It's safe to say, this was an above average year for movies. I can tell because I had such a tough time narrowing down my list to only 10 picks. Great pictures like The Act of Killing, Frances Ha, Upstream Color and Her were all on this list but, as I saw more and more stuff, those ones sadly fell away to the Honorable Mentions, which I have included at the end of this article. I would recommend each of those films as highly as the ones that did make the list.
But, enough preface. My Top 10 Films of 2013...
Like masterful sleight of hand, Alfonso Curaon's Gravity is perfectly designed showmanship. Akin to a theme park ride with A-list stars, the film is an exercise in suspense that would indeed make Alfred Hitchcock proud and perhaps, even a little bit jealous.
More than enough ink has already been wasted pointing out the factual scientific inaccuracies in the film. Okay, fine, so maybe they didn't get every little detail exactly right. But what they did get right was the thrust of narrative action. The dilemma is set up almost immediately and you find yourself tossed head over heels into a dizzying life or death situation. I had an opportunity to read the shooting script for Gravity a few years prior to it's release and was blown away, even on the page.
Not unlike Pacific Rim, Gravity is an old school B-movie at it's core-- the type that used to be made for almost no budget to feature on a double bill with a Cary Grant movie and end up being more enjoyable than the Cary Grant flick. The difference today? Films like Gravity have big studios backing them and even bigger budgets. Thanks to those budgets, they can finally afford to get Cary Grant (or in this case, Bullock and Clooney) to star in the more enjoyable B-movie. We've come full circle.
Do the A-listers add anything of note? Not really. Gravity's true star is it's director. The man is a virtuoso, doing far more for 3D cinema with this project than James Cameron and his woefully overrated, screamingly boring stinkbuster, Avatar.
Gravity is a high watermark in modern cinema. I just hope you saw it in 3D.
9. Spring Breakers
Despite the fact that the two films have nothing in common, while watching Spring Breakers, I was reminded of a line from Mary Poppins: "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."
Director Harmony Korine has always been a divisive and provocative filmmaker, whose past works (Gummo, julien-donkey boy, the screenplay for Kids) could never be mistaken for mainstream or popular. Love him or hate him, Korine is undoubtedly an artist with his own unique, specific vision. But (to explain my Mary Poppins reference) with Spring Breakers, through the casting of the scantily clad Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens, Korine is able to maintain creative control of his vision, as well as the film's marketability. He slipped this weird art film past the guards of good taste, allowing this pop-melodrama to open on over 1000 screens.
The film's much discussed ending, the shoot out at the drug dealers compound, is worth mentioning, as it seems to confuse audiences. This cleansing, dream-like burst of violence that climaxes the narrative (if you can call it a narrative) is just as beautifully cinematic and logically implausible as James Franco's Britney Spears musical interlude. But it works. It feels right. You don't point out the logic/ plot holes in song lyrics, do you?
All of that said, I also realize a rather sobering fact: At the end of the day, there is no correct interpretation of a Harmony Korine film.
The first of three black and white films on this list (four if you count Frances Ha, an honorable mention that just recently slipped down into the 11 spot), Ben Wheatley's A Field In England is a dark, surreal, violent window into a another world and another time.
The year is 1648: A group of British soldiers stumble out of the smoke of the Second English Civil War into a field where strange and horrible things begin happening. The soldiers encounter a man (Scottish comedian Michael Smiley) whom they intend to take prisoner. But instead, the man (who claims to be an alchemist) enlists them to find a secret treasure that may or may not be buried in that mysterious field in England.
I didn't care for Wheatley's previous critical darling, Kill List. I admired it's style and aesthetic but found elements of the script to be forced and contrived. The dialogue felt overly written and not in that poetic, Cormac McCarthy-esque way. In A Field In England, I found myself noticing the same issues but, this time around, they fit the piece beautifully. Those moments of utter surrealism are not so remarkably out of place. The mechanism that Wheatley rather poorly employed on Kill List, jumps to life in A Field In England to marvelous effect.
Sadly, there are not too many people making movies like A Field In England anymore. All the more reason to celebrate the ones that do get made.
With Nebraska, director Alexander Payne perfectly demonstrates that stories do not have to be "epic" to be engaging or fascinating. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is a retired mechanic, hell bent on traveling to Nebraska to pick up his million dollar cash prize from one of those Publisher's Clearing House junk mail-outs. Obviously, there is no money awaiting Woody at the end of this story. His son, David, played by SNL's Will Forte reluctantly agrees to drive his aging father across the country in hopes that the road trip will put the issue to rest. As their journey progresses, he realizes that this trip might have far more to do with Woody wanting to visit his hometown one last time.
Woody has no terminal diseases but, his mortality hangs over Nebraska like a cloud. David continually encounters Woody's old friends, who are eager to tell him the many unflattering stories about his father's past. The great Stacy Keach plays a former business partner who may have absconded with Woody's air compressor, a lingering point of contention in the family.
This is Alexander Payne's quietest, most thoughtful work. The film's sparse minimalism is mirrored by the gray Nebraska landscape. Other directors might have filled the screen with goofy cameos from tourist trap employees or (God forbid) added gun-toting baddies to chase our heroes across the country. Instead, Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson wisely allows the comedy to come from characters themselves. The film's final pay off is very reserved and contained, in a rather non-cinematic way. But the emotional pay off is unparalleled this year.
Driving that truck, wearing that silly hat, his adult son patiently crouched behind the seats, Woody Grant is unquestionably a winner.
In the hands of any other filmmaker, I don't think that Pacific Rim would have worked. All you have to do is watch one interview with Guerillmo Del Toro to see the enthusiasm, the love for the craft. This man lives for monsters. Science fiction runs through his veins. Only he could have turned what amounts to B-movie material into a vast, monumental popcorn masterpiece. It's cheesy, yes. Even the tagline feels cheesy: "To fight monsters, we created monsters." And yet, I still get chills!
Little touches along the way keep the world of Pacific Rim vivid and alive: One of my favorites -a blink and you'll miss it shot of a giant kaiju skull on display in a museum- never ceases to make me smile.
Despite the fact that, yes, giant monsters and robots are fist fighting in the middle of the ocean, Del Toro keeps the narrative grounded with his human leads, played by Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and Idris "Stringer Bell" Elba. These are not cocky, wise cracking military men (Will Smith in Independence Day) or some plucky, aw-shucks, man-boys (Shia Labeouf in Transformers), characters who find themselves merely peripherally involved in the action. These are hardened, battle scarred survivors, people who have lost countless friends and loved ones to this endless war. Del Toro's script makes you feel not only their loss but their need for revenge as well. If you're going to spend a couple hundred million on a movie, you better have a great script. Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham might be painting with large brush strokes but, they're all impeccably placed.
To quote the great Francis Ford Coppola (who was admittedly referring to his own film Apocalypse Now), "This isn't David Lean. This is Irwin Allen!" Pacific Rim is epic filmmaking at it's most unabashedly entertaining and crowd-pleasing.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a return to form for the Coen brothers in that, it is their first truly confounding and divisive film in nearly a decade. Even 2009's A Serious Man was received with more universal praise. Heck, it even landed a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, a feat Inside Llewyn Davis failed to accomplish. That said, it is one of my favorite films of the year.
Llewyn Davis (a star making turn by Drive's Oscar Issac) is a folk singer, living in New York in 1962. He plays his guitar at the Gas Light, bumming around the city, drifting from one dusty davenport to another. He is basically homeless but, usually finds himself a nightly place to sleep thanks to the kindness of his friends, some of whom are struggling musicians as well. Many would say Davis is a man without luck. I don't know if I would agree.
A misconception about the film is that Llewyn Davis never catches a break. That is not true. We see him catch at least 2 breaks, collaborating on Please Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Grossman's (F. Murray Abraham) offer to play with his proposed harmonizing trio. But Davis immediately squanders them because they were not precisely the breaks he was hoping for. He passes on Grossman's offer and waives his right to residuals on the song. His own worst enemy, Davis seems to almost seek defeat, comfortably resigned to his failures. The tragedy is that he has genuine talent, which makes this whole affair even sadder.
Inside Llewyn Davis is such a beautifully wounded film. First, the Coen brothers make you love this guy, then hate him and then love him all over again.
Every few years, Woody Allen puts out a new movie that reminds us... oh yes, the man really is a master. His newest follows Jasmine, a wealthy Upper West side socialite whose life is changed when her husband is jailed for embezzlement, forcing her to move in with her lower middle class sister in Brooklyn. Led by a career best performance by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine, who won an Oscar for this role, the film is far more complex than it's romantic comedy exterior would have you believe.
Blue Jasmine reaches it's peak in a heartbreaking revelation, dare I call it a twist ending. The reveal that Jasmine is totally unraveling, destined for the gutter... that her mental state has deteriorated to the point of insanity. It wasn't the loss of her wealth that made Jasmine this way. Her husband's arrest was just the first of many blows to her ego. Alcohol and prescription pills are an ever present prop in Jasmine's world, both of which she uses to cope, as they quietly exacerbate the problem even further.
If you ever wondered about the life of a street vagrant, always lost in a raging argument with unseen demons-- Where and how did they begin their life? And more importantly, where and when did the decline begin? Blue Jasmine is the best film Woody has made since Deconstructing Harry.
PS: Andrew Dice Clay deserved an Academy Award (or nomination at least) for his work. You gotta love the Dice-Man.
One of the most anticipated films of 2013, Edgar Wright's The World's End is a pitch perfect way to close out his Ice Cream trilogy, after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
The protagonists, adult males who attempt to recreate a pub crawl they failed to complete in high school, are all quietly miserable with their lives. Their fearless leader, Gary King (Simon Pegg, who wrote the screenplay with Wright) is the most unhappy because in the passing years, he realized that his unfortunate life peaked while he was intoxicated in his late teens. Gary has spent the last 20 years telling and re-telling the story of that fateful night, transforming it into the stuff of legends. But Gary King is merely a legend in his own mind.
There are many twists in the plot but the one I must spoil (avert your eyes if you haven't seen it yet ) is the truth about those bandages on Gary's arms. The world's end nearly happened for Gary very recently, at his own hands. As his friends cower away from the abyss of their hometown, Gary leans forward, gazing right into it, dragging his cohorts kicking and screaming into the maw of the beast. Gary cares less about his own safety (and that of his mates) than about finishing this stupid pub crawl. The saddest aspect of Gary's character is that he genuinely means well, even if his results do not reflect that.
Like a stray dog, Gary King might scratch you, even though he loves you very much.
PS: There is so much awesomeness going on in this movie that I was able to write all of the above nonsense and fail to mention that The World's End is also a sci-fi comedy featuring screeching, hollow-headed robots. Damn, that Edgar Wright is a killer.
Computer Chess is a jaw dropping masterpiece. It's pure cinema. Shot on low grade black and white Hi-8, the film is a mockumentary set in 1980. North America's top computer programmers gather at a rundown California hotel for a tournament to determine which is the best chess program. An assortment of bad haircuts, glasses and mustaches show up, lugging giant hard-drives. Oh! And there's actually a woman this year, which causes a major stir amongst the various socially maladroit males.
At this time in the early 80's, it was still undetermined if a computer would ever become advanced enough to defeat a human opponent in a game of chess.
For months, I avoided watching Computer Chess, simply because I found the premise a little dull. But I was stunned how quickly it had me hooked, totally under it's spell. The question of artificial intelligence comes up again and again. One of the computers seems to be committing suicide, sending it's king out to die needlessly. We then learn that perhaps this computer prefers playing human opponents. But how could it be making conscious choices? The hallways of the hotel are filled with stray cats and whispers of interest from the Pentagon. Why is the Pentagon interested in a glitchy chess program? There are many questions posed in Computer Chess.
Later, another character will find himself getting literally questioned by his computer program. He reminds the program that it is he, the human programmer, who is asking the questions. After a brief pause, it chillingly responds: "Then ask your questions". Climaxing in a moment of utter David Lynch-ian insanity, the film offers no easy answers to those questions.
Computer Chess is a funny, hypnotic, bizarre look at a world never before seen in cinema. Do I know what it all means? Not by a long shot. But I think the same could be said of the characters of Computer Chess as well. Any questions?
PS: The film co-stars Wiley Wiggins, who played Mitch Kramer, the endlessly face-touching young star of the Richard Linklater classic, Dazed and Confused.
It astounds me that anyone could watch The Wolf of Wall Street and come away believing that Martin Scorsese is glorifying Jordan Belfort's (Leonardo DiCaprio in his best performance) actions. In fact, the film's harshest critics seem to be reviewing the real Jordan Belfort, rather than the film in which he is a dramatized character.
Even after a single viewing, I saw a not-so subtle moment that illustrated this point, amidst the sex, drugs and rock n' roll that dominates a majority of the film's three hour running time. Behind all the American flags (look closer, the stars and stripes are hidden all over this movie), we arrive at a scene in which Donnie (a brilliantly over the top Jonah Hill) screams at a room filled with crazed stockbrokers: "F*** you, USA!"
These scumbags (and they are indeed scumbags) drone on and on about capitalism but, they simply use it, and their survival of the fittest pseudo-philosophy to rationalize their own crimes (and they are indeed crimes). Like locusts, they consume everything around them, before hastily moving on to their next big feast. Soon, they become stupid and fearless, making irreparable mistakes.
But why this genre? Why did Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) choose to dramatize this story as a nearly X-rated screwball comedy?
As hard as it may be to read this, it is because Jordan Belfort's story is a very funny one (sorry but it's true), free of the murders and trunk-knifings we have come to expect from Scorsese's previous Icarus-esque cautionary tales (Casino, Goodfellas, to some extent Mean Streets).
Anchored by two of the year's best performances, comedic or otherwise, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill elevate these two incredibly unlikeable jerks into enthralling anti-heroes, as they continually out-do each other in the depravity department. Just when you think Jordan is the worst human being alive, Donnie (that cousin marryin' bastard) raises the ante with a bottle of Quaaludes or an instance of indecent exposure.
The much discussed scene at the country club is the icing on the cake, one last blow out before the noose eventually tightens, spoiling our anti-heroes fun, once and for all. The consequences that never seemed to exist before finally rear their ugly heads but, why dwell on that boring stuff?
Did you ever hear the one about how Jordan sunk his yacht...? Sorry, I digress...
The Wolf of Wall Street is the most modern, subversive, unapologetic, flat-out entertaining (and my personal favorite) film of 2013.
Honorable Mentions: The Lone Ranger, The Counselor, The Act of Killing, Her, 12 Years a Slave, Frances Ha, Afternoon Delight, Upstream Color, Philomena, You're Next, Big Bad Wolves, Dallas Buyers Club, This is the End, Mama, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (UK), James Toback's Seduced and Abandoned
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.