Sunday, March 02, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2013

10. Her

When Spike Jonze burst onto the scene with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation over a decade ago, a lot of people (including myself) tended to group him tonally with his collaborator Charlie Kaufman. The films were funny and unique, but they were so abstract and postmodern that they didn't really speak to larger human themes. A description of the plot of Her, that of a man who has a relationship with a computer, might suggest a similar approach. But in fact, Jonze, writing and directing himself, is much more ambitious with Her.

Her could be termed a science fiction film, but it doesn't feel much like one. The world exists very much like the one we live in and the technology feels like it could be coming in the near future. The premise of a person falling in love with a computer and other people accepting this is a little harder to buy, but I've seen much, much bigger stretches in mainstream science fiction. In short, you can buy into the world Jonze creates. As such, Her explores not just our relationship with evolving technology but the nature of human relationships and what we expect and desire from others. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as always and Scarlett Johansson's voice is crucial to making the movie work. It's a movie that makes you think and the most human movie of Jonze's career. I'm excited to see what he does next.

9. World War Z

I went into World War Z skeptical. The reviews were pretty good but not great and there was a lot of negative buzz based on rumored behind the scenes production problems and complaints about the faithfulness to the source material. I came away thinking this was one fun summer action movie that didn't really get the respect it deserved.

This is not a horror movie. It's an action movie with zombies. But it has the benefit of taking the elements that make zombie movies fun and adding top flight production values and an A list lead. So you get really cool sets in South Korea, Israel and elsewhere mixed with your typical thrills of zombie attacks. It doesn't reinvent the genre by any means but it was the most enjoyable blockbuster of the year for me.

8. American Hustle

It was going to be pretty difficult for a David O. Russell film with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to not work. Russell has been pumping out one great movie after another, getting great performances out of his casts. Here, he just threw together the leads on his last two movies (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) in a fun comedy romp about scam artists trying to get the best of the FBI.

Jennifer Lawrence received the most Oscar discussion for American Hustle, but to me Amy Adams steals the show. She's just terrific as a woman with mixed loyalties and very hard to figure out intentions. Christian Bale for his part again shows his willingness to transform himself into a role. It's an actors' showcase and another Russell success.

7. Mud

Dallas Buyers Club became the central 2013/14 discussion point for Matthew McConaughey's remarkable surge as an actor, which is a shame. Yeah, he lost a lot of weight for that role. But Mud is a better performance, a better story and a much better movie. McConaughey plays the role of a drifter in trouble with the law and looking to connect with the woman he loves and who gives his life meaning, with the help of some kids. In a year full of antiheroes in the movies, he may stand out most of all. It's just a masterful performance, simultaneously strong and vulnerable, dangerous and warm.

Adding to the movie greatly is the setting, on the Mississippi River. It feels almost like a Mark Twain story. Jeff Nichols, following his captivating and bizarre Take Shelter, announced himself as a real directorial presence. I think this is a movie that is going to become more and more popular as time goes on. It's a gem.

6. You're Next

I'm a sucker for a good horror movie. That makes it all the more sad for me that a good one only comes along once every five years. You're Next fits the bill. The best horror movies are ones where you don't quite know what the menace is or what's going on. That uncertainty adds to the scares. You're Next, with the true villains not fully revealed until late, keeps you guessing along the lines of Scream. 

You're Next also benefits from mixing in humor without going too far in that direction. That's a tricky balance. A dour horror movie isn't much fun, but horror movies that go completely over the top lose their visceral effect. This one hits the right spot and it's highly recommended to fans of the genre.

5. Fruitvale Station

Lost in the summer's releases, this should have gotten recognition by the time Oscar season rolled around. I wonder if it's even worth releasing a prestige movie before September, because they so rarely get awards season recognition. Michael B. Jordan is terrific as Oscar Grant, the man who was tragically killed at a BART station in 2009.

The risk with that story is that it could be preachy or that it would deify the young man in an unrealistic way. But that isn't the case. Grant as played by Jordan is a fully formed human being. He isn't a saint but he doesn't deserve the fate that befalls him. The ending is heartbreaking, as the honesty in the storytelling makes the tragedy hit so much harder.

4. Wolf of Wall Street

When Wolf of Wall Street starts, it feels like it might end up being a remake of 2000's underrated Boiler Room. As the movie rolls on, however, you realize this isn't really a movie about brokerage firms. This is another Martin Scorsese gangster film. It's Casino, set on Wall Street. It's an audacious, overlong, funny as hell roller coaster ride and Scorsese's ballsiest film in years.

People have complained that the movie makes you like and root for the sorts of unscrupulous financial scam artists that wrecked our economy. And that's true. You do in fact end up rooting for these terrible people. But is that so much worse than rooting for literal gangsters who spend the movie murdering their enemies? Scorsese doesn't  care. He's not spending any time moralizing. He's just telling a story and entertaining. It's the rise and fall of a charismatic charlatan. Leo isn't Madoff. He's Corleone.

3. Spectacular Now

Every year, there are dozens of smaller independent films that get strong reviews but that don't stand out or move you. Way Way Back, Kings of Summer and the like are perfectly fine. Spectacular Now is transcendent. Miles Teller is totally relatable as a kid who wants to be good but seems resigned to a future of trouble. He charms Shailene Woodley, who cares for him and is brought into his troubles.

It's a coming of age story and it's also a classic story of a man who loves a woman but comes to believe she would be better off without him. Is he right? Is he redeemable? Should he give up on that relationship if it means giving up on himself but a better life for her? I left this movie deeply caring about these characters and their lives. It's a great little movie.

2. Captain Phillips

More than any movie this year, Captain Phillips gets your heart racing from the start and will not let up. It's a tightly crafted classic thriller that isn't trying to do too much. Tom Hanks stars as a captain whose ship is attacked by Somali pirates and ends up held at gunpoint for much of the movie.

While sympathy for Hanks as the every man drives the movie forward, the struggle of the Somalis gives the story a dual thrust. By the end, it's clear that they are in as much, if not more, danger than Hanks and it's unclear how aware of that they are. If you're sympathetic to some degree to some of the pirates (I've spoken with some people who are and some people who aren't), it adds to the drama of the third act. Either way, it's gripping.

1. Gravity

I've been a big fan of Alfonso Cuaron for a long time. Y Tu Mama Tambien was one of the best of the wave of great Mexican films in the late 90s/early 00s and Children of Men was just exceptional. It was a long wait for his next project but Gravity delivered huge.

Movies at their best transport you into a world that otherwise you could not experience. Most people find space fascinating and Gravity more than any film ever made makes you feel like you are on an adventure high above the Earth's atmosphere. The visuals are spectacular but you aren't left wondering how they shot it. You feel like they just went up there to shoot. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are their typically comforting presences and the straightforward story still packs plenty of thrills. It transports you to a place it's fun to explore and that you'd love to go back to.


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