Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013

    With the Oscars tomorrow, I suppose it's time to grit my teeth, throw five films randomly in the 6-10 slots and start writing.  The last time I had this much difficulty assigning arbitrary rankings, my girlfriend had just dumped me and I spent twelve hours rearranging my Top 8 on Myspace.  That's not to say I didn't like a lot of films this year, I just liked way too many of them exactly the same.  Ties went to the films I wanted to write about.  As always, documentaries are ineligible and I didn't see any animated films.  Let's start with some honorary awards.

The Best Random Netflix Suggestion - MY AWKWARD SEXUAL ADVENTURE

Raunchy comedies are typically built on penis jokes, but this Canadian gem is built on sharp dialogue, physical humor, penis jokes, and vagina jokes; which makes it feminist.  A nebbish accountant is dumped by his girlfriend for being terrible at "gentle time", so he hires a Sex Yoda to teach him some sexual confidence and skill.  If you're afraid of nudity, don't watch this movie and stop reading my blog, but this light and explicit romcom should make most smile.

Most Obnoxious Character of the Year - BLUE JASMINE

We all know that I love Woody Allen as much as Mia Farrow's adopted Asian daughter, but Blue Jasmine left me feeling estranged. Cate Blanchett will probably win Best Actress for her portrayal of the nauseatingly vapid and formerly-rich titular narcissist, but the role felt as pedantic as the first half of this sentence.  While Blanchett was excellent, I interpreted Jasmine as much of the supporting characters in the film did: I found her of little use, cared nothing about her plight, and I really just hoped that Sally Hawkins, Louis C.K., and Andrew Dice Clay would come back and make me smile.


Wolf of Wall Street was the most-watched film about excess and The American Dream in 2013.  The film pretty clearly says, "Look at all these terrible things I did.  Was that awesome or what?", and people enjoyed a good, long internet fight about whether the actions within the film were glorified or condemned.  Others just cried because there were bad words and nudity.  For the most part, I'm morally ambiguous when it comes to cinema, so while I found much of the film very funny, I was only insulted that a three hour movie spent more time throwing midgets than it did developing character and articulating plot points.  Pain and Gain's motivational speaker, Johnny Wu is just as effective a character study as Jordan Belfont, and he's onscreen for ten minutes.  

In fact, Pain and Gain may be the better movie solely because it's an hour shorter.  It's also incredibly self-aware, and its American Dream seekers are infinitely more unreliable than the characters in Wolf.  It's arguably more fun watching greedy assholes repeatedly fail in funny ways than it is to watch greedy assholes exploit people in funny ways; but then again, no one gets immobilized by Quaaludes in Pain and Gain, which is disappointing. 

Finally, we have Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine's avant-garde exploration of excess.  The first half will be a bore for some, but it sets up the incredible second half which, driven by James Franco's Alien, is a very funny and bizarre pop-culture nightmare that is just silly enough to count as entertainment.  Hopefully, you want your vacation into debauchery to last longer than Selena Gomez's character did.  If so, you shall be rewarded with much Britney Spears.

If you can't already tell, I'm attempting to cram a year's worth of commentary into one entry, because I feel bad for abandoning you while I spent my whole year pursuing the true American dream: playing videogames, marathoning TV shows, and interacting with other human beings as little as possible.  

Let's get on with it:

10. Her
I'm giving bonus points for originality here, because Her was actually one of my biggest disappointments of 2013.  I was expecting a very unique and interesting film with plenty of romantic relevance.  What I got was a unique and interesting film with a semblance of romantic relevance.  Ten years ago, I would have loved this movie, but too much of the dialogue between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson could have been pulled from middle school love notes: "OMG I love you.  What are you wearing right now? I want to hold you in my arms right now. What is it like to just be there?", isn't any more sophisticated than the AIM conversations that thirteen-year-old me used to have with forty-year-old men pretending to be thirteen-year-old girls.  The uniqueness of the universe and the concept of AI girlfriends was interesting, but I already have a deep romantic relationship with my computer, so I'm going to need a bit more if I'm going to be impressed.  Every supposedly interesting concept that Scarlett Johansson came up with seemed about as profound as a nineteen-year-old taking a philosophy class for the first time, but at least Rooney Mara looked kind of sexy and was made of actual flesh and blood.  The best part about the film is that even though people were constantly on their phones, they never ignored the people that they were with to play with their phones.  Learn from this movie, America.

9. What Maisie Knew
As my parents are still together and I have no children, I'm not sure why I connected so deeply with this film about a child caught up in her parents' divorce, but What Maisie Knew is a very effective portrait of a little girl used as a bargaining chip in the ongoing feud between her parents.  She spends some of the film being passed between her parents, sometimes as a trophy and sometimes as a burden, but more often than not, finds herself being raised by her new stepparents; both of whom exist solely for the purpose of looking after Maisie while her actual parents go about their business.  Much of the film is shot from Maisie's perspective, the adults appearing merely as torsos, and it clearly highlights what she hears and absorbs (everything), without the film ever taking the easy route of allowing her to plainly explain her feelings to us.  The ending is a bit too tidy, but it's so effectively understated overall that the closing sentiment doesn't hurt it too much.

8. Gravity
I think that we can all agree that Gravity has an incredibly simple plot, but when you're making a film about the inhospitable nature of space, the story isn't really the point.  The only real story the film has/needs is "I don't want to die", and this is what Sandra Bullock spends the film working toward.  However, Gravity is a revelation in terms of cinematography and special effects.  And while I'm normally in favor of content over form, this was some really good form.  Gravity is the film that makes 3D okay.  In Gravity's case, 3D is almost required.  The shot composure and depth of field is impressive enough, but dress Sandra Bullock in some booty shorts and it's blockbuster satisfaction for everyone.  Add in realistic zero-gravity physics, in which thrusting a few inches in the wrong direction can mean death, and you've got a very engaging and beautiful survival story.  Robert Redford's boat ain't got nothin' on this.  

7. Laurence Anyways
Frederique is a bit upset when her boyfriend, Laurence, tells her that he should have been born a woman.  He still loves her, and wants to stay together, but he's decided to make the transition to female.  Fred eventually comes around, but understandable emotional complications arise, and the couple spends the next ten years breaking up and getting back together as they attempt to reconcile their respective wants and needs within the relationship.  Make no mistake, Laurence may be transgender, but the film is much more than a soapbox for LGBT acceptance.  Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, some conflict arises from the characters' sexual nonconformity, but the film's focal point is the relationship between the two leads.  It's about forty-five minutes too long and the bombastic flourishes of auterism don't always work; but at its core, Laurence Anyways is a very effective portrait of an ever-changing relationship. 

6. The Hunt
A kindergarten teacher in a small Danish town, Lucas becomes the target of a modern day witch hunt after a little girl's lie spirals out of control.  The audience knows Lucas is innocent, but as the rumors and accusations pile up, the community becomes increasingly hostile and Lucas increasingly endangered.  It's a horrifying portrait of humanity devolved, often hard to keep watching, but it's a sobering dissection of a mob mentality–especially timely, as the Internet has turned us all into torch-wielding buffoons.  Mads Mikkelson is incredible as Lucas, my shout for performance of the year, if I cared about such things.  Also impressive is Thomas Bo Larsen, who struggles with the conflict of being Lucas' best friend and the father of the supposed victim.  Because it's difficult to watch, it's a lot like 12 Years a Slave, if 12 Years a Slave had any emotional or societal relevance.

5. About Time
I'm not entirely sure how I seem to be filled with so much hate and sentiment at the same time, but About Time exploits the latter just the right amount.  Billed as a love story, more accurately a story about family and parental bonds, About Time effectively uses its time-travel plot device as a supplemental tool to tell its story, never allowing itself to become a movie about time travel.  The gist of it is that Tim (Ron Weasley's brother) and his father (Bill Nighy) can travel back in time.  Bill Nighy uses this ability to read more books; Tim uses it to talk to girls again after he bumbles the first conversation.  The movie runs on charm and humor, loss and reflection, and ultimately reminds you to enjoy the little things in life.  While these aren't the grandest concepts, they're very well executed; and if you like Richard Curtis' other works (Love Actually, Bridget Jones' Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral), you'll feel right at home.

4. Don Jon
Don Jon gets a bad rap for being about a New Jersey 'bro just trying to get his porn on, but it should probably be required viewing for every high school senior trying to lose their virginity before prom.  The film thrusts itself forward on humor, but offers very honest commentary on the selfish motivations of contemporary relationships; in which the characters interact with each based on societal indicators rather than empathy.  Jon prefers the fantasy of pornography to sex with another human being because with porn, he's not restrained by another person's sexual preferences.  Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) interprets love as a willingness to "do anything for her"–an ideal adapted from the romance films she loves–and in turn, she offers sex as a reward for obedience.  Neither of them understand the concept of love beyond the superficial until Julianne Moore shows up (as the unrealistic indie-movie character) to bang some sense into Jon.  The film doesn't penetrate too deep (OK, I'll stop it...), but it's pretty spot on, even though certain subplots (Jon's Catholicism) only kind of work.  I suppose I should also note that it's incredibly funny.

3. The Great Beauty
I've successfully managed to keep it pretty low-brow until now, but it's time to get into the major accomplishments of the year.  The Great Beauty focuses on the existential quandary of Jeb Gambardella who, after writing his only novel forty years ago, has become the self-proclaimed king of the Italian nightlife.  His 65th birthday party and the subsequent discovery that a former lover of his has passed away triggers an introspection in Jeb that carries us through the rest of the film.  At one point, he admits that he never wrote another novel because he was looking for "The Great Beauty" but never found it.  But did he? (Gasp.)  The Great Beauty is weighed down slightly by length, but the weight lifts in the back half of the film, when the surreal dream-state of the narrative really kicks in.  It is beautifully shot, surprisingly funny, and if you need any good recipes, take notes when the Cardinal speaks.  If you thought Gravity was too visual, you should probably stay away; but if you're down with Fellini, Malick, or emotional arguments with yourself, then The Great Beauty won't disappoint.

2. Mud
Mud will forever go down in history as the film in which Matthew McConaughey waited a whole hour to take off his shirt, but it's also a well-crafted portrait of youthful optimism and the difficulties in finding direction from adults who seem to have lost their own sense of it.  Our fourteen-year-old protagonist, Ellis, along with his buddy Neckbone, are excited to discover an abandoned boat lodged in a tree.  They quickly claim it as their own, but are disappointed to find that a delightful hobo named Mud has taken it as his residence.  In exchange for food, Mud promises to leave the boat for the boys once he's reunited with his estranged girlfriend, Juniper.  Ellis, prompted by the notion of Mud and Juniper's unbreakable bond, begins facilitating Mud and Juniper's reunion, quickly finding out that love isn't quite so simple.  It's a small-scale film driven by strong characters, and the backdrop of rural Arkansas lends itself to this simplicity.  Finding Mud in the woods behind the town McDonald's just wouldn't have been the same.

1. Before Midnight
Dear Richard Linklater,

Before Sunrise was a fantastic introduction to the beginnings of romance, and Before Sunset was a refined reunion of two people facing adulthood.  In standard trilogy fashion, I assumed that Before Midnight would falter, but even my highest expectations were exceeded.

The film opening shows us that Jesse and Celine are still together, still have a penchant for long conversations, and are still incredibly engaging.  At this point, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy feel like old friends I get to hang out with for two hours every nine years.  Sure, all they ever do is talk, but what they say is interesting, and the people they interact with are interesting.  Their conversations remind me of the conversations I used to have when I still talked to other human beings.

Of course, in the third act they engage in the most realistic cinematic argument I've ever seen.  The dialogue displays a very mature understanding of long-term relationships; how two people can both love and be furious at each other simultaneously.  A few wrong phrases set off a shouting match, old inadequacies and suspicions resurface, and the entire audience swears off dating forever.



American Hustle - Your annual Hollywood Seventies party.
Drug War - A very solid Chinese crime thriller with an old-school feel and an over-the-top finale.
Prisoners - A surprisingly solid thriller.
Saving Mr. Banks - Sugary, but surprisingly engaging, specifically the Colin Farrell bits.
Fruitvale Station - More reason to hate the police.  No, not Sting.
Inside Llewyn Davis - All musicians should have cats.
The World's End - Another solid Edgar Wright comedy.
Robot and Frank - After I complained about Her the whole time, this probably should have been #10.
Side Effects - Another good thriller, despite a muddled ending.
Captain Phillips - Tom Hanks acts on a boat and no one cares.
Dallas Buyers Club - McConaughey doesn't want you to vaccinate your children.
Nebraska - Families are weird and old people are gullible.
Short Term 12 - Some people feel some things and learn some lessons.
Blue is the Warmest Color - What is this world coming to?  No one wants to see three hour NC-17 French movies with me anymore.


12 Years a Slave - Passion of the Christ 2: More ineffective torture porn masquerading as commentary.
Stoker - Weird little girls, creepy uncles, murder.  You know you're in.
Byzantium - A more respectable vampire film if you're into that sort of thing.  
The Past - Asghar Farhadi makes another really solid drama that I just don't really care about.
Frances Ha - The second half of the film turns into "Frances Blah".
The Kings of Summer - Funny, but it skips over the hard stuff.
The Way Way Back - An exceptionally light but enjoyable coming of age story.  
The Broken Circle Breakdown - Sad lady breakdown with folk music.
You're Next - A horror/comedy that's not funny enough.
Computer Chess - Incredibly weird and kind of cool.  It's like a cute Videodrome.
Bad Grandpa - Jackass with a narrative.  Surprisingly amusing.
The Spectacular Now - How no one realizes this kid is an alcoholic we'll never know.
Iron Man 3 - Surprisingly low key, and if you didn't like the brilliant twist, go read more comic books, nerd.
Warm Bodies - Warm feelies.
Drinking Buddies - A solid film that I've already forgotten.
All is Lost - A boat sinks.
The East - Hippies play pranks on corporations, and it's actually pretty good until the third act.
Stuck in Love - Letting Mike Mogis do the soundtrack is basically a guarantee I'll like the movie.
Enough Said - A romantic comedy for divorced people.  
Rush - They edited out the comedy of Talladega Nights and thought we wouldn't notice.


Philomena - An old lady says politically incorrect things.  Profit.
Mama - I can't tell if horror movies are good or not anymore.
Sexy Evil Genius - A Netflix surprise.
In a World - Finally, a Cameron Diaz cameo we can all appreciate.
Somebody up There Likes Me - This cracked me up, but you'll probably hate it.
The Butler - First half was surprisingly good and then they mocked the Black Panthers so I was out.
The Place Beyond the Pines - The first third was the best movie of the year.
Upside Down - A very strange romcom that would have made millions if it had starred Johnny Depp.
Man of Steel - If Sylvester Stallone was put in cryo-sleep, I can't imagine whats going to happen here.
The Great Gatsby - The Great Beauty without any of the feels.
Star Trek Into Darkness - Cumberbatch.  That's all I remember.
This is the End - I liked the first half hour.  And then a few other things.
Safe Haven - The ending is so good.  It's everything Sharknado wasn't.
Upstream Color - I wasn't sure I had wasted my time until the last frame, but Fountain-lovers will like it.
Paradise - Russell Brand just gets me. 
The Grandmaster - A dull film from one of my favorite directors.
Filth - Pretty much.
Elysium - Promising sci-fi turned into mush.
Ain't Them Bodies Saints - Rooney Mara hanging out in a house.
Beyond the Hills - This is well-crafted and completely uninteresting.
To the Wonder - Terrance Malick whispers things while he shows us pictures.
VHS 2 - I kind of liked the first one.
The To Do List - Mostly not funny, and I found it distasteful, which I thought was very strange.


Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus - Michael Cera is Michael Cera, and there's a weird girl.
Anchorman 2 - Insultingly unfunny.
Gangster Squad - I only remember it was bad.
Sharknado - Should have been more self-aware, although the scientific logic was brilliant.
Oblivion - Tom Cruise doin some stuff.
I give it a Year - The moral of this story is that you should cheat on your significant other.  Really.
Trance - An uninteresting, repetitive thriller.
Bastards - Of all the critically-praised crap, this takes the cake.
Passion - I don't even know why anyone would make this.
Prince Avalance - Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd yell at each other in the woods.
Out of the Furnace - You shouldn't shoot deer, but people are okay.
Kick Ass 2 - A sequel that no one wanted.
Only God Forgives - Hyper violent revenge thrillers should only be made by Koreans.
Oz the Great and Powerful - This might be the worst thing I've ever seen.


  1. Kick ass 2 was a major let down for sure

  2. 12 Years of slave hardly qualifies as torture porn, but I get it reality is hard to swallow.

  3. True. The term "torture porn" should be reserved for films like Saw and Hostel. 12 Years a Slave was more of a romanticized torture epic.

  4. Just watched "The Place Beyond the Pines" and I had to come back here because I am pretty onboard with your one sentence assesment. Holy crap if a good screenwriter/director been able to get ahold of that it probably would have been my favorite movie of the year.... minus B Cooper, who struggled.

    1. I should only write one word reviews. I regret that my one word review of The Butler wasn't, "Mariah Carey plays a black woman."