their job.  The child feels a closeness.  And then when he must hurt the child's feelings one day, she says something awful to get back at him.  Something she does not even probably completely understand, brought on by an act of someone else.

Then all Hell breaks loose.

Because "children don't lie," according to one adult.  Except sometimes they do.  But then the child tells adults, including her parents, she "just said something stupid.  Lucas did nothing wrong," that is when they choose to believe she is lying.  

The story might be simple enough.  But it is extremely well told, anchored by a incredible performance by Mads Mikkelson.  And one of the best child performances I have seen in some time by Annika Wedderkopp.    

What unfolds is a tale that evokes many feelings.

Original sin.

How we as "good" parents and people, do all in our power to protect our children, to the point of not caring about our fellow adults.

This is of course tricky material and at times very difficult to sit through.  But it is also a rewarding experience.  The best friend of Lucas is played by Thomas Bo Larsen.  At first he feels underused.  But eventually his character is fully formed, as we see his angst of dealing with seeing his best friend's life being destroyed, and not knowing whether he deserves it or not.

No matter the evidence or eventual outcome, some accusations you can not come back from.

Most Disappointing Films

Fruitvale Station

If this film had been true it would be one of the year's best.  "But its a movie it doesn't have to be true!  You just said that yourself about 'Captain Phillips!'"

No, in this case it kind of does.  Because the parts that are not true are pretty dang insincere to the point of the film.

Like "Lincoln," last year, I feel a great story was hinted at but never fully told.  But "Fruitvale Station" comes so much closer to being great.  To say more might be a spoiler, but feel free to talk to me about it in the comments or my email.

For me, it felt more like propaganda in the realm of a Michael Moore film.  So many things well done here, its unfortunate it wasn't what it could have been.  About 2 scenes bring down the entire thing.  A real shame.

The Family

Luc Besson is a very curious director.  He helmed one of my all time favorite films, "The Professional."  He has also since then, made some real duds.  This is probably the worst.  If he has made anything worse, I'd rather not see it.  The most frustrating part, is the last 20 minutes are outstanding.  Its just that the first hour and 20 minutes are brutal.

Only God Forgives

I loved "Drive," and this is by the same writer/director with the same leading man (Gosling).  Lightning did not strike twice.  In fact, it did not come anywhere close.

Upstream Color

Malick is considered an influence.  Shane Carruth can play the notes, but not the music.  I could not figure out what the film was even about.  Once I found out I was not any more impressed.  If there is supposed to be deeper meaning, I no longer care.


For starters I think its a decent to good film.  My problem and disappointment is that I believe it could make some great points without being almost 100% one sided propaganda. Whales being in pools just doesn't feel right.

There is one person who takes the other side; that SeaWorld does good things.  But he is shown at the very end and says about 3 sentences.  The entire rest of the film is "Seaworld is the devil and here is why."

SeaWorld at times has acted like the devil.  But there has also been some good things for these animals, that are a direct result of the work of SeaWorld.  To not mention that is disingenuous and too easy.  A debate about sacrificing a few for the greater good would have made for a far deeper film, spawning a much more interesting discussion.  But as many people involved are members of PETA, and recently sued SeaWorld for "slavery" on behalf of the whales, you can see that that more complex discussion was of no interest to them.

The ending, watching Killer Whales swim in the wild, is ruined by the obvious stunt of the filmmakers taking all the anti SeaWorld trainers out on a boat to see this. 

The humans get in the way and ruin it.     

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen has had an interesting career.  Yes he is an icon.  Yes he has made many very good films.  But with 42 films in 46 years, many of those films are also pretty weak.

This film has no heart.  Yes Blanchett's character is a wreck and I guess we should care.  I suppose he was saying something about picking the wrong people in our lives.  But I was never invested at all.

The Hollywood Reporter called it maybe Allen's "cruelest" film and I think that is probably true.  Jasmine is a flawed character, but she also doesn't deserve all she gets.  Is Allen saying she does?  Is this an anti-wealth morality tale?  Some of the supporting characters, though all well acted, seem just a hair above stereotypes.  Is Allen himself out of touch with working class people?  So which is it?

As far as Blanchett goes, there are of course elements of a great performance here.  The accent, the crying.  I think the great acting checklist is fooling people into thinking this is the best performance by an actress of the year.  It is not.  Because ultimately I felt next to nothing FOR this character. Hey shes crazy, shes broke, she gets cheated on, her son disowns her.  On and on and yet I'm not sure what or how I'm supposed to feel about her.  I'm worn down by her.  And so ultimately...I just don't feel anything.  Its not that its a BAD performance.  Its just not the fantastic thing we are told it is.  And really that's Allen's fault, not Blanchett's. But she will win the Oscar for this, most likely.

It feels like we have been tricked into thinking there is more here than there is.

That might be true of Allen's career on the whole.

If you are thinking of watching "Blue Jasmine," go watch "Match Point."

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