Two weeks into January, and I can finally unveil my Top 10. Better late than never, right?
First, the usual caveats. It’s important to remember that this is my “Favorite Films” list, not the “Best Films” list. You can go elsewhere for that. Basically, your mileage may vary. These are the films that have stuck in my head through 2013 (and early 2014), for wildly different reasons, and have the most re-watch value for me moving forward. So, you’ll notice that BEST FILM OF THE YEAR, 12 Years a Slave, is not on this list. Many other excellent films are not on this list. Not because they’re not excellent (didn’t I just say they were?) but because I simply appreciated and respected them more than I loved them.
Also, not being paid to do this, and living waaaaaay outside of a major media market, there are a bunch of releases that either I didn’t have time for, or simply never made it to my neck of the woods. So, no Fruitvale Station; no Inside Llewyn Davis; no Blue Jasmine; no All Is Lost. Am I a terrible film critic, not going out of my way to pay my eight dollars to see these films? I’ll let you decide. (Yes. Yes, I am.) Anyway, there are a couple of films here that I didn’t even see until very recently. That’s why this is so late.
So with that out of the way, let’s get to it…
Spike Jonze’s near-future romance is totally beguiling, brilliantly written, and beautifully, achingly performed:
Her is ultimately a deeply humanistic film, about our desire for relationships and the lengths we’ll go to preserve them, even in a world where people simply no longer know how to act around each other. As Amy says: “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” And yet, especially at the sweetly-sad conclusion, my reading of the film is almost a spiritual one. How else can you wrap your mind around the concept of an omnipotent presence sharing a pure, deep love with you, and — perhaps — as many as millions of others, simultaneously? Weird? Yes. Occasionally too weird? Maybe. But “stupid?” Only if you have no eyes to see, or ears to hear. (FULL REVIEW)
9. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
My Favorite Film of 2013 That I Can’t Recommend To My Family Or Coworkers, Wolf is a manic tour-de-force both from Leonardo DiCaprio, and a never-more-virile Martin Scorsese:
Even with all of the gross excess and crippling avarice on display, and Scorcese not holding the audience’s hand to set it in its “proper” moral context, Wolf of Wall Street is a searing indictment of a culture that really does exist (very much so) in America. For all it’s comparisons to last week’s “Scorsese-lite” American Hustle, thematically Wolf draws some parallels — on the opposite side of the scale — with 12 Years a Slave. Both are about the unfathomable depths of human behavior, and in neither is society quick to judge the perpetrators of the heinous deeds on screen. Scorcese isn’t glamorizing it. He doesn’t have to. Too many of us are already doing that ourselves. (FULL REVIEW)
Well, it’s definitely my daughter’s favorite film. She saw it twice. She has the songs on her iPod, and even sings along. And why not? The music is fantastic, and the rest isn’t so bad either:
The real stars of this film are the Broadway-ready songs. They’re fun, melodic, feature a number of bona fide showstoppers — and most of all, are brilliantly sung by perhaps the best vocal cast Disney has assembled since Beauty and the Beast. As Anna, Kristen Bell is hilarious and spunky, with several tunes that show off her pipes. Josh Gad is the scene-stealing snowman Olaf, brought to life by Elsa’s magic and possessing an unlikely fascination with summertime (“I enjoy warm hugs!”) He nearly walks (waddles?) off with the whole film, if not for the titanic vocal performance of Idina Menzel as Elsa. Her big solo, “Let It Go,” brings down the house, and I can hear it already being practiced by thousands of teenage girls across the country. It’s a knockout. (FULL REVIEW)
7. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
I’m already losing you. I can tell. Hear me out! This is not just a legitimately great sequel, it’s a thematically rich revolution story, and it’s also kind of like a rule that Jennifer Lawrence be here somewhere:
Furthermore, the world just feels bigger. Seeing more corners of Pan-em, with more expansive sets and improved special effects, gives Catching Fire the epic feeling it deserves, and every facet of the production has raised its game. Key additions (and subtractions) in the journey from page to screen allow the film to fully stand on its own as a technically impressive and narratively compelling film, regardless of what genre it’s in. The material is challenging, uncomfortable, and resistant to the kind of over-simplification suffered by lesser series trying to ride its coattails. In fact, as Subway and other corporations have shown, it’s easy to miss its point entirely, even fly in the face of what it’s saying about our shallow, media-driven, economically disparate culture. (FULL REVIEW)
6. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS
Anchored (ha ha!) by the peerless Everyman Tom Hanks, whose performance in the final ten minutes is without a doubt the best ten minutes of his career, this sea tale is another high water mark (HA HA!) for director Paul Greengrass:
As typical of a Greengrass film, the camerawork and editing are fantastic; the director utilizes heavy grain in the darker scenes, and allows the tension to build steadily throughout the back half of the film until it’s almost unbearable. It’s also a film that asks challenging questions, and isn’t afraid to leave them unanswered: if the pirates are acting less out of greed than desperation — “I got bosses,” Muse says — what is our responsibility to them in a global context? Captain Phillips is a “small” story told on a huge canvas — exceedingly well-crafted, and with Hanks at the center, a near masterpiece. (FULL REVIEW)
5. THE WORLD’S END
I love Edgar Wright, plain and simple. He just hasn’t made a bad film yet, and World’s End is his most complex, deceptively meaningful work so far. And as an editor, it’s on my shortlist for that, too:
The film succeeds on multiple levels: as action, as comedy, as science fiction, and even as drama. The themes resonate because we come very quickly to care about these characters, which is a testament to both the outstanding writing and the performances, which are exceptional across the board. In particular Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who have played wildly different characters across the Cornetto Trilogy, do their best work here — Pegg as the manic alcoholic who eventually has to crack and make himself vulnerable, and Frost as (for once) the straight man, proving his chops as a dramatic actor but cutting loose at the perfect moments. (FULL REVIEW)
4. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY
What, another Disney film? Yeah. What of it? Want to fight? Because I will fight for MU. It is a moving piece of work. It’s for anyone who had dreams, but life got in the way. And it’s funny — one of Pixar’s funniest:
MU is most of all a vibrant, hysterical “college film.” Every corner of the screen is filled with clever gags and characters, and the origin of Mike and Sully’s friendship is laid out in an organic way that dovetails brilliantly with the original film. The dialogue is sparkling (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, who record their sessions together, still have delightful chemistry), and the physical comedy — especially one sequence where the students try and and fail to avoid toxic urchins — is as perfectly executed as anything Pixar has done. (FULL REVIEW)
3. SHORT TERM 12
This foster home-set indie drama, led by a magnificent performance from Brie Larson, is a perfect film. Really. It’s a magical, heartbreaking, heartmending work of art. And you owe it to yourself to stream it or Redbox it or just buy it and watch it:
Of course, this is the kind of film that the Academy roundly ignores. It’s too “small,” and Cretton and Larson make it look too effortless, when in fact it’s a brilliant high-wire walk navigating the screenplay’s difficult themes and tone. It never gets too saccharine, and while it is often uncomfortable, the film gets only as dark as it needs to and no darker. Ultimately, it spans oceans. And its message, about the broken people like Grace and Mason who tirelessly work to give to others what life has taken from them, is powerful. (FULL REVIEW)
The most intense cinematic experience of the year. At home it can’t possibly live up to that first viewing, on a gigantic screen in full three dimensions, but that doesn’t diminish one iota the sheer technical craft on display:
Gravity is a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen; it’s pure cinema magic. An absolutely stunning, heaven-and-earth-shaking work of art. The emotions at play here are deeply primal; it grabs you from the opening frame, continuing through an opening shot that goes a heart-pounding 17 minutes without a cut, and doesn’t let go. For 99% of us, it’s the closest we will ever come to being in space itself…and kind of confirms that I don’t ever really wish to go. What Jaws did for the ocean, Gravity does for the biggest ocean of them all. (FULL REVIEW)
1. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Okay, call me a sucker. I am SO in the tank for Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-Earth, even ranking last year’s An Unexpected Journey at #2 on 2013’s list qualifies as a major upset. Is it perfect? Does it reach the dizzying heights of Lord of the Rings? No. Of course not! But guess what — I don’t care. Smaug is magnificent, the action sequences are incredibly fun, the performances, the score — everything. PJ could take all of these elements and bring them to NBC’s SMASH and I would still watch it and rave about it. I don’t care. SMAUG:
Ridiculously enormous, classically designed, and absolutely dangerous, Smaug is a fully-realized character, active and cunning and gorgeously animated, every bit as monumental an effort from Weta Digital as Gollum. But it’s the voice work from Benedict Cumberbatch that really launches it into the stratosphere. His dulcet baritone is playfully wicked, first as the great wyrm toys with Bilbo (my favorite scene in the book, and here) and when he later goes on the offensive. Every flattering word that Bilbo lays at Smaug’s feet can also be said for the filmmaking team — Smaug is without a doubt the greatest dragon in cinema history. For real. (FULL REVIEW)
That’s my list. Only one thing left — the worst film I saw in 2013? That would be the deeply stupid Now You See Me. It’s big “twist” is such a brazen affront to logic and storytelling, even M. Night Shyamalan is like “woah, ease up!”
That’s all. Hooray, 2013!