And here we arrive at the end of 2013...
As I write this we're in the final weeks of the year - a time period which almost always brings a bumper-crop of great films, and tragically, can end up being a wasteland for a select few. I'm thinking of J.A. Bayona's The Impossible as I write this list of my ten favorite movies from the year. The Impossible became one of those misfit New York/LA limited releases of 2012 that studios gamble with dumping during the last two weeks of the year just to make the movie eligible for Oscar consideration. Making the film "technically" a 2012 release when the first time anyone could lay eyes on it was early 2013. Both Paramount and Universal are doing the same thing right now with Labor Day (which I'm dying to see) and Peter Berg's Lone Survivor (which I have seen and, as shocking as this sounds, is absolutely smashing)
The reason behind the last week, two-city release?
Grabbing a few award nominations can help a small ship haul in some heavy cargo once January rolls around. The early year film season is notoriously empty of anything good, which means little box-office competition for these late-year, dual-citizen arrivals. The downside being that film critics, being a race of simple apes and perverts, won't pick up the dual-citizen movie for their annual Best-Of-The-Year lists. So movies as great as The Impossible get left in limbo by the film appreciation media - which can't really be held responsible for neglecting movies released in limbo to start with. The Impossible is one of the best movies of the year(s) by any standard, and I urge you to seek it out and watch it as soon as you possibly can. If I were a man of any character I would list it below just to spite the system that so screwed it over.
So I didn't. But I did list these ten.
10. American Hustle
Directed by David O. Russell
So I spent most of this Fall trying to untwist my panties from the bind I put them in over Martin Scorsese's new movie The Wolf of Wall Street. And then I finally saw The Wolf of Wall Street last week and they quickly unraveled all on their own. Scorsese's new movie is a terrific, mercilessly funny film. It's just two hours too long - and not an easy two hours. The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour Scorsese movie on tilt. Some of us might be totally up for that kind of pain and mania, however, I can only take so much drug abuse, and sex, and Leo's veins bulging out of his neck from too much exposure to both, before I kind of go numb from the ears in. Not the case with David O. Russell's American Hustle. (my review) American Hustle was love at first sight. The Wolf of Wall Street may have gave me a good pounding, and I'm thankful and well worn-out from the effort, but American Hustle made sweet, foxy love to me. There wasn't a better collective cast in anything else this year. My critical colleagues would like to persuade you that that just isn't enough for a movie to be considered great - I'm here to tell you that it most certainly is. Outside of Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead remake (a horror film I'm certainly going straight to hell for, not just seeing, but for leaving off of this list of my ten favorite movies of the year) American Hustle was the most fun I had at the movies in 2013.
Directed by Chan wook-Park
I like movies with thorns in them. Cold, prickly, tough-to-love features. I'm drawn to these like Lohan's lips are drawn to interlock ignition systems. (I'm guessing that was not the direction you thought that analogy was heading in) Films like Only God Forgives, Simon Killer, Spring Breakers, and Chan wook-Park's Stoker are the reason I get up in the morning. Of course... once I'm up I pop a couple of Prozac, but this isn't the point. I'm a goth at heart. And that heart is stitched in black patent leather. The real magic in Stoker wasn't that it felt like a movie out of time - although I totally love that quality in this film - or that it was about a family with a genetic predilection for murder, it was the symphony between wook-Park's amazing camera and scene dissolve work and the fusion of sound. By not allowing the movie to turn into a full blown slasher flick, and by not getting too graphic with the obviously devious sexual undercurrents the script develops, Chan creates something of a new classic in American gothic. It's just weird enough to get weird over. One of my favorite scenes in anything this year was the moment when India and her homicidal uncle Charlie share a piano bench together and hammer out a duet - playful at first, and then suddenly savage. Which describes this movie perfectly.
8. About Time
Directed by Richard Curtis
So here's an anomaly. Take everything that usually triggers a case of cine-nausea in me under normal circumstances - rabidly clever voice-over, couples cuddling while huddling in the rain, Rachel McAdams, a third act cranked out on unnecessarily forced drama, Rachel McAdams - but put it under Richard Curtis's direction and give it an English accent..? I fall head over heels. The truth is About Time is the easiest movie of 2013 to recommend to anyone. Just this one time I want to praise a movie for being genuine and charming - and extremely funny in the bargain - and not worry if the rest of you think I've finally turned into a major pussy for doing so. About Time is totally cute, and I'm comfortable enough in my masculinity to be completely cool with that. Somehow Curtis has chosen the least complex way to tell a story about the most complex things - love, loss, time travel - and pulled it all off wonderfully. If anything I'm shocked that any one movie can make me rethink my position on McAdams as a viable acting source. Rachel's terrific in this flick. There's been a small community of film fanatics who have carried a crush for Curtis's 2003 movie Love Actually for a decade now. As much as I hate every minute that Billy Bob Thornton is in that movie, I still love the movie to death. There isn't anything I didn't like in About Time. It's a perfect slice of cinema sweetness - as is. This is a much smaller story, with a tighter cast of characters, that manages to delve far further into the mysteries of birth, love, and death than Love Actually could.
7. 12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
12 Years a Slave is exactly the type of film I dread putting on a top 10 list. First off it feels like you're trying to suck up to the pack by adding it. Second, it feels like by adding it you're programming a private PR campaign for how progressive a film critic you are. I resist most films about slavery and the holocaust purely on principle. Hollywood's infamous for using these subjects to mug consideration out of critical societies and Oscar voters. I'm genetically stubborn, so for one of these movies to swing me over to its side it has to be something special. 12 Years is an extremely special motion picture. I'm hesitant to call the film important - in the manner that film journalists usually machine-gun spray the word around with - because I feel that if any movie in 2013 should be considered important it's Spike Jonez's Her. Spike's movie is much more relevant to our culture than 12 Years a Slave is. It's just not nearly as good as 12 Years a Slave is. (of course, these two movies are apples and oranges) What Steve McQueen achieves here is not just a genuinely heartbreaking photo-document of plantation life in antebellum America, but he manages to circumnavigate pulverizing an audience with the horrors of slavery, and in turn gives us images and scenes that do the job just as capably once the viewer has left the theater - not the film by any means - behind them. Fassbender's never been better - or more virulent. Don't be surprised if you discover you love the performance just as equally as you hate the character it's driving. I've been a huge fan of Steve McQueen's work and with 12 Years a Slave it seems like he's finally managed to put all his talents together, in one place, in one film, with a terrific collection of players. The result is coercive and tragic, and ultimately one of the most well put together motion pictures of 2013.
6. The Place Beyond the Pines
Directed by Derek Cianfrance
Allow me to let you in on my process when it comes to the total core meltdown of trying to choose your ten favorite films in any given year. This time of the year there's a cargo load of great - immediately irresistible and listable - films released by the studios. (Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle) And it's just as easy to pick the last ten movies you may have seen the last few weeks of the year, and build your top 10 list based on that very fashionable foundation, as it is to put some work in and revisit everything you liked from 10 months ago. I like to put my work in. I rewatch everything I liked from the entire year in a single weekend grind - turning my coccyx into bonemeal and my eyes into watery gunk-pits. Film isn't the latest Kanye album. Film isn't always about the red-hot now. Some movies need to marinate over time so as to create their own place in time. Case in point, Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines. Choosing between this movie and Scott Cooper's outstanding Out of the Furnace was not an easy decision to make. As a matter of fact I believe that the culture of American cinema would be much less attractive without filmmakers like Cianfrance and Cooper. We would be the nation cinemaphiles across the globe accuse us of being - a country of knuckleheads squandering fortunes on soulless action pictures and bad dick-jokes. Derek Cianfrance's movies speak to me - and not just when I'm in their presence. They speak to me over time. If we lived in a just world great actors like Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Gosling would barely be able to crawl from the amount of awards and medals we would heap around their necks, while up-to-the-minute hacks like Jean Dujardin and Jackie Weaver would be stripped of their Oscars, and clothing, and jewelry, and force marched down Hollywood boulevard in a parade of shame. The biggest achievement of The Place Beyond the Pines is that it manages to achieve its lofty ambitions at all. Multi-generational dramas almost never work in practice, just ask anyone which half of Saving Mr. Banks they liked. The initial effect of Cianfrance's triptych story-telling style is dislocating and almost deterring. Which is why the movie needs a period to marinate to be viewed properly. This is a small story told in grand style. I love how Derek Cianfrance understands that indie cinema doesn't necessarily have to not be cinematic. This film is gorgeous.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
I could take the corndog route and write that Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a force of nature. That Gravity was created in a vacuum. That Gravity is... god help me... out of this world. As much as I love an easy pick-up line when defining a good movie, the truth is Gravity did what 99% of the Summer action blockbuster movies failed to do this year - be absolutely thrilling. (my review) Structurally, what we have with Gravity is exactly the opposite of how Richard Curtis built his romantic-time-travel-life-comedy About Time. Basically take the most complex route to tell the least complex story. There will always be backlash when a film gets as much buzz around it as Gravity has these last few months. I guess some folks expected rocket science instead of a rocket ride. The biggest surprise for me in Cuaron's Gravity was how Sandra Bullock, an actress I am guilty of dismissing as a cardboard cut-out, completely carried a film as big as this one, all on her own. There wasn't a better female performance in 2013, and given that Bullock had next to nothing to act against but a 90 foot tall lime green wall, it makes it even more incredible that she pulled this feat off. My favorite thing about Gravity? It's that moment at the end of the movie when you realize, simply through a smile on Ryan Stone's face, that the title of the film actually has meaning to it.
4. The Great Beauty
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Oh here we go... the obligatory foreign film. The stuffy and - at least from my perspective - totally irresistible Criterion Collection chose three movies from 2013 to release on Blu-ray. Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha. (which I totally dug) Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color. And this movie - The Great Beauty. A film title which, unlike so many movies before it, (we won't count the Farrelly's Dumb & Dumber) manages to actually meet the expectations of its own loaded moniker. The Great Beauty is just that. It is everything, and nothing, and the sweet, intractable beauty between everything and nothing. Sound pretentious enough? How about formidable and stodgy? It really isn't. The first time I saw The Great Beauty - who am I kidding, the first three times I saw The Great Beauty - was on the tiny, five-inch screen of my iPad. Even at that micro-level it still felt like a big screen experience. At it's core this is a movie about a modern Roman - an under-worked novelist, (he wrote a single novel - 40 years before the events of this film) who also happens to be an overworked womanizer and socialite. An aged man of truth living out his truth in a dreamworld of actors, sycophants, strippers, drug addicts, drunks, and brilliant idiots. Aesthetically this is one of the best assembled pieces of film stock ever created. The movie - like Italian women, art, and sports cars - is absolutely, irrevocably, stunning. On the other hand this is also a film with a pulse so powerful and thumping it feels more like a kick-drum than a circulatory function. Think Fellini for generation Deadmau5. The Great Beauty is extremely conscious of the mechanics behind pure art and bullsh*t art. For once I think we have a film that would be totally fine being considered either.
3. Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder
So the destruction during the final act of Snyder's Man of Steel (my review) movie was estimated at over 700 billion dollars with 130,000 citizens of Metropolis dying in General Zod's attack on the city. With another 250,000 citizens going missing entirely. And if you see the film those estimates seem a bit on the light side. To be honest I don't know if the public - forget about the media - could handle the jarring shift in Zack Snyder's new Superman movie between sensory deprivation, and sensory overload. But once Man of Steel decided it wanted to be an action movie, one with radiation-fueled supermen leading the call to arms, it became an action movie of extinction event proportions. Deemed "destruction porn" by the film intelligentsia, (Simon Pegg of all people, who didn't seem to feel the overriding need to criticize Star Trek for the annihilation of the ENTIRE PLANET of Vulcan, or his own The World's End for the... uh... world's end) a crime no one was willing to accuse The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers of the year before. And while I'll readily admit the end of the film is pornographic in its depiction of the World Engine's attack on Metropolis, (how cool was that thing?) the truth is... this is that guy. Cities and continents are the spoils in Superman's world. Instead of wimping out Zack Snyder gives this Superman a relentless enemy in General Zod. One he can't vanquish to a portal or put in deep freeze. Instead he has Superman break the ancient code of the costumed do-gooder, Kal El crushes his enemy's neck, not just committing murder, but finalizing the extinction of his own race. Suddenly the destruction of Metropolis doesn't seem as gratuitous compared to where it ultimately leads this hero. I absolutely loved every minute of this movie. Now bring on Ben Affleck as Batman. I couldn't be more serious.
2. Spring Breakers
Directed by Harmony Korine
I would love to write an entire dissertation on why Korine's Spring Breakers is, not just one of the biggest hoaxes played upon an unsuspecting public, but why it is an unstoppable force of pure, thrilling, psycho-cinema. I haven't had a movie blow my hair back and lock me into a theater seat like this one did since that first screening of Nic Refn's Drive a few years ago. This isn't a movie for viewers with attention deficit disorder, but then again, Harmony throws enough bare breasts on the screen so as not to starve the sharks either. In the beginning of the movie Faith - played by Selena Gomez - is read a passage from Corinthians about how that even in the darkest places and moments God will always provide a way out. Which he then does for her, by way of Greyhound bus, when this story takes a turn into territories both terminal and immoral. Interestingly enough this movie also seems to argue that there's yet another way out of a bad situation - to embrace it fully and without fear. To ultimately beat the devil at his own game and emerge much more unaffected than the people who needed the divine escape pod. James Franco hasn't been this good - ever. The scene in this film where he's playing Britney Spears' Everytime on piano to three cute girls in pink ski-masks, all holding a personal arsenal of assault weapons, isn't just the best scene in any movie in 2013, but, along with the LCD Soundsystem Dance Yrself Clean club scene in Simon Killer, was the best of use of pop music in any movie in 2013. The truth is I've seen thousands of movies in my lifetime, I've never seen another one like Spring Breakers.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
We spend seven days watching the life of Llewyn Davis, small-time musician and big time jackhole. In that time we never see him eat solid food or sleep in a bed. He even gets beaten up on a few occasions for his contribution to the voice of the Greenwich Village 60's folk scene. His existence is supported, quite literally, by coffee, couches, and bummed cigarettes. If the Coen brothers are saying something about the rewards for remaining an artist in a culture bent on turning art into a quick buck, they're not being subtle about it. Carey Mulligan's character Jean tells Llewyn early in the film: "Everything you touch turns to sh*t. Like King Midas's idiot brother." And after seeing one-fifty-second of a year of Llewyn's life we can readily agree with her - with one, not so minor proviso: Everything Llewyn touches turns to sh*t, except for his guitar. When Llewyn's playing music it's easy to look past all of his major faults and his briar patch personality and see the soul of an honest man and artist. At that point it's easy to fall for the guy - just as easy as it is to fall for the film he's in. Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a culmination of 30 years of vanguard American cinema - meaning 30 years of Coen brothers cinema. Whether you're a fan of their lighter material, or prefer the hard stuff, Inside llewyn Davis is the film they've been building up to all this time. I have little doubt that this is, not just my favorite movie of 2013, but it might be my favorite Coen brothers movie once I get three or four more viewings of it in. One word of caution though, buying a ticket to this movie isn't the only money you'll end up spending on it - prepare to buy the soundtrack as well. I've had The Death of Queen Jane and Fare Thee Well running on repeat since seeing the movie earlier this month.