Friday, January 10, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

10: American Hustle: I wasn’t as rapturous about this film as some critics, but that does not alter the fundamental qualities of this star-studded 70s romp. In addition to sporting some of the greatest (read: worst) hairdos I’ve ever seen, this film was expertly-crafted from start to finish, and despite a somewhat pat ending, contained such strongly-drawn characters, sleazebags all, that I couldn’t help but love it. It contained what might be the best performance I've seen from Christian Bale, and reminded me of Scorsese’s better movies. When that’s the comparison I’m moved to make, you’ve clearly done something right.

9: Pain & Gain: Where in the world did this come from? Michael Bay, the Sultan of Suck, produced in Pain & Gain his finest masterpiece, a ridiculous, scandalous, farcical romp about several of the sleaziest people ever to live, the awful crimes they committed, and the worse justifications they used to excuse them. It’s arguable that only Michael Bay, whose taste may be worse than any living human, could have made this movie, and gotten such wonderfully cringe-worthy performances from Mark Wahlberg and his co-stars. Plus, a film that contains the Rock’s best performance ever (not a title I give out lightly), cannot possibly be left off a best-of list.

8: Gravity: An excellent argument for leaving one’s preconceptions behind, Gravity was a complete surprise to me, as I expected to find an Open Water-style deathwatch thriller, and instead received a tightly-crafted, gorgeous, tense survival thriller. Shame on me for expecting any less of Alfonso Cuaron, but in my defense, I had not anticipated this film’s qualities, the low-key, note-perfect performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (even if Clooney is effectively playing himself again), the frankly stunning visuals, and most of all, the absolutely superb electro-string score, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s finest films. Gravity did not find universal acclaim, and I even read some reviews complaining of motion sickness (be forewarned), but I was enthralled by this film, and unhesitatingly recommend it.

7: World War Z: Talk about movies that had no right to be good, World War Z is a complete rejection of the award-winning Max Brooks book, having practically nothing to do with the source material, and yet managed despite this to be one of the finest Zombie movies I’ve ever seen, arguably as good as the seminal 28 Days Later. Dispensing with the intra-personal made-up dramatics that the George Romero films degenerated into, this film managed to make Zombies scary again, even in broad daylight, something I’ve not seen… well ever to be honest. Buttressed by an excellent score, wonderful supporting performances, and a tightly-focused narrative that keeps its eye on the ball, World War Z, despite its flaws and detractors, was a magnificent addition to a schlock-ridden genre, and one of the best pure thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while.

6: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire: On a certain level, I understand the objections that arose in regards to the first Hunger Games film, a movie I enjoyed but which suffered from focus problems and the general issues that afflict most YA stories. None of the above is true of the sequel, as Catching Fire is an improvement over the original Hunger Games on nearly every level. The heroes are more complex, the villains more dastardly, the action more crisp and the society of Panem more decadent in this round, with even the throwaway supporting characters given depth and character development beyond their desserts. More than this however, Catching Fire was perhaps the only YA film I’ve seen that seems to have been made by people familiar with the clichés of the genre, eschewing forced conflict or the rehashing of the first film in favor of a brand new look at a still-fascinating world.

5: Quartet: Story isn’t everything, or to be more precise, freshness of story isn’t everything. Quartet contains a story we’ve all seen dozens of times, complete with a “how will we save the orphanage/school/community center/retirement home” plot. And yet the underlying elements of Quartet, centered around Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtney, and Billy Connolly, are so strong that none of that matters. Quartet is a movie about the characters, and more specifically about the characters that our popular memory of actors such as Maggie smith have become, the eternally grande-dame of the silver screen, biting and witty and sarcastic in the way that only she can be. If ever a love letter to these fine old actors was penned, this was it, and the sheer, unbridled fun of watching them elevate everything given to them was worth the price of admission and more.

4: Rush: This movie was so good, it got me following Formula One. One of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, Rush is a masterpiece, capitalizing on the inherent drama of the most lethal sport on Earth to tell a mesmerizing tale of two racecar drivers competing for glory through circumstances so dangerous and (often) horrific that they beggar belief. Both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, respectively famous for being a Viking Thundergod and nothing at all, are pitch perfect as two extremely different men with two extremely different approaches to the same inexplicable obsession to be victorious in the fine art of driving in circles like a maniac . Ron Howard has long been one of the finest directors in Hollywood, but even I did not expect the result of this film to be of such high quality. A must-see, even for non-racing fans.

3: The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug: Very few films do I go to see twice in theaters. The second Hobbit film is one such case. A massive improvement over the already-good Unexpected Journey, the Desolation of Smaug is tighter, better paced, more interesting, and more epic in almost every respect, elevating the Hobbit series (arguably) to the heights of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though still extremely long, the second Hobbit film does not feel padded in the least, and its action sequences (fewer than the original), are much more expertly done, leaving all worries about Battle Fatigue at the door. I was willing, despite my high score, to entertain the notion that the first Hobbit was not as good as I thought it. Not so here. This movie is awesome, and those who claim to hate it are either trolling or incapable of joy.

2: 12 Years a Slave: The Schindler’s List of American Slavery, if 12 Years a Slave does not win a pile of Oscars next March, I will be very surprised. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s best film (a statement I do not make lightly), this was the most “real” version of the great Tragedy I've ever seen, eschewing the clichés and black and white characterization (no pun intended) of previous takes on the genre in favor of an examination of how it was to actually live in such times, whether as owner or slave, all without sacrificing the fundamental inhumanity of slavery. Indeed, the inhumanity comes across all the more powerfully for how realistic the film comes across as. Whether or not you've any interest in the subject, I predict this is a film that will come to be seen as the ultimate word on the subject of Slavery, insofar as such a thing can ever exist.

1: The Sapphires: I don't care how cliche it is to put an unknown indie flick at number one, the Sapphires was a goddamn revelation. A film about Aborigines in Australia in the sixties should have been another maudlin reminiscence on the crimes of the past. But without ducking the issues aboriginal peoples faced in those days, The Sapphires is about real characters, not archetypes meant to stand in the place of real people. The film is tremendous, a note-perfect, hilarious romp from beginning to end, rapturously funny without sacrificing the pathos of the characters and what was done to them. It is a movie about people, not stereotypes, and given the subject matter, that may be its finest achievement.

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