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Movies: the best and the worst of 2013

Ryan Gosling stars in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'
Ryan Gosling stars in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'Courtesy Focus Features

2013 was a mixed bag at the multiplex. The good were very good indeed, and there weren’t as many real dogs as some years. Still, some stars, like Bradley Cooper, managed to be in both. Note we aren’t even listing ten worst movies. You’ll have to content yourself with five. To start with, there are at least ten really good movies playing the capital district, including one, “The Place Beyond the Pines,” that was largely shot here. So to start with:

Ryan Gosling in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'
Ryan Gosling in 'The Place Beyond the Pines' Courtesy Focus Features

Ryan Gosling in 'The Place Beyond the Pines'

10. Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” breaks the usual rule that a movie is a story about one character told in three acts. “The Place Beyond the Pines,” supposedly a literal translation of the Mohawk word Schenectady, is certainly in three acts, but each act centers on different main characters. The accomplishment here is how deftly he manages the hand-offs.Part crime thriller and part multi-generational family saga, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is attempting, and for the most part succeeding, in telling one story, despite the shifts in point of view. This isn’t an anthology movie. And needless to say, the script, written by Cianfrance with Niskayuna native Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, is unusual both in structure and it’s unflinching film noir tone. The cast includes Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, who’s been everywhere this year, Eva Mendes, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne and Harris Yulin.

Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford star in '42.'
Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford star in '42.' Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures/Legendary Pictures (c) 2013

Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford star in '42.'

9. In 1947, gentlemen wore suits to the ballpark; ladies wore dresses, often with gloves. And they yelled the “N” word at infielder Jackie Robinson when he had the temerity to set foot on the same field white men played on. Brian Helgeland’s new movie, “42,” depicts the ugliness and the viciousness of racism with an unflinching eye to the point that it’s amazing this movie has any entertainment value at all. And yet “42” hits it out of the park. Theater and TV actor Chadwick Boseman, who does bear some resemblance to Jackie Robinson, is a ridiculously good-looking young actor with the discipline and insight to underplay. The supporting characters, in particular the gamine-like Nicole Beharie, who periodically evokes Michelle Obama, as Robinson’s wife, Rachel, and Christopher Meloni, as a colorful take on Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, often threaten to upstage. But much of the movie actually belongs to Harrison Ford, almost unrecognizable with a paunch, fake nose, cigar perpetually clenched between his teeth and wearing some of the worst hats imaginable. The baseball sequences are the best ever staged for a movie.

Walt Disney's 'Frozen'
Walt Disney's 'Frozen' Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Walt Disney's 'Frozen'

8. “Frozen,” without a doubt Disney’s best animated feature in years, has all the virtues associated with the best of the studio’s classics. This time around, the love story isn’t about a princess waiting to be saved by Prince Charming, but about two princess sisters who have to save each other. One of them is haunted by a mysterious, supernatural power to freeze things, which would be at home in an “X-Men” movie. The other has been shut out of her older sister’s life by her family’s fear of that same ability. By turns funny, poignant, exciting and occasionally a little scary, this is a fast-paced, entertaining fantasy that will appeal equally to adults and children. The score has a distinctly Broadway sound, and one has to believe this vehicle may well itself be Broadway-bound.

Tom Hanks stars in 'Captain Phillips'
Tom Hanks stars in 'Captain Phillips' Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Tom Hanks stars in 'Captain Phillips'

7. “Captain Phillips,” based on the real life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the hostage drama that followed, is a serious drama and a quality project from Paul Greengrass, best known as the director of “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” This high seas docudrama is a tense and affecting production. Tom Hanks is the only big name in the cast, and brings sincerity and an air of quiet decency to the title character. Although this is Hanks’ first time being directed by Greengrass (or almost anyone other than Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard or Robert Zemeckis, for that matter), this is vintage Hanks territory. He’s excellent here, particularly in his last scene in the movie. Nonetheless, it’s newcomer Barkhad Abdi as a desperate, young Somali fisherman turned pirate who steals the show with a chillingly believable performance. Eschewing dolly tracks and even a proscenium, his camera is often handheld, following his subjects through passageways, around corners, into cramped corners at will. There’s also mistaking the fact that much of this movie was shot at sea with real ships, with impressive results.

Oscar Isaac stars in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Oscar Isaac stars in 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Courtesy CBS Films

Oscar Isaac stars in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

6. You know you’re getting old when the upstart Coen Brothers are suddenly master craftsmen, at the height of their powers. But that’s exactly what you get from “Inside Llewyn Davis;” a rich beautifully crafted film that nonetheless retains the Coens’ trademark quirkiness. Oscar Isaac, until now not a well-known actor, has appeared before in a variety of TV and movie projects, including Ridley Scott’s unnecessary remake of “Robin Hood” and Zack Snyder’s ill-conceived “Sucker Punch.” His comparative anonymity is likely at an end. Isaac, who is on screen in every scene of this movie, and in fact is in almost every shot, is nothing short of remarkable as the complex, prickly Davis, who is frequently not likeable.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in '12 Years a Slave'
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in '12 Years a Slave' Courtesy Plan B

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in '12 Years a Slave'

5. “12 Years a Slave” depicts the brutality of slavery with a calm frankness that’s likely to brutalize the audience, but the real horror emerges with the casual depiction of the obliviousness of the slaveowners. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t spare his audience the gruesome sight of flayed backs or the emotional horror of young mothers separated from their children and raped at will. This movie doesn’t rely on sermons or speeches to make its point, rather focusing on the sheer banality of evil. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a free-born African American kidnapped off the streets of the nation’s capitol and sold as a slave, is a startling presence, whose disbelieving reaction to his situation mirrors the viewer’s. The all-star supporting cast includes Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt (a producer on the movie), Alfre Woodard and both Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis from “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in 'Nebraska'
Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in 'Nebraska' Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Bruce Dern and Will Forte star in 'Nebraska'

4. “Nebraska” is a sly, deceptive little movie, that initially deludes the viewer into thinking they’re watching a student film and then gradually reveals itself it to be a masterpiece of acting and witty, incisive screenwriting. If Bob Nelson’s script and Alexander Payne’s direction didn’t have heart and humor, this could have been an unutterably depressing affair. In this bleak, chilly, dust bowl landscape, we begin to suspect that the rock-rib, salt-of-the-Earth values equated with the American heartland are not just on the verge of extinction, but may have been nothing more than Norman Rockwell mythology to begin with. Bruce Dern, as a curmudgeon of few words who thinks he’s won a sweepstakes, may finally have positioned himself for an overdue Oscar, but it’s the outstanding supporting cast that steals the show.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in 'Gravity'
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in 'Gravity' Courtesy Warner Bros.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in 'Gravity'

3. “Gravity” The perils and poetry of space travel haven’t been so vividly depicted since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and I don’t say that lightly.
Only an hour and a half long and whipcord taut, “Gravity” depicts the travails of a spaceflight mission specialist (Sandra Bullock) who’s trying to find a way back to Earth after a debris field cripples her spacecraft and most of the other available rides in the orbital neighborhood. The special effects bear mentioning not only because they’re good - other than a few obviously CGI fire effects, most of the effects are extremely convincing - but because almost every shot in the movie is augmented in some way. Kubrick’s breakthrough, visionary “2001” still stands a special effects showcase, even more so because they were being done largely with technology that had existed for decades. “Gravity” could not have been made the way it was without computers. Viewers who wait for Red Box will not get what the fuss was about, but make no mistake - “Gravity” is a white-knuckle thrill ride that doesn’t want to come down to Earth.

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson star in 'Saving Mr. Banks'
Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson star in 'Saving Mr. Banks' Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson star in 'Saving Mr. Banks'

2. “Saving Mr. Banks” Walt Disney movies have always been susceptible to the criticism that they sugarcoat, sentimentalize and otherwise bowdlerize their source material. “Saving Mr. Banks,” a remarkably entertaining, sun-dappled movie about the struggle to get P.L. Travers’ classic “Mary Poppins” on the screen, is actually less guilty than it initially appears, but it doesn't matter anyway. Whether Disney is giving itself the Disney treatment or not, this is one of the best movies of the year. Director John Lee Hancock’s follow-up to “The Blind Side” is a well-crafted, smartly written and above all, enormously entertaining story. Disney is getting the Disney treatment here, and if the result isn’t exactly a docudrama, we’ll all just have to get over that.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper star in 'American Hustle'
Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper star in 'American Hustle' Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper star in 'American Hustle'

1. “American Hustle” is an absorbing, engrossing, often electrifying and relentlessly entertaining movie. A caper movie that easily ranks with “The Sting” or (the remake of) “Ocean’s Eleven,” it’s also an evocative nostalgia trip with some perceptive observations. The all-star cast, culled in part from Russell’s last two movies, “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” is a Who’s Who of current Hollywood royalty, but to their credit all disappear entirely into their roles. Just as commendable, your first impressions of most of the characters are frequently misleading in this story, with its own constantly shifting landscape.

Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star in 'R.I.P.D.'
Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star in 'R.I.P.D.' Courtesy Universal Pictures

Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds star in 'R.I.P.D.'

And the now a sampling of the worst:

The supernatural action comedy “R.I.P.D.” deals with life after death, but if the hereafter isn’t more entertaining than this, no one’s going want to go. Openly ripping off both “Men in Black” and “Ghostbusters” while managing to muster the energy or entertainment value of neither, this movie pretty much rolls over and plays dead from the get-go. Ryan Reynolds is at his absolute least charming here, though you’d think that would be enough for any movie. It isn’t. It doesn’t help that he has virtually no chemistry with co-star Jeff Bridges, whose performance might as well have been cobbled together from outtakes from “True Grit.” The lack of chemistry is absolutely fatal here, given the lack of imagination that dogs this movie from the first frame. “R.I.P.D.” clocks in at a very modest hour and 36 minutes, but feels far longer. If you’re going to consign audiences to purgatory, it seems unfair to make them pay for it.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in 'The Great Gatsby'
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in 'The Great Gatsby' Courtesy Warner Bros.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in 'The Great Gatsby'

Great literature seldom makes great movies, and Baz Luhrmann’s 3D remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” only serves to prove the point. In any event, Luhrmann, who’s madly in love with his own status as a visionary, was absolutely the wrong director to try. This adaptation of a major classic forgot to take its Ritalin. Luhrmann is a love-him-or-hate-him director, prone to over-the-top visuals, swirling cameras, anachronistic music and a ton of CGI. The approach is absolutely wrong here, and the 3D only accentuates the surrealism of the imagery. But the biggest problem is less technique than ego. Lurhmann seems to think he can improve on a book regarded as one of the great American novels, and he can’t. He doesn’t even particularly seem to understand the material. “The Great Gatsby” hasn’t been interpreted here so much as it’s been chewed up and squeezed through the alimentary canal of a psychotic monkey with an acute case of dysentery. As the title character, Leonardo DiCaprio, like Robert Redford before him, looks great in the period suits. DiCaprio’s manner is startlingly affected for most of the movie. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, is less a Greek chorus, or even a character, than simply a voyeur who happens to be on camera. Carey Mulligan, a fine young actress, emerges a complete nonentity here. Towards an end that’s been too long in coming, Luhrmann superimposes words from the book itself over the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. It only drives home the ironic point that Fitzgerald’s words were better than anything that’s been on the screen for the past two-plus hours.

Gerard Butler stars in 'Olympus Has Fallen'
Gerard Butler stars in 'Olympus Has Fallen' Courtesy Millennium Films

Gerard Butler stars in 'Olympus Has Fallen'

Formula Hollywood product seldom gets sillier than “Olympus Has Fallen,” a messy blend of “Die Hard” and season 7 of “24,” which summons all the implausibility of both franchises while mustering the entertainment value of neither. Gerard Butler is an underrated leading man, and is in good form here. But Aaron Eckhart plays the president with all the conviction you’d expect of a matinee idol retreading Bill Pullman in “Independence Day.” It doesn’t help that his character is written as a complete idiot. But he isn’t alone. Most of the characters in this movie act like idiots. A good supporting cast seems mainly on board to cash their checks here. Morgan Freeman  seems to have phoned his performance in and brings only a fraction of his trademark, low key gravitas. Angela Bassett leans on conference tables and looks at video monitors with studied seriousness. Rick Yune, who played the bad guy in “Die Another Day,” Pierce Brosnan’s last Bond movie, plays a stock Bond guy here. Anyone who can’t tell Dylan McDermott is in bed with the bad guys on his first close-up needs to get out more. Melissa Leo is all over the place, and in one particularly embarrassing scene, shrieks the Pledge of Allegiance while being dragged out to be shot. Antoine Fuqua,a perfectly competent director, takes the reins on this mess, and his job is essentially to keep wild horses in check. Though Fuqua made his rep on the high-testosterone epics “Tears of the Sun,” “King Arthur” and “Shooter,” he doesn’t do anything especially noteworthy in the action department, which is stock mayhem for the most part.

'The Hangover Part III'
'The Hangover Part III' Courtesy Warner Bros.

'The Hangover Part III'

“The Hangover Part III” deviates from the formula that served the first two installments so well, and pays a hefty price. Nothing in this threequel comes close to matching “The Hangover” and “The Hanbover Part II,” until an Easter Egg scene inserted partway through the end credits. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips has literally put the engine on after the caboose. The thing with sequels is audiences usually want to be surprised while getting more of the same. “The Hangover Part III” offers little in the way of surprise while ironically not providing enough of the same. Only fans of the first two movies who can content themselves with a comparatively anemic class reunion will be able to enjoy this singularly unamusing outing. Bradley Cooper’s on-screen charisma is undeniable, but his sociopathic Phil, doesn’t get tortured enough this time around, and Justin Bartha, who should be used to being the series’ off-camera straight man by now, has, if anything, less to do than usual. Zach Galifianakis is beginning to repeat himself, other than his scenes with series newcomer Melissa McCarthy, who “Part III” could have used more of. Ed Helms’ Stu emerges as the heart and soul of the movie. They’ve set up for another sequel, which we can only hope is very slow in coming.

Hugh Jackman stars in 'The Wolverine'
Hugh Jackman stars in 'The Wolverine' Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Hugh Jackman stars in 'The Wolverine'

Relentlessly talky though thoroughly predictable, “The Wolverine”  is a remarkably unengaging Marvel franchise entry. Make no mistake - this is a big production enlivened by evocative location shooting in Japan, and comes complete with ninjas, yakuza and super-powered mutants. But for a movie with this much violence, “The Wolverine” has singularly little momentum. large-scale, the action sequences are uninvolving with pedestrian execution. They are not helped by the 3D post-conversion, which adds absolutely nothing to this movie. The incessant, booming score by Jerry Goldsmith protégé Marco Beltrami tries, with occasional success, to make up for the momentum the movie otherwise lacks. Star Hugh Jackman could probably play this part in his sleep by now, and for all we know, he very well might have.