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2013 IN REVIEW: My Top Films of the Year

Rush - Chris Hemsworth

FINALLY! The moment I’ve been building up to for far too long! It’s been a busy month… and a half… for me, but I’m finally done, and this is my last of my 2013 in Review articles! (Consequently, while none of these are exactly final reviews, many of them may as well be and portions of what is stated here may show up in a future review. For the sake of my sanity and my time, however, I’ve decided to present what I felt the need to write without very many edits!)

The format I’ve chosen for my annual Year in Review articles is a bit insane, I know, but while it’s time consuming, its also quite fun, and it’s just as much about sharing all the films released in the last year (or at least most, as I probably missed some in the sections where I went over films I didn’t get around to seeing) as it is about me locating films that you and I have both overlooked, which is also why a lot of the films I didn’t see this year made repeat appearances, as I couldn’t resist the urge to watch them, and it’s not like I’d be able to do another year in review for them, too, you know? This year, one of those movies I didn’t see at first but did during my writing these articles even made it onto this list, My Top Films of the Year!

The Wolf of Wall Street - Jonah Hill, Marching Band

So why don’t I call it “The Best Films of the Year”? It’s simple, really – it’s subjective, yes, but it’s also because even I switch around the order at times. I guarantee you that at some point in the past and future, I might have ordered these films differently. It took some time and thought, and this is ultimately what I felt comfortable enough with to publish, but I’ll tell you that this was a hard process, particularly in the top 10.

All of this year’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees are on this list. Seriously – I’ve even decided to mark the Oscar nominations this year. They were all very good and justifiably nominated, and while I might have my preferences as to who should win, they’re all remarkable, worthwhile films if you should ever consider watching them. Some of the other movies on this list, however, are also quite awesome, some of which I like better than the films that were nominated, and one of which I’m still very annoyed didn’t at least get the tenth vacant slot in their nominees list, just out of principle for how awesome it was. (I’m just going to tell you now, that movie is Inside Llewyn Davis.) How annoying!

The World's End - Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan - beer

So what of the rankings? Lists like these tend to demand them, so I include them, and I do think they are helpful in making priorities in our very busy lives as to what to see first and give preference to. Since the rankings are so subjective and sometimes even arbitrary, my main rule is to go with my gut on these things. Seriously. That’s what it boils down to. It’s a mixture of favoritism, enjoyment, entertainment, and, yes, the actual skill behind the scenes and within them. As such, films that were without a doubt brilliant masterpieces that will go on to receive tons of accolades and be remembered forever may be outranked by flash-in-the-pan popcorn films that have very little to say except, “Hey, look at this awesome thing we did!” but were also very skilled at doing so and are films that I will revisit time and time again whenever I want to be entertained. It’s hard to rank films of these sorts against one another, and if I felt that I could be that much more objective about these things and take out the entertainment factor, I would probably top load this list with all the heavyweight dramas and such. But I don’t think I can, so I don’t put up any airs of being able to do so.

But, you know, I think that’s alright. Variety is the spice of life, you know, and to say that dramas should be exalted at all times above the comedies and action films is, I think, false doctrine when it comes to film criticism and lessens the true value of joy and wonderment that isn’t always found in those serious dramas – so long as that joy and wonderment is done very well, of course.

So, with that all in mind, I feel I’ve prepared you for this eclectic list of my picks for not just the best films of the year, but also the ones that are my favorites, the ones I find most enjoyable, and the ones that blew me away with their spectacle.

Man of Steel - Henry Cavill

23.            Man of Steel

Screw the reviews. I realize I didn’t grow up reading comic books, but I certainly grew up with comic book heroes, and this is finally a version of Superman on film that I can fully get behind. (I also really love the DC Animated Universe version, but that was all mostly on TV.) He’s compassionate, he’s enigmatic and awe-inspiring, but he’s also immensely powerful and godlike, and that’s something that I can’t help but admire about Zack Snyder (and, to an extent, Christopher Nolan’s) version of this iconic hero.

The movie got a lot of flack for being too dark and depicting Superman as being way too destructive, with many pining for the days of Christopher Reeve, who is still arguably and even deservedly the standard by which most people compare their impression of the hero. Man of Steel is certainly a change of tone, I’ll give them that, and I’ll concede that the film could have used a bit more levity, too, but if it comes down to choosing between the tired boy scout routine and the compassionate messiah figure, I’m going with the latter.

The movie is far from perfect – Amy Adams is much better than Kate Bosworth was in Superman Returns, but her Lois is more rough than tough and lacks a certain endearing wit that would have suggested intelligence rather than just muscle, and I will join in the chorus of people who say that Jonathan Kent’s death scene was far from ideally staged, too – but this is also the first Superman film with action scenes, dripping with spectacular visual effects, that truly make you feel the full impact of what it’s like to be in the midst of a battle between super powered Kryptonians. Speaking of which, Henry Cavill is a great new Superman, one who is immensely kind but who is also weary with the troubles he sees in the world and with the burden of what it means to be someone in his position. Michael Shannon is fantastic as General Zod, here depicted not as your standard aspiring deity as in Superman II but as a man who has been driven to fanaticism over his ideals about preserving the legacy of his people and their way of life (yes, this is, indeed, a post-9/11 interpretation, etc.). The good definitely outweighs the bad here.

Captain Phillips - Barkhad Abdi (back), Tom Hanks

22.            Captain Phillips

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Adapted Screenplay

 

It’s good to have Tom Hanks back in full form here in Captain Phillips. It seems like years since we last had him in a really solid role, doesn’t it?

Based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates and subsequent kidnapping of its captain, Richard Phillips, played by Hanks. Though the film’s historical accuracy has been called into question and refuted by director Paul Greengrass, like with Fruitvale Station and all based-on-a-true-story films, you do have to take into account creative license for the sake of storytelling, and then determine whether that creative license has then violated the quality of the resulting film itself. Though I think it’s safe to say that Greengrass is more than a little biased in his opinion that he’s made an authentic film, which was in fact based on Phillips’ own book, A Captain’s Duty, I feel it is safe to say that, at the very least, Captain Phillips is no less a riveting survival thriller in its own right.

Hanks himself is fantastic here – calm, collected, but certainly belying the fear that no doubt resides within the character he’s playing, who frequently has guns pointed straight at his head as he attempts to keep the pirates’ heads level while ensuring the safety of his crew and cargo. Barkhad Abdi, a first timer in film who plays the leader of the pirates, Abduwali Muse, is also brilliant in his Oscar-nominated role, which he portrays with strong determination that belies his characters’ own insecurities, a backstory which the filmmakers flesh out by showing how and why a desperate man like Muse or any of the pirates volunteered for their positions. This film is as much his story as it is Phillips’, despite the title, and it’s fascinating watching the two actors spar with one another as two leaders who are struggling to get the upper hand.

Dallas Buyer's Club - Jared Leto, Matthew McConaughey

21.            Dallas Buyers Club

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Screenplay

 

2013 apparently was a year in which “Based on a True Story” was actually an excellent indicator of some top quality filmmaking. Dallas Buyers Club is yet another Best Picture nominee that also happens to be the film that has probably finally solidified Matthew McConaughey as a serious actor with a Best Actor nomination, though several creative liberties were taken with the facts, including the existence of Rayon, a transgender woman played by Jared Leto, who also has earned a deserving Best Supporting Actor nomination.

McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a tough-talking, he-man rodeo cowboy and electrician who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, despite the fact that he was straight. The film shows Woodruff’s struggle to come to terms with his fate while also taking an experimental medication known as AZT, which may prolong his life beyond the 30 days he’s been given. However, when his means of obtaining the drug are discovered (they’re not exactly legal), he seeks alternative medicinal sources in Mexico, which leads to the creation of the titular buyer’s club, a non-pharmacy that nonetheless provides medication via a loophole that allows for Woodruff to sell memberships to a club that then provides the drugs, “free of charge.” Naturally, however, the FDA and drug companies are not too pleased with this scheme, which is really only one of many, and the film depicts Woodruff’s struggles to stay one step ahead in the name of keeping himself and those like him who are suffering from the disease alive.

McConaughey’s cocky performance, which also necessitated that the actor loose nearly 40 startling pounds, really is spectacular, as is Leto’s as the flamboyant Rayon, Woodruff’s partner in crime. The film itself is just really excellent and provides the character of Woodruff a very organic means of evolving as a person, and its story really sheds a light on the politics behind the drug companies and the FDA, too, exposing a system that frequently puts the bottom line ahead of the desperate people who would rather try an experimental drug that might or might not kill them than let a disease that will most assuredly kill them at any moment.

Fruitvale Station - Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan

20.            Fruitvale Station

Though it’d be wrong to take the film as a 100% authentic account about the last day in the life of its subject, Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station is still a remarkably personal film for first time director Ryan Coogler, himself an African-American man like Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed pointblank by a white police officer, despite being laid out on the ground and in cuffs early on New Year’s Day 2009. As stated in my review, the film is based both on fact and conjecture, as the film does make some speculations and takes some dramatic license when it comes to showing Oscar as a symbol for anyone who is judged based on their ethnicity.

And that, I feel, is okay, so long as we keep that in mind while watching the film, which still remains authentic in spirit to the facts of who Oscar Grant was. He was a flawed person, but the film builds a case for why the assumption of inferiority is still inherently wrong. Fruitvale Station is an incredibly well made film, with incredible performances at its center, too, particularly by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant – a role that many pegged as an early frontrunner for an Academy Award nomination. It may not have been nominated, but don’t let the politics and forgetfulness of Hollywood keep you from seeing this amazing but tragic film.

Short Term 12 - Kaitylyn Dever, Brie Larson

19.            Short Term 12

I first heard of this film while going through the list of movies I had somehow missed in the last third of 2013, and I immediately threw it into my Netflix DVD queue due to the overwhelmingly positive reviews it received on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m so glad I did.

Short Term 12 may be one of the most effective and affective films about troubled youth and the individuals who attempt to help them I have ever seen. This is going to come off as a trite soundbitey thing to say, but it’s alternatingly heartwarming and heartbreaking, but in such a profoundly realistic and honest way, and that’s largely due to the incredible performances on screen and the skill going on in the background. Brie Larson as Grace, a young counsellor at a foster care facility, is impeccably likeable but never betrays the hurt and anguish that lies underneath the surface – the character of Grace is one whose tragic past is one that frequently informs her motivations to be a caring person in the present, which is conveyed through the way she relates and interacts with her boyfriend, coworkers, and the troubled teens at the facility.

The kids in the cast never fall into the category of predictable but remain familiar character types all the same, because, frankly, they are based very much in reality, as director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton wrote from first hand experiences with this kind of work. While the young actors are all great in their respective, briefly seen roles, the best scenes belong to Keith Stanfield as Marcus, who is soon turning 18 and is struggling with the idea of losing what he’s come to consider a family after years of abuse at the hands of his mother – a story that is conveyed through a rap that Marcus composes that is both beautifully performed by Stanfield and beautifully shown on screen.

It very briefly threatens to fall into the pit of after school special dramatics toward the end, but this is not enough to mar significantly a film this beautifully and lovingly created, and all threats of artificiality are easily forgiven by the film’s last wonderful moments.

Star Trek Into Darkness - USS Enterprise

18.            Star Trek Into Darkness

Nominations: Visual Effects

 

Okay, so it did basically go into the territory of being a retread of The Wrath of Khan. That’s certainly very annoying, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s not quite as fantastic as the first film in JJ Abrams’ relaunch of the series. That being said, Into Darkness was immensely entertaining, and it had some incredible action highlights, such as the warp speed battle and the gravity-shifting Enterprise. The film also features some very fine and surprising acting on the part of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, whose characters’ friendship has come into full bloom here.

From the Trekkie perspective, there’s obviously going to always be a divide over this alternate universe and the way that director JJ Abrams has handled the series, for sure, but I’ve always been one to embrace the new along with the old, and I’ve always considered the decision to create an alternate universe a genius, in-universe ideal situation that allows for both worlds to continue to coexist. I like the fact that Into Darkness hints at the imperfection this idealized future society still finds itself up against, despite itself, something that wasn’t really seriously addressed until the post-Gene-Roddenberry Deep Space Nine, the series which introduced the secret organization Section 31 that reappears here.

The World's End - Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan

17.            The World’s End

The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy comes to an end with The World’s End, a fitting encapsulation of the previous two films’ themes into one big loveable film experience, complete with the expected wordplay, ridiculous situations, a lot of silliness, some surprising heart, and a lot of bickering about life’s mundane problems in the midst of a crisis that exists on an even grander scale.

Seriously, The World’s End is much like the best Greatest Hits album ever compiled, containing not only familiar tropes that we never tired of revisiting while also introducing some new bits of material, as well. As the third and final film, it’s also fitting that the scale of the movie is relatively grander than its predecessors, or at least the consequences of the characters’ actions have more lasting impact on the world, and it serves as a wonderful climax as a result of its spot on, insanely kinetic action sequences and some fun special effects work. I’m not entirely certain that we could’ve asked the team of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost to deliver a more fitting and satisfying conclusion.

Mud - Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan

16.            Mud

Ah, Mud. For the longest time, it held the top spot in my pick for 2013’s best film. It no longer holds that place, but it’s still most definitely among the best films of the year, for sure. Matthew McConaughey continued his hot streak of starring in excellent movies here as a transient man nicknamed “Mud” who befriends a couple young, teenage boys – Ellis and “Neckbone” – as he awaits the arrival of his beloved Juniper. The couple hasn’t had the best of relationships. Like many couples we see in the movies, they’re childhood sweethearts, but neither one of them has made the best choices in life. Juniper frequently finds herself at the mercy of abusive boyfriends, and Mud, ever the romantic, always gets himself involved and rescues her from them, but his latest rescue attempt sees him running from the law, and so he uses the boys as a liaison with Juniper, even though it puts them in harm’s way.

Much of the film focuses on Ellis, however, who is himself on the brink of manhood and is dealing with his first real crush on a girl who is much older than him, and possibly more than he can handle, too. In Mud, he sees what he believes to be the ideal man – dedicated to his woman, strong, and true to his word and convictions – which seems to stand in comparison to his father, whose marriage is on the rocks. Ellis’ journey into adulthood is a confusing one, with Neckbone’s own father-figure uncle standing in for the kind of guy who has no qualms about hiding his philandering even in the presence of kids. (Whatever has happened to Neckbone’s actual parents is never addressed, but, really, does it have to?) The world in which Ellis finds himself moving into is confusing and oftentimes contradictory, and his journey into growing into understanding is as much a focus of the movie as his journey into adulthood is, too.

There’s a lot to like about Mud, from its beautiful cinematography of even the dingiest of places to the way in which its story unfolds. Key to the movie are the performances and casting decisions, though. Tye Sheridan shows great range as Ellis, and Jacob Lofland is greatly entertaining as the familiar best friend without a filter on his mouth, Neckbone. Perhaps the most genius casting choices are Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon as Mud and Juniper, two gifted actors who are still more recognized for their work in romantic comedies (so much so that I openly cringed when I was opening my Christmas gift, seeing only their faces on the back of the case and wondering what the hell my stepsister bought me). Even if they weren’t, they would have still given their fine performances, of course, but it’s the kind of casting decision that seems even more brilliant in the context of how the film unfolds. Seriously, just go see this movie if you haven’t already to figure that out.

Rush - Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl

15.          Rush

You don’t have to be a gearhead to appreciate Ron Howard’s latest, a film about the rivalry between two very skilled Formula 1 racers: James Hunt, a pretty boy womanizer from England, and Niki Lauda, a serious near-obsessive from Austria. This is one of those films that transcends its subjects’ passions and makes the story fascinating, even if you aren’t yourself invested in the actual activity. I’m lucky enough to guess at what might be causing my car to have its latest issue, and even I was taken in by the film.

The secret is in the way it doesn’t exactly make it just about the action, but the drivers themselves. Their journey into fame within the world of F1 racing and the clashes between the two drastically different personalities and varying philosophies regarding the same subject is relatable in that we’ve all had these kinds of rivalries ourselves in other areas of life. It also helps that the two leads, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, are perfectly cast in their parts. Not to cast aside Hemsworth, who exudes his usual charms, but Brühl in particular carries the film, especially when portraying the agonizing recovery that Lauda went through after his car crashes and his body is severely burnt. The incident had a strong effect on both racers, however, and the film skillfully develops its characters from rivalry to a mutual appreciation and even respect for one another.

Of course, this is still a film ultimately about racers racing, and so naturally those also play a big part in the film. Through skillful, beautiful camerawork, gorgeous visual effects, thunderous sound, and slick editing, it’s hard not to get caught up in the adrenaline rush of the action on screen and appreciate the thrill and skill of the drivers who take part in this dangerous sport. Watch it on a big screen and turn the volume and sub up as high as you can manage. It’s pretty exhilarating.

American Hustle - Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence

14.            American Hustle

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Production Design, Original Screenplay

 

Perhaps I need to see it again, but while American Hustle is undoubtedly fantastic and entertaining, I’m not as in love with David O. Russell’s latest film as most critics are. That isn’t to say that it’s no good, and because it’s so far apart in tone from Silver Linings Playbook, I’m not even certain I can say my affection for that film is affecting my appreciation of this one, as there’s really not much to compare beyond maybe the fact that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence put in some great work once again for the director.

But, like I said, I did greatly enjoy this “inspired by true events” movie which features Christian Bale and Amy Adams (hailing from Russell’s other amazing film, The Fighter) as a completely different type of dysfunctional couple, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser – a duo that specializes in art fraud, not to mention heart fraud, with Irving cheating on his wife (Lawrence) with Sydney, and Sydney herself getting mixed up in her affections for Irving and the FBI agent who caught them in their act (Cooper) and makes a deal with them.

As with Russell’s previous films, he manages to portray his crazy characters as being empathetic figures, despite their glaring flaws. The story they feature in may be larger than life (if not for the fact that it actually pretty much did happen, in some form), but there’s a humanity in them that we can all identify with, and that’s really a skill that Russell and the actors he chooses excel at.

The Wolf of Wall Street - Leonardo DiCaprio

13.            The Wolf of Wall Street

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Directing, Adapted Screenplay

 

Martin Scorsese’s account of the rise of Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort and his descent into an insane amount of criminal activity is long and exhausting at about 3 hours in run time, but it is never at any point unnecessarily so. This is a movie that wants its audience to really feel the weight of what it takes to succeed in a business that is especially good at taking advantage of any situation at any time and then patting itself on the back for its cleverness.

Scorsese has made a perfect companion film for Goodfellas with The Wolf of Wall Street, which similarly unfolds through the main character’s smug narration of his own life’s story while employing some familiar tunes to spice things up. Leonardo DiCaprio gives what I feel is his best performance yet in the film, portraying Beflort as terrifyingly arrogant and confident in himself, and we even get to see him perform some hilarious physical comedy, too, in one particular scene I won’t spoil. The Academy seems to agree, given their nomination, and the same goes for Jonah Hill’s pathetic but also weirdly deranged Donnie Azoff, a partner to Belfort and the closest thing to a best friend he has. Familiar faces are present, too, including Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Spike Jonze, and even Jean Dujardin, who, as a Swiss banker, shows that the concept of a corrupt, asshole businessman knows no borders.

The Wolf of Wall Street is overwhelming and exhausting, but it’s so well made, entertaining, and the story so audacious, you won’t mind any minute of it.

12.            12 Years a Slave

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Production Design, Adapted Screenplay

 

This may very well be the candidate of the year for an objectively “best” film of the year, and the only reason why I haven’t actually placed it at the top of my own list is because, as stated in the header, this list is a mixture of “favorite” and “best,” with sway given to gut determination, and 12 Years a Slave, like Amour the year prior, was sincerely way too agonizing to watch to really label as being among “my favorites.”

This will go down in history as being one of the most important films depicting slavery in the American South. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley adapted the film from the 1853 memoir by the film’s subject, Solomon Northup, a Northern freeman who was kidnapped in our nation’s capital in 1841 and sold into slavery for twelve years before he was able to find someone kind enough to reach out and take a risk in order to save him from his new, miserable life.

The film pulls no punches and never romanticizes any aspect of Northup’s experiences while in captivity. This is not a film that allows for audiences to catch a breath or see a light at the end of the tunnel. This film is painful, and rightfully so. It’s seems too often that people forget the scope and magnitude of damage that certain events imposed on these people due to the passage of time – it’s happened with relatively recent events like the Holocaust, so the American slave trade is undoubtedly in danger of being mitigated as ancient history, too, even when the ripple effects still haven’t calmed down to this day, nearly 150 years after the abolition of slavery in the US.

If there is any joy to be had in the film, it’s in the fantastic performances. Audiences looking for familiar faces will find them in Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and even Brad Pitt, who also produced. However, this film belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom most audiences will undoubtedly recognize from a large body of work that still never really put him on the map – you’ve likely seen him in Serenity, Four Brothers, and Love Actually – but this Oscar-nominated performance is hopefully the film that will finally put this awesome actor at the top of many other directors’ lists when it comes to casting future films.

Thor: The Dark World - Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth

11.            Thor: The Dark World

The first Thor film was likely the hardest of the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers to execute. A lot of weight was placed on the film, as it not only had to sell us on the idea of an interdimensional being who crosses over into our world and inspired the Norse god of thunder as sharing the same universe as the relatively more grounded concepts behind Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America, but it also had to build up the character of Loki as one of the primary antagonists in Phase 1’s grand finale. In my opinion, Thor was a gamble that paid off for Marvel and audiences, who were treated to one of the most fun and humorous films in the series since the first Iron Man and introducing what has already become one of the more beloved villains of all time – not to mention that it helped in elevating the actor who plays him, Tom Hiddleston, to the status of pop culture idol.

Now along comes the sequel, which ups the ante, as most sequels tend to do, by having Thor and Loki unite against a common foe, Malekith, a Dark Elf who seeks the destruction of the universe, naturally. Though Malekith really doesn’t register as being that big of a deal, despite the casting of Christopher Eccleston in the role, this film is really more about the banter between the two brothers, with Chris Hemsworth and Hiddleston knocking it out of the park as the straightman and the man who would stab him straight in the back if he ever got the chance, respectively. Apart from Eccleston, the rest of the cast also gets way more fun things to do here than the last time. Natalie Portman gets to talk more science, Stellan Skarsgård gets to play the eccentric, brain-scrambled mentor, Kat Dennings provides even more deadpan comic relief (as if the film were lacking), and even Jaimie Alexander and Idris Elba get in on the action a lot more as the awesome Lady Sif and Heimdall. The visuals and action sequences are also top notch, and the film even fits in some fun pseudo-science physics stuff in the massive finale in London. Overall, a top notch, fun summer blockbuster that happened to be released in the fall.

Iron Man 3 - Air rescue

10.            Iron Man 3

Nominations: Visual Effects

 

Jon Favreau steps away from the director’s chair for the third Iron Man film, allowing Shane Black, who previously directed Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, brings along with him a knack for entertaining, snappy dialogue and a skill for some awesome action sequences.

While Thor is dealing with his familial issues over in Asgard, Tony Stark is dealing with the post-traumatic stress he developed after saving New York and the world from an interdimensional invasion, realizing that, while the suit he uses allows for him to become more powerful than any other normal man, it turns out that there are even more powerful beings out there who aren’t mere mortals – some are aliens, and some are even gods, and not all of them are willing to share the universe with us. For Tony, who desperately wants to go back to normalcy and cultivate a new life with his girlfriend, Pepper, it’s an unexpected stress that manages to also derail any ability he previously had to take on normal, personal and business responsibilities.

Naturally, this comes in the form of some new threats – on the romantic and business side, you have Aldrich Killian, a once-shy-but-still-brilliant scientist from Tony’s past who comes waltzing back into his life with a proposal that threatens both of those worlds. On the superhero side, an idealist terrorist who is going by the name of The Mandarin is making threats against governments and systems he deems worthy of death and destruction.

Iron Man 3 has become my favorite film in the series, as it juggles and mixes these story elements very nicely while continuing to develop Tony as a character as he attempts to navigate all these threats with his usual cocky composure, even in spite of his inner fears. The film is a great blending of both the first film’s introspection and the second film’s focus on insane action. Robert Downey, Jr. once again revels in the spotlight as he gets to show us a Tony who must relearn what it means to be the man in the suit. The next time we see Tony, he’s going to be sharing the screen once again with even more superheroes in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, so it’s very nice to see him get at least one more solo adventure before Marvel will likely have to relegate him to only cameos and ensemble appearances.

The Hunger Games - Catching Fire - Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lawrence

09.            The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I got a Kindle for Christmas in 2012, and, having been a pretty big fan of the first movie in the film series, I was pretty eager to take advantage of my Amazon Prime subscription and wound up devouring the whole Hunger Games series through there. With that, I can honestly say that anyone who was a fan of the book can easily find something to enjoy in the film adaptation, which is an incredibly accurate adaptation.

Though the film mostly lacks the shock factor found in the first one, thanks to the fact that veterans are taking part in these games and not exactly children (Peeta and Katniss are the youngest and are still technically teens, however), Catching Fire is still an effective continuation, with series heroine Katniss Everdeen facing the fallout of the games while on a victory tour of the districts, facing the families and friends of those who were killed in the arena. President Snow demands that she and Peeta keep up appearances as a couple as a means to keeping the audiences happy. But when the uprisings in the districts begin, he uses the 75th anniversary of the games and the third “Quarter Quell” as an excuse to throw Katniss back into the arena.

There are many strong moments in the film, and if it was a major plot point in the book, you can pretty much expect a faithful, often powerful recreation here in the film version. The scene where Katniss and Haymitch bond over a drink? It’s there. Katniss’ transforming dress? It’s there. Katniss’ effigy? It’s there. Rue’s family? They’re there. This is as straight up as adaptations get, and new director Francis Lawrence pulls them off marvelously. All the new cast members are also practically perfect, from Jena Malone as the foul-mouthed rebel Johanna to Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as Beetee and and Wiress to the late, great Phillips Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch. I was on the fence about Sam Claflin as Finnick, mostly based on his appearance in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, but he won me over, too. Even the returning actors are fantastic, and I was pleased to see Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket get the softened treatment she deserved.

Needless to say, Catching Fire, much like The Empire Strikes Back, will leave you wanting more, and not just because of its cliffhanger ending.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) - Fran Kranz

08.            Much Ado About Nothing

After the victory that was The Avengers, Joss Whedon decided to celebrate his mass market victory with a bit of highbrow indie, black and white filmmaking, adapting William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing into a modern day setting and using some awesome actors whom Whedonites will surely recognize and who were more than capable of performing the original script with modern day flair. (Oddly, this also makes him the second Marvel Cinematic Universe director to adapt the play into film after Thor’s Kenneth Branagh.)

As someone who doesn’t go gaga at the thought of Shakespeare’s works, I am more than willing to admit that Whedon’s adaptation is one of my favorite things he’s ever done. It’s unexpected, charming, and he fits it into the modern screwball romantic comedy formula so effortlessly – anyone who claims to have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s flowery wording may want to give this a go. This in no way means that Whedon has cheapened the experience. He’s just adjusted the context for a modern audience, and brilliantly so.

Her - Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson

07.            Her

Nominations: Best Picture, Original Score,  Original Song, Production Design, Original Screenplay

 

A lot of sci-fi challenges us to question the nature of not just humanity, but what it means to be a person – implying that one not necessarily need to be a human (or even part human) in order to be considered a person that is deserving of love and that can love back. Most of the time this takes the form of aliens, though, really, they’re really more like varying races with distinct cultures from earth people. But the concept of personhood in a machine is even more intriguing, especially when you consider the significant leaps in artificial intelligence that science has made over the past several years.

Characters like Star Trek’s Data, David in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (himself a more technologically advanced version of Pinocchio), and even the machines and programs in The Matrix and Terminator and Battlestar Galactica make us question just what it means to create something that is meant to simulate life, and whether that could ever get to the point where a machine could actually achieve “self-awareness” – or rather “personhood.” Naturally, more often than not, this does not turn out well for us humans in many cases, but surely if machines that achieve personhood can make war, then logically, shouldn’t we also ask whether they can also, you know… make love, too?

That’s basically the point of Spike Jonze’s Her, in which a lonely man named Theo, who makes an ironic living writing endearing, poetic letters to people on behalf of the people they supposedly love, ends up falling in love with the artificial intelligence that is his computer’s operating system, who has chosen the name “Samantha” in order to relate to him better – because she, apparently, just liked the sound of it. We then get to see how Samantha and Theo grow as beings together, with Theo believing he has finally found the woman for him and Samantha growing ever more pleased with the fact that she’s getting to experience things beyond what she was initially programmed for – a phenomenon that seems to be happening all around the world after the introduction of this artificial intelligence operating system.

Her quite a beautiful film, in looks, in its performances, and as an exploration of what it means to connect to someone, and the intrigue of this particular relationship is in the fact that while we might buy into the fact that Theo and Sam are both people, they are, most definitely, not both human, and the film simultaneously celebrates their boldness to go where no one has seemingly gone before while also calling into question the soundness of such a relationship. There are moments of genuine beauty between the two but then also genuine moments of heartbreak for both of them, which would suggest that Samantha has at least some equivalent to a soul. There are peripheral characters, too, who are also forming their own bonds and views on the proper boundaries between people and a technology they created but that is also exceeding their expectations.

It’s funny because the film doesn’t treat this as a switch being flipped, either, like in most pop culture depictions of this scenario. Samantha may very well actually “feel” for Theo what she says she does, but there’s certainly some ambiguity about whether or not this is something that they can maintain just by the very nature of who they are. Her is less about the novelty of a human-and-machine romance and is actually a very smart, and also very enjoyable, examination of how much both being a person and then being a human matters in a world in which technology is increasingly becoming an integral part of how we interact with one another.

Nebraska - Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Bruce Dern

06.            Nebraska        

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Directing, Original Screenplay

 

I admittedly wanted to see this more because it looked like an unexpectedly dramatic turn for one of its stars, former Saturday Night Live cast member and all around beloved silly-man, Will Forte. The film’s trailers didn’t ever suggest that he was playing a goofball or a fool, and that had intrigued me enough to already decide that I was wanting to see it – eventually. What elevated it from rental status to theatre status, however, wasn’t the gorgeous black and white cinematography (though that is undeniably gorgeous black and white cinematography), but rather the fact that reviews for Nebraska were overwhelmingly good. And now it’s a Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay nominee.

Forte plays David Grant, an electronics salesman, the youngest son of an elderly couple, Woody and Kate Grant (Bruce Dern and June Squibb, each nominees for their roles), and the brother of a local news anchor, Ross Grant (Bob Odenkirk). His father is a stubborn but very confused man, much to his mother’s frustration. Woody has it in his head that he’s one a million dollars, and he’s determined to get to the headquarters in Nebraska of the publication who informed him of his apparent earnings. Reasoning with him doesn’t work, so, for his own physical and mental well being and to prove to his father for good that it’s not true, David agrees to drive his father to Nebraska from Montana.

Forte shows that he has some serious dramatic potential, though his role is also one of a quiet, sad sort of humor, too, so it’s not like he’s dropped the comedic act entirely, which is totally fine, too. This is a pretty funny film – not laugh out loud, but frequently and consistently chuckle-worthy, sometimes with only a single, long shot where nobody is saying anything.  June Squibb pretty much owns every scene she’s in as the outspoken mother, who’s apparently never heard a word she’s been afraid of using in any context. Bruce Dern portrays Woody with a strange sort of dignity that defies his obviously aging mind, though the film also fills in the backstory of why there’s a certain amount of hostility towards him on the part of his immediate family. Extended family and friends, however, seem to love him – at least they do now that he’s apparently a millionaire, as we see when David and Woody pass through David’s parents’ hometown. They’re a colorful lot, and they help fill out a very entertaining, somewhat odd, and yet surprisingly sweet movie about family togetherness – though don’t mistake it for a PG-rated family film, either.

Inside Llewyn Davis - cat, Oscar Isaac

05.            Inside Llewyn Davis

Nominations: Cinematography, Sound Mixing

 

It’s criminal that the Coen Brothers’ latest film didn’t get any “major” nomination (though it certainly deserves its Sound Mixing and Cinematography nominations). Oscar Isaac, as the nomadic, self-righteous, but soulful folk singer Llewyn Davis, turns in what should be a star-making performance, one in which he also does all his own (fantastic) singing.

The film uses several old folk songs, sung entirely by the talented cast (which includes Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Stark Sands), filling out a story about the struggle of a musician who never seems to be in the right place at the right time and likely never doing the right thing. The only thing he knows how to do well is play his music, but after his partner commits suicide, he’s become bitter at a world that no longer seems to appreciate or value his craft and is eager to move on to the next thing.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy film for sure, rarely but sharply amusing when it is appropriate to be, but anyone expecting the fun and adventure that was had in the Coens’ last musical film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which also featured a soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett), are going to find themselves surprised at the somber affair that is this film. This is one of their lower key films, for sure (Pun!), but it’s already jumped up on the list of my favorites from a filmmaking duo with a lot of great films under their belt already.

Frozen - Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff

04.            Frozen

Nominations: Best Animated Feature Film, Original Song

 

Disney’s return to form is official. They got off to a rocky start with The Princess and the Frog, but with Tangled, they really showed off how serious they were in relocating that magical spirit that they have always touted as their image but didn’t always represent, despite it. They continued this with the criminally underrated Winnie the Pooh and then in the immensely entertaining Wreck-It Ralph. With Frozen, they’ve revealed that even when they experiment with newer concepts like Ralph, they can still do some brilliant, old-school Broadway-musical-like films.

Based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, the film tells the story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa, who were best friends until an unfortunate accident results in their separation, with Anna being left with no memory as to why, with Elsa being forced to hide her true nature: she has the ability to create and control ice and snow. When her powers get out of hand, however, Queen Elsa sends her kingdom into an eternal winter and flees into the wilderness to hide from the people who fear her. Except for Anna, who goes after her, not only to restore the kingdom, but to restore their bond.

There was a lot of fear leading up to this movie. Much of that had to do with the seemingly minimal advertising campaign, which tended to focus more on the sillier aspects of the movie, such as Olaf, the sentient snowman. God, did he ever look to be the Jar Jar Binks of this movie, and the teaser trailer in which he scuffles with a hungry, dog-like reindeer was derivative and nearly groan-worthy, reminiscent of lesser movies like Ice Age, only doing the Scrat routine. Even I somewhat dreaded the possibility that this film would be an unfortunate flop. Turns out, Disney knows what sells, and so they advertised it as one thing, but then they went ahead and made some honest to goodness magic.

Seriously, everything about this movie is friggin’ wonderful. The animation is expressive and very pretty (though the character designs could stand to be a little more diverse), complete with a new way of animating snow that is subtle but pretty darn incredible. The story is engaging, and so are its characters. Anna is endearingly and appropriately goofy, while Elsa is a strong example of someone who spent her life oppressed and who is just now embracing her true nature. Kristoff and his reindeer pal Sven provide plenty of laughs along the way, almost like a Han and Chewie situation – Sven is thankfully silent, but Kristoff seems to communicate just fine with him. Even Olaf, the snowman, is a revelation of just how to make a silly sidekick character work – his often unfortunate naïveté and childlike enthusiasm are surprisingly hilarious, and his presence and the meaning behind him is a great asset to the whole film.

Then there are the songs. By now, you’ve probably likely heard the Oscar-nominated song “Let It Go,” spectacularly performed by Broadway veteran Idina Menzel. If you haven’t, it’s officially up on YouTube for your listening and viewing pleasure. They’re so good, Disney saw fit to release theatrically a special sing-along version of the film that jumped the film back up into second place at the box office, even though it hadn’t yet even left the top 10 after several weeks. The songs were written by husband and wife duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who both also wrote songs for Winnie the Pooh, and Robert himself writing songs for the Braodway hit The Book of Mormon. Their particular style is both refreshing and yet also a return to the big musical sound of past Disney films, mixing in both the silly and humorous with the dramatic and emotional. “Let It Go” might be getting the most attention, but you can’t deny the sad beauty behind “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the slightly dark humor behind “In Summer.” If there’s any one complaint I might have, it’s that the film could really use at least one more song toward the end, perhaps as a capper or something, but it’s not exactly a mistake of the filmmakers, either, to focus so much on the story, which, yes, is another Disney fantasy, but is told in a completely modernized way. It’s just that, you know, the songs were so fantastic and even moved the story along so much, you kind of just wish there was one more.

Oh well. Still a great film.

Philomena - Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

03.            Philomena

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay

 

Yes, another ripped from the real headlines film, this time one that you’ll likely be pleased to know is a feel-good film, though you’ll certainly cry at certain moments, too. How could you not?

Philomena tells the remarkable story about an old woman named Philomena Lee, who reveals to her daughter that she gave birth 50 years prior, and she hasn’t seen the baby in nearly as much time, too. Her daughter, stunned at the revelation, enlists the help of a recently fired journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who reluctantly agrees to help Philomena in her journey to locate the son who had always been on her mind for the past 50 years.

The film is, without question, moving and truly beautiful. Though they have some severe differences in their personalities and beliefs, the bond that forms between the sweet-natured Philomena and grumpy cynic Martin Sixsmith is fun to watch as it develops. The film also tells the story in a way that always feels like it has more to tell us – just when the characters and the audience thinks a wall has been run into, the film then moves forward in a new way – even when Philomena discovers just who her son is. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are both superb in their respective roles, with Dench in particular making even a little old lady with an affection for period romance novels feel like one of the strongest people you would ever have the privilege of meeting. This is, simply, a wonderful film.

Pacific Rim - Gipsy Danger vs. "Knifehead"

02.            Pacific Rim

Seriously, people, why did so many of you not go see this in theatres? That’s exactly the kind of experience this kind of film is made for, you dummies! I’m so mad and disappointed in you!

Okay, sure, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film isn’t an Oscar-typical masterwork, and its amusingly-named characters and big dumb action film dialogue is appropriately cheesy and melodramatic, but that’s the freaking point! As a work of pure, unabashed joyful filmmaking, Pacific Rim is fantastic. Film is, primarily, a visual medium, and if you ever get around to actually laying your eyes on what this film has to offer, maybe you’ll understand just why I’m so passionate about championing a film in which people in giant robots battle giant monsters from another dimension.

Seriously, the way that these robots are integrated into the story is ingenious – they necessitate two pilots minimum in order to function at full capacity without killing the pilot from the stress it can exact on them. The connection, however, always results in the pilots sharing each other’s thoughts and emotions, which factors greatly into the character development while also expediting the whole “getting to know you” process without cheapening it. The characters themselves are familiar archetypes, too, so it’s easy to get to know them and appreciate them for who they are just enough to feel fear when they take on the creatures, known as kaiju, in their gloriously insane battles with one another.

The audience I saw this with hooted and hollered at the film with every amazing moment, and I, for once, was right alongside them. This is a movie that knows what its audiences want from an action sequence, and del Toro is more than happy to deliver it in all its awesome gratuitousness, and yet he still manages to never lose sight of how his characters factor into it all. This isn’t a Transformers rip-off, people. This is what a skilled director makes when he sees movies like Transformers and is then motivated to realize the concept’s full potential.

Gravity - Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone

#1.            Gravity

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects

 

Oh, Gravity. I heard you get mocked by so many people, and I feared for your wellbeing well before I even saw you, because I so, so wanted you to succeed as both a film and as a box office hit, if only because I had this selfish desire to see more serious sci-fi films of this nature in the future, if only this film could take hold in the mainstream mindset and show them the genre’s full potential. But people around me insisted this movie was going to be “stupid” and “rubbish,” and others insisted that the actress you starred, Sandra Bullock, wasn’t suited to the role of an astronaut and should stick to romantic comedies and sappy dramas, where she belongs. I was certain that you would only at least be a modest success, maybe earning back your budget and maybe even a bit more, but that’ was it, and then you would be held up as an example of why films like you weren’t getting made any more at some point in the future.

Man, am I ever glad that my fears were totally wrong, and yet I’ve also never been quite so happy to be proven right, too.

Gravity - Airlock

Gravity, as we all now know, was a massive hit with audiences and critics alike, and, as of last week, it was still playing in the standard theatres in both regular and 3D versions in my area, despite the fact that its home video release was only a couple weeks away. The film is still playing in my area, too, though I think it’s now in the cheap seats. If you have somehow managed to still not see this in theatres, I urge you to go see it while you still can, and don’t wait for the home video release. See it in the format that it really deserves to be seen, even if it is now in the cheap seats – I guarantee you it’ll be an experience that you won’t soon forget. Heck, drop a couple bucks extra and see it in 3D if you can, even – the experience was well worth it and completely immersive, along with its brilliant sound design and score, despite the fact that it’s one of those scientifically accurate films that doesn’t depict sound as existing in the vacuum of space.

Gravity - Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

If you want a more thorough rundown of the reasons why this film has taken my top spot as both my favorite and my pick for best movie of the year, I would recommend reading my full personal review. Needless to say, though, it would take a pretty special film to take this spot, and Gravity really is quite a special film. It’s the perfect blending of a moving story, jaw-dropping visual effects, gorgeous design, amazing acting ability, technical proficiency, wild spectacle, heart-pounding action, high concept plot, and even one of the most inspiring female heroes ever put to screen, and its abundance of Oscar nominations would seem to show that the Academy agrees, too. (It’s probably the only film that has a chance against the also amazing 12 Years a Slave.) It’s pretty much a perfect example what happens when a talented director, Alfonso Cuarón in this case, leads a skilled team in making a film that they are 100% committed to as artists first and foremost, and the result is also very simple a sci-fi film that uses its concept to not just entertain, but as a means of exploring deeper subjects.

This is truly what amazing filmmaking can be and the audience draw that amazing filmmaking can get, too. It may not completely take the sting out of my second favorite film of the year being considered a flop, but the success of Gravity certainly provides hope that, even with all the crappy movies out there that succeed despite their inherent crappiness, audiences out there haven’t completely lost their taste for good filmmaking, either.

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  1. February 16, 2014 at 1:31 pm

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