My philosophy has probably become different in recent years when composing a best list. These are the films that I will return to in many years to come, or in the case of “12 Years a Slave,” will never forget even if I only ever view it once. “The World’s End” ranks above it, yes, because great laughs are undervalued in life, and I’m going to laugh for years just thinking about it. There’s going to be some films missing for you, which I thought about adding them in mention, but decided just to omit them because to bring them up would become an endless exercise. I had my own idiosyncratic responses towards overrated this and that, my own feeling. Then there are films included on this list that are “flawed” as if that would stop me from watching them again in the future and denying their own superb qualities. I truly loved 15 films this year, and liked another ten a whole lot. I also have a year’s worst list at the bottom. Enjoy.
BEST OF 2013
1. Gravity – Wonderful, it transports us into an experience that virtually all of us will never get to experience, one that is scary yet beautiful and sensory. Sandra Bullock is a shuddery scientist on her first trip to space, George Clooney is a veteran NASA man with a humorous wisdom to counter disaster. The breathless on-going thrill of the film is the endless things-go-wrong obstacles that occur, and watching how two astronauts would really do to overcome them, all the while surviving is based on slender threads of chance. To analyze the episodes however would be to sidestep the entire purpose of Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece: To discover something new and awe-inspiring in your entire visual-memory repertoire. “Gravity” is as astounding as the great physical travels of your entire life.
2. The World’s End – The world needs laughter. This high energy British bar-crawl drinking comedy is, by miraculous coincidence, intoxicatingly funny. Just see it. I know I’m going to see it about 25 more times within the next century, and if this world ever does see an apocalypse, this might be a movie I will be thinking about as it happens as a laughing coping mechanism. Simon Pegg is in 12-steps Alcoholics Anonymous, but that doesn’t stop him from rounding up friends Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and Rosamund Pike for a return to sleepy Newton Haven which turns out to be less sleepy than a conspiratorial breeding ground. The idiot-drunk humor is cunningly, uproariously brilliant even when it’s slurred. Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) directed with jocular let’s-just-do-it impulsiveness, Pegg and Wright co-wrote the funny-as-hell script.
3. The Hunt (Denmark) – The foreign film of the year, the tragedy of the year, the film that will likely be cited years from now when a similar story will likely actually happen somewhere and sometime in America. Mads Mikkelsen (in the best male performance of the year) is wrongly accused of the last thing besides murder a man wants to be accused of, that of sexual abuse of a 6-year old girl, who has mistaken images of internet pornography she glimpsed at as something that has happened to her. Mikkelsen becomes the victim of small town mass hysteria, and chooses resilient dignity in public appearance as a way to counter the town’s indicters. He responds to everything with not self-pity, but intelligence, even though the sexual predatory stigma will be less temporary than permanent.
4. Blue Jasmine – As a trophy wife who loses her mogul husband, and all the money she ever had, Cate Blanchett gives the performance of a lifetime. Really, this is one of the ten best performances by an actress I’ve ever seen. And if she doesn’t win votes in awards season, then it means voters didn’t bother to see the film or they know nothing about film, art, life, psychology, social disparity or anything that means a damn. Woody Allen deserves rounds of accolades, too, especially in noticing him challenge himself to create what is a powerful, outside-the-box film, about the thin line between normal and aberrant behavior in a bipolar protagonist. Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins were other impressive key performers as well.
5. 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, resiliently good) endures day to day by adopting detachment as a survivalist strategy. All the while, though, we are aware that Solomon is a free man when it comes to his intellectual depths. Michael Fassbender is his most merciless slave owner, debased in ways that beguiles us – he has chosen an entire life to be angry and cruel? Fassbender, while married to an equally cruel wife, takes a slave girl as a sexual companion (Lupita Nyong’o, her character tragically indiscernible), which isn’t regarded as anything for him to cherish either. What’s become terribly underrated however is the scenes between Ejiofor and Brad Pitt, who arrives late as an intelligent Canadian with distinctive political values. This scene has more power than the final ones of “12 Years,” which denies us Solomon’s vivid return voyage to where he began at the start. Steve McQueen, who is one of few filmmakers who should be cited as a true artist nonetheless, has directed two previous noteworthy films as well (“Hunger,” “Shame”).
6. American Hustle – Vibrant and rambunctious, and let me say the first 25-minutes in particular are perfect! I also think the David O. Russell film works as some kind of sexy tease – the women are tantalizing. That’s not to say this isn’t foremost a compelling and raucous tale of New Jersey informants, with a tricky zig-zag plot. But how about the people watching, every talking person from A to Z is mesmerizing. “Hustle” has acting muscle unparalleled to most films, obviously Christian Bale included as a paunchy small time con man who gets blackmailed by the FBI. Of the entire cast, my favorite performance however is Amy Adams as the Southwest native who transformed into a British sophisticate faking her knowledge of art and culture.
7. The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese’s hedonistic tragicomedy is the “Requiem for a Dream” of big business films except that it’s the opposite of downbeat (it’s too rhapsodic for that). But like “Requiem,” it gives your brain an electric buzzed charge from major over-stimulus. How this film is not NC-17 is its own white collar crime seeped in Hollywood hypocrisy. I don’t condemn the extremely active sex and drug abuse as a point of drama at all, it’s just that this plunge into shameless debauchery should be exclusive to adult audiences only. Based on true events, Leonardo DiCaprio is a wild man financial shark who is a superficial smash-up of Charles Foster Kane and Gordon Gekko, but DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has none of the class of either. But he’s super rich and cocky, and the rise and fall arc is all the more grandiose. Jonah Hill is a brilliant, rascally dweeb and partner in crime. Margot Robbie is stunning and hot-blooded as the high maintenance wife.
8. This is the End – The second apocalyptic comedy of the year, this one self-knowing in its narcissism. For me, this was the politically incorrect sacrilege I needed, uncensored and unconcerned by studio commercial rules. Co-directors / co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg satirize an entire era of Hollywood douchebags, Backstreet Boys wannabes, stoners, skanks, and suck-ups in an Armageddon fantasy with an anything goes spewing egotism. It manages to also have better special effects than plain-faced doomsday pictures. James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Rogen, and Jay Baruchel as a self-centered dweeb all had their individual great moments, all cluelessly expecting a deliverance to a better after-life just because… they’re famous Hollywood actors! A bad-boy classic.
9. All is Lost – Heart-quickening. I love survivalist films of man vs. nature or man vs. Earthly elements, but this is one of the few to really make me fear the agony of the end. And the end is very rough and punishing. Robert Redford, at 77, is sailing in the Indian Sea when a metal cargo container shreds his boat and terminates the radio. Hardly a word is spoken (if you miss the opening voiceover narration, you miss important subtext), but Redford is such a physical actor that we read his every logical move as he fights to survive. The ending embraces the idea of a gambling of going for all or nothing as a last resort tactic. J.C. Chandor proves he can make any kind of picture, “Margin Call” was his 2011 debut.
10. The Place Beyond the Pines – I’ve found it satisfying in how deliberately unsatisfying it is as a whole. Derek Cianfrance, the director, has made a truly ambiguous multi-generational saga. Crucially, Ryan Gosling plays a motor bike stuntman who transitions into a bank robbing sociopath, and Bradley Cooper is the cop whose life ambitions alter once he exposes corruption inside his department. On the outset, “Pines” examines how a criminal act can alter the outcome of the lives of those left behind, redefining individual patterns, and societal patterns, and troubling the offspring children of Gosling and Cooper’s characters. We don’t have all the answers at the end, but it leaves behind stray loose ends that have us pondering for a long time afterwards of its implications.
11. Her – The odd matter-of-fact science-fiction love story between a sad sack (Joaquin Phoenix) and an artificial intelligence computer (Scarlett Johansson, voice) has disturbed me and stuck with me since seeing it. This is how people of the future will look when they avoid human intimacy in favor of computer attachment. This is a future where computers are more intellectually stimulating and therefore better companions compared to actual human companions. Everything from the cinematography, to sound design to film editing, is equally pitch-perfect as it is audacious. Spike Jonze, the writer-director, could have fallen into a trap of making a screeching futuristic dirge like “Alphaville” or “THX 1138” (those are among two horribly overrated “classics”), but his witty approach brings levity to the more depressing implications of his message.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis – The stark and frigid style is there to suit the 1960′s Greenwich Village folk scene. It’s still easy to underestimate the Coen Brother’s latest because it seems meandering. Grouchy he may be, Llewyn is nonetheless a brilliant folk artist, and when he does a song performances he sheds his miserly facade. But the world conspires against him. Nobody likes the way he actually looks, so no one in the world around him thinks he deserves a bigger audience than the one he’s getting. The Coens’ have weaved a disturbing, haunting parable of success denied. The last scene of the movie demonstrates he is always at the wrong place at the wrong time, a room away from befriending the legend Bob Dylan. Note: Originally “Prisoners” was on this list but removed from the top fifteen and placed to Honorable Mentions after re-evaluation of this Coens’ film (it took two viewings for me), and the other films listed as well.
13. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – This blockbuster with a brain is a worthy inclusion into the dystopian future sci-fi genre. Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, starts a revolution among the districts this time, but her message isn’t direct nor is she outspoken, she’s simply become the only darling among an oppressed society for many decades. Why is it great sci-fi, though? The societal behaviors are whacked, hypocritical, enigmatic in motivation. Francis Lawrence, the director, brings epic flavor and luxurious design to the Capitol, where the great Donald Sutherland rules as President Snow. And the games, brought to vivid life with their Rube Goldberg like traps, suggests the group-mentality strategy is to protect Katniss in the arena because her one life is a more significantly symbolic to fuel an entire society revolution. “Hunger Games” was the better book, “Catching Fire” is the better film.
14. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Director-star Ben Stiller’s sweet family film fable about a daydreamer, approaching middle-age but hasn’t lived a real life of his own until he’s compelled into an adventure, is the kind of good-feelings and good-vibes comedy that are becoming more and more rare. It strays much from the 1947 original and original story of Walter Mitty written by James Thurber in 1939, but I was thoroughly charmed by Stiller’s contemporary take. Mitty gets inspired to go to Greenland then Iceland, and anywhere else necessary, to track down a mysterious photographer (Sean Penn, aptly eccentric) who surely has a missing camera negative for Life magazine’s final issue before it transitions into the online digital age.
15. Side Effects – Rooney Mara is riveting as Emily, whose “hopelessness” leads to acting-out rage – but was her violence caused from too much pill-popping? Jude Law is the psychiatrist who prescribes anti-depressant drugs to his patients with too much free-wheeling abandon, jeopardizing his license. Soderbergh’s final theatrical film (he claims!) came out in the month of February which has become representative unfortunately of the dumbed-down movie season. This was anything but dumbed down, it’s a true thinking man’s thriller with a mood-drenched visual design.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically Listed): At Any Price; The Bling Ring; The Butler; Elysium; Mud; Philomena; Prisoners; Spring Breakers; The Way Way Back; What Maisie Knew.
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.” Runner-up: Amy Adams in “American Hustle.”
Best Actor: Mads Mikkelsen in “The Hunt” (Denmark). Runner-up: Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle.” Runner-up: Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.”
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave.” Runner-up: James Franco in “Spring Breakers.”
Best Ensemble Cast: “American Hustle.” Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Louis CK. All among the year’s best performances.
Best Male Performance of a Hateful Character: Sharlto Copley in “Elysium.”
Best Female Performance of a Hateful Character: Emma Watson in “The Bling Ring.”
Best Cumulative Work: Matt Damon in “Elysium,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “Promised Land.”
Most Robert DeNiro inspired performance: Ryan Gosling in “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
Best Cinematography: “Gravity.” Runner-up: “Her.”
Best Artistic Use of Black & White: “Nebraska”
Best Art Direction: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
Best Music Score: “Oblivion” by M83. Runner-up: “Gravity” by Steven Price.
Best Sound Design: “All is Lost.” Runner-up: “Her.”
Best Children’s Film: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Runner-up: “Frozen.” (Pics above.)
Best Child Performance: Onata Aprile in “What Maisie Knew.”
Best Special Effects: “Gravity”
Most Terrifying Movie: “The Conjuring”
Most Terrifying Movie Runner-Up: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Really, it’s terrifying. Or are we all that desensitized by now?
Best Montage: The guys getting high in “This is the End”
Best Musical Interlude: The Backstreet Boys finale of “This is the End”
Sexiest Female: Amy Adams in “American Hustle”
Sexiest Male: Chris Hemsworth in “Rush”
Best Nude Scenes: “Spring Breakers”
Best Sex Scene: “The Counselor” opening with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed. One of the few good scenes in the movie.
Biggest Disappointment: “The Counselor.”
Worst Actress: Julianne Moore in “Carrie.” Runner-Up: Selena Gomez in “Getaway.”
Worst Actor: Jai Courtney in “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Runner-Up: James Franco in “Lovelace.”
1. Movie 43 – The mother of all awful sketch comedies. How could so many vignettes with this kind of talent stink? How could Hugh Jackman think that attaching a scrotum to under his chin be funny? And how could Halle Berry’s “blind date” sketch be so humiliating to watch? The only good that could ever come out of this is if there comes a “Hunger Games” style sequel where all these actors go up against each other in a battle royale.
2. A Good Day to Die Hard – At the 25 minute mark I grimaced at the most boring car chase I’ve ever seen in a movie, I couldn’t wait for the scene to be over. Wasn’t long after I couldn’t wait for the rest to be over, too. What I hate most is how this entry ruined the best action franchise of all-time. Bruce Willis now looks aimless as John McClane. But director John Moore is primarily responsible for ruining everything.
3. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – About as fun as licking up your own slobber. I knew within 5 minutes that it was going to be awful, and there’s little solace the rest of the way besides Gemma Arterton’s pretty face. Jeremy Renner’s rep is simply diminished by this.
4. Stoker – Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode make up a dysfunctional sociopathic family in this Southern Gothic headscratcher with 101 plot holes. The great Korean director Chan-Wook Park makes his American debut, and only his visuals are first-rate. The rest reeks.
5. Carrie – This remake deserves its own special place in hell. Director Kimberly Peirce shouldn’t be allowed to ever direct again. I don’t care if she once made “Boys Don’t Cry.” There’s not a single shot that is better than any random scene in the 1976 original, or improves upon Stephen King’s great debut novel.
6. The English Teacher – Crummy rom-com about a spinster teacher (Julianne Moore, her worst acting year with this and “Carrie”) looking for love with an ex-student playwright. Turns into a scandal. Blah. Happy ending nonetheless with Greg Kinnear as the second love interest. Blah.
7. After Earth –Will Smith in a post-apocalyptic clunker, but it was really just an excuse to let his boy Jaden run around in a CGI-animal infested jungle. The whole thing is just weirdly detached. I preferred the shots of nothing happening to ones of mutant animals roaming fakely through the screen.
8. R.I.P.D. – This spectral special effects movie was D.O.A. Jeff Bridges, an after life cop, was crusty in a funny way that made this just a little more tolerable than it would have been had he not been here. Still, this flick is mostly an eyesore.
9. Getaway – An endless car chase movie with exactly one great uncut shot in a movie that was splintered with fractured quick shots and edits. Ethan Hawke is OK, Selena Gomez is shrieking-awful as his seatmate.
10. Only God Forgives – The gory art film that bugged me for weeks afterwards. Ryan Gosling, in a horrible emotionless and stone-faced performance as a British hustler in Bangkok, must avenge his brother’s death. The style is supposed to be trance-like, instead it’s just stupefying.