Sunday, March 02, 2014

Best of 2013

Hey all, Mike here with my top 10 of 2013. Best to use as a guide if you've seen few if any 2013 theatrical releases. Or ignore it, print it several dozen times and use the sheets for kitty litter, I don't care.
Coming out now as usual, around the time of the Academy Awards ceremony. Around late October, I was wondering if 2013 was going to be a decent year for films or not. Then November came along, and the year improved tremendously. I have a top 10 that I feel good about, and a top 3 of films that I think will be remembered for years to come, possibly longer.
Note that I reserve the right to change my mind if I see something I didn't get to earlier that changes a list, like when I finally caught up to Dogtooth to change the 2010 list a bit. For the record, I wish I had time for The Wind Rises, The Hunt, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Cutie and the Boxer, To The Wonder, Frances Ha, Prisoners, Lone Survivor, All Is Lost, Fruitvale Station, Blue Caprice, Wadja, The Square, and August: Ossage County. For the record, I wish I could reclaim the burning desire to watch The Place Beyond The Pines, but it's been sitting on the DVR for a month now and frankly it feels like work. And for the record, no amount of extra time will make me want to sit through The Book Thief, The Croods and Saving Mr. Banks; I could care less.

Seriously, one film I wish I had time to catch but not now I'm afraid: Nebraska. I don't know why, I've been a fan of Alexander Payne since I caught the premiere of Citizen Ruth on Showtime (don't trust anyone who says they saw it first run unless they worked on the film, related to someone who worked on it, or a critic over the age of 42). Seriously, I'm not sure why I haven't seen it yet. Maybe this will be the example that I see weeks or months down the line that will change the list looks like.
I also wish there was room in my top 10 for the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis, Philomenia, a deceivingly complex yet likeable indie film called Computer Chess, Captain Phillips, The Act of Killing and Dallas Buyers Club. But as the saying goes, there's no more room in the inn. Here we go, starting with number 10 . . . .

10) MUD- Wonderful indie film. Some of you might think of this as a modern day Stand By Me, I think of it as a modern day Huckleberry Finn, turned into a modern day film-noir. Two boys, almost near high school age, enjoy some carefree days out in Arkansas' Mississippi River. Some of this might come to an end if one of the boys' parents get a divorce and move away from the river. But life will change for these boys when they encounter a charismatic drifter named Mud, alone on a small island. A fugitive and dreamer will hopes of meeting up with his girlfriend again, and running away together. These boys choose to help him, and get a dose of adult reality that may forever change them.
Good script from writer/ director Jeff Nichols; he's really improved from his earlier film, the decent Take Shelter. Good plot that develops through character moments, not by contrivance (or at least not outrageous, unbelievable contrivance). A good cast helps to develop this. While the young male leads, Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan and newcomer Jacon Lofland, make the film believable, Matthew McConaughy in the title role, gives the film its heart. Yeah, I didn't think I'd ever write anything like the second half of the last sentence. Not trying to be a snarky jerk here, but you tell me how you felt if you sat thru the likes of Failure to Launch and Sahara like me. But this performance, alongside his work in Dallas Buyers Club and another film much higher on this list and 2012's Killer Joe and Bernie; hey, Matthew's been on a damn good roll recently. Glad to see it.
9) MUSEUM HOURS- Charming indie film from director Jem Cohen. Barely a storyline, more of a meditation here. A lonely woman, with little money and stuck in Vienna to watch over a sick distant relative in the hospital, visits one of the few places she can afford, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. There she's befriended by a guard, and an unusual friendship develops. They (and we) explore the works of art, that are not too different from life in Vienna itself when we think about it. Rambling yet amenable, with enough of a light touch with regards to both death and what makes a life. The museum looks vital and relevant, if one takes the time to look and ponder. Much like life, not everything's for everybody at the museum, but they can become relevant at different parts of your life. I was surprised how much I liked this little gem. Definitely not for those who must have linear plots to follow. 
8) BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR- An easier to digest variation of Scenes From A Marriage. Taking place over the course of about seven years in the life of a girl, from late in high school to early into adulthood and the start of her career as a teacher. Not dissimilar to Moonrise Kingdom in terms of problems/ issues that look and feel small in the big picture, but feel like life and death to our protagonist. The You Are There documentary style creates immediate intimacy between us and the characters. Perhaps too close for comfort when the main characters have their extended love scenes and especially when their relationship disintegrates. The semi improvisational feel occasionally makes this draggy affair; at 2 hours 59 minutes, it's hard not to feel draggy.
But after a while, even the leisurely pace helps us to empathize with the main character experiencing first love and first break-up. We see a young girl/woman with modest ambition, trying to become a teacher. She's not comfortable around boys her age, but is definitely comfortable with a young lady just a few years older. She'll forsake friends her own age who won't accept her sexuality. And as the film's timeline jumps forward without warning and with little hint, this young girl gains confidence and a sense of self. We even see her mini struggles and mini triumphs as a schoolteacher. But her sexuality is a fluid thing, and despite loving one woman for years, the urges are strong and not confined by being satisfied by one gender. This woman might be older and by the end she's not quite an adult yet, but she's getting there.
Of course none of this is believable without successful casting. Lea Seydoux as the somewhat older young woman is good, but Adele Exarchopoulos in the lead is fantastic and makes the film work. I believed her as a high school girl, I believed her playing the role as seven years older. I believed with her school friends, I believed her almost but not quite overwhelmed in her passion, I believed her teaching pre-schoolers, and I believed her when she was crushed and emotionally desperate. I believed her, period. I will see her next in whatever she does.
7) GRAVITY- I guess I was the only one who embraced the emotional Sandra Bullock elements of Gravity, of someone wanting to shut themselves away from the pain, confusing that with normal interaction in life, and then being able to overcome that when a crisis occurs. Ok, I'm exaggerating big time here. But I keep hearing praise for the fantastic technical elements, and yes they are fantastic. The impressive camera work and set-up from director Alfonso Cuaron's previous film Children of Men, is blown away by most of the stuff done in Gravity. Seeing it in IMAX 3-D was terrific, making me fear that unless you have a large screen HD TV, Gravity's impact will diminish over time. At it's visual best and as the difficulties began to pile up for Bullock's and George Clooney's characters, I was reminded of some of the best parts of 1970s disaster movies. And they were probably as scientifically accurate as well, for better or for worse. But without the emotional center, you're not buying the story and just ok with the film as a whole. I fell for it.

6) THE PAST- From the writer/ director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi's follow-up received no Oscar love whatsoever. Neither for its literate Screenplay nor for a Foreign Language Film nomination; the former surprises me, the later shocks me. Ok, so the subtle out of necessity political backdrop that permeated A Separation isn't here in The Past. The difficult dynamics between parents and kids, between lovers, between former spouses are here in The Past. And like in A Separation, there are no real villains here.
Yes there's a husband coming back to France from Iran, to finally grant his wife a divorce. His oldest stepdaughter not getting along with her mother over her fianc√©, for reasons that slowly unravel. Plus issues with the fianc√© and his own family troubles. Maybe these people's personal problems don't have the same heft without the political and/or religious backdrop of Farhadi's previous film because these problems are of their own making or misunderstanding. Whether its intentional or accidental or some kind of fallout reaction based on a lack of information that just exacerbates problems even further, there are no villains here.  Just people muddling through life, trying to hold onto family or create and/or expand a new family. Or in the case of the man returning from Iran, feeling bad about what he's missed out on when he left his wife and her (not his) kids, and then remembering why he left in the first place.
Overall solid script and solid performances. Not a surprise with the adults cast in this, including The Artist's Berenice Bejo. That the child actors involved hold their own with the adults and with the story's/ character's complex emotions (only one of them, a teenager, is professional), that was and is impressive. The best drama on this list not based at least on history, that historical drama comes up shortly.
5) HER- Spike Jonez's best film to date. Yes, you can call it science fiction, what the lead character falling in love with an advanced Operating System in the near future. Actually not just him, but many others seem caught up with a new lover, or at least a new best friend. And for a while, the film seems to take the idea of everyone caught up in their own distracted words as a negative. A sort of expansion of the recent Bill Maher joke/critique about how one's Facebook news feed helps us read only what we want to read, and also makes us further disconnected from bad news and human interaction.

The film seems to take place in a time where we have evolved from that. Looking at something connected to the internet as  . . . . You know what, forget it. I'm boring myself. I was going to gone on about being able to forgive your ex, forgive yourself for not being good enough as long as you're willing to keep trying, blah blah blah. The film is bright, Joaquin Phoenix gives it heart, the art direction is subtle yet effective, and Scar Jo has a career in voiceover if she wants it.
4) THE GREAT BEAUTY- The best of the foreign language films this year, a film I'm completely fine getting a Foreign Language Oscar nomination over the likes of The Past and Blue Is The Warmest Color. Beautiful looking Italian film from writer/ director Paolo Sorrentino. Very reminiscent of some Fellini, Amarcord was the movie that thru my head for a while as I was watching this. Ok, so saying that an Italian director seems influenced by Fellini is no big insight. Hell you don't even have to be Italian for that to be true.
A story where, to paraphrase one of the characters,  the roots need to be strong. We're introduced to a group of rootless people in Rome, mostly highbrow, most over 49, who've partied decades of their lives away. But our main character Jep, a writer of magazine interviews and one praised yet forgotten novel, enters a crisis of faith/ emotional rut shortly after his 65th birthday. Jep and his social group take to the adage of the tagline of The Big Chill, "In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm". But he's tired of doing the same thing with his friends; talking about pedantic bullshit, attending each other's similar parties, and occasionally sleeping with them. The death of his first love (and inspiration for his one novel?) puts him on a trip of self-journey. One that gets interrupted because there are parties to attend after all, but a journey of self discovery that most of his social circle can't or won't go on for themselves.
I'm sorry, did I just make this film sounded stuffy and full of hot air. Not my intention. Artfully shot. Something's almost always in motion, whether it's the people, the camera, the camera lens, or all three. And when it stops, it's stops for a reason. Sharp dialogue, even though some of it hammers us a little much sometimes. "Do you know why this dance train's my favorite? Because it doesn't go anywhere!" are some of the moments are a little much. As opposed to when one of the characters starts spouting bullshit and Jep cuts her down to size why the other friends around them squirm. That scene, where the friends understand the truths or self-truths Jep says, yet wish they didn't have to hear, didn't have to be reminded of their shared faults, didn't want the good times to stop.  Like I wrote, the dialogue is sharp but the characters are sharper.
With a good anchoring performance from Toni Servillo as the charming Alfie-like lead. Bored yet open to surprise. Tired of meaningless sex but open to love. Surrounded by people who don't inspire him (and vice versa?), and will need to go outside of them to grow.
Much like the Woody Allen film Manhattan, with a group filled with mostly with empty people making mostly empty platitudes. Also like Manhattan, you have a lead character who may not have love, but he'll always have a gorgeous big time city to love, in this case Rome. And like the film Manhattan, the city of Rome itself is beautifully photographed and a character unto itself. Wait, I just realized there's a Fellini influence in Manhattan as well. D'OH!
3) 12 YEARS A SLAVE- The most brutal of the films on this list, and among the best. Like being unable to wake up from a brutal nightmare, the viewer feels this almost throughout. Our perspective rarely leaves our protagonist, if Solomon Northup doesn't experience it or see it, neither does the audience. If Solomon's experiences don't lighten up, the audience will not experience such lightness either. Not shot in a you-are-there style like with Captain Phillips, but almost painterly by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt.
The camera choices made by him and director Steve McQueen; wow. Especially the whipping scene, very Alfonso Cuaron-like. No cutaways, the emotional impact develops to the point where you're grateful that you're not being shown the whipping, and then you are. Whoa.
Great cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the heart and soul of the film, to quote director McQueen's Independent Spirit Awards speech. I may not be able to spell his name without help from the internet, but there's no longer any excuse to not know it. His Solomon is a tower of strength for us, regardless that he's being dragged to the depths of physical and emotional Hell. Sometimes his silence speaks volumes, never mind when he speaks.
The one scene that we don't see events from his perspective, at night between Michael Fassbender's slave owner and Lupita Nyong'o's slave/ best cotton picker/ rape victim, was what probably got both actors their Oscar nomination as well. Okay, that and the whipping scene. You know, I could probably single out most other scenes, that doesn't have Brad Pitt and/or Paul Dano. But the conflicted emotions on display in that scene forming a unique brutality all its own, wow.
2) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET- Scorsese's best film since the likes of Kundun and Goodfellas, and the best of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. The funniest black comedy in a long time, until the story is suddenly no longer funny and turns pitch black. I guess years of 80s soap operas and my own personal taste allowed me to not feel inundated with greed upon greed, excess on top of excess. And I'm completely ok with the idea of showing none of the victims who lost money to the likes of Jordan Belfort and his cronies. In this film, we're in a world where it's fuck you, I'm getting money. Followed by fuck you I'm getting more money, and then fuck you I'm fucking my girlfriend, maybe your girlfriend, then all these hookers, and then fuck you I'm getting more money cuz Daddy needs some blow and toys. And then repeat. Notice any clients or victims here? No, you don't. So unless you made the mistake to marry one of them, too bad, nothing to see here. And since they all got off lightly after their arrests, there's no lesson learned here, just in time for others not to suffer with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and other fun stuff. And if all of this is making you angry,  . . . . well I'm guess you're getting the point now.
Leonardo's best performance yet. Damn he made me laugh often here. Not sure what was funnier: his attempt to make it into his car from the country club, or his line delivery of Benihana. No, it was his physical comedy, trying to make it into his car, stoned out of his skull. Oh dear Lord, I was almost in tears. 

1) FROZEN- The latest Disney classic, and a potential Top 100 all-time film for me. Give me five years or so to let that ferment. That's usually the period of time I need to see if it sticks. Sometimes it does (Wall-E, The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings), and sometimes it doesn't (A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Lives of Others). Not to denigrate the best Disney non-Pixar animated film since Beauty and The Beast.
Whether you see it in 3-D or not, a standout. Smart script geared for both kids and adults, with just enough action, musical numbers and comedy to keep things interesting. Not a lot of musical sequences than you think; 1776 , the gold standard for musicals that are barely musicals seems to have more songs per screen time than Frozen. Just enough comic relief from Olaf the Snowman. The commercials had me cringing that the character would overwhelm, but not the case at all once you see the movie. Just the right amount. Hey I don't know what the right amount is going into anything, but I know it when I see and hear it.
And hey, true love doesn't have to mean boyfriend or girlfriend. I'll take the rest of the time to take a little umbrage at Owen Gleiberman's review. Specifically the portion of his Lego Movie review where he downplayed the girl power-like qualities of Frozen as been-there done-there, making it not as vital as The Lego Movie (my paraphrasing). Really? We have gotten a lot of that recently on screen and from Disney? I'll bow to others if they can tell me how.

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