It’s the end of the year so I’m contractually obligated by the internet to give my annual “best of” movie list. I like to preface this arbitrary collection of things with the following disclaimer: these are simply the films I liked best over the past 12 months. I could give a lick about artistic pedigree or what movies are going to win awards.
Looking back at 2013, this year was unique for me as there are so many films that I just never saw/didn’t get around to see (I’ve been busy). Not to mention, for some reason, the industry has collectively decided to release all the really heady/awards caliber movies within a two week time span before the end of the year, thus preventing me, your Average Joe movie-watcher, from catching up (the economics of this methodology are inane, but hey, I realize this isn’t the time or blog space to launch into an anti-Hollywood diatribe).
So, enough blathering…time for the main event…let’s list like we’ve never listed before.
I hate to use the term “voice of a generation,” but consarnit, when watching Frances Ha it’s hard to not let the cliché enter your head. This is director Noah Baumbach’s ode to the directionless-twenty somethings of today. You know, the hipsters who wear fedoras, drink too much, and pretend to be adults, with nary a clue of what that actually means. College no longer ends at graduation—it extends well into the time after, defining a decade rather than just four years. At the heart of this idea is Greta Gerwig’s Frances, a want-to-be modern dancer who’s “poor” and floats from New York city apartment to apartment to Paris and then back again. She’s awkward, cringe-inducing, yet also surprisingly relatable—slapstick with soul, as I like to call it. As for Baumbach, for a director who so often plays in a cinematic sandbox of misanthropy, Frances Ha is oddly upbeat and hilarious, backed by a pop-infused soundtrack that kinetically keeps the narrative moving at a clip (the brisk 86 minute runtime is a welcome chaser to the bloated length of similar “artsy” fare). To be succinct, this is a French New Wave film for the millennial set, as much a love song to old-school movies as it is a story for our times.
Few movies can balance heavy-handed melodrama with the brisk comedic stylings of a buddy flick. Philomena is such a rare bird—a funny, touching journey about an old Irish woman (dame Judi Dench) searching for her long lost son with the help of a world-weary political journalist (Steve “I make anything better” Coogan). The movie, at times, may seem a bit on the simplistic side, but there is a narrative depth within its human-interest story shell that just sort of sneaks up on you. One instant, the script is making an easy joke about the cluelessness of old people (the weakest aspect of the movie) and the next it manages to offer up a nuanced and deep evaluation of one’s ability to maintain faith even in the face of cruelty and disappointment. It’s the kind of film that encourages you to be a better and more understanding person, doing so without a hint of Hollywood moralizing.
Having attended a bunch of film festivals throughout 2013, I came to this disheartening realization: there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of indie feature films produced every year that you will never see. To be fair, most such flicks aren’t very good. But, Dead Dad is the rare exception—a little indie that could, made for no money but still managing to tell a smart, emotional story with memorable and funny characters. Now, I know what you’re thinking—you’ve been indie filmed to death. You’re tired of slow moving, crappy looking features about white people weeping over their daddy issues. Well, I’m right there with you. Dead Dad is a story about three siblings (one of whom is adopted), separated by apathy and distance, who must come together to dispose of their dead father’s ashes. It sounds like the stuff out of Wes Anderson’s argyle-patterned dreams, but really it’s a surprisingly grounded story that balances dramatic moments with an effortless, low-key sense of humor. A film like this is inspiring—another reminder that all it takes is a good story, no matter how simple, to create something special. So, if and when you’re perusing your Netflix instant-watch options and you happen to see this movie pop up, give it a go. It’s not going to change your view of cinema or anything. Rather, it’ll remind that a solid narrative backed by a strong sense of filmmaking craft knows no budget.
I think film critic Matt Singer said it best when he described Side Effects as director Steven Soderbergh’s very own take on Psycho. It’s truly an apt description, for like Hitchcock’s seminal classic, this is the type of film that transforms as you watch it. The genre, the stakes, heck, even the protagonist are all mutable throughout the course of the story. So, by the time it becomes a tense, scheming money-driven thriller, it blindsides you. Much hoopla has been made this year about Soderbergh’s supposed “retirement” from directing, where he has bemoaned the current state of a blockbuster obsessed Hollywood. Well, if he is in fact going out, he’s doing so on a perfectly symbolic note. Side Effects is the type of film the studio system should be producing more of—a mid-budget thriller (only $30 million budget!) with a smart story and a strong cast. Now, there’s a pill I’m willing to swallow.
This is the End
Admittedly this comedy from super Jew duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is essentially a two hour Funny or Die sketch. It’s light on plot, it’s structurally simple, and its creative renditions of both the apocalypse and (spoiler alert) heaven itself are conventional and uninspired. But, goddamn, is it funny. Like…I’m going to throw up in the theater because I’m laughing so hard sort of funny. The conceit of celebrities playing fictionalized versions of themselves never gets old for me (I love me some Harold and Kumar-era Neil Patrick Harris), and in turn, this film just hit me right in my comedy-loving tucas. You’ve got James Franco playing the most James Franco-y Franco that has ever Franco-ed. You’ve got Danny McBride playing a Danny McBride cliché. Jonah Hill’s ingratiating, wuss version of himself is fantastic (just thinking about that exorcism scene makes me laugh). Heck, this film even has a creepy Michael Cera doing coke with hollywood bimbos. Look, if none of this seems funny to you, I totally understand—I’m not going to make excuses for the subjective nature of comedy. But, when you leave a movie and your stomach hurts from laughing so hard, you put that movie on your best of the year list. That’s a fact of life, yo.
For all the wonder and sense of possibility we thrust upon the exploration of space in both real life and popular fiction, so often do we ignore just how damn scary a place it actually is. Well, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity changes that. As the film’s opening title card literally spells out, life in space is impossible. What follows is a tense 90 minutes seeking to prove that thesis. And, prove it Cuarón does. From sweeping long takes to revolutionary special effects to a layered, emotional performance from Sandra Bullock, Gravity turns space into the most frightening villain of them all—an inky black void of nothingness that is infinitely indifferent. Beyond that, Gravity becomes an unofficial advertisement for the theatrical experience itself—a movie made to be seen on the biggest and loudest screen you can find (I’m actually afraid to watch it again on my home television for fear that the experience will be so much less). Is Gravity high art? Well, that’s debatable, but I do know that it’s a procedural, thrilling journey meticulously constructed by one of cinema’s current leading craftsman. I have a feeling applications to space camp may be facing a sharp decline next year.
This is Matthew McConaughey’s time. A few short years ago he was nothing more than a shirtless pretty boy—a rom com staple whose artistic depth was limited to the furrows of his six-pack abs. Now, he’s a bona fide acting monolith, cranking out interesting performance after performance (he deserved an Oscar for Magic Mike last year. No joke). In Jeff Nichols’s Mud, he keeps the streak alive, this time playing a mysterious fugitive with unruly hair and a rotten set of teeth. Fortunately, for us, he still takes off his shirt a bunch.
The narrative bones that make up a film like Mud are most certainly well-tread cinematic ground (a loss of innocence tale as two boys come face to face with the harshness of the “adult” world). Yet, director Nichols kills it here, his storytelling and visual chops on proud display. He has quietly grown into one of my favorite filmmakers working in Hollywood. At its roots, Mud is a movie moonlighting in the Southern gothic tradition—the kind of thing that would make Flannery O’Connor proud. Nichols manages to take that stock and expand upon it, infusing it with refreshing simplicity, grit, and soul.
The Spectacular Now
Of all the platitudes that casually get thrown out in day to day human interaction, “Carpe Diem” (or as the kids call it nowadays, “YOLO”) may be one of my least favorites. You see, seizing the day sounds all kinds of cool on the surface, but really, as a life philosophy, it’s kind of crap. If you’re constantly just living in the moment—if you’re constantly just glorifying the essence of “now”—you’re actually sort of living a meaningless existence, one that trades matter and consequence for spur of the moment, ephemeral thrills. Director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is an encapsulation of that idea. It’s a coming age film about a teen (Sutter Keely played perfectly by Miles Teller) who really doesn’t want to come of age. He’s the guy who does all he can to please people each time he meets them. He says what they want to hear, acts how they want him to act. He’s the life of the party and he’s damn good at it. Sure, that makes for some fleeting surface-level fun, but it also never allows Sutter to really affect people, or more importantly, affect and grow himself.
The Spectacular Now is about coming to terms with that concept, and it does so with an unpretentious authenticity that few films attempt to even aspire to. Beyond the thematic implications, the performances are stellar (Shailene Woodley is going to be Jennifer Lawrence level famous by this time next year) and the technical craft is also compelling (I especially loved the understated score). I have a few gripes: I think the movie never adequately addresses Sutter’s alcoholism and some aspects of the third act border on cliché, but that’s not enough to quell all the things this film does right. For a year that featured a slew of coming of age films, this is the one that stands out for me. So, you know: don’t just seize the day. Aspire to give it some meaning instead.
Last year’s Pixar film, Brave, was in my opinion an unmitigated disaster—a visually alluring but emotionally vacant stock fairy tale that, worst of all, was just plain boring to watch. So, it was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Monsters University—a prequel to a film I didn’t think needed a prequel to begin with. Well, as its place on this list indicates, I was wrong. So, very wrong. Besides being a hilarious send up of classic college movies (Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds are both heavily borrowed from), it tackles some larger topics as well. From a plot perspective, there’s the friendship origin story of our two favorite, lovable monster pals, Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan. But, moreover, thematically it addresses the concept that no matter how hard you try, no matter how good your intentions, you still may ultimately fail. In a culture that seems to have universally adopted the “you can be whatever you want to be” mantra, that’s a pretty bold statement for a kid’s movie to make. I applaud Pixar for doing it in a manner that is both insightful and honest, yet still charming and funny.
Expressing my affection for Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, admittedly, becomes an exercise in clichéd adjective use. Here, in the third installment, Before Midnight, Linklater and friends have created something magical—a film that not only matches the quality of its predecessors but actually manages to expand upon it. Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine are no longer young, idealistic 20-somethings roaming the streets of Vienna, but rather two hardened realists who know each other too well. This is story of what happens after the honeymoon has ended, after the credits have normally rolled. Yet, amazingly, it isn’t a depressing slog through the perils of a broken marriage (Oh, hi there, Revolutionary Road). Instead, we are given a nuanced look at the power of authentic love and how even in the face of human imperfection there is still beauty. It’s romantic and real, a superlative relationship movie that’s profound as it is simple. As we’ve watched these characters move through the years, we too have grown up and matured right along with them. I realize that internet bloggers are prone to hyperbole, but I say this with as much sincerity as I can muster, this just may be the best relationship movie ever made.
Frozen — fantastic songs compliment this solid fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty has awoken again.
Blackfish — a compelling “issue” documentary that makes whale shows at parks such as Sea World seem as archaic as they are barbaric.
A Band Called Death — an inspiring music documentary about a forgotten punk band and their amazing rise from obscurity to cult icons.
A Birder’s Guide to Everything — another solid coming of age tale told with humor and heart.
World War Z — a solid blockbuster that legitimately entertains. I thought I’d hate this one…I was wrong.
Man of Steel
Perhaps I’m a victim of my own unfair expectations (I literally cried with emotion when I watched the trailer), but Man of Steel sort of sucked. It took the origin story of arguably the most simple of super heroes, and made it an unnecessary complex, gritty (shudder) slog through loud and inconsequential CGI building damage. A movie like this is so frustrating because all the pieces are in the right place—the cast is inspired (Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon all get the thumbs up from me), Zack Snyder is a solid visual choice as a director, and the musical score from Hans Zimmer is stellar. Then, why, oh why does this movie just not work? Perhaps it’s the overly long origin story. Or, perhaps it’s the film’s unwillingness to smile at its own ridiculousness (this is something the Marvel films have, thankfully, figured out). Or, moreover, perhaps it’s the screenplay’s inability to give anything a sense of true scale and stakes (Superman levels a city in the third act of this film and it’s treated with as much emotional weight as a fart in the wind). As such, Man of Steel broke my heart. In their effort to Nolan-ize Clark Kent, they’ve crafted something that has no soul. By the end of the movie, Superman may have saved the world, but really, I just wish he would have gotten me to care.