Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Best Movies of 2013

What usually happens is I end up seeing a lot of above average mainstream movies during the year, and I don't really get caught up with the more prestigious films until after I've already made this list. While that's still somewhat true, as I managed to see things like Star Trek Into Darkness and Elysium while missing new work by acclaimed directors such as the Coen brothers, Steve McQueen, and Spike Jonze, I do think I did a slightly better job this year of seeing some smaller, really good movies. Mostly a fun year, even if the summer was a bit disappointing.

Best of 2013

10. Mud

Matthew McConaughey has always had a charismatic presence on screen, but he spent a lot of the last decade acting in movies no one cared about, playing regular charming guys and not pushing himself. That's changed in the last few years with roles like in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, and continues with Mud, and seeing him emerge as one of film's most captivating actors has been a real treat. I've noticed a trend recently of well made, independent movies set in rural America going around, and Mud fits right in there with the story of two boys in Arkansas who befriend a strange man living on an island who they slowly realize is a fugitive. The story is simple, but the performances are strong and it's a well-put-together coming-of-age tale worth checking out.

9. Spring Breakers

I guess Spring Break culture is still a thing? I remember MTV pushing it really hard about fifteen years ago. Spring Breakers is a fairly fascinating movie that completely revels in that culture while simultaneously mocking it and subverting it, and the effect is pretty remarkable. It's hard to know what to take from it at certain points, but at the very least, James Franco gives an unusual and memorable performance, there's some truly well crafted shots and moments, and it's a solid crime movie from start to finish. The girls, especially Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, are fearless in their roles, and despite the rampant sexualization of every woman on screen it somehow comes out feeling like a feminist work on the other end. You kind of need to see it to know where you stand on it.

8. Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach isn't as well known as his occasional writing partner Wes Anderson, but Frances Ha shows how much more human his work can be. He and star Greta Gerwig co-wrote this movie about a young woman struggling to live in New York, and like most good movies of this works well as a story about a young person struggling to do anything. She strives to be more than an assistant at a dance company, she has fights with her best friend, she misses opportunities that could have turned into something important. But the movie is far from depressing, with Gerwig's great, eye-catching performance, the pervasive little moments and snatches of humor, and the way that in the end it shows that, while it can be tough finding how you can live your life and be happy, it's always possible.

7. Pacific Rim

It's sort of funny how Guillermo del Toro left The Hobbit because it was taking too long to get into production, and then the first movie came out before the next thing he actually directed. It was worth it though, since Pacific Rim is one of the most jubilant and exciting original summer blockbusters to come out in years. It seems kind of odd to describe an apocalyptic action movie as jubilant, but I think it fits. The story here could have been stretched out into a trilogy, but they skipped all of the boring parts and went straight to giant robots fighting giant monsters, and express humanity's can-do attitude as the few people left capable of mounting a resistance against the Kaiju fight valiantly to do so. There's only three real fight scenes, and they're all darkly lit, and only the second one is truly of consequence and grandeur. But holy hell, is that ever an action sequence. The cast of mostly TV actors do a fine job of pushing the story forward, and it's a really fun world to inhabit for a couple hours. Again, despite the whole apocalypse thing.

6. Stoker

Park Chan-wook is at the forefront of the Korean cinematic movement that's going on right now, and his first English-language film is a big relief - it's his best movie since Oldboy, and it shows that he can keep his trademark style while working in a completely different system. It's kind of impressive how well that style translates - the actors are white and speaking English, but it really does seem to have an Asian sensibility to it. A fairly innocuous-seeming story slowly reveals its layers of darkness in more and more horrifying ways. It's not really a horror film - it's just horrific. It's unique as far as American movies go, and only gets better as it goes on.

5. Iron Man 3

After The Avengers, I was maybe a bit concerned that Marvel's Cinematic Universe would lose steam and lose whatever special extra kick they had that made them different from the other handful of super hero movies that get released every year now. That wasn't really a problem, though. Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr. reunited to create one of the best movies of this whole crazy Marvel enterprise, and the best action movie of the year. It's a movie that proves to people that Tony Stark is Iron Man, not the suit he wears, and does so by having him not actually wear that suit for a great deal of the running time. Along with some other diversions from what you'd expect based on the trailers, Iron Man 3 is the type of movie that could upset people who are maybe a little stuck in their ways. But I think it's exactly what Marvel needed, and has me excited to keep watching these things every time they come out.

4. Upstream Color

Shane Carruth's first film, Primer, was the essence of pure science fiction. It had a grounded take on time travel that it took very seriously, and was the basis and driving force for the entire story. Upstream Color also has an intriguing science fiction mechanism that kicks off the story, but it goes in a different direction, one that is completely human in a way I really didn't expect. Terence Malick definitely influenced Carruth, as there's a lot of dreamy, wistful sequences that resemble his work closely. But I'm not sure if I've seen Malick's style match the subject matter of his work as well as Upstream Color's does. It's at times terrifying, beautiful, haunting, mournful, and hopeful, and it has an inescapable grip that pulls you through a journey whether you want to go or not. It's kind of incredible.

3. The World's End

To me, The World's End is the best movie in the "three flavours" trilogy. Big fans of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz might disagree, because The World's End is not quite the pure genre exercise that those movies are (and excel at being). The World's End is secretly a character piece that uses genre (in this case, alien invasion) to explore its concepts of adulthood, addiction, friendship, and other important things, and it does a lot of it under the surface. It's also extremely funny, has Simon Pegg's best performance yet, and proves again that Edgar Wright is secretly one of the best directors of action working today. It's a god damned good movie and an excellent way to put a cap on the themes they started exploring nearly a decade ago.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

After I saw this movie, it was sort of baffling to see that there were people who didn't get that it doesn't actually like or approve of the people or actions it depicts. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DeCaprio know they shouldn't have to rub our noses in it. Jordan Belfort and his cronies are inherently scum. They do tons of drugs, they will have sex with anyone willing, and they smugly give not a single shit while robbing people of their fortunes. The movie doesn't punish them because these people don't get punished in real life. That's the point. For crying out loud, Belfort's best buddy is married to his first cousin and starts masturbating in the middle of a party while high on Quaaludes. I'm getting away from what I wanted to say though, which is that Wolf is a great movie, and it's unfortunate that Scorsese is still having people react in exactly the wrong way after all these years. It has great acting from everyone, a great sense of humor, great pacing (three hours that feel like maybe a little over two), and... it's great. Retweets are not endorsements.

1. Gravity

Scientific accuracy is a funny thing. The closer you get to it, the more the deviations that remain feel like they could completely snap you out of the experience. Some people struggled with this in Gravity, even if they had to look up what the inaccuracies actually were afterward. But I appreciate that Gravity hewed as close to reality as possible, fudging the truth only when it was needed to make the story work. Gravity is one of the most tightly constructed and effective thrillers that has ever been made. Every big sequence is absolutely breathtaking, and the periods in between make for solid drama in bridging the gaps. The visual effects and long takes are exceptional, and at times I wondered how the hell they were doing certain things. The dialogue is a bit clunky at times, and there were a couple of places where the science probably could have been better without hurting the story. But they're very minor quibbles when you're looking at pure filmmaking that is this well done. I don't have any qualms with calling this my favorite movie of 2013.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2012 but I didn't see until then.

The Man From Nowhere

I'm not sure exactly why I love The Man From Nowhere so much. Well, that's kind of a lie. A big part of it is the fight scene at the end. It's seriously one of the ten best things I've ever seen in a movie. It's worth a lot. The rest of the movie is good too, though. While modern Korean cinema doesn't have the breadth of experience as Japanese movies did in their heyday, I'm still reminded of that movement when I see all of these movies by different directors with little previous experience and they all seem so good. This might be my favorite. It's sort of just a revenge movie, but a well crafted revenge movie can be a wonderful thing, and it's really a great example of what you can do with straight up genre filmmaking. Like a lot of my personal favorites, some people might not understand where I'm coming from. But what can I say. It's a great movie.

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