Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Astronauts, Orcas, and Socialites, Oh My: The Best Films of 2013

What 2013 lacked in its first half it certainly made up in its second half. It seemed as the fall months hit I was inundated with movie after movie of sheer awesomeness. 2013 has turned out to be one of the most outstanding years for me personally as there are some serious contenders for what just may turn out to be some of my favorite films of all time. What a nice range of films too. There were great blockbusters, prestige Oscar films, small films, and best of all: some downright terrific horror films. (Note: you may click the title of each film to read my full review)

Was there any other film this year as simply mind-blowing as “Gravity?” Finally here’s a big budget art house flick – that became a box office smash – that seems to be popular with all types of people. And what a glorious achievement it is. Sandra Bullock just nails the role of a US astronaut (who recently lost her young daughter) as she’s forced to survive the horrors of space during what should have been a routine spacewalk. Alfonso Cuarón has practically changed the face of cinema with his utterly stunning visuals including camerawork (including a single image that will define the year) and special effects that are as impressive as they are gorgeous. This is pure cinema through and through – Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud.

No other film this year made me laugh as much as “This is the End.” And like any really solid Seth Rogen comedy, it touched me a little as well. Who didn’t get sort of emotional when Rogen’s best friend Jay began to get sucked up to heaven to the tune of “I Will Always Love You?” What an enjoyably fun concept for a big budget action comedy: Rogen and all his friendly cohorts (including Jonah Hill, James Franco, Danny McBride, and dozens of other familiar faces) play debauched versions of themselves as they attend a Hollywood party at Franco’s house. Meanwhile, the rapture happens and the small group is forced to face the end of days – with hilarious and sometimes even scary results. What a delightfully original, raunchy, and intelligent film featuring Rogen’s and creative partner Even Goldberg’s directorial debuts.

Is it wrong that I would rather watch any of Martin Scorsese’s post-Gangs of New York films than any of his earlier work? And that’s coming from a big fan of gritty 70s filmmaking. It’s the power – and sheer brilliance – of a well-aged filmmaker who can make any story his own and get better and better as he gets older. Here we have his latest Goodfellas-like dramedy about a drug-addicted Wall Street businessman (played wonderfully by Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s epic 3 hour length fueling the theme of excess. Scorsese working with a well-rounded crew has made a dazzling film dripping with debauchery that is as entertaining as it is slightly depraved. It’s a divisive film to be sure but it features such great work from its cast and crew and a wonderful sense of style one can’t simply ignore the sheer artistry at work here. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen “The Wolf of Wall Street” and I can’t get it out of my head.

If “This is the End” was the funniest film of the year, then “The Conjuring” was definitely the scariest. James Wan, who has gratefully done a complete 180 from his torture porn days as the director of “Saw,” has crafted a terrific and stylish haunted house story. Hot off the success of his equally creepy and perfectly made ghost thriller “Insidious,” Wan tells the true story of a Rhode Island family dealing with ghoulish things going on in their new home and their calling upon America’s favorite ghost hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren for help. It was a real kick as a Connecticut resident seeing these real life people –whose lectures I’ve personally seen several times – as characters onscreen in a Hollywood movie. Vera Farmiga who has easily become one of my favorite actresses gives a stellar performance as Lorraine who is determined to help this struggling family. There are great old fashioned scares  - and drama as well – in what could have easily become a film filled with tired clichés. There are moments of familiarity here yes, but every aspect of superior filmmaking accounts for this being something really special. Easily one of the best horror films of the last decade.

“Dallas Buyers Club” is sort of an AIDS themed “Erin Brockovich.” While it features some harrowing subject matter – it’s set during the height of the US AIDS crisis – it’s an ultimately uplifting true life tale about an HIV infected man who turns to illegal drug running so that those suffering the horrible disease can have access to highly experimental medications. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof in what is probably his most impressive performances. He plays a truly unlikable character. The film opens as he’s having sexual relations with two women at once. It’s no shock that this man will contract the sexually transmitted AIDS virus. He’s also a homophobic grump. But since this film is inspiring, he actually becomes an advocate for gays and other people affected by the negative connotations with people infected with HIV. It’s all pretty fascinating stuff and it features a great cast who all give outstanding performances. Jared Leto in particular stands out as a transsexual infected with the disease. His relationship with McConaughey’s character is truly moving. Truly phenomenal filmmaking; it’s emotionally satisfying without ever being overly sentimental.

6) Frozen
“Frozen” is definitely my favorite Disney movie since its glorious 90s heydays with great films like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid.”  No CGI animated film has really come close to recapturing that nostalgic magic but “Frozen” – equally traditional and progressive – certainly comes close. An adaptation of “The Snow Queen” the film features terrific songs from the composer of Broadway’s “Avenue Q” (with less raunchy lyrics of course) and terrific voice work from its entire cast. “Frozen” features all the magic of a truly great Disney animated film: with memorable characters – including a lovable talking snowman who longs for summer – and a great balance of emotionally satisfying storytelling and hearty laughs. It’s finally restored my faith that Disney can deliver a completely solid animated musical in this cynical modern Pixar-fied day and age.

7) Prisoners
You won’t find a better domestic drama made this year. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve gives this emotional thriller the perfect dose of foreign weirdness. Two families are at a loss over their two missing young daughters. Are they dead? Are they alive? Did someone take them? Fingers are pointed at a young mentally disturbed man (played to creepy perfection by Paul Dano) but not all is what it seems in this picturesque American suburban town. The film, with a delightfully twisting screenplay, is highlighted by magnificent performances from its outstanding ensemble cast including Hugh Jackman as a father who decides to take matters into his own hands, Jake Gyllenhaal as a determined, lonely police detective, and Melissa Leo strange as ever as a local weirdo. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots the hell out of this thing, providing beautiful shots that mesh perfectly with the disturbing story elements. This is a real winner.

To put it simply, “Blue Jasmine” is Woody Allen’s best film since “Match Point.” And yes I realize that includes “Midnight in Paris,” a film I found to be decent though it required an English degree to get the most from it. Cate Blanchett is simply mesmerizing (even more so than usual in fact), in Allen’s take on the post-financial crisis world, as Jasmine a wealthy socialite whose life goes down the drain when she’s forced to move in with her working-class sister. Allen, ever the pessimist, walks a deliriously fine line between serious drama and biting comedy with this seriously entertaining film about a woman’s slow descent into utter madness. Allusions to “A Streetcar Named Desire” are not unwarranted. This is a truly wonderful, resonant film and a definite must-see for any Woody Allen fan. It just may be the definitive Woody Allen film of the 21st century.

9) Rush
If you were to tell me that a Ron Howard movie about Formula 1 racing would be one of my favorite movies of the year I’d probably laugh in your face. This is by far one of Howard’s best, most accomplished films. And it’s probably because it doesn’t quite feel like any Ron Howard film you’ve seen. Howard is a good filmmaking, but he’s also a safe filmmaker. He doesn’t quite have the cinematic eye that more accomplished auteurs are capable of. This is a stylish, slick action drama about cocky British racing star James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth in a role he was born to play). The hunky, ladies’ man begins a rival with the more reserved Austrian racer Niki Lauda (a terrific Daniel Brühl). A so begins a conflict which could have easily fallen into well-worn sports movie territory but instead is given a sever push into hyperkinetic overdrive with outstanding camerawork, sound design, and a driving Hans Zimmer score. One of the more underrated box office disappointments of the year.

10) Blackfish
This heartbreaking, powerful documentary basically works as a thriller in disguise. It’s a fascinating set up. Back at SeaWorld Orlando back in 2010 a killer whale was responsible for the death of an experienced trainer. The film then documents the history of performing killer whales in SeaWold parks and one whale in particular who was the cause of several aggressive acts against humans. It’s an animal rights film that feels made for a general audience. This isn’t a documentary that revels in showing you graphic footage of animals being killed or tortured like the Oscar-winning film “The Cove.” It’s a really well put together piece about how the behavior of wild animals can be affected by being held in captivity. It ranks up there with great animal behavior documentaries like “Grizzly Man” and “Project Nim.” It may not make an animal rights activist out of you, but it will move you.

I was a little disappointed that the excellent indie horror film “You’re Next” didn’t become the huge hit it should have been. Maybe audiences were too scared to jump back into the horror pool after the brilliant “The Conjuring.” This stylish, this chiller from the guys behind the “V/H/S” series, is an absolute delight and a must-see for all horror geeks. A rich family’s weekend celebration in a secluded house becomes a nightmare when a trio of masked lunatics begin killing them off one by one. It sounds pretty standard really and after the home invasion hijinks of “The Purge” I assume most audiences were sort of sick of this premise. However, there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

12) Her
The love story told in Spike Jones’ slightly sci-fi romance fable “Her” is one of the most moving and fascinating love stories put to film this year. Nicholas Sparks has nothing on this one. Those of use sick and tired of the romantic clichés we’ve come to expect in Hollywood filmmaking is shoved aside for a spry, subversive take on futuristic take on human relationships and the progress of technology. Joaquin Phoenix gives a moving performance as a man who falls for his computer’s AI operation system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The movie is fresh, funny, romantic, moving, odd, unique, entertaining, and beautifully captured. And as far-fetched the plot elements may be, it all feels disturbingly accurate. It’s certainly not to be missed.

13) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
This year was a great year for outstand big budget popcorn films. November saw the release of the second chapter in the popular “Hunger Games” franchise and as any fan will tell you it certainly didn’t disappoint. Director Francis Lawrence has crafted a simply sensational, entertaining film. This is blockbuster filmmaking done right. It satisfied everyone. Fans of the books rejoiced and those of us who haven’t read the popular novels were delighted by the film’s surprises and revelations and a perfectly timed cliffhanger ending that will set the stage for the series’ inventible conclusion. Anchored by the always wonderful Jennifer Lawrence headlining a superb acting ensemble, “Catching Fire” was populist entertainment done right. It was moving, suspenseful, action-packed – and never once did I have to turn off my brain. Splendidly satisfying.

I’d never actually seen a Robert Redford film on the big screen before. And I’ve only seen a handful of his films in general. The guy is a good actor but it’s weird to think he’s only been nominated for an Oscar once (for “The Sting”). He’s certainly Oscar-worthy in the harrowing drama “All is Lost” in which is literally the only person in the entire movie. He barely speaks. He plays a man (whose name you never find out) who’s sailing far out on the ocean when his boat becomes damaged and unnavigable. We watch him weather the elements as time goes by and chances of rescue become slimmer.  It’s all extremely well done and makes a great companion piece to other similar survival stories like “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips.” It’s a wonderfully audacious big-budget experimental film.

Tom Hanks is back in the saddle again headlining this hugely entertaining maritime thriller about a real life cargo ship that’s take over by Somali pirates. Paul Greengrass who directed the disturbingly realistic “United 93” and some of the “Bourne” films gives the film a gritty intimacy that really makes things rather intense. The acting is top notch especially unknown Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi (making his screen debut) who gives his character such depth and empathy you’d think they really hired a pirate for the role.

Honorable Mention:

What end of the year list wouldn’t include Oscar-frontrunner “12 Years a Slave?” As much as it seems like an Oscar bait film ready to take home plenty of golden statutes there’s a lot more to it. It features some truly remarkable performances from an outstanding ensemble (one of many, many great ensembles this year) including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, who plays a free Black man who’s kidnapped and sold illegal into Southern slavery. It becomes his journey to return to his free life in the North and be reunited with his wife and children. Yeah it screams standard Oscar fare, but director Steve McQueen (who made the remarkable film “Shame”) adds a dose of something that only he could have provided. It’s not always the easiest film to watch, but at least it’s as entertaining as it is historically important.

and I leave you with the 2013 Cinescape...

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