That's been the guiding principle behind my "year in review" articles and, as in 2011 and 2012, the following is intended to call attention to the embarrassing surplus of "good things” in cinema. Once again I've eschewed a conventional top 10 because it's nearly impossible to rank works with such disparate goals - deciding whether Fast and Furious 6 is “better” than Stoker is like officiating a soufflé bake-off between LeBron James and Joan Didion.
For the next 2,000 words or so, we'll look back at 2013, including both the lows and the highs, noting the letdowns and the surprises, and, hopefully, end up affirming our faith in film. Because I believe in movies. I believe that they matter. And I believe that all of them - well, almost all of them - are worth someone's time.
In a year that was very good for people behaving badly, Spring Breakers sets the bar high by reflecting the American Dream in a funhouse mirror of Millennial generation hedonism, reveling in debauchery while questioning the motives behind unfettered pleasure-seeking. The youthful Scottish rascals of The Angels’ Share are more traditional but still have plenty of chutzpah, a bunch of have-nots using the haves’ sacred values (work ethic, determination, courage) and not-so-sacred values (clever manipulation of the free market) against them to obtain a modest piece of the pie.
Iron Man 3 breaks many of the rules governing big summer movies; its genre-bending audacity and crackling wit make the rest of the year’s effects-heavy blockbusters seem like lumbering dinosaurs in comparison. It was definitely a good climate for intimate films, as proven by Frances Ha and its charming tale of a footloose young woman just trying to find a place where she could belong.
Of course, appropriately-scaled ambition works, especially when it’s as sensual and seductively confounding as Shane Carruth’s sci-fi romance Upstream Color. You’ll never look at a pig the same way again. And the jaw-dropping documentary The Act of Killing examines the heady collision of violence and entertainment, vis à vis the perpetrators of decades-old atrocities in Indonesia, to wonder whether who’s the most complicit in letting the guilty off the hook.
Short Term 12 is a thinking person’s tearjerker, its sensitivity grounded in an easy humor and recognizable human emotion (as well as the director's actual experiences as a staff member at a group foster home). But only The World’s End makes the apocalypse seem personal in a rollicking rebuke to nostalgia and mindless gratification, its themes expertly embedded even in throwaway lines and minor background details.
It’s a testament to the incredible quality of 2013’s movies that I’m just now getting to the so-called Oscar contenders, led by the amazing technical wizardry (and compelling human drama) of Gravity - a film that perfectly defines the meaning of “shock and awe.” From one grueling experience to another, 12 Years a Slave engages the past on a visceral level and tackles weighty historical issues from the perspective of flesh-and-blood human beings.
Finally, a pair of compelling jerks: the antihero of Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit more sympathetic due to the tragicomic nature of his (perhaps unending) fight against the riptide of his own life, even though his troubles only enhance the bittersweet beauty in his sad, soulful folk music performances. The sleazy stockbroker of The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is a more difficult matter; chronicling a life of entitled excess with nihilistic glee, the film still takes care to note the difference between the symptoms and the causes of a society more interested in personal indulgence than personal accountability.
Other Good Stuff
2013’s deep bench includes the mesmerizing conspiracy theorists of Room 237, the feisty verbal sparring of Much Ado About Nothing, the brazenly entertaining The Bling Ring, and the pitch-perfect nerd opus Zero Charisma.
Two films showcase legendary actors still at the top of their games - Tom Hanks in the harrowing trauma tale Captain Phillips and Bruce Dern the offbeat family photo album Nebraska - while American Hustle features an entire cast relishing their turns as fumbling '70s schnooks. And the one-two punch of Monsters University and Frozen shows that there’s still plenty of life in Dixnar, though The Wind Rises is the cream of this year’s animated crop (even if it has to wait until 2014 for its English-dubbed release).
Other Things I Liked That Deserve A Brief Mention
- Ramin Djawadi's score for Pacific Rim, especially the main theme
- the amazing troll creature suit from Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
- Chung Chung-Hoon and Park Chan-wook's shot composition in Stoker
- the opening and closing zooms of Side Effects
- the fate of Lou Taylor Pucci's Evil Dead character, the dumbest know-it-all in the world
- San Diego Comic-Con 2013
- Stan Lee's cameo in Thor: The Dark World ("Can I have my shoe back?")
- the profane video game avatar of the future in Her
- the clothes, coifs, and needle drops in both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street
Just the Worst
Wither Ryan Gosling? First he's lost amid the clatter of the abysmally dumb Gangster Squad. Then his taciturn charms can't save the blood-and-neon trolling of Only God Forgives. At least those films give the appearance of effort, which is more than can be said about A Good Day to Die Hard, a joyless slog that makes the original Die Hard seem ever more miraculous.
But nothing this year compares to the mirthless Movie 43, a comedy where the relationship to actual humor or entertainment is entirely coincidental. Ugly, mean-spirited, and misogynistic, Peter Farrelly’s omnibus film is a massive tragedy of wasted time and talent.
Flawed but Fascinating
It’s no great surprise when a Baz Luhrmann film garners mixed reactions, but The Great Gatsby is a especially strange creature: while its aggressive theatricality ruins the beautiful subtleties of the source material, I must admit that some of Luhrmann’s choices also heighten the story’s emotional impact to a level impossible to achieve in a straightforward interpretation of the text.
Man of Steel might be the weirdest Superman movie we’ll ever see. It’s a poorly paced story that's curiously obsessed with alien mythology and the consequences of Kryptonian eugenics. It handles a well-known backstory in a refreshingly natural fashion, but de-emphasizes the human element so much that by the end it feels like a freaky space vendetta movie that just happens to be taking place on Earth.
I only recommend The Counselor if you, like myself, sometimes enjoy movies that embrace a mission to make as little sense as possible. Alternating between philosophical monologues about the existence of evil and a handful of brutal little action sequences, The Counselor kind of works as Ridley Scott’s tribute to his late brother, Tony, as well as a dodgy experiment in force-feeding literary opacity to multiplex audiences who just wanna see the new Cameron Diaz movie.
Not that I expected an instant classic, but it was kind of disheartening to see the damp squib that was Admission, especially considering the pedigrees of its two likable leads. I did expect more from Star Trek Into Darkness, which distracted everyone with bright colors and fast action while trampling all over the covenant established in the great 2009 Star Trek reboot and squandering goodwill at warp speed.
But Neill Blomkamp's Elysium remains my biggest head-scratcher of 2013, bungling an intriguing premise by forcing it into a rather dull sci-fi action template, then garnishing the whole thing with ham-fisted social commentary. And I’m not sure whether to credit commercial pressure or creative exhaustion for Elysium’s uncanny resemblance to District 9, from the look of the dusty future slums and ratty technology to its general plot and structure.
Most Pleasant Surprises
The combination of sports film and biopic is typically a recipe for cash-in treacle, but 42 defied the odds in presenting a well-acted, gorgeous-looking, and surprisingly intense tribute to Jackie Robinson that was worthy of the civil rights pioneer's amazing life.
A big-budget superhero character study is quite rare, but that's essentially what we got in The Wolverine, which weighted action and drama equally to add an extra layer of depth and a sense of urgency to what is now unquestionably Hugh Jackman's signature role.
There are all sorts of lurid places that Alexandre Moors could've steered Blue Caprice, his debut feature inspired by the events leading up to the 2002 D.C. sniper attacks. Instead, he crafted a restrained and haunting tale about the banality of evil and the unseen rivulets of criminal life that can potentially lead to catastrophe.
This was a difficult section to write. We all know that Blanchett and Bullock were spectacular in Blue Jasmine and Gravity, respectively; ditto Hanks and Ejiofor in Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave. In the spirit of inclusivity, I've taken a different tack and tried to include some underseen or lower-profile performances while blending in some personal favorites.
Sam Rockwell has quietly built an impressive career as one of cinema's best utility players, always making the most of his screentime whether in a limited supporting role or as an underrated leading man. His versatility is on display in The Way Way Back (a classic wiseass performance full of humor and pathos) and A Single Shot (as a rural loner facing several crises of conscience). Both showcase his greatest skill as an actor: knowing exactly how he fits into the bigger picture of a film and pitching his performance to command precisely the right amount of attention.
James Franco breathes life into the most memorable (and quotable) character of 2013 - the rapper/gangster/hoodrat philosopher Alien in Spring Breakers. Precious are the actors who can make a recitation of their possessions endlessly compelling. His adorably winking turn as himself in This Is The End and a brief appearance as a slick sleazeball in a key scene of The Iceman add to the positive side of his ledger. (Plus it's not entirely his fault for being horribly miscast as Oz the Great and Powerful.)
Brie Larson shines as a group home counselor in Short Term 12, projecting strength and maturity beyond her years, and combining them with a vulnerability that allows her to bend but not break. Now the ball is in the industry's court to hire her for more than just the stellar work she does in obligatory (and nearly silent) girlfriend/sister roles in the likes of The Spectacular Now and Don Jon.
Leonardo DiCaprio pulls off a nifty trick in The Wolf of Wall Street, a role that not only tests the limits of his charisma in getting us to care about an irredeemable douchebag, but also reveals his prowess for physical comedy. Similarly, Oscar Isaac finds the humanity in the prickly protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis, and complements it with excellent singing performances. And Michael B. Jordan shoulders the burden of Fruitvale Station's commentary on race and justice, compressing a multitude of heady issues into a single human life.
Amy Acker shows that there is a world of possibility beyond the limited perception of the actress-as-ingénue in Much Ado About Nothing, playing the romance game with fiery cunning and whip-smart comic timing. Greta Gerwig is utterly winning as Frances Ha, even when she's losing, a platonic ideal of the endearing fuckup. Judi Dench is a legend, but it takes something special for an actress who's normally so regal to work in subtle markers of a different social class and level of intelligence as she does in Philomena.
Duo or Group
12 Years a Slave didn't lack for depictions of cruelty, but the toxic coupling of Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson so encapsulates the many horrors of slavery - both physical and psychological - that it becomes difficult to tell which one is the bigger monster.
Edgar Wright excels at getting large groups of actors on his wickedly clever wavelength, but the main cast of The World's End - Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman, and Rosamund Pike - barrels through the material with a confidence that makes the film's escalating insanity seem like a perfectly natural progression of events.
The Golden Ham
With apologies to Javier Bardem's facial expressions in The Counselor, this year's award for the most exquisite scenery-chewing goes to Jonathan Pryce in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Pryce is vastly overqualified for his role as the evil shape-shifting duplicate of the U.S. President and knows it, so he proceeds to act like the least qualified authority figure that he can imagine. Purring lines such as "They call it a waterboard, but...I never get bored!", he's on a rogue mission to add flavor to the thin gruel of the movie's dull machismo.