Friday, December 27, 2013

The 10 Best & Worst Films of 2013

It's that time of year again, and I present for you my 10 Best & Worst films of 2013, along with Honorable Mentions for films that just missed the cut on my best list. I've linked to my original review on all of these, so click on the title to read the full review, but I've also written a new paragraph on each film. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comments section below…

Best Films of 2013

Honorable Mention
(in alphabetical order):

About Time
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Lords of Salem
The World's End

10. Philomena

The heartbreaking true story of a woman (Judi Dench) who had her child taken away from her at a young age and the journalist (Steve Coogan) who attempts to reunite them in the interest of writing a book is given a tremendous amount of levity thanks to a witty script by Coogan and Jeff Pope and the workmanlike direction of Stephen Frears. What could have been a maudlin trek across the UK & US is instead a delightful little ditty about faith, love and the power of humanity over institutions. Dench gives a career best performance, ably supported by a fantastic Coogan, and this odd couple proves to be one of the most genuinely satisfying pairings of the year.

9. American Hustle

While it would be easy to dismiss David O. Russell's latest film as Scorsese-lite, in a year that saw the master himself fall victim to his own visual excess, American Hustle comes out on the other side of things a much more wholly satisfying film. Anchored by a trio of phenomenal performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams & Bradley Cooper, this film plays as fast and loose with storytelling conventions as it does with the facts it's based on. The film's tagline read: "Everyone Hustles To Survive" and that sums up everything you need to know about this film, and the true magic of it lies in watching every character trying to get one over on every other character until you don't know whom to believe. It may not be as thoroughly satisfying as last year's Silver Linings Playbook, but it proves that Russell can effortlessly mold his style to fit any story.

8. Pacific Rim

The most satisfying genre experiment since last year's The Cabin in the Woods, Pacific Rim succeeds on so many levels because it knows exactly what kind of movie it is. Yes, it's the "giant robot versus giant monster" movie that the trailers promised, but the way it gleefully borrows from other high profile genre flicks ensures that it never falters into the realm of parody and keeps things firmly focused on being a loving homage to the films that inspired it. Of all the big budget spectacles released this year, this was the most fun because it delivered on exactly what it set out to do in every way possible. Guillermo DelToro's decision to abandon The Hobbit may have doomed those films to the disappointments they've turned out to be, but thank goodness he did because it gave us Pacific Rim.

7. Fruitvale Station

The final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) make for one of the most touching and unnerving films of the year with Ryan Coogler's Sundance sensation Fruitvale Station. The film never succumbs to the temptation to portray Grant as anything other than what he was, a flawed individual trying the best he could to stay on the right side of life. The more heavy-handed moments of the film such as Grant attempting to rescue a dying dog become an afterthought when held up to the genuinely moving scenes where he attempts to connect with his mother, his girlfriend, and particularly his daughter, and it makes his fate all the more tragic as a result. As controlled and assured a debut film as I've seen in a long time, Fruitvale Station demands your attention and earns your respect.

6. The Way, Way Back

Any criticisms that are leveled against Nat Faxon & Jim Rash's directorial debut The Way, Way Back are at least mildy warranted as the film breaks no new ground and paints almost all of its characters as either mostly good or mostly terrible. However, the honesty with which is portrays these situations is perfectly tuned to the mind of a fifteen year-old boy who likely sees the world in such absolutes. It's an endlessly charming film that features the always delightful Sam Rockwell doing some of the best work of his career as a suspended adolescent, and also manages to wring a thoroughly and wonderfully dickish performance from eminently likable Steve Carrel. The losers and outcasts of the world have a film that will speak volumes to them, and it features what is easily my favorite final shot of 2013.

5. Gravity

Without a doubt the most thrilling ninety minutes I spent in a movie theater all year (or 270 considering I saw it three times), Gravity is the kind of film that Hollywood constantly tries to make, yet almost always fails. A big budget thrill ride that grabs hold of you and doesn't let go, the film makes incredible use of technology to aid in the storytelling, and shows what visual effects are truly meant to do: bolster a great story and not detract from it. While I have a hard time defending the script's flaws, it serves its purpose admirably and keeps things constantly moving forward. Sandra Bullock's lead performance might be the best of her career, and the film's true message about overcoming tragedy and finding the will to live shines through the imperfect dialogue. A spectacle best experienced on the largest screen with the best sound possible.

4. Frozen

Easily the best Disney film not made by Pixar since 1991's Beauty and the Beast, Frozen is a gorgeously rendered tale of sisterly love that subverts the Disney formula as much as it embraces it. While it does have some fantastic set pieces and wonderful songs that bear the Disney hallmark, it's the emotional core of sisters Anna & Elsa that grounds the film and gives it an immediacy that is conspicuously absent from the rest of the Disney canon, particularly of late. When older sister Elsa finally comes to terms with who she is and what she can do with this knowledge in her show stopping number "Let it Go," the film goes from another cute Disney film to an amazingly bold and brash statement about being yourself in spite of what anyone else thinks. The film speaks deeply to those who are listening, and it succeeds beyond your wildest imagination.

3.  Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers have never concerned themselves with commercially viable properties or leading characters, and they strike gold with their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. This story of an early 60s folk singer struggling to survive after a series of personal and professional tragedies might sound like one of the hardest films to connect with of all time, but Oscar Isaac's phenomenal lead performance coupled with some of the best shot compositions of the Coens' career makes this film instantly unforgettable. There's no uplift to be found here, but much like its main character, it refuses to sell out or take the easy road to success. It's a film that sings for the idealistic artist within all of us.

2. Nebraska

Having spent his last two films outside his home state, Alexander Payne returns home for his sixth, and probably best feature film Nebraska. The story of an adult man (Will Forte) trying to connect with his senile father (Bruce Dern) by driving him to Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize the son knows to be a hoax is a beautifully rendered character study of places and people that never change. It's broadly drawn at times, but never short on honesty in any of its comedic set pieces. The bickering family members and feuds that never die ground the film in such a way as to make it palpable to anyone who's lived through small town life, and the film's remarkably simple score by Mark Orton is one of the year's best. A true gem of a film that pulls no punches.

1. Her

Honesty is a rare commodity in life, and it's even rarer on film. Therefore, when a film comes along that portrays love and all the myriad messy emotions that come along with it, it's cause for celebration. No film in this year, or honestly any year since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has dealt with love in a more open, raw and realistic way than Spike Jonze's latest film Her. It's surprising to find such honesty in two "high concept" films, but I find the conceit in both films to be used as a gateway to talk about such difficult subject matter in such plain terms. While you could easily dismiss this as the film where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson, to do so would be folly. Phoenix's Theodore Twombley is a man opening himself up in a way he was never able to with another human, and Johansson's Samantha views the world in such a simple and beautiful way that it renews all the hope and wonder that has gone long dormant in a soul as damaged as Twombley's is. Love is complicated and messy and can lead to heartbreak, but it's never looked more wondrous than it does in Her, easily the best film of 2013.

The Worst Films of 2013

10. Star Trek: Into Darkness

The desire to appease fans has never backfired more spectacularly than it did in JJ Abrams' second attempt to update Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek for the ADD generation. Filled with more misfires, miscalculations and misunderstandings about what made Star Trek so great in the first place, Into Darkness brings the rebooted crew into contact with a rebooted version of their most famous solo nemesis Khan, played ably enough by Benedict Cumberbatch. The film's third act is its worst, but the first two are no picnic either, as they fundamentally betray almost everything that made these characters work so well in the first place. Abrams is off to put his stamp on George Lucas' most famous creation next, and I can only hope that in his absence, this series can right the ship and get things back on course, and maybe, I don't know, trek the stars this time. 

9. Carrie (2013)

One of the most laughably awful films of the year, Carrie was a misfire from the word go, and saved only by a batshit crazy performance from Julianne Moore. Updating one of Stephen King's most famous works for a new generation turned out to be a terrible miscalculation as no one showed up to see this thing. Sometimes it's best to just leave well enough alone, and considering Brian DePalma's original is far better than just "well enough," sometimes it's best to just stay home and hope they stop making films like this. 

8. Planes

Spun off from Cars, arguably the weakest franchise under the Pixar umbrella, Planes was a shamelessly manipulative Disney product that had no reason to exist and failed to even deliver on the severely lowered expectations that greeted it. When a film devotes an entire subplot to a character capitalizing on their friend's success by merchandising their likeness to the high heavens, you know you're in for a bad time. Planes would best be confined to afterthought status, but its surprise success has already spawned a hastily thrown together sequel for next summer. 

7. Movie 43

There is no more basic requirement for a comedy than to deliver a punchline and Movie 43, a pathetic attempt to gather together megastars into a sketch comedy film, fails to do this at every turn. In a film with a dozen odd sketches, only two feature actual punchlines, and the rest just hope that the shock of seeing stars like Hugh Jackman with a pair of testicles grafted to his throat will be enough to carry these limp premises for more than thirty seconds. I would legitimately love the sketch comedy film to become a viable entertainment source once more, but if this is the best we can hope for, I'd rather just watch Kentucky Fried Movie over and over until it's not funny anymore. 

6. Only God Forgives

Riding high on the success of 2011's Drive, Only God Forgives was one of the most highly anticipated films of 2013, but instead we received a glimpse inside the mind of psychopathic director Nicolas Winding Refn. While the film looks gorgeous and its commitment to its awful characters is admirable, it's a dirty, disgusting film that expects us to bask in its filthy glow for ninety-odd interminable minutes. Ryan Gosling's stoic schtick has worn completely thin, and this year marked a low point for his career (see my number four coming up in a minute). This might be the most gorgeously awful film ever made.

5. Man of Steel

A film that I was almost indifferent towards when I initially saw it, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel grew on me over time in all the wrong ways. The more time I spent away from the film, the more I began to hate it. It's another case of a writer and director not understanding their character, and hoping that the guise of "he hasn't become the Superman we all know and love" is enough to carry them through their colossal misunderstanding of who this character has been for close to eighty years. It's as pessimistic a blockbuster as I've ever seen, and it's reliance on destruction and 9/11 related imagery is shameful.

4. Gangster Squad

What could have been a "so bad it's good" genre picture turned into a pandering and shameless attempt to try and pull a fast one on its audience. Loading up the cast with respectable actors was a step in the right direction, but director Ruben Fleischer and writer Will Beall's film isn't smart enough to honor genre conventions and settles instead on ripping them off wholesale in hopes that no one will notice. It's a ridiculously terrible film that deserved to be ignored, and thankfully was.

3. Evil Dead (2013)

It's perfectly fine to make a humorless remake of a film that had a sense of humor, but don't insist on paying homage to the original every chance you get. 2013's Evil Dead is a dour film with no sense of irony, fun or originality. If the people who made it had their wits about them, they might have tried to lighten the mood a bit, and I would have loved this film if it had a sense of humor about what it was. However, the film is just a violent mish-mash of nonsensical premises presented in the most serious manner imaginable, and if that concept frightens you, you're already more scared that this dreck is going to make you in its entire ninety minute running time.

2. Jobs

Jobs is world class dross; the kind of film that one might joke about making if they wanted to make a film so obvious and over-sentimental it wouldn't even be shown as a movie of the week on network television in the late 70s or early 80s. The film just doesn't pass muster. For a film that's about one of the true pioneers of the twentieth century, it plays out as a paint-by-numbers film so childish in its obviousness that it can't even be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. Director Joshua Michael Stern is a filmmaker better suited to working in parody because he knows exactly what all the tropes of the genre are, he just can't help falling into them and drowning.

1. Spring Breakers

There is no film that I hated more in 2013 than Spring Breakers, and it might be one of my most hated movies of all time. I wish that I could tell you that it's really clever and subversive and thinks that it has a lot more going on under the surface than it actually does, but in actuality, it's one of the most vile and disgusting films ever made. It's the kind of film that likes to think that it's smart in the way that it plays on youth culture and hip hop videos and the notion of innocent girls trying to escape their normative upbringings, but it's an empty-headed, vapid, shallow film that takes no small pleasure in reveling in the very things it thinks that it's commenting on. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, "it's such a fine line between clever and uh… stupid" and this film has no idea where that line is.

[All Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

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