Thursday, January 16, 2014

Best Movies of 2013

Honestly, 2013 wasn’t a very good year in movies. That’s a phrase I’ve been trying to avoid in the intros to my Best of the Year lists for quite some time. For the past couple of years, the notion hasn’t even crossed my mind. We’ve been lucky to experience several great cinematic years of late. It had to turn around some time. For the first time in a while I was worried that I wouldn’t even see enough great movies to make a list.

Now, that doesn’t diminish any of the films that are on this list. When the movies were great this year, they were really great, including one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. A slim year like this one also helps to diversify the list a little more than usual. When a year is filled with great films, many of the films seen on other lists are often repeated right here in The Well, with only a few stray bullets. This year I think I’ve got something from just about every genre and style out there, and very few that made other people’s lists.

Of course, another reason why this year was kind of slim on best of entries for me was that I had a hell of a time getting to the movies in this second half of the year. Some family emergencies kept from a few of the big award contenders, plus availability has been a problem for me this year. Living out in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest has kept some of the more controversial contenders from coming anywhere close to me.

In fact, I’ve missed so many contenders this year, I’m going to do something else that I haven’t done in several years for my Best of list, I’m naming names. The titles I most regret not getting to in time for this list are as follows. “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Her”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “Fruitvale Station”, “12 Years a Slave”, “All is Lost”, “Nebraska”, “Dallas Buyers Club”, “Before Midnight” and “Blue Jasmine”. I don’t think all of these would’ve ended up on the list, but a few of them could’ve changed the list entirely. There were some contenders I did get to that failed to impress me quite enough to make the list, such as “American Hustle”,  “Rush” and “Much Ado About Nothing”. But then, how fun would all these Best of lists be if they were all the same?

The Best Movies of the 2013.

1. Blancanieves. The Spanish film “Blancanieves” is quite frankly one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.  Told strictly in the black and white silent film tradition, it is better than “The Artist”, which took art houses by storm and topped many of the best of the year lists in 2011 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And, as a silent film, you don’t have to worry about keeping up with those pesky subtitles.

It’s an updated telling of the Snow White story, set in the 1920’s world of bullfighting. In place of the king is Spain’s most celebrated bullfighter, who has quite a bad day when he loses a high profile fight, is crippled, and loses his wife in childbirth. An opportunistic nurse plays the role of the evil queen when she worms her way into his life as his caregiver and his newborn daughter, Carmen, is all but forgotten by the destroyed man.

Later, when Carmen’s grandmother dies, she must come to live with her father and stepmother, who banishes her to the stables after catching her speaking with her father one day. Fearing the power Carmen might have over her father and the fact that Carmen is set to inherit her fortune, the stepmother sends a man out to kill her in the woods. When he unknowingly fails in this task, Carmen ends up with a group of traveling dwarf entertainers. With her newfound friends she develops her own bullfighting skills, setting up the final confrontation between her and the stepmother.

Unfortunately, this movie was unable to qualify for any Academy Awards because of loopholes in their system. Released in Spain and much of the rest of the world in 2012, it didn’t qualify under the foreign language category for last year’s awards, because it’s silent and must contain a certain percentage of foreign language dialogue to be considered a foreign language film. Hopefully, Netflix streaming services will allow it a life it could never have received with the Academy recognition.

2. Iron Man 3. I went through most of this year thinking I was going to do the unthinkable—place not only a comic book adaptation at the top of my list, but a sequel to boot. The truth is, however, “Iron Man 3” just might be the best comic book superhero movie ever made. I can hear the gasps coming from Batman fans. For shame that I should not consider “The Dark Knight” the best comic book movie ever. Of course, one of the great things about “The Dark Knight” is that it doesn’t feel like a comic book superhero movie.

“Iron Man 3” is all comic book superhero movie and then some. The amazing thing about it is the way it embraces comic book convention while at once breaking the mold. When it was announced that the director of the two previous “Iron Man” movies would not return to direct the third in the trilogy, many believed that the new film would suffer the typical fate of the third in a trilogy. It would be overstuffed with action and plot in lieu of the style that had once distinguished the franchise.

Wirter/Director Shane Black, surprised his audience by bringing more style to the project and injecting it with even more of a brain. Considering the first “Iron Man” had been considered somewhat of a breakthrough for the Marvel universe of characters in the intelligence department, that was quite a feat. Black brought us a hero in Tony Stark that had been deeply scarred by events that took place in “The Avengers”, not that you had to see that film to follow this one. Instead of providing a hero on a self-destructive path, as it seems he’s headed at the beginning of the film, Black takes Stark’s intelligence and uses it to have the character deconstruct himself and evolve into a greater hero than he was before. Plus—and this was the part that might’ve angered some fans—despite basing his plot on a beloved story from the comic books, Black did not beholden himself to what had come before and bravely changed the nature of Iron Man’s greatest arch nemesis to create a pointed criticism on the way the media portrays the actions of evil men set on the destruction of the innocent. “Iron Man 3” is far more than any of us could’ve expected from a comic book movie sequel.

3. Gravity. I heard the strangest criticisms against the space-set thriller “Gravity”, although not from many. The worst anybody could seem to muster against this movie was, “but it was all just one person the whole time.” That is what makes Alfonso Cuarón’s rollercoaster ride of a thriller all that more impressive. How does one person carry a feature-length thriller with no other people to work off? Sandra Bullock deserves much of the credit for the success of this film.

Cuarón takes what we know about space and what we think we know about space to create a tale of survival that is both knuckle biting and poignant. In truth there are far more than just one character in this film. George Clooney plays a veteran astronaut colleague of Bullock’s, who makes her tale of survival possible. There are also many different voices from Earth that play roles, including Mission Control and a random foreign voice who cannot understand Bullock’s cries for help. Space itself is a character in this film, which is redefined for the audience in stark and realistic terms.

Usually when Hollywood makes a disaster picture it involves many elements with which the audience is familiar, like crowds of people, trains, buildings, well known monuments. These elements are used as a jumping on point for which the audience to relate. Then, a variable is thrown in that we can imagine but now get to see realized, such as a plane crash, the brakes have failed, or fire or flood threatens to engulf the world. Here we’re given space, something we’re only familiar with through movies, and we’re told that this is how space really works. It is cold and unforgiving, and in Cuarón’s hands, totally effective.

4. Frances Ha. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s “Frances Ha” is the year’s most jubilant movie of the year, even when it’s being critical of its affable heroine. It has drawn a great many comparisons to the early films of Woody Allen, which is not unwarranted, but the humor of “Frances Ha” is not nearly so sardonic as Allen’s. Gerwig brings such a free spirited nature to her flawed flake she’s delectable.

This black and white comedy depicts the early adulthood of a woman who must learn that there are bounds to the world. She and her college roommate are best friends now living in New York City. Frances is an unpaid apprentice at a dance company. She dreams of becoming a member of the company, but has more of a knack for teaching than she does for dancing. As an unpaid artist, most of her life depends on the kindness of others. When her friend meets a man, she breaks the news to Frances that it’s time for them to part. Frances bounces from situation to situation trying to find herself in a search she doesn’t quite realize she’s on.

Frances is like that friend you love but can’t help but shake your head at. This makes the film a delight to watch. You can enjoy the experience of watching someone you love, but it’s the people on screen who have to deal with her baggage. Most of all, Gerwig makes it so easy to relate to Frances, who goes at life with a good heart but still makes bad decisions. Like when she goes to Paris on a whim. I can see why she thinks it’s a good idea, but like so many ill conceived plans in my life, she realizes how wrong she was only once she has to live with her choice.

5. The World’s End. There were three talents primarily responsible for what has become known as the “Cornetto: Three Flavours Trilogy”—director Edgar Wright, screenwriter and actor Simon Pegg, and actor Nick Frost. “The World’s End” brings the unconventional comedy trilogy to an end. The first two films were excellent spoofs of their respective genres. “Shaun of the Dead” lampooned the zombie horror subgenre. “Hot Fuzz” gave a nudge to the ribcage of the buddy cop movie. Now, “The World’s End” takes on the alien invasion genre.

While “Shaun” and “Fuzz” are each excellent in their own respects, I feel “The World’s End” is these collaborators’ best effort yet. It has a seasoned nature to it that those films lacked. While each film works as both a spoof of their genre and a legitimate entry within their genre, “The World’s End” is the most accomplished as a legitimate entry. There are parts of this movie that are actually scary. The characters can be silly, but their situations are not. Also, as a science fiction plot, “The World’s End” finds itself in the company of films with much stronger political and social themes behind them. Not only does it ridicule such films as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, but also it has as much to say about our world’s current state of affairs as that film did.

Lest we not for get that “The World’s End” is also hilariously funny. It’s not slapstick, in your face American funny. It’s much more intelligent about it’s humor, asking the audience to understand where its characters are coming from and using their depth to show how we’re all funny. From Pegg’s stuck in the past rocker who just can’t let his youth go to Frost’s controlled conformist who probably found life much easier after childhood ended, these are people we know and we are. We recognize the stupid things they say and do, and then they’re thrown into a plot from a 50s science fiction film. It’s all quite a ball of cinematic genius.

6. Mud. Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” is perhaps the most humane movie on this list. I’m not even really sure what I mean by that. It has this “Help Thy Brother” quality to it that could restore your faith in man, and yet it also depicts man’s cruelty to his fellow man. It’s told from the perspective of a boy just coming to that age when he’s becoming corruptible.

Living a life of near poverty on a houseboat that has been ordered to de-moor from its spot on the river, the boy spends most of his time with a friend roaming around the delta. They visit an island that is said to be haunted where they meet a man who calls himself Mud. Mud needs a boat they want so he can sail away, but first he must finish a messy business in which he’s involved. His girl is in town and her family is hunting Mud. He wants to get his girl before he leaves and he enlists the boys to help him.

“Mud” is a movie that plays as a straightforward thriller, but also will benefit from multiple viewings, because there is more going on in it than simply its plot. It has a great deal to say about the innocence of childhood and the corruption of adulthood. It’s filled with interesting and well-realized characters who don’t make their decisions rashly. Mud himself represents childhood’s last gasp, and it’s possible that despite himself he could save this boy from the corruption of adulthood.

7. Only God Forgives. Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to his excellent “Drive” is most likely the most controversial film on my list. It’s one of those films that many will watch and turn off before it’s over, saying, “What the hell was that?” But it’s a film that is as calculating and dangerous as its lead character.

Teaming up with Ryan Gosling for the second time, Refn tells the story of an American expatriate in Bangkok who smuggles drugs and runs a legitimate fight club. His brother is killed after committing a crime so heinous it’d be difficult to argue he didn’t just get what he deserved. But family is family, so Gosling sets out to find his brother’s killer and exact revenge. The head of the family, his mother, is so maddened by the news she travels to Bangkok to make sure the deed is done. The man responsible is a former cop who is brought in as an enforcer by the police. All this is told in a cerebral collage of neon lights and electronic music with electric sex on sale in the seedy underworld of Bangkok.

When I first saw the movie, I misinterpreted the cop as the villain. He’s most certainly the antagonist to Gosling’s protagonist, but when you think about it, it is the cop who is doling out the justice while the protagonist is seeking revenge for someone who deserved his fate, working from a world built upon crime and bloodshed. The cop is a spirit of vengeance brought forth by the power of good to return the balance out of evil’s favor. Gosling’s criminal is certainly not guilty of the same horridness as his brother, but in defending his brother he is fighting for a cause without honor. Only God forgives, and he’s not in a very forgiving mood.

8. Amour. I had a good deal of trouble including Michael Haneke’s “Amour” on this list. I cannot recommend it to anyone, yet it is one of the most well made films in the career of this excellent filmmaker. It’s too well made. It’s too accurate. It’s too painful. For much of the year I tried to justify leaving off my list because it had already won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film for last year’s batch of films. However, it did not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. until spring of 2013, thus it qualifies for this year’s batch by my rules.

“Amour” is about death and it’s all too often place in the ordinary life. It depicts a twilight love between a couple that has obviously spent many loving years together. Then the woman becomes ill. The movie depicts her death unlike any other film has, in all its agonizing detail for the surviving member of the couple. We watch the wife wither away to nothing from the husband’s helpless point of view. We see their children try to make things better, not understanding what it’s like to be there on a daily basis. We see the husband try to care for her. We see inferior help and good help, and it doesn’t matter the quality of the help because until she dies, there is no quality of life.

I watched my own father die during a fairly short amount of time. He lived eight weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. I was only there for two of those weeks because I live far away from my parents. It was an awful experience. I can only imagine how terrible it was for my mother. And yet, it was nothing compared to many of the long drawn out and painful deaths such disease can produce. It is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy. That is what this movie achieves. It gives you that experience.

9. Star Trek Into Darkness. Now, these last few entries are the ones that would’ve been pushed off the list were I to get a chance to see all those other films I missed, but I’m glad I have the opportunity to champion these two movies that shared popular success, but haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve for just how good they are. “Star Trek Into Darknes” continues J.J. Abrams’ reboot and total re-writing of the Star Trek universe.

Like Abrams’s first “Star Trek” from 2009, Abrams and his screenwriters don’t just re-write Star Trek mythology here, but they use the existing mythology to create a mirror universe to the original television series and movie franchise where everything is kind of familiar and yet totally different as once. They’ve crafted a story with twists and turns that utilizes plot points from the best picture of the franchise so far “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” to create an original story with equal weight and importance within Star Trek mythology.

However, the movie isn’t made just for previous Star Trek fans. It’s more action packed and more epic than any Star Trek that has come before. It introduces concepts that are the staples of the Star Trek universe for the “first” time by telling a story that takes place before the original mission of the crew of the Starship Enterprise even began. It reintroduces the audience to the Prime Directive, a key philosophical ideal of the franchise, and promptly proves how impossible an ideal it is to achieve. And, like any good science fiction, it also contains a poignant commentary about the world in which we really live that examines the nature of terrorism and the dangers we face in trying to control the radical thinking that leads to such terror driven convictions.

10. Monsters University. It was as much of a surprise to me as it might’ve been to anyone that in 2001 “Monsters, Inc.” became one of my favorite movies of the year. It was the stuff of children’s dreams and nightmares and reconciled its warm-hearted nature by providing a very intelligent reasoning behind those concepts with a world inhabited by monsters who really mean no harm to the children they scare and prove the all too common relationship between humans and creature with which we have little understanding—they’re more scared of you than you are of them.

When it was announced that Pixar Animation Studios would be continuing its policy of turning older properties into sequels with “Monsters University”, I was faced with anticipation and fear that they wouldn’t quite be able to live up to the original film that had so surprisingly endeared itself to me. Once the model for CGI created animation and intelligent all ages content, Pixar has slipped of late in the quality of their output, much of that due to repeating itself with former properties. Could “Monsters University” be as good as the original?

I was pleasantly surprised that instead of repeating themselves they had somehow been able to produce a totally original story that still explored the theme of friendship, this time forming a strong friendship, rather than keeping one. The world of the monsters is just as rich as the first film left it, perhaps more so. The filmmakers once again build an intelligently comedic and touching story based on the notion that all kids must face and all adults already have of going away from home for school and trying to fit into another world where all your security blankets have been removed. Mike and Scully each face this prospect with their own misplaced confidence and discover that it can’t work without a support system.

Ten more movies that I loved this year are (listed alphabetically):

Berberian Sound Studio turns the making of the soundtrack for a stylized horror film into the semblance of a stylized horror film.

The Bling Ring examines the disenfranchisement of our youth in the celebrity driven media society that America fully endorses.

Captain Phillips gives its audience the first hand experience of becoming a hostage to the Somali pirate ring that terrorizes our African coast shipping routes.

The Heat may prove that Melissa McCarthy is the greatest comedic genius of our time in this R-rated buddy cop movie laugh fest.

Prince Avalanche is David Gordon Green’s return to form after a spate of lunkhead raunchy comedies. It’s about a couple of men struggling with leaving their boyhood behind as they are assigned cleanup duty in an area that has been devastated by a huge forest fire.

Prisoners examines the prisons that each member of two families and the investigating detective all fall into after the kidnapping of two children.

Spring Breakers continues this year’s examination of disenfranchised youth in Harmony Korine’s stark portrait of four girls who decide any price is worth the 24/7 party life.

Sightseers is the very dark British comedy about two stunningly normal serial killers on a killing spree across the country’s popular tourist attractions.

Stoker plays like a classic vampire movie but isn’t. It’s a disturbing portrait of a young girl torn between a family member she lost and one that has come back to haunt her.

Upstream Color follows a woman who has been abducted in such a manner that alters her life forever. She finds solace in a love affair with a man with a similar experience, but the need to discover what really happened to them drives them to obsession.

With less time to spend on feature films this year, I found myself watching many more short films than I normally do. Here are my five favorite shorts of the year. Each description includes a link to each film.

Brazzaville Teenager marks the directorial debut of actor Michael Cera. An adaptation of novelist Bruce Jay Friedman’s short story of the same name, Cera plays an office worker who convinces his intimidating boss to sing backup vocals on an R&B track to save his dying father’s life. Watch it.

Little Duck is the directorial debut of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. Made as part of Ron Howard’s Canon Project Imagination series, it tells the story of a Japanese expatriate who returns to his traditional Japanese fishing village when his brother finds himself on the wrong side of the law. Watch it.

Aningaaq is the other end of the Earth transmission heard from Sandra Bullock’s point of view in the feature length movie “Gravity”. Directed by that film’s co-writer and son of Alfonso Cuarón, Jonas Cuarón, it shows the Inuit fisherman who catches the distress call from space but cannot understand what the desperate astronaut is saying. Watch it.

Cargo is the ultimate parenting guide to how to save your baby in the zombie apocalypse. It shows a father who knows he cannot stop himself from becoming a zombie, but devises a plan to get his newborn to safety before that happens. Watch it.

Castillo Cavalcanti is your recommended dose of Wes Anderson to get you to March when his next feature film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” opens. It stars Anderson perennial Jason Schwartzman as a Grand Prix racecar driver who crashes in an isolated Italian town that happens to be where his ancestors were from. Watch it.

I also watched much more television this year than in the past.  While is see no point in telling everyone how great “Breaking Bad” was before it ended this fall, I will let you know what my favorite new shows were this year.

Orange is the New Black finds a surprising balance between comedy and drama in a women’s federal correctional facility, which is where its upper crust white protagonist ends up when a mistake from her past catches up to her. It returns to Netflix later this year.

Hannibal is the horrific exploration of the early cases of serial killer and noted psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, the FBI consultant responsible from bringing him to justice. Taking place before the events of the Thomas Harris novel “Red Dragon”, the show is the most horrific criminal profiling show to make it to television. It returns to NBC February 28.

The Americans is a throwback show for anyone who grew up in the early 80s and remembers the waning days of the Cold War. It follows two Russian spies planted in the U.S. to resemble an average American family. The show’s intensity is raised by the fact that you’re rooting for the people who were the bad guys at the time. It returns to FX February 26.

Almost Human combines the futuristic ideals of the police force from “Blade Runner” with a surprisingly humorous take on a world in which Robocop is real. The police of the future team up all humans with synthetic partners, our hero is a Dirty Harry type who gets himself assigned to “one of the crazy ones.” From this we get one of the more unique and entertaining buddy cop procedurals of all time. It airs Mondays on FOX.

Sleepy Hollow is another very high concept procedural that teams up a modern day policewoman with Ichabod Crane, who has awoken more than 200 years after his death to stave off the forces of evil that are gathering for the coming apocalypse in the famed town. It’s season finale airs Monday on FOX.

As usual there were also many disappointments this year. Here are the Worst Movies of the Year.

Upside Down takes a wondrous science fiction concept of twin planets forced to coexist and reduces it to juvenile romance.

Movie 43 is just a sad collection of short concept pieces that do more to embarrass the stars involved than to induce laughter.

iSteve is a sketch comedy skit drawn out to an unbearable feature length that diminishes the work of Steve Jobs in his creation of Apple by an actor who helped Jobs build the company into the influential tech pioneer that it became.

Aftershock sadly treats the real life earthquake in Chile that brought down a nightclub on hundreds of patrons as an excuse for horror movie clichés presented as some sort of sick tribute to the fallen.

The Last Stand marked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to leading action hero status in a film unworthy of one of his earliest action roles.

Pain & Gain presents the pathetic true story of a crew of Florida bodybuilders who tried to extort money from a local businessman using all the brainpower of a box of steroids. The fact that director Michael Bay seems more intent on glorifying their actions than condemning them is only mounting proof that the filmmaker doesn’t have a worthwhile movie in him.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the second G.I. Joe movie based on the Hasbro line of toys, was immensely better than the first. However, the bar was set so low on this franchise, it’s still in the pits.

Machete Kills is a rare miscalculation of exploitation spoofery by director Robert Rodriguez.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters … well, I really think the title says it all.

Man of Steel, while not the worst movie of the year, was certainly the most disappointing movie of the year. Despite a trailer that made it look amazing, director Zach Snyder’s videogame mentality driving the action of the film to override the deep mythology of the iconic comic book character and his screenwriter’s faux psychology behind the upbringing of the man who will become known as Superman have made me not so optimistic about the future of DC comic book heroes’ future on the big screen.

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