2013 was a deep, deep year for movies. Better than 2012 with all its promise. However, I don’t think the films at the top are as strong as past years with films like The Master, The Social Network, Midnight in Paris, There Will Be Blood, or No Country for Old Men gunning for the number one spot.
Obviously, this list is totally subjective (because it’s art, duh), and these are just my favorites. I judge films by how they affect me emotionally and how they stick with me days and weeks after first viewing…and, honestly, if I am compelled to write about them.
“Spprriiinnng Breeeaaak. Spprinng Breaak Foorre-evvv-uuuhh.” -Alien
Is it satire? I don’t know. All I know is that Korine’s eye is special, his casting is inspired, and his odd sensibilities are very welcome to this filmgoer, because most of contemporary cinema is banal and insipid.
“If you want love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect but it’s real.” -Jesse
The above quote is a perfect explanation of the Before series. I’m a big fan of Linklater—both his independent and commercial stuff—and quite love this film series, so it’s not a surprise that it was a shoe-in for my top ten. Though, I didn’t love it as much as others, as it went no. 2 and no. 1 on AV Club and Paste, respectively. The film is supremely acted and written, as, of course, were the previous two. The partnership between the three—Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater—is a beautiful thing, and I think they should keep making them every seven years until one of them dies. But, before you go out and get your “Jesse and Celine Forever” tattoos, I found that Before Midnight got a little too political and so interior and autobiographical (I think) that I actually got a little uncomfortable. Before Sunset is still far and away my favorite of the three, but Before Midnight is still really good and may require a rewatch.
“Everything is getting nicer every year—all the design, the food, the coffee. Everything is easy now. You don’t get lost anymore. It’s that idea of a utopian future that is also full of isolation and loneliness in all this niceness.” -Director Spike Jonze on technology and the future
This is probably the most beautiful film to look at from last year. Jonze’s vision of technology and the future is unique and quirky, which makes for a wholly original film. But…I couldn’t totally get into it. Honestly, it was kind of nauseating. The performances are great and the characters are real, but they’re losers. That’s not what’s wrong with it per se, as a lot of great films are about losers. It’s funny; because Phoenix is the most handsome he’s ever been on film, even with those terrible high-waisted pants and the chocolate-hued Selleck-stache. And he could have boned Olivia Wilde on the first date, but didn’t. So is he really a loser? It’s hard to identify with a lonely person when they shun human interaction and easily maintain other relationships, yet still go home and feel sorry for themselves.
I also think part of my relative distaste has to do with my long-standing admiration of Scarlett Johansson as an actress. I’ve seen nearly everything she’s ever been in and I know her vocal tics very well. I never once believed that the OS was not her. Most critics are saying that it was great casting, because of Johansson’s sexy voice and the subconscious visual of her curvaceous figure. I saw through it. I think it was a missed opportunity to cast a husky-voiced unknown.
However, I do think that Her does have some things to teach us about technology. We will become somewhat more dependent on it, but also more fluid in our use of it so that it is never separate from “real life.” Older pundits decree that new media and social media are anti-social. Do they not realize that one never loses sight (pun intended!) of the fact that users are communing with other human beings? It is no different than passing notes or letters, except that it is more immediate and the dialogue is accelerated, which can make the back-and-forth longer and (possibly) more fruitful. I posit that people will never fall in love with their computer’s operating systems (never say never, I guess), because there will always be lonely, real humans out there with enough courage to communicate behind the guise of technology.
With all that said, I respect Jonze and his overall vision, the movie’s big ideas, and the female perspectives. It’s rare a film’s world is so real that the viewer can be transported. Essentially, Her is an important movie because very few films with this kind of creativity are made (or are allowed to be made). Although I think its importance will fade with time, it is important now. Also, if we dress like that in the future, I can die today.
“That’s the problem with heartbreak, to you it’s like an atomic bomb and to the world it’s just really cliché, because in the end we all have the same experience” -Kate
Drinking Buddies is mumblecore done right. It’s so realistic that it verges on awkward, but it has enough of a structure to make it enjoyable. Jake Johnson does awkward with the best of them and he has a Steve Carrell or Paul Rudd-type career ahead of him. Olivia Wilde as Kate, a character with a job (at a micro-brewery) that makes decisions—both at work and in relationships—that women are rarely allowed to make on film, is such a breath of fresh air and an important step in cinema. Anna Kendrick is great, too, as a wet-blanket girlfriend (which is nearly impossible), who has actual needs and real desires. Wilde proves that she is much more than her beauty. Her performance in Drinking Buddies is the highlight of her career and the character was the most like a real, contemporary person as any nominated for an award this year (she was also great in Her…her heartbreak was palpable). Do yourself a favor and see this. It’s currently on Netflix.
“It’s not a social networking thriller. It is a drama about the ways in which we reach out to each other and how technology has changed that, for better and for worse.” -Henry-Alex Rubin on his film
Disconnect gets everything right about technology that Her got wrong. It’s not the technology itself that causes pain or hurt, it’s the people on the other end of the technology. Sure, it’s a Crash-esque multi-story structure, but it plays so real; more like Magnolia, but less about fathers and more about technology…okay, a little about fathers. Jason Bateman is fantastic in the serious role as the lawyer and father at the center of the stories that undoubtedly converge and explode like a terrible virus.
I don’t think that the title means that we are disconnected from each other. I think it is an order to unplug every once in a while, so as to really see that everything—even, and especially, things done in the digital realm—has real-life consequences.
“We’re all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.” –Tim
This is a fabulous love story. I’m a sucker for good ones. Rachel McAdams is divine (and ageless! She looks younger here than she did in Mean Girls). Newcomer Domhnall Gleeson (son of fantastic Irish character actor Brendan) wins you over almost immediately as main character Tim and Bill Nighy is so unforgettably charismatic as Tim’s father, proving that he and writer/director Richard Curtis should never not work together.
The title is a triple-entendre and the film works each way. If you buy into the so-called “gimmick” or “trope,” then this film will make you feel. Elements of fantasy are not cop-outs, they’re marvelous tools when used the right way going back as far Shakespeare and the Greeks. Curtis got it very right here.
“Sometimes, all you have in life are fucked-up, poisonous choices.” -Rosalyn Rosenfeld
David O. Russell is a conman. His movies are structural messes, but we don’t notice because his characters (usually multiple and of both genders) are impressionistic masterpieces; the kind of master portraits that Irving and Lady Edith would have loved to get their grubby hands on.
Plus, I call cease-and-desist on all films with the modifier “American” in the titles of movies. There’s way too many. We know where we are. And even if you want to keep the America, then “Hustle America” or “Hustle, America” would have been much better titles.
But, hey, that’s enough negativity. There are a rare five outstanding performances (it’s gotta be Russell’s doing, as his track record of his last three films proves) in this movie (don’t forget Renner and his magnificent pompadour) and the restaurant and “Delilah” scenes were as good, if not better, than any other this year.
The Wolf of Wall Street
“Sell me this pen!” –Jordan Belfort
Marty! Leo! Marty and Leo! Scorsese can do little wrong in my eyes, so my admiration may hinder my judgment. The fact that a 70 year-old man made this film is remarkable. The movie is on coke, even when they characters are on ‘ludes. It’s the fastest three hours I’ve ever experienced. Some critics say it is too long and it lags toward the end. I think that the build-up is so hyper-driven that it earns the slowdown in the dénouement.
Don’t be fooled. This is high comedy, but not quite satire. It simultaneously glorifies the conspicuous consumption, debauchery, and hedonism of Wall Street in the era, because it is impossible to show nice suits and fancy cars without them looking shiny; but still, it never lets them off the hook for what they’ve done to all that they’ve ripped off and screwed over in their ascent up the ladder. Scorsese and Winter don’t show you the other side, but they don’t have to. We are living in its wake. The film is intentionally comedic and over-the-top, because the flip-side is sad and depressing. Artists have the right to do whatever they want. Smart moviegoers walked out of the theater understanding that Jordan Belfort and his ilk are douchebags of the highest order.
Inside Llewyn Davis
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song” -Llewyn Davis
Good things don’t always happen to us. But we go on. Sometimes in circles. People are assholes. But, sometimes people are kind and good. They are more content and happy, it seems. This is life.
The soundtrack is the film. The film is the soundtrack. The live-recorded performances are perfect. The script is taut and rife with deeper meaning. So beautiful.
12 Years A Slave
“I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.” –Solomon Northup
These are my favorite films. I possess not a trace of “white guilt.” That is a topic for a different kind of essay. Steve McQueen (the most important, not yet household-name director currently working) does a great job of avoiding the blame-game, eludes placing responsibility on an abstract “whiteness,” and never points to contemporary race relations. He tells it as it was. In 1850, these things were a normal way of life. This sad verisimilitude is best exemplified in the scene when Paul Giamatti’s character holds a slave auction in his frickin’ kitchen and parlor.
12 Years A Slave is an accurate and straightforward history lesson devoid of sociopolitical commentary. It is visually stunning, emotionally-moving, incredibly well-acted, and historically important. Solomon Northup’s story needed to be told, and in the multiplexes. It is truly a miracle that the man ever got to see his wife, children, and grandchildren again, and what he and so many others went through is a dreadful stain. The story is sad, but the movie is beautiful.
Producer Brad Pitt, who also plays a Jesus stand-in in the film (the one odd choice that most think should’ve been cut, but he was writing the checks), will likely be accepting the Oscar for Best Picture. Get your thank-yous in order, Brad. You’ve got a lot kids to list.
Other notables (in alphabetical order):
All is Lost, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, The Counselor, Enough Said, Fruitvale Station, The Heat, Lone Survivor, Mud, Pain & Gain, A Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, The Spectacular Now, This is the End, The Way Way Back
The Rest of the Oscars Wade-Os
Best Actor (all acting categories ranked in descending order)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Some are saying that anyone could have played this part. Boy, do I think they’re wrong. The one Best Actor nom that was easy to play was Bruce Dern’s turn as Grandpa Simpson in Nebraska. It takes a lot more than most realize to do what DiCaprio did by playing the realistic cult leader as comedy. That is what Belfort was–a cult leader. This performance is part Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko and part Robert Duvall in The Apostle.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
A quietly profound performance. You love this man long before you have to feel any sympathy for him.
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Isaac is a star. His talent carries a film in which nothing extraordinary really happens. Llewyn Davis is an asshole, but you want so badly for him to get everything he wants out of life. I attribute that to the Coens and Isaac.
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
He is semi-unrecognizable and powerful in this role, but the film is paint-by-numbers and otherwise unmemorable.
Christian Bale, American Hustle
The only problem with Bale’s performance is that he loses the “lead” in the second half of the movie to the other characters. If he had control of the narrative start to finish, then he’d be much higher up the list, if not at the very top.
Cate Blanchete, Blue Jasmine
She is the queen and it’s not really even close. What she does here may be the best performance ever in an Allen film. That is not hyperbole.
Amy Adams, American Hustle
What Adams did in American Hustle is akin to playing two roles—two difficult, distinct roles.
Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies
Remember: she plays a real human being.
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Enough Said
She’s an amazing actress and as outstanding as her career has been, this performance shows flashes of real greatness.
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Only honorary. I can’t tell if it’s good or not. I mean, she performs the hell out of it. I think it would’ve worked better on the stage—the performance, and the whole thing for that matter.
Best Supporting Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Mud
Long live the McConaissance! This is a real American hero in the vein of Clint Eastwood and the original Steve McQueen.
James Franco, Spring Breakers
He plays a grill-wearing gangster rapper name Alien. And you believe it. Enough said.
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Cooper earns a mention on the strength of two scenes: the non-sex, sex scene with Adams and his joy making fun of the Louis C.K. character in the scene when he thinks they’ve wrapped the case.
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
The kind of pure evil rarely nailed on screen. Rivals Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List for hateability.
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
The Lemon Quaaludes scene.
Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave
Patsey is as important and complex a character as has ever been put in a movie, and Nyongo’o’s grace and beauty counterbalance life’s darkest and deepest disillusionments.
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
JLaw can blow up my microwave any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Julliane Nicholson, August: Osage County
Not who you were thinking, huh? Julia Roberts had the bigger, shit-storming role that she always plays. Nicholson had the much harder job of playing the weird and reserved black sheep. It’s really the best performance in the film.
Melissa McCarthy, The Heat
Yes, comedy. McCarthy is able to embody the biggest (no pun), foul-mouthed cartoon of a character and somehow make her still seem real.
Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
She’s Australian and nails that New Yawk accent. Her unbelievable beauty works against her. She was good in About Time too.
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf Of Wall Street
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
The flaming debris flying across the globe during re-entry was one of the most beautiful shots of the year. He pulls off a lot of innovative stuff. The movie itself…it’s okay.
Best Original Screenplay
Richard Curtis, About Time
Andrew Stern, Disconnect
Spike Jonze, Her
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle
It loses a lot of points for structure, obviously. But, damn are some of those individual scenes great movie-writing.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight
I don’t understand how this is an “adapted” screenplay, but the writing is as great as the first two.
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Again: how is this “adapted?”
John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave
Hard source material to screw up.
Terence Winter, The Wolf Of Wall Street
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
Newcomers to Watch
Director: Henry-Alex Rubin
Rubin isn’t a total newcomer; he directed the highly regarded and Academy Award-nominated documentary Murderball. However, Disconnect is his first dramatic feature as the head director. Having worked under the tutelage of James Mangold (Walk The Line), I think that Rubin is on his way to a great career of thoughtful films with commercial appeal. What Rubin gets most right in Disconnect is that pesky task of showing new media on the screen ie. texts, ims, social media, etc. I don’t know how to explain how he succeeds, but it is the best I’ve seen yet. Add that to great lighting, editing, and an invasive, yet clean style, and Rubin’s a man with a fresh vision.
Actor: Jonah Bobo
You may remember Bobo as Steve Carrell’s overly-precocious son in Crazy, Stupid, Love. He shows a different, complex, and much more serious side of himself in Disconnect. Plus, after he cuts his mop-hair he will be a new man. It will work in his favor to be completely unrecognizable from his previous work in an upcoming film.