Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Year of Excess: My Favorite 2013 Films

If 2013 wasn't exactly a great year for music (it wasn't), it *was* a great year for film. It might even have been the best year since I've been in this blogging game. There were excellent films to be found at every level of filmmaking, from low-budget, true life dramas (The Bling Ring, Fruitvale Station) and hyper-stylized indie thrillers (Only God Forgives, Upstream Color), to awards-season prestige pictures (American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club) and big-budget blockbusters (Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim). And I would of course be remiss to mention the much-anticipated (and largely hilarious) return of Ron Burgundy and the news team. But here's the thing about the films of 2013 -- none of these films even cracked my honorable mentions. Ditto solid new films from Pedro Almodóvar, Steven Soderbergh, Ridley Scott, Rob Zombie, and a host of others from across the budget/genre spectrum. And even the Oscar voters mostly got it right, with only one Best Picture nominee being what I would consider a clear miss (Philomena). That said, let's get to the important stuff -- my Best Pictures list. We'll start with the honorable mentions, a formidable top-ten (well, nine) list in their own right.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
12 Years a Slave, Drug War, The East, Inside Llewyn Davis, Much Ado About Nothing, Mud, Nebraska, Stoker, This Is the End

10) Iron Man 3 / Thor: The Dark World
Directed by: Shane Black / Alan Taylor
Written by: Drew Pearce and Shane Black / Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley / Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston

As is tradition, we begin with a tie. Both Marvel offerings would have been firm honorable mentions on their own, but with their powers combined they were able to crack the top ten. Hey, half of the Avengers who matter is still a pretty potent combo. I'll admit both films have pretty huge flaws -- Iron Man's third act is laughable to the point of absurdity, and although it's an improvement on the first movie, there is still about *ZERO* chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman in Thor -- but they are blockbusters done right. Both deliver their thrills with wit and panache (as opposed to, say, the dour and convoluted Star Trek Into Darkness and the, let's see, what's the right adjective... fucking terrible Man of Steel). The Iron Man franchise was starting to look a little rusted over with the second movie, but Shane Black made the franchise sparkle once again with his lively script and slapstick direction. RDJ is well-versed with Black's nimble dialogue (all hail Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and Ben Kingsley's take on the Mandarin was one of my favorite comedic performances of the year -- indeed, Iron Man 3 is funnier than most comedies released last year. (For the record, most people hated the kid, but I didn't mind him at all). And while the ending set piece was just too much (although not nearly as bad as those in Darkness and Steel), the airplane sequence was just on the right side of ludicrous. Speaking of ending set pieces, Thor was one of the few action movies to do it right -- the teleporting hammer and frost monster running amok were perfect comedic touches. And while Hemsworth and Portman may not be the most charismatic leads, co-stars Hiddleston and Kat Dennings more than make up for it. Of the two, Dark World is my favorite despite a second-act lull -- but they both do what they're supposed to: make me amped for Avengers 2. Next up? Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Will it, too, best the previous installment?

9) Drinking Buddies
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Written by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston

We go from perhaps the loudest movies on my list (although, spoilers, Michael Bay does make an appearance) to perhaps the quietest. In fact, the dramatic weight of Drinking Buddies is almost entirely based on what *isn't* said -- namely, the obvious attraction between Chicago brewery employees Luke (Johnson) and Kate (Wilde). That both are in relationships when the movie begins is complicated enough, but the real complication --and a theme that runs through the movie like a yeasty undercurrent -- is the ubiquitous presence of alcohol. Just about every scene in the movie prominently features characters either making plans to drink, drinking, or in the clutches of a miserable hangover. In many ways, this cycle of drinking matches the stages of a relationship, and Drinking Buddies runs the gamut in that regard too -- both with Luke's and Kate's respective relationships and their relationship with each other. Although Kendrick (as Johnson's teacher girlfriend) and Livingston (Wilde's boyfriend) do their best with severely underwritten characters (one of the downsides to a mostly improvised script), it is the relationship between Luke and Kate that is by far the most interesting and relatable. Johnson's transformation from sympathetic shoulder to cry on to sanctimonious asshole (and back again) is remarkably true to life (been there), as is Wilde's conflicted, uninhibited party girl (also been there). Both actors give startlingly vivid, empathetic performances not suggested by their previous work ("the other guy from New Girl" and "hot girl in that crappy movie," respectively). Of course, the maestro behind it all is the indie "It Guy" of last year: Swanberg. The only other directorial effort I've seen of his was a fairly forgettable vignette in the first V/H/S, but if any of his other features are even half as soulful and raw as this, I'm sure they're worth checking out. (Note to self: Keep an eye on the Netflix streaming list.)

8) Spring Breakers
Directed by: Harmony Korine
Written by: Harmony Korine
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Anna Benson, Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, James Franco

I'll admit, my reasons for seeing this were almost entirely prurient at first. Just look at the poster -- it looked like a Skinemax flick with a slightly larger budget. There were four of us in the theater that Saturday afternoon: myself, my two friends, and the solitary creeper in the row in front of us. I mean, this guy looked like the kind of guy who would cut a hole in the popcorn tub at a movie by himself. But I couldn't really blame him -- Spring Breakers looked it it was going to be *that* kind of movie. It had been a gossip-page mainstay since pre-production and the trailers were heavy on the sleaze, prominently featuring salacious exploitation of Disney starlets and shots of James Franco's leering grill. The movie wound up delivering on all the above in spades: the sleaze, the exploitation, the grill. But it was the way it went about delivering its titillations that stayed with me much longer than any of the obvious visceral thrills. For all its debauchery, Spring Breakers is a *beautiful* movie -- brightly lit, perfectly staged, swathed in neon, all lushly photographed. Imagine if Gordon Willis got his start in music videos. (I'll readily admit that would not have been a good thing -- but it really worked here.) Then there's the music -- this is the one and only time I approve of the use of (much less the existence of) dubstep. What other genre could so perfectly score such a grotesque caricature of youthful esurience and excess? Also, you'll never think of Britney Spears's "Everytime" quite the same way again after Franco's be-tatted and -grilled rendition. Finally, the element that stayed with me the longest -- and eventually merited its inclusion in this list -- is the film's structure. (Read: editing.) This is a film that unfolds at its own pace and resists at every turn the temptation to succumb to the rigid plotting that plagues most Hollywood fare. No, Spring Breakers plays out more like a chromatic fever dream, an atonal and slyly rhythmic reverie rather than the trashy exploitation flick that was promised. I walked into the theater expecting little more than T 'n' A, and wound up getting something approaching... art?

7) Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara

Her was the final entry to make this list -- a function of it not coming out until the middle of January in Arizona. I had a chance to see it in California at the end of December, but I wound up seeing what would wind up being the #1 movie on this list, so I can't say I made the wrong choice. But while it might have been a late entry, it was also always destined to make this list. Let's see: Kaufman protégé writing and directing? Check. Subtle sci-fi premise? Check. L.A. setting? Check. Mustache on the poster? Check. But most importantly of all, it features the man who would very likely get my vote for Finest Actor Working Today (especially since PSH died -- R.I.P.): Joaquin Phoenix. I thought cinema had lost a startling and rare talent when he appeared to go off the deep end (for Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, which I still haven't seen), but then he came roaring back in 2012 with, in my estimation, one of the most gripping and visceral performances in at least a couple decades in The Master, in which he managed to out-act his main competition for the above-mentioned title, co-star PSH and, well, the master himself, Daniel Day-Lewis (in the once-overrated, now properly-rated Lincoln). After his Oscar robbery, Phoenix continued his hot streak (in NBA Jam terms, "he's heating up!") by doing a rare inward 180° turn in Her. In The Master, his Freddie Quell was almost spring-loaded, all twitch and explosion -- intensely physical work. Here, his Theodore Twombly is a much more cerebral presence, prone to pensive gazes and half-smiles -- there is real softness and Kirk Lazarus-ian "emotionality." It's not as strong work as Quell, but certainly worthy of an Oscar nomination in a mediocre year, lead actor-wise (cough*Bale*cough). Regardless, I can't wait to see him in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice later this year. As far as Her as a whole goes, yes, it can be overly twee at times, and, no, the "sex scene" doesn't work, but it is perhaps the most honest exploration of modern relationships since its spiritual predecessor, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And that's no faint praise coming from an Apple hater and confirmed cynic. But I am, of course, ignoring the film's crowning achievement: bringing high-waisted pants back! (Or were they ever in?)

6) Pain & Gain
Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris

Pain & Gain should be subtitled "In Which Michael Bay Interrogates the American Dream." I know, I know, Fitzgerald or Welles he may not be, but I'd like to think Mr. Bay knows a thing or two about 'Merica (alternately, see my Facebook cover photo). American films were very much concerned with excess this year (and if you don't believe me, just listen to A.O. Scott), but possibly none was as honest as P&G (as the initiated call it). Luhrmann's Gatsby and Korine's Spring Breakers were both fictional and rooted in opulent fantasy, and of the three true-to-life stories, Coppola's Bling Ring never went deeper than designer labels, Russell's Hustle (which would've been a great title) was too convoluted to really analyze character motivation, and Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street was too concerned with satire (the biting nature of which sometimes wound up taking a chunk out of its own ass). While not the best of these commonly-themed films, P&G nevertheless presents the most credible portrayal of the consequences of pure, raw, foaming-at-the-mouth greed. That's a tall claim considering that this is by far the most outlandish of the "based on a true story" films, but the characters (okay, caricatures) here aren't self-centered teens, fast-talking con men, or charismatic hustlers. No, Daniel "I Believe in Fitness" Lugo, Paul Doyle, and Adrian Doorbal are blue-collar schmucks, meatheads with goals no more grand than owning a gym or getting a bigger dick. Their greed is palpable and utterly banal, unlike the conceptual or even idealized avarice present in the other films. And, also unlike the other films, these guys suffer consequences harsher than not getting the girl or a few years of hard tennis time -- they get the fucking death penalty. So, while P&G is definitely not the "small character piece" he claimed in promotional interviews, it still wound up with a hefty amount of substance, albeit of the performance-enhancing variety and encased in spandex and sweat-glimmer. Now, can you stop smashing CGI robots together and make Bad Boys III already, Mikey? Here's hoping for my #1 movie in 2015...

(Also, give it up for the definitely not a made-up name Stephen McFeely appearing twice on this list!)

5) Captain Phillips
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Being the type of film it is, I will have somewhat less to say about Captain Phillips than most of the other films on this list. But of the type of film it is -- a hyper-competent, technically-terrific, utterly-gripping action-thriller -- there are few better examples. One of my sincerest disappointments on Oscar-nom morning was the absence of Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass in their categories. Hanks would would get my vote and be a worthy winner over any of the nominees (is it possible that Bruce Dern would be the runner-up on that list? it might be...), but, alas, delivered a performance that was too economic, too efficient for 95% of the film. (But that last 5% -- good god, no one was better last year outside of maybe Lupita Nyong'o.) Greengrass's work could be described the same way -- economical, efficient, and a far sight better than his scattershot direction in the Bourne movies. But fortunately, the Academy did get a few things right -- nominations for Abdi (completely convincing), Ray (solid, but not a strength), three technical categories (editing, sound editing, sound mixing) where it has a very real chance of upsetting Gravity, and Best Picture (where it is probably among the bottom-two potential winners). Add it all up and you get one of the most riveting cinematic experiences of the year -- riveting as in I was totally bolted to my seat for the two-hour duration. Those movies don't come around often, and you should regret it if you didn't see it on the big screen.

4) The World's End
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Written by: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
Starring: Edgar Wright, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

I'm a huge fan of both Shaun of the Dead (best zom-rom-com of all time) and Hot Fuzz (I love any movie that loves Point Break and Bad Boys 2 as much as I do), but The World's End might be the best of the "Cornetto Trilogy." It's certainly the most well-made -- the cast is top-notch, as usual; the performances are uniformly excellent, highlighted by a career-best turn from Pegg; the script balances humor, both light and dark, with real emotional turmoil; and it's maybe Wright's most accomplished work behind the camera (with the possible exception of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). That it manages to combine universal themes like friendship, aging, and forgiveness with a frank discussion of alcohol abuse and -- OH YEAH -- space aliens all with nuance and pathos is an impressive, impressive feat. At the center of it all is Simon Pegg, who, if the Academy had any sense at all when it comes to comedies, should have been at least in the conversation for Best Actor. His Gary King has much more in common with Shaun than Sergeant Nicholas Angel, but only if Shaun spent a couple decades at the Winchester drinking himself to despair. A greasy, overweight, trenchcoat-wearing alcoholic, Gary King is easily the most loathsome protagonist in any Wright/Pegg movie. The smartest thing about the movie though is that it doesn't try to redeem him (which I'm not even sure would have been possible) so much as humanize him -- which you find out was the point all along by the time you get to the eponymous final stop on the pub crawl that serves as the backbone of the movie. Anyone who's ever had a few too many will see a bit of themselves in Gary King -- although hopefully it doesn't take an alien invasion for you to realize your mistakes.

3) Frances Ha
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver

Frances Ha is built around the considerable charms of star and co-writer Greta Gerwig. She is beautiful, affable, and has a knack for making insecurity seem endearing. I knew none of this going in, having never seen a Greta Gerwig movie and being generally wary of Noah Baumbach's one-note cynicism. But I eventually heard enough good things about Frances Ha to take the plunge one night on Netflix streaming (eventually we'll be able to drop the "streaming," right?) and was rewarded with the year's most enjoyable, satisfying movie-watching experience. The joys of Frances Ha are almost innumerable -- the Manhattan-esque black-and-white cinematography, the expert deployment of David Bowie's "Modern Love," the ironic dialogue ("He wasn't a real alcoholic, but sometimes he would have like twelve beers"), the impromptu trip to Paris that we've all thought of taking, the final reveal of the title. But the most memorable thing about the film is the depiction of the relationship at the center of the film. Frances Ha, thankfully, isn't a "bot meets girl" movie -- Frances breaks up with her boyfriend at the beginning of the movie and is largely unconcerned with that part of her life for the duration. No, the real relationship here is between Frances and her best friend, "the same person with different hair," Sophie (Sumner). It's refreshing to see a movie eschew the usual romantic-comedy entanglements in favor of exploring friendship -- you know, those relationships that people by and large spend more time on than their romantic ones in a given lifetime. It's double refreshing to see an honest, funny, and resonant story about female friendship. I mean, this movie was basically made to break the Bechdel test. Finally, it makes a great double feature with my #9 movie, Drinking Buddies. C-c-check 'em out on Netflix before the movie gods take the away.

2) Gravity
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

I suppose I'll start by saying that Gravity shot to the top spot on this list right about when the credits rolled and I began to clean up my undershorts. It would remain there for the duration of the year, even after I had seen what would become my #1 for the first time. That's how wowed I was by the technical virtuosity and unyielding tension of Alfonso Cuarón's 3D masterpiece. (And it *is* a masterpiece.) I don't think I've ever been privy to another cinematic experience that so combined the wonderment of the first Lord of the Rings film (or Avatar) with the gut-level terror a child feels at watching a horror movie. It's incomparable -- for now, anyway. (Interstellar, anyone?) So what's it doing sitting here at #2? Well, aside from the clichéd backstory, non-existent character development, and nearly disastrous dream sequence (none of which really is that problematic), the main thing going against Gravity is actually its greatest attribute: the in-theater experience. Quite simply, you'll *never* be able to recreate your initial viewing of Gravity -- because the film so relies on CGI spectacle to prop up what is a very simple story, that means there is very little rewatch value, especially on home video. I mean, even if you had fuck you money and could afford a massive 3D TV, you'd still only be able to recreate about 10% of the experience. If I'm only ever *really* going to be able to watch a movie once, it just can't be #1. That said, I will be rooting for it to win Best Picture tonight. More on that later this afternoon. For now, let's move onto my Best Picture...

1) The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey

I can't remember a more difficult year for picking a #1 film. Usually, the choice is pretty obvious -- 2009 through 2011 all had clear, unimpeachable #1s (Inglourious Basterds, The Social Network, and Drive, respectively). They all remain my top movie of each year to this day. Last year was a little trickier, with both The Grey and Zero Dark Thirty duking it out -- but it was only ever really between those two. This year though... it just seems like a bunch of solid #2-5 type of movies were released. If I could cram my entire top-10 list into the top 5 without ever naming a #1, I'd have done so. (Or I could just do what Film Crit Hulk did and have a 10-way tie for #1 -- great list, by the way.) When it came down to it though, I went with Scorsese's latest collaboration with Leo as my top choice. Here's why:
  • It's funny. In fact, it might be the funniest movie of the year. From Jonah Hill's veneers to the midget tossing to the Quaaludes scene (that fucking scene!), I don't think I experience that much uproarious laughter in a theater last year.
  • It has both the worst nude scene of the year (Hill's grubby prosthetic dong) and the best (Margot Robbie, good lord). These things matter.
  • It's got a killer period soundtrack. House of Pain! Sir Mix-a-Lot! Foo Fighters! Me First and the Gimme Gimmes! And whatever that McConaughey humming thing was!
  • It's well-written. Terence Winter's script might be the most underrated of all the Oscar nominees (well, second-most behind Before Midnight's). The "Bond villain boat" scene might be the best of last year.
  • The acting is stellar. From McConaughey's Baldwin-esque cameo and Hill's scene-stealing antics to Robbie's sympathetic turn and Leo's unhinged lead turn, the cast of many acted the shit out of this movie.
  • It's Scorsese's best work behind the camera since Goodfellas. (Also note: It's basically the same movie as Goodfellas, only with a different type of criminal.) Outside of Cuarón's likely Oscar-winning work on Gravity, it's the best-directed movie of the year. Just watch the 'Ludes scene for a masterclass in framing and spacial relation. (And a special shout-out to Thelma Schoonmaker, editrix extraordinaire and robbed of an Oscar nomination.)
  • It's smart. The Wolf of Wall Street is the most incisive Wall Street satire I've ever seen. I mean, there's a scene in the movie where DiCaprio mimes ass-fucking one of his clients. If that isn't about the best metaphor for the recent financial crisis, I don't know what is. And I want you to watch the last scene, the last shot of the movie and tell me exactly what you see. Okay, I'll save you the trouble and show you:
That's us. That's the film audience, that's America, watching raptly as Jordan Belfort tells us exactly how Wall Street fucked us. And we're eating it up. We love it; we want more. Yes, the film has some alarmingly misogynistic elements, and yes, it somewhat glamorizes Belfort's vices, but with that last shot, the film indicts us right along with Belfort and all the other Wall Street sleazebags. For as bad as the last shot in The Departed was, this one more than makes up for it -- and makes The Wolf of Wall Street my #1 film of 2013.

BONUS LIST - BOTTOM FIVE FILMS OF 2012 (listed from bad to worst*)
Kick-Ass 2 (and this from someone who loved the first one)
Machete Kills (ditto)
Man of Steel (the last 45 minutes were almost unbearable)
To the Wonder (the entire two hours were almost unbearable -- gorgeous though)
A Good Day to Die Hard (the cinematic equivalent of a toddler smashing Tonka trucks together)

2013 was the toughest year to write about, film-wise, that I can recall. I hope I've done its excellent films justice. It sure took me long enough -- this is by far the latest I've ever posted this list. Next up, Oscar predictions. With only hours to spare before my Oscar party starts! Egads. Wish me luck. Thanks for reading!

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